Heroes to a fault

Dusty Morgan is a former deejay friend of mine from Sacramento. We’re about the same age. We lived through the wonderful fifties and sixties together in total ignorance of each other’s existence until we grew to be old and worldly — twenty something.

With his approval I’d like to share the note I got from him recently. He sends these out to friends like Anita* and me who appreciate his perspective and his voice.

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morgan musings

the kid from summer …

You might have already heard the news that one of the Dodgers storied legends passed away recently. The press release read: “Former Brooklyn Dodgers Star Johnny Podres dead at the age of 75.” Well, beyond Johnny’s contribution to Dodgers lore … I thought I’d take-up a few lines here and with a little ground level recollection.

I can’t tell you what a baseball god Johnny Podres was to a 4 foot nothing Little Leaguer when those Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A. As one of the original ’58ers and game winning pitcher of the Dodgers first ever World Series Championship in ’55 … John will always be a hero in the eyes this former 98 pound catcher for the Palm Springs Red Sox.

I’ll never forget the night I managed to get his autograph after a game at the L.A. Coliseum. My buddy Dennis and I were running all around the player’s enterance and grassy area; trying to chase down anyone we’d I.D.’s as an actual player. I remember spotting Johnny walking by himself; heading toward a parking lot (probably where his car was) then taking off in a dead sprint to get to him before he got to that lot. With Dennis right beside me, we managed to “plead him to a stop” (he did) and then graciously signed a couple of autographs for a breathless pair of 4 foot nothings.

One of these days, from some earlier e-mails, messages and family history recollections I sent to my cousin Claudia, I might tackle a longer Baseball Musing about those Graffiti summer nights, chasing down players for their signatures, how some of them responded (or didn’t) and what it was like for a kid who’s dreams of baseball and stardom were hatched in a small trailer park just off North Indian Avenue in the less than rich end of … The Springs.

It’s not a unique story, but one that became dream seeds for the future.

It’s a little difficult to describe how the news landed in my stomach when I heard about Johnny’s passing. Maybe I’m just over reacting. Or as my dear friend Anita Garner recently wrote in an e-mail: * “Now, maybe 75 years old doesn’t seem as far off as it did back in ’58.”

A few months ago, I saw a photo on the Net of Podres, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and (I think) Clem Labine in the dugout at a Twins game; all decked out in their old Brooklyn uniforms as they were there to help celebrate another baseball milestone. Looking into the eyes of those grand faces, it was tough for this old Little Leaguer to realize that these were once … “The Boys Of Summer.”

Of course, as we all know, and as Sonny once said to Cher: “The Beat Goes On.”

Now, I think what I’ll do today is take a memory stroll through some of my old baseball stuff, remember back to a few of those warm summer nights … then put on my old Brooklyn Dodgers cap and wear it around the neighborhood all day. Yeah, it’s probably silly. Then again, maybe one of the kids on my street will stop and ask: “Hey, what’s the B stand for?”

morgan musings / a production of tws north america

(* With acknowledgement to Anita Garner www.theagingofaquarius.com)

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Now, my reply to his note:

Morg,

My heart is smiling as only empathy will allow. I know where you’ve been and from where you come.

I was a Giants fan in those days. I remember virtually the same story you shared but it had a different ending.

I was eight or ten. A security guard at Candlestick Park thought I was cute, I guess. Among the dozens of fans hanging around outside the fenced-enclosed Giants players’ parking lot, he allowed me and only me inside the gate. My dad stood outside beaming with excitement. I watched, befuddled, as the players passed out of the locker room. I didn’t recognize any of them out of their uniforms!

But then I saw him.

Willie Mays!

Everybody started shouting and yelling for Willie’s attention. He ignored them and walked toward the car with the personalized license plate: WHM 24. I nervously approached him. “Mr. Mays, can I have your autograph?” He didn’t hear me. I shouted again. I was only about fifteen feet away. Surely he heard me that time!?

And after shouting a third time I realized yes, he did hear me. He was ignoring me. Blowing me off.

He got in his car and drove away. Took my heart with him.

Sometimes life’s lessons hurt and are not necessarily useful.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

I’m not your “Bro!”

