Growing Old

All I could see was the top of her silvery-blue hair. She was creeping her boat of a car inch by inch into the parking spot, like a barge navigating its way on a canal. I sighed and glanced at the time. So far she had been working on this arduous task for three minutes. Several cars had lined up behind mine.

In true New York fashion, someone laid on their horn. Silvery-Blue Hair’s car came to an abrupt halt and she looked in her rear view mirror, confused. I should have given her an encouraging smile, but I too am a New Yorker, so all I did was raise my eyebrows hoping she could read my thoughts of, “C’mon lady!”

Silvery-Blue Hair faced forward. The car moved a millimeter. Progress was being made! I could almost fit my car around hers if she would just –

Wait! Oh no! What was she doing? Why were her reverse lights on? It doesn’t need to be straight honey! Just. Park. Your. Car.

The jerk laid on his horn a second time. Someone else joined in. This time, Silvery-Blue Hair was not daunted. She was too focused – too determined – to get her Buick Lesabre in the spot. Her little hands were putting the car’s power steering to the test. Suddenly, the car lurched forward and she turned off the engine.

Hurray! I stepped on the gas and sped past her, only to stop behind another car.  This time an elderly man was reversing out of a spot.  Where was I? On the set of Cocoon? Painstakingly, the gentleman eased his car backwards. He looked straight ahead, as though he was assuming – trusting- other drivers to give him the right of way. We did of course, but not without groaning, throwing our arms up in the air, or banging our foreheads on our steering wheels.

At last, he was out of his spot and gliding ahead. He looked ridiculously small in such a huge car, his hands positioned at ten and two. I was now able to drive around him, and I did so deftly. Wasn’t I just the coolest, spunkiest driver ever?

Then it struck me. Decades ago, Silvery-Blue Hair could have been me: impatient, patronizing in thought, in a hurry to run to the grocery store before having to shuttle her children to an activity. Likewise, the elderly man could have been just like my husband: working long hours to provide for his family, young, strong and handsome, driving a sporty car with ease.

All this meant, of course, that someday we would be them: frail, uncertain, and slow. In a few decades, I could be trying to maneuver my car (a car that used to be easier to drive) into parking spots that now seemed much too small – while irritable, young drivers like myself beeped their horns and rolled their eyes. I was ashamed.

Feeling sentimental, later that day I asked my ten year old daughter if she would take care of me when I was old.  Suddenly, the idea of growing old seemed very near and real.  I pictured my daughter as she is now, only taller, cradling my arm as she eases me into the passenger seat of her car.

My daughter was quiet for a moment before answering.

“I’ll be too busy with my own family to take care of you,” she said, “but don’t worry. I’ll visit you in the nursing home … as long as we’re not on vacation.”

Move over Silvery-Blue Hair lady, I just may need a ride.

To Do: Find A Funeral Home

Please add Find Funeral Home For When I Die to your “To Do” list. Sound unnecessary? Perhaps you’re thinking, “Does it really matter where my wake will be since – technically – I’ll not even be there?” Think again.

For those of you who live in East Texas, there is a funeral home that resides in a former Taco Bell storefront. As if this isn’t awful enough, the funeral home has a casket on a pole advertising their services. Were the owners of East Texas Funeral Home concerned friends and family of the deceased would get lost en route to their funerals, and having a coffin in the sky would help?

“Stupid Google maps! I don’t see the road anywhere! Wait. Just wait one second! What is that ahead? A casket in the sky? Whew! We’re on the right street.”

And you thought I was exaggerating.

And you thought I was exaggerating.

After paying their condolences at the East Texas Funeral Home, hungry mourning guests may pop in next door to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet.

“I still can’t believe Harry died! I mean, how old was he? Fifty – oh! Look! A Chinese buffet! I wonder if they have General Tso’s chicken. That’s my favorite.”

Now, I could very well be wrong. Perhaps you find the idea of your body being laid out in a former Taco Bell storefront with a coffin floating overhead appealing. But for those of you who live in East Texas, and don’t care for this decor, I strongly encourage you to find an alternative funeral home and remember to tell your family.