The other day I was in a convenience store and the clerk called me, “Boss.” It was one of those chummy affectations like “Bro” which also annoys me. I don’t need to be called “Sir” but it seems to me that a guy who performs a small service I’m paying for, a total stranger I will likely never see again, could be a little more respectful of the relationship. I’m your customer, not your boss or your bro. It’s why I pay six dollars for a seven-pound bag of ice and why you get eight bucks an hour to sell it to me

And now that I mention it — I’m a CUSTOMER, not a “GUEST!” If I was a store guest I should get everything for free!

This is one of those old fart things, isn’t it? Don’t sugarcoat it. Tell me the truth. I’m making a big deal out of nothing, huh?

Well, it’s not nothing to me.

What it is, is a blurring of our healthy cultural relationships. It’s the same reason so many people today say “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” We’re not supposed to think one of us is inferior to another, even for a moment. Ask a waiter for more butter and he’ll tell you it’s “no problem.” Whew! What a relief. I would hate to think that my asking you to do a small part of your job is a PROBLEM!

Fact of the matter is, a waiter really is inferior to his customer. That’s the way we all like it. It’s what we pay for. And when he gets off work and goes to a bar, HE’S the boss. I mean, the customer.

I know, I know…it’s an old fart thing.

Where’s my TV Guide?

Goodbye again…

Yesterday we buried my father-in-law.

His family gathered a day earlier in a great hall, as it generally does on Easter and Thanksgiving, to share food, drink and stories. Only this time, Bob wasn’t there except in a makeshift altar bearing ancient photographs, a few flowers, a guest book and a small plastic box of ashes.

At the cemetery yesterday they gathered again for a final goodbye to the first of seven siblings to pass. The other six were there, of course, as were many of their spouses, children and friends. Some spoke of their love for Bob and the family as a whole. Some remembered another funny story. Some kept it to themselves. My wife placed the box into the open grave and wept on my shoulder.

We all hugged, vowed to get together in a few weeks for Easter and went our separate ways.

A few months ago we buried my first mother-in-law. Again, we did it as families have always done, with comfort food and bittersweet memories. It’s the being together that matters.

A few years ago we said goodbye to my dad. Tears, hugs; food.

And here’s what gets me in the gut once these tragic gatherings have ended: for all our togetherness at such times I have never felt more lonely. I suppose it’s partly the idea that burying our immediate elders is inevitable and that it’s our turn next. But even more insistent is the great lingering “why?” 

What is the point of life at all if eighty-some years of living and learning is to be simply extinguished and interred or scattered to the winds or placed in a vase on the mantle? Why do we go through this exercise if it is ultimately meaningless?

Meaning, of course, is the personal pursuit. Whether your answers are found in faith or merely in the warmth of loving memory it is as unique to each of us as the paths we have taken. I find small comfort in that because the question mark remains. But here is what I have come to this morning, after days of grieving and wondering and a blessed good night’s sleep:

My father-in-law’s life was meaningful in its very occurence. He touched each of us and we, in turn, are touching those around us. Not very profound, perhaps, but unlike mere faith this is undeniably true. We are all the sum of the people we have known and loved. And they in turn, are us.

That’s not just a sympathy card platitude. It is the brilliant simplicity of an answer.

Why, indeed! I exist so that my children and theirs may have the great gift of my love and life.

Thanks, Bob, for the wonderful memories and for becoming part of our spiritual dna.

Camping in the 21st Century: Part one

Last summer our family went camping in Sequoia National Park and we had a wonderful time. So, this year we’re going again only this time we’re heading to Pfeiffer Big Sur California State Park, twenty-six miles south of Carmel. There will be about twenty of us, possibly a few more, and that means we need at least three campsites. Four would be better. I’m in charge of making the reservations.

The idea of having to reserve a camping space six months in advance of a trip is still hard for me to come to grips with. When I was a kid my dad would announce at the dinner table that we should go camping this weekend and so we did. No big deal. Even when I became an adult and started planning my own camping trips I could pack up the car with my tent, sleeping bags, Coleman stove, lanterns and whatnot and just head to the mountains or ocean with a good idea of where I wanted to go but with no reservation and no worries. That doesn’t fly in the 21st century. Not in California.

Yesterday, February 1st, was the first day campsite reservations became available for August of this year. That’s the way it works. If you want to go camping in any state park anytime at all next August you need to get a reservation within the first fifteen minutes of February. I’m not exaggerating and I couldn’t make that up, I’m not a state employee.

I was at work yesterday morning so my wife and son sat down at their respective computers with two phones each and began phoning and logging in to the California campground reservation line and website at 7:45AM. At the stroke of 8:00 all the campsites in California went up for grabs. By 8:15 all 191 campsites at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park were totally booked. No kidding. I’m guessing the Rolling Stones and Hannah Montana are going to be doing nightly concerts there.

Carolann and Jeremy managed to come up with two campsites, miraculously next to each other, but that still leaves us short of space for at least five people who want to go camping six months from next weekend. I’m going to keep attacking the website for cancellations. In July we’ll probably have to hold a lottery to see who has to stay behind to water everybody’s lawns and pick up the mail. By the time we actually make the trip I figure I will have invested two or three months in scheduling a four day campout.

Twenty or thirty years from now when my grandsons are grown and have families of their own I imagine this will be the dinner table conversation. (Of course, Americans stopped eating together as families decades ago but just for the sake of the scenario…)

TYLER: Honey, why don’t we phone Isaiah and Hannah and see if they want to take the kids camping?
MILEY: When?
TYLER: I don’t know. Soon. Next year, the year after, maybe.
MILEY: Next year? You think you can get reservations for next year?
TYLER: Yeah, you’re right. Maybe the weekend after the Fourth of July four years from now. The weekend after the Fourth is never busy.
MILEY: We have an appointment with the family counselor that Friday.

My dad got grumpier with age and I’m beginning to understand why.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

The terrible twos

When Isaiah was between two and three he would occasionally rip Carolann and me from our sleep with bloodcurdling screams that Stephen King might imagine. To me it sounded like our grandson was being mauled by some great beast.

Bolting from our bed and across the hall to his room, we would find him thrashing, screaming as if he was being dismembered and then going literally rigid. He was living, panting, trembling rigor mortis. We could not awaken him. We could only hold him and wait for it to pass. Eventually, it did.

The clinical term is “pavor nocturnus” – “Night Terror.” It can afflict anybody but fortunately children are usually spared more than a few of these episodes between the ages of two and six. Only fifteen percent have them at all and then they stop. Nobody really understands why.

But I think I do.

Yesterday I was given my very favorite gift: an invitation to stay with my youngest grandson, Tyler, while his mom and dad worked. Tyler and I have always had a grand time together. I push him on the swing outside and we sing and giggle together. I play with him and his Thomas Train. We read books, we watch Little Einsteins on TV. I feed him junk. I tickle him. He laughs. Tyler loves playing with his grandpa.

Until yesterday.

“NO GRANDPA!!!….NO!!!!!

He not only pushed me away, he was pissed! And who can blame him? When your life is still counted in months you don’t have the communication skills to express fears and frustrations beyond your understanding. Yelling and kicking is about the only choice you have and that’s what Tyler did. He swung wildly, beating on my arms with woefully tiny fists as I gently took him from my son. He thrashed left and right, kicking and screaming, reaching out for his father.

“DADDY!!!! DADDY HOLD YOU!!!!!!”

My son was wracked with guilt for leaving him, even with me. I understood and gently urged him to leave us alone. He left but I know it was killing him.

Tyler is pushing three. He’s a senior toddler. His world is bursting with a 24/7 nonstop fireworks display of new confusions, new reason, new ways of processing information and the incessant assault of new ideas on his fresh sponge of a brain. Everything is a new experience, fascinating but potentially overwhelming. Imagine yourself strapped down on a mad scientist’s lab table with some sort of data super injector lashed to your head. That’s what my grandson is going through. At times it’s a carnival, at other times it’s a bad acid trip. It’s a virtual avalanche of sensory downloads, a cacophony of weird and terrifying celestial music, hard rock, and dazzling flashes of brilliant, shocking colors. This, in itself, is not new to him, it’s the mental state of all human beings at birth. What is different now is that Tyler has arrived at the age of reason and it’s emotional shadow, fear.