Another funeral home you may want to avoid is the Ahlgrim Family Funeral Home (click HERE for this oddity), located in Illinois. Mourners could be visiting your wake on the pretense of offering condolences, but what they are really itching to do is go downstairs and play 9 holes of mini-golf in the funeral home’s miniature golf course. There is also a game room for those of you who love a competitive pinball game. Note, however, the game room is never open during funeral services. (This may be a bit of a downer for some … more so than your death.)

Lastly, consider avoiding Drive Thru Funeral homes. Several are popping up along the country. This is exactly what it sounds like: your coffin is next to a window, and your loved ones can drive up to the window and pay their respects. (Well, sort of. I don’t know about you, but I find the effort of getting out of the car to be an integral component of  “paying respect”.)

Apparently, if you arrive before 6pm, you'll have to go inside. Dang!

Apparently, if you arrive before 6 pm, you’ll have to go inside.

Call me demanding or fussy, but when I exit this earth, I would rather not have my body displayed in a window.

“Well, there she is. Think we should turn down the radio?”

“Why? It’s not like she can hear it.”

“True.”

“So … now what? We just drive forward?”

“I guess so. Hey. Since we’re doing this whole drive-thru thing, can we head over to McDonalds?”

“Sure. Ya know, it’s too bad this isn’t the East Texas Funeral Home. There is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet next door to that one.”

*Photo credits go to Adam J. Holland, of the Unorthodox Epicure, who braved the East Texas streets in order to provide the Casket On A Stick photograph. (Click HERE to visit his blog.) And Google Images for the Drive-Thru Funeral Home sign.*

Life’s Unanswered (Little) Questions

Will there ever be a cure for cancer? ___ and ___, why can’t you just get along? How can we stop climate change?

I could toss and turn all night trying to find the answers to these complex problems. But I don’t (mainly because I would never sleep). Instead, I focus on other – albeit, not as important – situations that drive me equally batty, but at least allow me to get some shuteye.

Why do some men spit while in public? Could someone – anyone –  please explain this gross phenomenon. Does a certain percentage of the male population produce more saliva than others? Are they delusional, and think they’re at the dentist? (Suddenly, they hear a voice say, “Rinse!” forcing them to cough up some phlegm and spew it on the sidewalk.)

Another baffling situation is how children are inconsistently cautious. My son and daughter pick through their meals as though they were health inspectors.

“Ewwww! What is that black spot?”

“Pepper. Now eat your dinner.”

“That’s not pepper! It looks like mold.”

“I don’t serve moldy food. It’s pepper. Eat your dinner.”

“Well, if you say so … wait. What’s this? This red dot?”

Yet they will gladly touch anything and everything in a public restroom. When outside, they poke their fingers into suspicious objects without so much of a hesitation. My son has shoved leaves in his mouth quicker than anything given to him for dinner. But food placed in front of them? Bring out the magnifying glass and Petri dishes, please.

What about this whole LOL business? Are people really Laughing Out Loud? If so, I would think everyone would be chuckling and jolly and smiling all of the time. Yet, all one has to do is spend 10.5 seconds in public to see this is certainly not the case. Why can’t there be a more truthful acronym? Such as SAL (Smiling A Little)?

The last issue I ponder is elderly drivers. I know this seems rather cut and dry: they are old and slow, thus they drive slowly. Yet, these slow driving septuagenarians and octogenarians will make the quickest, most reckless turns into oncoming traffic. Are they attempting to make up for lost time since it took them 30 minutes to drive half a mile? “Good heavens! Look at the time! I should hurry!” and she floors the gas pedal, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left.  Oncoming  cars slam on their breaks, blaring their horns as Edna inches painfully into a parking space.