Tyler’s instinct is teaching him insecurity. It’s a horribly lonesome journey into a black jungle of faceless threats. And, of course, it is the only path that eventually leads to self-sufficiency. The job of parents and grandpas is to let go. Sometimes, by force.

I had similar experiences, of course, when Jeremy was Tyler’s age. For all of the bumps and hard times I’ve suffered, nothing was as hard as having to walk away from my son and not looking back while hearing him behind me screaming, “Daddy!” However long I live I would rather suffer anything before having to push my child away from me again. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, thankful that the time was behind me. What never occurred to me until yesterday was that I would someday have to watch my child let go of his.

Jeremy tore himself away and went to work, leaving his son in a heart-wrenching fit. I calmly, quietly, repeatedly, reassuringly asked Tyler to let me push him on the swing or play with the wooden Thomas Train or watch Einsteins but he spurned all invitations. I never tried to pick him up because a mere, gentle touch of his head would set him off again. I just let him finish his work. Finally, after a half hour of lying on the floor punctuating his soft crying with occasional angry screams and kicking, when he finally began to tire of it all – I smelled something.

“Tyler,” I asked softly, “do you want Grandpa to change your pants?”

He didn’t look at me but calmly said, “Okay.”

I picked him up. He didn’t kick. He laid his exhausted head on my shoulder and his arms around my neck. After I wiped his tears and nose; after changing his pants, I turned on the TV, put him in his favorite rocking chair, and I sat down on the couch. A moment later he got out of the rocker and came to sit next to me. He snuggled under my arm.

We were fine.

Next time somebody tells you about his kid’s “terrible twos” gently suggest he try to imagine it from the child’s perspective.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Prattling…

I have a dog behind my butt.

That’s not something I would normally mention but I’ve had a severe case of writers’ block lately and that’s what “they” tell you to do, try to break the mental logjam by just writing about any ole thing that pops into your head. And believe me, when you have a dog sleeping behind your butt, forcing you to sit on the front edge of an office chair it’s a front-of-mind thing. Especially when there is nothing else going on in your mind.

(Sigh…)

I have nothing to say. That’s what it is, really. I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I believe in “writer’s laziness,” “writer’s apathy,” and a few other similar afflictions which really amount to neither more nor less than the most dreaded and shameful of literary afflictions, writer’s insecurity.

I have nothing to say. Wait, I just said that. And it’s not exactly accurate. I have plenty to say but no compelling reason to say it. Who cares what I think about anything? There, I’ve said it! That’s the heart of the problem, right there. Why should anybody find anything I have to say either interesting or useful? Why would anybody even read such drivel as this?

The dog just jumped down and left the room. I rest my case

In our book, The Aging of Aquarius, I think I mentioned how my father ruined me for talk radio long before I ever got into the business. When I was a young teenager, fourteen or fifteen maybe, he told me, “Everybody says you have a right to your opinion. That’s only half true. You have a right to an INFORMED opinion and if you don’t have all the facts you can’t form an opinion.”

What the hell was he thinking? What kind of country would we be living in today if everybody realized he couldn’t possibly know all the facts and should maybe just shut the hell up? We’d have nothing to do but smile and listen and nod in approval or, at least, in earnest fascination. Instead, we’re all too busy thinking of what we’re going to say to listen to the person speaking. Besides, we have talk radio and TV news to tell us what to think and how to feel. Oh, don’t kid yourself. That’s exactly what they do! That’s what everybody is doing if you think about it.

Text messaging. No, I’m not digressing, just taking a short trip around the block. You know what text messaging is? It’s a marvelous new technology that has made it possible for us to express our ill-informed opinions and half-baked ideas without being challenged, questioned or opposed! Think about it. Now you can phone somebody and tell them what you want to say without having to listen to and feign interest in any response! That’s what the kids are doing. In essence they’re saying, “I have something to tell you…don’t care what you think.”

And, we have blogs. Ugh. I hate the word. “Blog.” It sounds like some vile vat of I-don’t-want-to-know-what boiled over a wood stove and served with a fatty piece of rat gristle at some pagan medieval feast.

The dog just returned. She’s looking at me with keen interest.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe the fact that every teenaged, barely sentient hominid with ten fingers and a Best Buy gift card can fire off missives and proclamations to the future is a good way for society to blow off steam. Maybe blogging and My Space and Facebook will save the world by turning the next Osama bin Laden into a mutant nerdbot before he has a legitimate feeling and becomes dangerous.

‘Scuze me. I need to slide down to the very edge of the chair and arch my back over the slumbering Yorkie for a moment. Oh! That’s better.

But here’s the thing: I write these words and push a couple of buttons and like magic they’re on the WORLDWIDE WEB! So the “f” what? Excuse my implied profanity. Who fricking cares? Who notices? It pops up on my screen just like it was when I wrote it except now I know that anybody in the world can read it! Will they? Why would they? Why should they?

See my problem?

And please, as much as I know you mean well, please don’t send a comment to this essay telling me how much you enjoy my writing. Seriously, if anybody does that I will be doubly embarrassed because I know it will just be a pity compliment. So, don’t.

See what my wife has to put up with?

PS. I don’t think this stream-of-consciousness thing works too well, do you?

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Up on the housetop, reindeer pause…

December 8th is an anniversary for me. This year it will mark seventeen years since the day I fell off the roof of our house while putting up Christmas lights.

I only fell eight or ten feet and I managed my fall. Knowing that I couldn’t prevent it I intentionally jumped and hit the ground with a tuck and roll strategy to minimize the damage. I shattered nearly every bone in both heels and ankles. After five hours of reconstructive surgery I spent a week in a hospital. I was in a wheelchair for the next three months while receiving painful physical therapy three times a week. And now, seventeen years later, I still walk with a noticeable limp and am in constant pain. If I spend a full day on my feet for some special occasion — a family outing at Disneyland, for example — the pain can be so excruciating I can’t sleep. On my best days it’s just a constant, nagging reminder of one really bad decision I made a couple of decades ago.

And I’m the lucky one. I could have easily broken my neck or back and been in that wheelchair for life, paralyzed from the waist down. I could have died. People do, even from a fall of just eight feet. The doctors at the ER told me ‘tis the season. They get many such cases every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there is one thing all of us have in common: We’re all, every one of us, smarter than the fools who will take a tumble.

Absolutely none of us think we might fall off the roof when we go up there. I know you. You don’t think so, either. You’ll be more careful than I was. “Thanks for the heads up!” you’re thinking.

That was my attitude, too.

That morning, December 8, 1990, Carolann phoned me from a friend’s house to say she saw a sign in our neighborhood for a guy who would put up Christmas lights for $20 but I said, “Oh, no. It’s my job. I’m the dad!” It cost me thirty THOUSAND dollars and a lifetime of constant pain to put the lights up that year.

And there are the dreams. You have occasional dreams of being able to fly? I have frequent dreams of being able to run again, to run like the wind in a baseball outfield as I did when I was young or just to chase after my grandsons at my current age. I can’t do that. I have to call after them and hope they run back to me.

All for the sake of Christmas lights.

I met my wife when we were teammates on a competition dance team. I haven’t been able to dance with her for seventeen years now. Oh, we can slow dance but we can’t do the show-off stuff, the fun spins and fancy twirls that brought us together in the first place.

Thanks to those damned Christmas lights.

Frankly, I get tired of telling this story so I’m not putting much effort into it. Some of you have no plans to go on the roof so it doesn’t matter. The rest of you are going up on the roof no matter what I say.

Personally, I’m not going to fall off anything higher than a bed or a barstool from here on out. You all do what you like.

I really hope you have a wonderful holiday season. I mean that sincerely.

Merry Christmas; Happy Hannukah…

“God bless us (and ground us…) every one!”

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Perfection in Solitude

When I was between marriages some twenty-five years ago I was forced to learn a very hard lesson most people manage to avoid all their lives. I learned to be truly alone for long periods of time and to love it.

I had never been alone for more than a couple of hours or an afternoon at most. I grew up in my parents’ home, moved into an apartment with a buddy, soon got married and lived with my first wife until I was thirty. Then, the divorce. Reality caved in on me and I found myself living in a small apartment with our old furniture and nothing else that would ever allow me to use the word “our” again. “Our” life was over. Mine, alone, was beginning and I was terrified.