I struggle to find answers to these conundrums as I prepare dinner for my children to dissect. I mull over them, jumping aside as a man spits out of the corner of his mouth, his saliva landing dangerously close to my feet. And I drum my fingers on my steering wheel, pondering these unanswered little questions, while I inch along behind an elderly man who is en route to his internist.

Our Town’s Landmark: A Strip Club

The name of the strip club is Smiles. This is not an establishment where the likes of Elliot Spitzer or Charlie Sheen would visit.  No. Customers of Smiles include men who have names like Billy Bob and Jimmy Lee. Battered, old pickup trucks litter Smiles’ parking lot. The female entertainers (I use this term loosely) are rumored to be missing teeth. In the realm of strip clubs, Smiles could be considered third world; the Calcutta of strip clubs.

Yet, Smiles is a landmark in our town.

“Where exactly is that used bookstore?”

“Know where Smiles is?”

“Well, sure.”

“Okay, the used bookstore is right across the street.”

“Ohhhh. Great. Thanks.”

Several years ago, the plaza where Smiles abides changed ownership. The new landlord renovated the buildings, and several new businesses rented space. While not evicted, Smiles was made less obvious. It is now nestled between a barber shop and nail salon. While the other businesses have their names displayed on stylish signs, Smiles’ rooftop, however, remains bare. A dingy, yellow smiley face plastered on Smile’s storefront window notifies people of its presence. Smiles is akin to the elephant in the room: everyone walks by it and tries to pretend it’s not there.

One afternoon I was driving with my daughter and her friend. We passed the plaza where my husband gets his hair cut, which is the same plaza where Smiles is located.

“See that?” my daughter said, pressing her finger to the window.

“Yeah,” her friend answered.

“My dad goes there a lot.”

I panicked. What if the little girl went home and told her parents that my husband went to Smiles a lot? What would they think of us?

  “The barber shop!” I yelled, “He goes to the barber shop a lot. Every four weeks for a haircut!”

My daughter and her friend exchanged glances before looking at me.

“Well of course he does, Mommy,” my daughter said, clearly puzzled by my outburst. “Why else would he go there?”

I looked in the rearview mirror at the two little girls, their heart shaped faces framed by blonde hair, their little bodies buckled into booster seats. I was overreacting. Of course they wouldn’t know about Smiles. How could they? They were children for heaven’s sake.

But give them a few years and they would know – just like everyone else. I flashed forward 10 years and pictured my daughter on the phone, giving out directions.

“Like, you know where Smiles is? I know! Totally gross, right? My mom says its been around for like for-ever. Yeah, well, like, you drive past that and the used bookstore is on your right …”

A Salutation To Strangers

To all the strangers I observed throughout the day.

Dear …

Person Driving The Car With The Columbia University Window Decal: Thank you for letting me know you were smart enough to get into an Ivy League school … and I was not. That felt great.

Creepy Guy Checking Out Girls From The Corner Of His Eye: You look like a deranged Ron Howard. You may think you’re discreet but you’re not. Us gals all know you’re watching us and it’s freaking us out.

Middle-Aged Man Zipping Around In The Audi Convertible: Driving an expensive German car does not change the fact that you’re middle aged and bald. Please drive responsibly.

Woman in Grocery Store: Thank you for offering to help me with my awkward grocery bags. It’s wonderful to know sweet people like you still exist.

Person Who Left The Plastic Shopping Basket In The Parking Lot: I know people tend to leave shopping carts in the parking lot, but baskets? You have taken laziness to a whole new level.

Person In Corvette: Your car may be fast and cost an impressive $60,000, but whenever I see Corvettes I will forever think “Barbie Car.” Blame Mattel.

3 People Standing Under Their Beach Umbrella: Is there a standing contest I am unaware of? In all my years of going to the beach I have never seen people stand under their umbrella and not sit. So far it’s been almost an hour. I wish you would sit, because now I can’t stop watching you. I should be enjoying the beautiful view of the ocean, but instead I keep waiting for you to sit down.

Woman In Bikini With Twin Baby Girls: You had a tummy tuck, didn’t you? C’mon. Admit it.  