Forced to take a vacation alone, I rented a house near a beach north of Mendocino and settled in for a week of misery as a newly-single recluse.

There is nothing more alone than a large, empty, unfamiliar house in which the only thing that is yours is you.

People who have never been married for a long time and then have it suddenly collapse can’t know the vacancy of self-mourning, and try as I do I can’t find exactly the right words to explain it. I’m not talking about self-pity but rather, true self-mourning because half of the whole person you were is suddenly nonexistent. I think it must feel exactly like being only half dead. I missed everything about my life, my wife and son, our home, our street, our yards, our dog, our routines, but even more than all of that I was in a desperate race to scar my soul, to repair the trauma to my spirit before it bled away. And so, I cried. I gave in to my grief completely, nonstop except for brief periods of respite provided by fatigue. Then I would tumble into a restless sleep and eventually awaken still empty, still lonely but refreshed enough to well up with pain once again and resume groveling in my misery.

And that’s the key, I think. Give in and grieve. Be mindful of your physical well-being and force yourself to take care. Don’t drink to excess and stumble through a strange world in which you don’t know the players. Eat when you should. Sleep as much as you can. I found writing to be cathartic. But nothing heals like pure grief, for that is its purpose.

During a lull in my despondency, a few days after beginning my self-imposed confinement, I stepped outside my rented home just to take a peek at the world. It was dazzlingly bright blue, the sky and sea; golden, the sun and sand. One of those perfect winter days on the Northern California coast that looks and feels like a personal gift from God, all just for you. And that’s when I first heard the voice inside my head which described that day to me then exactly as I just wrote it:

“This day is a gift from God, just for you.”

It was a stunning revelation. I was not alone in the least! And as I listened to that calm, reassuring, wiser part of myself I realized I had always been there and that I had a lot to say! I had just never been able to hear it because my world had been a cacophony of voices and distractions fighting for attention. And as I listened to my internal confidante I learned something else amazing:

I like me.

A few days later I was wandering through a little shop in Mendocino and I spotted a poster waiting for me to carry it home. It was a beautifully photographed picture of a tiny, empty rowboat, mirrored in a calm sea. The caption beneath it read: There is perfection in solitude. It is the reflection of serenity.

That was many years ago and I soon returned to the noisy societal circus. But now I can hear my little internal voice wherever I go, whenever I listen. He’s a good guy. He cares about me and would never give me bad advice. In fact, he often gives me wise words for others which I dutifully pass along, humble messenger that I am.

Carolann and I are in the twentieth year of our honeymoon. As Paul Harvey would say, we are “happily ever-aftering.” But I still find time to get away by myself for a few days every now and then because we all need to be alone. I don’t mean just to take a nap or read a book. I mean truly alone for a significant period of time. That’s what it takes to shut out the noise, to settle down and listen. And then you need days to talk at leisure with your internal best friend, to make yourself wiser, to laugh at shared secrets; to frolic like dogs on a beach until you wear yourselves out with freedom and promise each other you will do this again!

There really is perfection in solitude. You should try it sometime.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

My ageism rant

Long before I became a quintarian (I think I just made that up) I was aware of the ridicule suffered by our seniors. Suffered generally, by the way, with grace and quiet acquiescence. They get it. They’ve long expected it. Hell, they made fun of old people when they were young. And while this social skewering of our mostly honorable and wiser elders continues unabated and generally unrecognized we worry sweat beads these days about whether somebody might be offended by wishing him “Merry Christmas.”

**********
Two old men in their eighties meet in a park everyday. They sit on a bench for hours and talk about their lives.

“I’m so old,” complains one man, “I can no longer pee in a stream. It sputters and spurts. Every morning I get up, go to the bathroom and stand at the toilet for ten minutes sputtering and spurting and dribbling until my bladder is empty.”

“I should be so lucky!” says his friend. “Every morning at the stroke of seven I relieve myself and every single morning, like clockwork, I release a long, strong, steady stream. I could knock over a horse with that stream! Every morning at seven!”

“What’s wrong with that?” asks the other man.

“I don’t wake up until 7:30.”

*********

Rimshot.

Actually, it’s a pretty good joke when told well. The problem is the jokes add up to stereotypes and I wouldn’t even mind that so much if it was occasionally acknowledged that the generalizations are comic and not universally real. And if you think that should be obvious, think again. Find a teenager and raise the subject of ageism, or for that matter somebody in his twenties or thirties. They’ve never given it a moment’s thought and can’t relate. They’ll smile, maybe roll their eyes a little and then acknowledge it’s not nice to make fun of old people. And even that’s not right. It’s fine to make fun of old people when the joke is a good one! It’s just not fine to believe that old people are jokes themselves.

**********
Pastor Smith receives word that the oldest member of his congregation, Maude Hemmings, has taken ill and is hospitalized. After his Sunday sermon he rushes to her bedside to while away the day visiting her, bringing her local news, good humor and inspiration. While he’s there he idly treats himself to a bowl of peanuts next to her bed, but when two hours have passed he realizes with sudden embarrassment that he has eaten the entire bowl of peanuts.

“Maude,” he apologizes, “I’m so sorry I ate all your peanuts. I didn’t even notice what I was doing. I’ll bring you more peanuts tomorrow.”

“Oh, please don’t do that, Reverend,” Maude says with a sweet smile. “I hate peanuts. It took me all day to suck the chocolate off of those.’

*********

Okay, so technically that’s not really a joke about aging. It’s a joke about the “ick” factor of eating a bunch of peanuts after they’ve been in somebody else’s mouth. But would it be funny if she wasn’t old or if her name was Judy rather than Maude?

Old people, fat people and Southerners. It’s always open season on them and nobody has even considered passing laws, creating regulations or invoking rules of respect for these soft targets that can’t effectively defend themselves against wholesale mockery. I guess I should say I think Southerners sometimes enjoy the generalization because it allows them to gain the upper hand over competitors who assume them dull witted. It’s still wrong but nearly universally accepted as good, innocent fun.

But oh, do we ever worry about pretty young women! Until they get old, that is. And of course, pretty young women with Southern accents are the best targets of them all.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, before my Grandma Georgia was victimized by Alzheimer’s and eventually died, I remember asking her to tell me about her life. She’d tell me where she was born and the names of her siblings. She’d answer any questions I asked but I didn’t ask the good ones. I think she did the best she could but she was no autobiographical fount of information and I was a lousy interviewer in those days. So, she’s gone and I really don’t know much about her and what I really wanted was a sense of what life was like in the first half of twentieth century America. And what concerns me is that I think I was an oddball in that respect. I don’t know anybody else who has expressed any great curiosity about the lives of their parents, grandparents and beyond. I don’t know anybody who has any interest in the wisdom acquired by our elders, their views of life and death and philosophies toward humanity. Who ever asks these questions of old people? I never have and before too long, if I’m lucky, I’ll be one.

I wonder what it’s like, keeping all those experiences, observations and philosophical conclusions to yourself because nobody cares enough to ask what you think? I’m already getting less likely to inject my opinions into conversations uninvited. I find myself getting quieter as I get older because it’s hard to get excited about the same old topics and it’s getting harder to find new ones of interest. And besides, who really cares what I think?

I’m marginalizing myself, I suppose. Not sure that’s a bad thing, I just find it kind of sad.

And maybe I’ve just answered the charge I posed myself in the first paragraph. It may be that the reason the elderly suffer indignity with grace and quiet acquiescence is because they’ve just reached a point where they just don’t much give a damn.

Still, it would be nice if someone did.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved 

Contentment

“Contentment” is a word you don’t hear very often anymore. It’s such a passive word. These days we’re all about superlatives. You can’t even buy a small Coke. You have to choose from “large,” “extra large,” “big gulp” and “belly buster.”

Don’t get me started on Starbucks.

There are no movie and singing stars anymore. None. Now all actors and singers are “SUPERstars!” The real superstars are “MEGAstars!” (In a perverse, word nerd way I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where the publicity flaks take us from here.)

How many emails do you get in which people use so many exclamation points they must have bought them at Costco?