Man Talking Loudly on Cellphone: Your white blood cell count is low? And the specialist you need to see has no appointments for three weeks?  You’re also planning a surprise party for your wife? Yet your boss won’t let you leave early that day? You bet he’s a jerk!  But listen, could you please lower your voice so I don’t hear about your bowel issues, or whatever you’re going to talk about next?

Man Hitchhiking Outside of The Department Of Mental Health Building: Dude, if you have any hope of getting a ride, you might want to scooch down a few feet so you’re standing in front of a different building .

Thank you for making my day a little more interesting.

Sincerely,

The Underground Writer

I’m Sorry … And I Mean It!

Last week my husband was on a flight to Boston when the stewardess spilled a can of V8 all over the man sitting next to him. The man was drenched – V8 juice soaked into his lap, suit jacket, and white shirt. Some even got in his hair.

“I’d like to apologize,” the stewardess said, “But it wasn’t my fault. The can exploded. I can’t apologize for something that wasn’t my fault.”

Outrageously, the V8 can never apologized to the passenger. Perhaps because it was lacking lips and a brain.

A similar incident occurred several years ago. A teenage driver was speeding on our street while texting and lost control of her car. She deftly landed in our yard, though she had to crash through our picket fence to get there. When the girl’s mother arrived at the scene, she studied her daughter’s car and our fence before saying, “This isn’t so bad.” She then proceeded to ask us to not report it to our homeowners insurance.

Of course we were going to. This resulted in an exchange of some heated words.

Woman: My daughter is a good kid. She was in church all day.

My husband: I was in church today too, but you don’t see me crashing through people’s fences. What if my daughter had been in the yard when this happened?!

Woman (looking around): I don’t see any kids.

A simple “I’m sorry” would have made all the difference. Had the woman apologized, perhaps we would have calmed down and not contacted our insurance. We may have taken the woman’s offer to give us money to repair the fence and left insurance out of the equation. But nothing in her attitude gave us the impression she would follow through with that offer. Responsibility was not taken. A much needed apology never given.

If the stewardess on my husband’s flight had apologized for dumping a can of tomato juice on a passenger, other passengers might have felt bad for her. They may have left the flight talking about how well the stewardess handled the situation. Instead they spoke of how rude she was, and encouraged the V8 drenched man to file a complaint with the airline. When she shifted the blame to the self-imploding can, it made her look callous and immature.

Research has shown that patients are less likely to sue a doctor over a medical error if the physician simply says, “I’m sorry” in a kind way.* Whether it is pride or fear of a lawsuit, many doctors don’t take the time to apologize, which only makes the patient more angry and wanting retaliation – usually in the form of suing the doctor who made the mistake. But if the doctor apologizes, anger is quelled and a lawsuit is less likely to happen.

In most circumstances, it seems that two little words can change the course of events in a very big way.

* sources: Apologies and Medical Errors and Physician Apologies

You’re Not So Different From Your Car

Unlike an aged cheddar or bottle of Balvenie, people and automobiles generally don’t improve with age. As my husband once said after visiting my great aunt in a nursing home, 

“There is nothing glamorous about growing old.”

While attending graduate school, I drove an ancient Honda Accord that was held together by a lot of prayer and encouragement. The cassette player would run even when the car was turned off. Rain would get trapped in the moonroof and proceed to gush onto my lap when I put the car in reverse – soaking me to the point where I would have to go inside and change. It also seemed that as soon as I had one of its parts replaced, another would decide to break.

How I hated phone calls from my mechanic! As soon as the phone would ring I would squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself. He always started the conversation with,

“Hullo, it’s Karl, I’ve got some bad news. Your  _____ is shot.”

Your front wheel axle is shot. Your alternator is shot. Your motor mounts are shot. Your master cylinder is shot. Shot. Shot. Shot.

As I age, I have noticed how people are not so different from cars. Our body parts eventually become “shot” – just like my old Honda.  Arthritis is the human form of rust and corrosion. Our hearts – the fuel pump of the human body – stop pumping efficiently. Unless we can afford the services of a cosmetic surgeon (auto body shop) our exteriors become dented, scratched, and faded. Akin to transmission fluid leaking, we need to use the bathroom frequently during the night.

Some men tend to upgrade their cars – going from a practical Ford to a speedy red Porsche. Similarly, some men have the nerve trade in their wife for a newer version. One who doesn’t have dents or scratches. One who is younger, sleeker, and peppier. One who is fresh off the lot.

Ambulances are the human version of flatbed tow trucks. The mechanic – or car doctor – uses terminology we don’t understand. Similar to CAT scans and MRIs, your mechanic will run diagnostic testing that costs a bundle. A new car warranty is the automobile version of health insurance.

Food is our gasoline. The cost of filling a car’s gas tank can be equated to the expense of a large grocery order. Opening the refrigerator and seeing its bare shelves has the same feeling of frustration as noticing your gas light is on.

Cars are also like people in that there are big ones and small ones. Black ones and white ones. There are high maintenance, complicated people (Mercedes) and low maintenance, easy going people (Toyotas). There are people born in this country (Ford, GM) and people who immigrate from Europe (BMW, Lamborghini) and Asia (Mazda). Lastly, some people would rather avoid the snow (front-wheel drive cars) while others enjoy winter sports (the 4×4).

Thankfully,  that is where our similarities end. When a car reaches the end of its lifespan, it is sent to a scrapyard and crushed. When we reach the end of our lifespan, we are put in an overpriced box and buried in the ground.

It is unfortunate that cars and people don’t age as gracefully as say, a bottle of wine or a Redwood tree. But a bottle of wine and Redwood tree won’t drive your family on vacation or share the memories of their childhood.

The Typhoid Marys Among Us

Typhoid Mary is still among us. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this disturbing woman, allow me to give you a brief overview: Mary Mallon worked as a cook for wealthy families in the early 1900s. As she went about her cooking business, she was reeking havoc in the form of high fever, slow heartbeat, rash, painful diarrhea, and delirium. Mind you, this was all unintentional. She was an asymptomatic carrier of the bacteria Salmonella typhi. Meaning: she had no symptoms of the contagious disease she was carrying and spreading. There she was, frying up bacon and eggs, but also adding a little dollop of virulent bacteria on the side.

Either denial, obstinance or extreme stupidity kept Typhoid Mary from giving up her career as a cook. She was quarantined several times, only to return to the kitchen upon release. At one point she changed her name to an unoriginal “Mary Brown”, hoping to fool the health department. Subsequently sickening the very people she was feeding gave her away and authorities found her yet again. Eventually she was quarantined against her will until her death. Fifty-one people became infected with typhoid from the food she prepared. Three died.

Typhoid Mary never understood what the problem was. She didn’t feel sick so how on earth could she be making others sick? It completely baffled her. (Remember, this was before webmd or the ability to google “I feel fine but apparently I’m killing others.”)

Mary Mallon could be likened to someone who goes through life creating chaos but walks away untouched. These people are the Typhoid Marys among us.

My first experience with a modern day Typhoid Mary was in college. There was a girl who left campus the same time I did every Tuesday and Thursday. She stood out not only because she was attractive, but because she drove like Mr. Magoo. She drifted into other lanes, causing drivers to slam on their brakes while laying on the horn. She blew through red lights and changed lanes without ever checking her review mirror or glancing over her shoulder. If she hadn’t been such a menace, she was fascinating to watch. I kept telling myself it was only a matter of time before she caused a five car pile-up. But it never happened. While the rest of us were practically plowing into each other to avoid her, she sped off in her own little world.

Another modern day Typhoid Mary was recently at the grocery store. While picking out romaine lettuce, an octogenarian pushing a grocery cart at full speed almost ran me over. Had I not jumped out of the way there would have been a collision. The elderly man blew past me – a flash of high-waisted khaki and plaid- without even so much as a glance. He then careened around the corner and went barreling down the aisle. While he made remarkable speed for someone so hunched over, his gusto for shopping was potentially hazardous for everyone else. Yet he was completely unaware of the havoc he was creating.

Messy children can also be classified as modern day Typhoid Marys. Legos, Barbie parts, Hot Wheels, game pieces, beads. These are all things children “forget” to pick up and we parents have the pleasure of stepping on in the middle of the night. Sometimes the result is nothing more than a hurting foot. Other times our feet go flying in the air and we fall on the floor. Meanwhile, our little children are sound asleep in bed, blissfully unaware that their parents almost killed themselves by stepping on their Thomas the Tank Engine train.

Several historians have labeled Typhoid Mary as the most dangerous woman in American history. Maybe we should consider removing that stigma from her. After all, there is now a vaccine for typhoid. But unfortunately, we can’t vaccinate against bad drivers, aggressive old men who go grocery shopping, or children who don’t pick up their toys.

Bumper Stickers and Vanity Plates: They’re a Commitment

A friend of mine said, “Bumper stickers are a commitment.”  She has a valid point.  I mean, you’re really putting yourself out there with bumper stickers. Similar to road rage (when you can flip someone the bird and then drive off knowing there will be no consequences), you’re not held accountable for whatever you plaster on your car. Generally, people don’t retaliate based on what your bumper stickers say.

But what if they did?

Take the bumper sticker I recently saw: My Other Car is a 747. Clearly this person must be a pilot.  Now, what if I had pulled alongside the pilot’s car, rolled down my window and started frantically waving my arms while shouting, “Hey you! Yes, you!  You’re a pilot? What airline do you fly for? It better not be US Air!  They lost my luggage and then left it out in the rain.  Oh! And my plane had to sit on the tarmac for two hours.  Real nice!”

Or how about those oval black and white bumper stickers that advertise where you have gone on vacation? (They are usually in code too.  Instead of simply saying “Jackson Hole” they say “JH” or “OBX” instead of “Outter Banks.”) Picture driving up next to a car sporting one of these stickers: “You-hoo! Excuse me!  I notice you have been to Martha’s Vineyard. How was it? Where’d you stay?”

Then there are vanity license plates. Personally, I happen to find these a bit troubling. While bumper stickers can be more general, with vanity plates, you’re sort of announcing yourself. One time I noticed a car in the grocery store parking lot that had a vanity plate. I then recognized the same car in the parking lot of another store the following day. Then at the gym. Normally, I would never have paid attention, but it’s hard not to notice (and remember) a car that has a license plate that reads “PINGPONG.”

I have always found MD license plates a bit irksome. What is the purpose?  Do they simply want people to know they went to medical school? Because I don’t know about you – but whenever I pass a car accident, I have never seen a car with a MD license plate at the scene.

What if we tried to solicit free medical advice from these physicians who advertise their profession? Honk! Honk! “Hey! Thanks for letting me know you’re a doctor!  I need to ask you something.  I’ve had this awful cramp on my right side for about a week now.  Any idea what it could be?”

Vanity license plates could also get you in trouble.  It’s hard to be discreet when you have a license plate that is memorable. Imagine attending your kid’s 6th grade violin concert. You pull into a parking spot and as the family climbs out of the car, some buffoon calls out, “Hey!  It’s JOEYD72! I see your car outside of Pleasure Island strip joint all the time!”

In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I had one of those black and white oval stickers on my previous car.  And I would have been thrilled if someone had honked their horn and said, “Hey! You went to Aruba?  How was it?  I hear it’s awfully hot there.” “Oh it is hot!” I would have hollered back, “but there is a lovely breeze that always keeps you comfortable.”

When I traded in my old car for a newer one, I didn’t transfer the Aruba sticker.  Why?  I didn’t want to take the chance of someone pulling up alongside me in traffic, rolling down their window, and shouting out, “You went to Aruba? Congratulations! Like I care!”