Calm words are boring, I guess. When I ask people how they are nobody just says “fine.” Everybody is “excellent,” and “awesome!” If you tell somebody you’re “fine” these days they think you’re either deeply depressed or too busy to be bothered. “Fine” has become, in effect, a benign way of dismissing people.

I guess there’s something pathetic about plain old contentment that just reeks of giving up and settling for less.

What’s going on here? Why are we all driving for higher levels of okay? Remember when being okay was a good thing? Now it makes you suspect. If you tell somebody you’re “okay” they think you’re brooding or pouting or about to launch into some self-serving tirade. “No, really, I’m okay!” When you put an exclamation point on it like that it looks like you’re covering something up or being super defensive. Not just defensive, see, SUPER defensive!!! Or, maybe you scare people by being calm. Maybe they suspect you’re going to be the next guy in the news who walked into his former office and shot up the place.

“He was a nice guy. Always quiet; kept to himself. Said he was ‘fine.’”

Something is driving us these days and I don’t think it’s just the cultural evolution of semantics. I think, for some reason, a lot of us are screaming for attention.

And I wouldn’t mention it, of course, unless I had a theory. Here it is:

We baby boomers have been screwing around with America’s social foundation since the sixties when some of us suddenly decided we had no further need for our parents, teachers and other authority figures.

This was evolving when I was still in high school. We still had a dress code and we still addressed teachers as Mr. This and Mrs. That. But just a few years later there was a brief but widespread attempt to equalize the social standing between students and teachers when students began addressing teachers by their first names. Teachers at the time, many of them children of the sixties, nearly unanimously and warmly accepted this practice as enlightened and hip. I don’t know for sure why this cultural experiment didn’t jell but I suspect it caused a structural breakdown that even those young boomer teachers who opposed the rule of authority had to admit caused some real disruption in classrooms. When “Mr. Farber” confiscated your hash pipe and sent you to the office there were consequences. If “Phil” tried do do that, you probably laughed and Phil smiled, too. In any case, it didn’t last very long but I do see a social pattern that can be traced back to that era.

Young people these days almost never say, “You’re welcome.” Instead they say, “No problem,” which is hardly the same thing. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” are ancient pleasantries, expressions of respect. But now it’s gotten to the point I don’t even want to thank anybody because I dread the kickback I know I’m about to receive. When I thank a waiter for bringing my meal he says, “No problem” and honestly, I feel a little insulted or, at least, brushed aside. I want to respond, “I’m greatly relieved that my presence, requiring you to perform a small part of your job, isn’t creating a problem for you,” but I don’t. I know he wasn’t trying to insult me but by not acknowledging my respectful gratitude with an equally personal and gracious, “You’re welcome,” he is unconsciously diverting attention from me, his customer, to himself. Not only does it abruptly terminate the intended exchange of pleasantries, it draws a faint line between us. In effect the waiter is saying to me, “You’re doing your thing (ordering a meal) and I’m doing mine (bringing it.)” In an unconscious effort to equalize the social standing between us the waiter is rejecting the relationship that naturally exists.

Being a waiter isn’t demeaning and neither is being polite. We are all subordinate to others at times in various circumstances and that’s a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble and respectful of others. But when we blur the distinction between customer and waiter we rob ourselves of an opportunity to experience a supporting role in society. At other times, in different circumstances, the waiter is a customer, too.

Carolann thinks I’m a nutball when I start prattling on about this stuff. She says I’m too picky about words and she does have a point because I take people far more literally than they generally intend. The thing is, when I don’t I’m confused. The subtleties and shadings of implications in our language are powerful and I hate being forced to go through life unclear about everything everybody says. I find myself constantly guessing what people mean as opposed to what they say. I’m never sure what to believe and isn’t that true to some extent for all of us these days?

When was the last time you fully believed or understood something you read in a newspaper or saw on TV? It’s popular these days to accuse the mass media of having a political agenda that slants the information they provide us. I hate political bickering and won’t go down that road just now but I do think what we’re seeing, hearing and reading today are more shouts for attention, the clamoring of an ever more desperate generation of narcissists growing old without contentment.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved