Up Close and Personal

I have a phobia. Well, okay, so I have more than one. Who doesn’t? And this one is a biggie – SPIDERS. I hate the way their legs move in a stealthy manner wherever they go, always leaving a silken thread to mark their territory. Yes, I know it’s not deliberate in the full sense of that word, but they do creep along one or two legs at a time making them seem all the more…intentional…in their behavior, and I find this supremely troubling.

Just finding one hanging from one of those threads fills me with waves of anxiety. Yes, I do scream on occasion because I’m startled. Like, almost every time. And I feel them sometimes when they’re not even there – but might be. Go ahead and call me a scaredy-cat. Sticks and stones may break my bones but, as the saying goes, names will never hurt me. Spiders might, though. You never know.

I’d like to blame Stephen King for my inordinate fear, but I was afraid of spiders long before I ever heard of him. He was having nightmares about spiders whose webs he turned into gold while my fear was fine-tuned by personal experience, not dreams that blew away like dusty, old cobwebs when the sun rose in the morning.

I went swimming this morning, clocking in at just over a mile which I do at least once a week. Even while I’m counting laps, my mind chases words and ideas around and I must juggle the two (or three or four) simultaneously. Mental gymnastics that work sometimes but not others. This morning I wasn’t focused on anything. Just enjoying a forest of trees on the other side of the massive windows and watching the sun rise to pour its light over the water and play on its surface.

After my shower, I reach in my locker to retrieve my gym bag, and that’s when I see it. A small spider suspended in mid-air a couple of inches from the inside of my elbow. Way too close for comfort. Jumping back, I barely suppress a scream, and a woman in front of the mirror asks “What’s the matter?”

It’s a mosquito, I say – more to make myself believe it than to convince her. I needed to believe that’s what it was, but there was something about the way it moved when I moved. As if my movement away from it drew the air it was in, toward me. It, like a spider rather than a mosquito, was moving with me and in my direction.

You can imagine my dismay.

Jumping back a step, I almost fall over the bench behind me while watching it move in mid-air laterally across the row of lockers before disappearing, its color an effective camouflage against the grayish, nondescript lockers providing its backdrop. A mosquito would do that. Setting my bag down on the bench, I looked it over carefully but didn’t want to set alarms bells ringing in the woman who was saying she could deal with a spider better than a mosquito because she was “a mosquito magnet” and always getting bitten.

Still, better a mosquito than a spider, I’m thinking. Hurriedly grabbing her things, she leaves, and I’m left to fight the battle with myself and the spider/mosquito on my own.

As I was drying my hair I kept wondering where he/she/it (covering the PC bases here) had gone, though I doubt much that he/she/it would care one way or the other. Was it too much to ask that it not be there when I turned around and gathered my things to leave?

Getting into my car, I set my bag on the seat at the same time scanning it and everything else, just in case I’d missed it somehow. I’ve heard of people having a car wreck because of finding a spider in the car, and honestly, I could envision that happening to me, too. I wanted no surprises once I was on the road.

You always have to worry when you’re in the car because spiders, pregnant ones, have the ability to find their way in via the vents, if nowhere else. And if they give birth inside – well, you can guess the rest. This happened to my daughter Laura once when she and a friend got in her car and turned on the defrost, blasting hundreds of baby spiders out of the defroster and onto the windshield (on the inside, naturally) which said spiders chose to ascend, crawling onto the roof above their heads, and – that’s right – dropping down on those glistening threads while Laura and Anna were swatting at them left and right and having hysterics which who knows how many people witnessed in that parking lot at Chapel Hill. They spent the trip home gazing at the roof instead of the street and were lucky to make it back in one piece.

An apartment I once had in an old house a long time ago had a nest of spiders, too. When those babies were hatched, were born, or whatever, I, Ms. Scaredy-Cat, suffered a full-on case of paranoia in that awful moment of clarity that began when I saw tiny little white figures writhing on my dark blue comforter. I couldn’t understand at first, but with great trepidation, looked upward and found hundreds more wending their way down on those ropes of silken threads.

Spiders are insidious creatures. Just last week I opened the trunk of my car to put something in it only to find an even bigger, uglier, more purposeful spider doing somersaults from the trunk’s lid as I raised it. I’m sprouting goosebumps just from the memory of it as I write this. It curled up its multiple legs/tentacles, seemingly independent of each other, and rolled itself into a loose ball before letting itself down a bit on its silver thread (matching the color of my car, I noted, which would have made it harder to see if the trunk interior hadn’t been black). Then it began swinging back and forth.

A nightmare in broad daylight.

Stephen King wrote a lot of his stories based on his childhood nightmares, and spiders prominently figured in at least two of them – It, a novel, and “The Mist,” a short story/novella in Skeleton Crew. If spiders didn’t bother you before, read these and they will now. Have a big can of bug spray (FYI: they make some specifically for spiders) and a roll of paper towels at the ready, too. I never use Kleenex tissues for vanquishing enemy spiders unless I have nothing else, and even then I grab at least 7 or 8 of them so I won’t be able to feel them through the layers of Kleenex.

Some of you might be wondering if I’ve ever seen that stellar film, Arachnophobia. Surely, you jest.

And for the record, I don’t do snakes either.

Star Struck

Robert DeNiro’s in town to visit his mother who is in the Cleveland Clinic (this was several years ago). My daughter’s favorite actor in all the world. She’d do anything to get a glimpse of him. So when she hears he’ll be at the Art Museum to view the Italian exhibit, she calls and asks when.

WHEN?

“Mom, Robert DeNiro’s at the Art Museum? Yeah, the Cleveland Art Museum. Let’s go up there.”

“To Cleveland? Now?” It’s early in the evening but getting dark early, and I’m, you could say, less than enthused about the idea.

“Yes, he’s there right now.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I called and the guy said he just went in.”

She’d called. I’m not surprised.

“Well, it’ll take maybe an hour or two to see everything.”

“If you won’t go with me, I’m going by myself.”

“No, no. Okay, I’ll go with you.”

Within 10 minutes we’re flying along 77 North heading toward our rendezvous, her rendezvous, with Robert DeNiro. We’re thirty minutes out and counting.

Practically jumping out of the car before it even stops moving, we run through the front doors, probably looking like the crazed stalkers we are at that moment.

“Where is he?” she gasps, nearly out of breath, the end result of running from the parking lot coupled with anticipation.

“Who?” The young man taking tickets asks.

“Robert DeNiro. I called earlier and they told me he’d just gone into the gallery to see the exhibit.”

“Oh, yeah. He was only here about 10 minutes. Then he left.”

“Left? He’s gone?” Her disappointment and disbelief are clear, palpable.

Having psyched myself up for this meeting, even if it’s just a glimpse, I’m disappointed, too. But I’m also wondering how he could have spent so little time in this special exhibit of Italian art? He’s Italian; why make the effort then rush through, not taking the time to really see what he’s looking at? To absorb each piece of art and wonder why this subject, why these colors, what is this meant to reflect? Did he go “just for show”? Just because of his Italian heritage? So he could tell his mother he went? Or to give the illusion of a depth of interest that he wanted to project but doesn’t possess?

Laura and I looked at each other. We’d risked speeding tickets and being sideswiped, jettisoning our self-respect and dignity like groupies at a concert – all for a room now devoid of his presence. Gone – that quickly. It was hard to fathom.

And if that weren’t bad enough, we got lost on the way home, of all places on a stretch of E. 55th St. that appeared almost abandoned and rather run-down. I finally pulled into a gas station and asked for help getting to the highway, any highway, just to get out of this part of town.

A man stepped up to the door and asked what the problem was.

“You know you’re in a bad area, don’t you? You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”

Well no, we didn’t know that exactly, but we had noticed some disturbing changes as we put one block after the other behind us. The streets were relatively barren of cars and people. Each abandoned intersection we went through engendered a feeling of being unwilling participants in a Stephen King story where nearly the entire population of a town inexplicably disappears, leaving only a handful of survivors hiding in fear of things both seen and not seen.

The sky was dark, and a deeply eerie feeling settled in like a thick fog, creeping along the sidewalks and obscuring the way. Traffic lights continued to blink red and green but few cars were on the street and even fewer businesses were doing any, their windows boarded up, their doors permanently locked.

We explained our dilemma, and he told us how to get back, leaving us with some cautionary advice: This is not a good area for two women alone to be in, especially at night. Slow down only at intersections, and if there are no other cars, do not stop for red lights. Don’t stop for anything until you get to the highway, and you’ll be all right.

We certainly hadn’t expected that, but this wasn’t the first time we’d done something on the spur of the moment only to laugh at the missteps and problems we created for ourselves by going off the grid and doing something “normal” people don’t do. And we do laugh; we have a great time every time we do the unexpected and have ourselves a real adventure.

There is a lot to be said for the fun and unexpected surprises you can experience if you’re open to being spontaneous. We are always truly present in the moment we are in, even if that means living some of those moments on the edge because that’s so often where real living takes place.

In Case I Get Pulled Over

I took a trip to Cleveland a couple of weeks back, and though it sounds like I travelled to Burma or someplace equally distant, Cleveland, Ohio is only about 30 miles from my house. This trip was a reconnaissance mission.

I don’t do Cleveland unless I have no other alternative. That is to say, I don’t drive in the city itself. Oh, I have on occasion, but I avoid it whenever possible as I would avoid a case of Norovirus. The one-way streets, the heavier than Akron traffic, and traffic patterns that don’t always make sense – my knuckles turn white at the thought of it.

About three weeks ago, Bill said it would help him out if I drove him to Cleveland because he had work to do in three different places, two of which were sorely lacking available parking spots near his destination. And there was no guarantee an empty space in a lot or on the street could be found at the time of his appointments. It was supposed to rain that day, too, making the whole thing more time-consuming and difficult. I, the loving, dutiful, helpful wife of long-standing said yes, I’d help out.

But it was a qualified yes. I wanted a dry run to Cleveland in the middle of a Sunday morning when traffic, and the problems they cause, would be at a minimum. Bill drove so I could take notes. The GPS in the car is great but it doesn’t know everything, like what streets are temporarily blocked off, etc., and I wanted to see the layout for myself instead of watching an arrow or a miniscule car on a map of lines where not every street is identified – and inconvenient detours are definitely not.

Sunday came and I dressed casually, but nicely, though it wasn’t a matter of where I was going. After all, I wouldn’t be getting out of the car once I got there. But you never know when you might be pulled over and told to “Exit the vehicle ma’am,” so what I wore took on some significance in the event something unforeseen occurred.

I imagined detours here, no left turns there, and one-way streets always going in the wrong direction. That might be one paper bag I couldn’t punch my way out of, and poor Bill would cut a sorry figure standing on a corner in the rain, on hold, while I tried to find my way back.

Various scenarios came to mind should I be pulled over for something, say, driving too slowly, though city streets are 25 mph at best. It was conceivable I might be accused of…

  1. Loitering – lingering, seemingly aimlessly, in or about a place. Would an officer of the law believe the story I had to tell about how I happened to be, in his words, loitering. That tale, ridiculous on the face of it, would surely sound like I was lying. Hiding something more evil than even he could imagine. Wearing nice clothes, appearing well-groomed, and wearing an innocent, genial face would aid his belief in the veracity of the tale I was telling.
  2. Suspicious Activity – suspecting I was up to no good and possessed of criminal intent because he’d seen the same car driving around the same area in the same pattern a number of times. Checking for easy places to commit a robbery or, worse, looking for a place to perpetrate an act of terrorism. It’s not as if I’m sitting behind the wheel wearing a mask to obviate identification or obscuring telltale fingerprints with gloves. More than ever, I could see that clothes, and demeanor, matter.
  3. Having a wary look – one that signals I’m hiding something or engaged in illegal activity or its prelude, and trying not to show it. When all the while, the fear that grips me is making a turn that irrevocably changes my route, sending me down some street I have not rehearsed.

It’s all about blending into your surroundings, so I’m making an effort to look normal and respectable and driving Bill’s Acura, a subdued but respectable sort of car. Not a rent-a-wreck but not a flashy, statement-making Bentley either. If you don’t make an effort to become one with the tapestry, you could easily end up like the man from the United Arab Emirates who came to the Cleveland Clinic because he’d had a stroke and found himself wrestled to the ground and cuffed, whereupon he suffered a second stroke. And it happened because he didn’t think about what he was wearing, choosing on that day the traditional long Arab robe and headdress. The result was a fearful hotel receptionist calling a relative to express her fear and her relative calling authorities.

Welcome to America and the new world we live in – and they say we don’t profile here.

Yes, I could be pulled over. I could be detained, too, should something unplanned happen. Therefore, I don’t want to look suspicious. I don’t want to look slovenly. I don’t want to look like I don’t care what others think. And I don’t want to look nervous, even when I am. Dress and attitude count, and they count big time, whether that’s politically correct to say or not.

Here’s what I discovered in my practice runs. The next street after 9th Street in downtown Cleveland is 12th Street, and I can’t make a left between them. If we hadn’t come for a dry-run (that turned into three), I might still be searching for 10th and 11th. In addition, I learned that while the Courthouse run would be relatively easy, the location on Prospect would not. I’d have to be super-vigilant in that area.

D-Day. A last-minute addition, the Cuyahoga County Administrative Office on E. 9th Street. was now our first destination. Easy-peasy. An empty parking space opened up on the street less than a block from the building, and we surfed right on in. Twenty minutes later, we were on our way again. After dropping Bill at his second stop, the courthouse, I only drove my designated route once before I found a parallel parking space, a nice roomy one, in front of the DoubleTree Hotel on Lakeside Drive. I put in several quarters and waited for my summons, Bill’s call, relieved I didn’t have to drive the path he’d outlined on Sunday an undetermined number of times.

Feeling more comfortable and, dare I say, braver, I later parallel parked the car on Prospect when a space, considerably less facile in which to maneuver, opened up after my second go-round. But once I put some change in the meter, I got out to investigate my surroundings, venturing into Tower City (a shadow of its former self) before wandering by the Hard Rock Café, the J.A.C.K. Casino, the Hyde Park Grill, and Morton’s Steakhouse. I know their proximity signals they’re all in one tiny corner of the city. So what? How many of you knew that before I told you? I take solace in already knowing how to get to Playhouse Square, to Channel 8’s Studios (unless they’ve moved since way back then), and the Cleveland Art Museum. Now I can add these places to that list, though knowing is not exactly doing.

I can get there by myself – but only if I have to.

 

 

A Need to Know

Bill is a fixer. If you’ve got a problem, and someone always does, it seems, he asks what it is and extracts every bit of information about it that he can. Why? Because without the details, without sufficient information, he can’t identify the core of the problem in order to solve it.

He exercises his life-long habit of probing and dissecting every example, every word, every step of the process, every person involved until he gets sufficient information to isolate the crux of the matter. Bill wants to know, even if he deems it something that can’t be fixed, because at least then he’ll have reached the point where no more can be done. He is only satisfied when he can offer advice, solve it himself, or issue an edict saying nothing more will make a difference or change anything. That’s the point where it becomes something one must live with or forget about.

Knowing all the facts is key to solving any problem. If something has stopped working, why? Isolate the problem. Fix it. Done.

It’s the investigator coming out in him, grilling the witness to the point of frustration, and if lucky, confession. Bill has always been after the truth. Not just part of the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but. In some small way I can relate to the criminals he caught and hauled into the interrogation room. I almost feel sorry for them, though my empathy is short-lived.

Still, it’s not enough for him to know and understand. He has to fix it, too.

We stopped at Laura’s the other day, and Bill got roped into “fixing” the wasp/hornet nest (as in execute the little buggers and trash their nest), checking out a problem with the light over the garage door, and, as an added bonus, hammering the axle, with non-removable wheels, back into the grooves underneath the bottom of her garbage can. It sounded simple enough.

Laura had reluctantly called her special SWAT team to active duty when she tried to resolve these issues on her own but, due to extenuating circumstances, her efforts were to no avail. Now that Bill was on the scene, there were the requisite questions concerning how these things had become problems. If you recall, this is the man who, if you ask what time it is, tells you how the clock works first so you can better appreciate the information you’re given. But once she’d satisfied Bill’s need to know, he willingly offered up his time and muscle.

Bill wanted to know how the wheels had come off in the first place because it would have taken no small effort to separate the axle from the groove in which it had been previously seated. Laura said the trash collectors had thrown (not “tossed”) her can to the ground last week, knocking the wheels off, then feigning ignorance about how it had happened when she called to complain about their disregard of her property, as it was not the company’s can. It had to have been thrown hard onto a hard surface – not tossed onto the grass as they claimed. Despite Laura’s eye-witness account, no one took responsibility, a disturbing condition in our society in these days of “Not me. Not my fault.” Nothing is anyone’s fault – but I digress. That’s another topic for another time.

Whether at home or at work, it’s all the same – Bill is unable to turn off his “investigative mode” button. It has taken me years to accept that this will never change, so it is I who must adjust. And Laura, and Jeff, and Kearsti, and Rick, and Dawn, too.

What we can count on is that when Bill takes on a job, he sees to every detail, precise and unrelenting when something’s got to be done right. If you can fix things, people will stop crying. Stop complaining. Stop asking for someone to do something.

There are a lot of men like Bill. They feel they have to fix any and all problems that arise. It’s ingrained, especially with men of his generation, and his is perhaps the last generation that may consistently think this way.

And there’s another thing that can still be said about a lot of men, too. If the problem concerns a personal issue, an emotionally-charged issue, or a matter-of-the-heart issue – we are standing on much shakier ground. We’re talking possible earthquakes here. It’s easy enough to fix a poorly-running car or replace the wiring for a light socket but not so easy to mend a broken heart, an injury that can’t be seen as easily or in the same way as the rotten board in a picnic table. We must mind the words we choose, monitor body language (the other person’s and our own), and take care with the tone of our voices (next to impossible if we’re communicating via text or email).

It requires knowing the difference between objective and subjective assessment. Sometimes the greatest help comes not with the use of a wrench or a hammer but an arm placed gently, and without comment, around one’s shoulder – sans advice.

Bill squeezed the life out of every question that lingered in his mind until he was satisfied he’d gotten all the answers he needed and that they were satisfactory, i.e. complete, either sating his curiosity or validating his instincts. Preferably both. Then he proceeded to explain what he thought should be done.

As we were leaving Laura’s, she threw her arms around Bill and thanked him for spending part of his Father’s Day fixing her problems. Oh, if only all our problems could be resolved that easily.

We don’t know what problems will arise next, nor to which category of problems they will belong, but Bill will be there to help regardless.

Mr. Bill is a fixer. And we can count on him to do just that – fix things or die trying.

 

Warning! Be On the Lookout…

I had my first flasher today – oops, poor word choice, let me rephrase that – I witnessed my first flasher today at the pool. I’d been swimming for an hour when I picked up a kickboard to work just my legs; this means my face was above water instead of buried in it, and I was looking around trying to hang on to an idea I had for a piece I was currently writing about my father. I looked toward one of the two clocks and saw a man sauntering toward the Jacuzzi in a leisurely way. I paid no attention at first, but it struck me as having an uncovered kind of look. That’s when I noticed it was the back of his rear end in all its glory.

No. That couldn’t be. I didn’t see what I thought I saw. A trick of the light. Water in my eyes. Blurred goggles. Surely that wasn’t bare skin. Yet there he was, or rather, it was, and he was simply too old for playing games like that. It wasn’t a bad looking tush but nothing to write home about either.

Surely he was wearing something; maybe it was just a nude color and my cursory glimpse wasn’t fairly assessing his, uh, attributes. I took a quick look a second time to be sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me.

Second Viewing Results: There was no mistake. His towel was neatly folded in one hand that swung back and forth with each step he took. Maybe he thought he was taking a walk in the park and had forgotten to get dressed. The clothes were all laid out on his bed but he’d gone from the bathroom directly to the car instead and wound up here by mistake. Maybe it was karma. Perhaps he envisioned he was in his own pool, the one surrounded by the privacy fence in his backyard.

Maybe he was absentminded. Senile even. Or your average pervert who gets his jollies flashing both men and women in a pool at the gym.

The last person I’d seen in the Jacuzzi, which is where I’d initially intended to go after my swim, had left a little while ago and it was empty the last time I looked. I noticed the dial had been set back to zero to stop the jets.

But when I got out of the water, there was a man with his back against the Jacuzzi’s wall, the jets running. I could only assume it was Flasher, sitting in the hot water nice as you please – as naked as the day he was born. His towel was lying, still neatly folded, about six feet away near the steps where he’d entered.

I opted for the therapy pool instead. dismissing the steam room entirely at that point – its densely foggy atmosphere isn’t always conducive to seeing, clearly, who else might be in there or in what state of dress, or undress, that person might be at the time. Too risky. And you’re supposed to sit on a towel when you’re in there – I couldn’t even count on this guy doing that much.

When I left the warmth of the therapy pool, the man was still sitting in the hot, bubbling water. Alone. No surprise there, but I couldn’t really identify him as Flasher because I’d never seen his face.

Prosecutor to Defendant: “Stand up and turn around sir. Now drop your drawers please.

Prosecutor turns to witness under oath: “Can you identify this rear-end as the one you saw Ma’am?

Witness to Prosecutor, Judge, and Jury: “Yes it is. I’d recognize that backside anywhere.”

Might it come to this? What if too much time passed, and in my memory other backsides got mixed up with this one I was faced with now? Suppose I fingered the wrong perp’s tush?

Would the wrongfully accused sue me for defamation of character or something akin to that? Would I have to pay for plastic surgery so his bottom could not be recognized as criminal booty in the future?

Going into the locker room, I ran into a friend I see all the time standing at the mirror. “Tell me something,” I said. “Do they have some kind of policy regarding nudity being allowed in the pool? I don’t recall anything about it, but some guy is walking around the pool area wearing nothing but thinning hairs and a few moles on his backside. No swimsuit. No towel, even. She scrunched her face as if to say “eeuuww.”

“I thought not,” I said, heading for the front desk, though I was dripping wet myself – and yes, I was still wearing my bathing suit, flip flops, and had a towel wrapped around me, too.

The woman I spoke to made her way to the pool and when she came back, said she couldn’t find him. I felt like my imagination was playing tricks on me. Where could he have gone? He wouldn’t have been hard to miss unless he’d slipped into something more appropriate while sitting in the Jacuzzi – just in case word had gotten out. Pun intended. No one would have taken notice at all if he’d had something on. Perhaps he’d expected a more enthusiastic response when he strolled by the pool slowly enough for a comprehensive viewing but, not getting it, was weighing his options as he sat in the hot water.

I wonder: Did he wear his towel on the way back to the locker room or try once more, sans towel, to attract the attention from the swimmers that he didn’t get on his first pass?

The woman came back through a little while later saying she was going to check once more, and this time when she returned, she said I wasn’t the only one who’d seen him in his entirety. There were at least five of us present at the time.

He shouldn’t be hard to isolate, given we all have barcoded IDs we run across a scanner that brings up our photos, names, and the date and time we enter the facility. At the very least, I expect an email sent to all our members saying something like “This is a reminder that appropriate attire is required in the pool area at all times.” Or, maybe they’ll put out an APB (All Points Bulletin) to “Be On The Lookout For…”

 

Free To Be You and Me

As we are living in the world where the constraints placed on us by the past are loosening and falling away, we are becoming a freer you and me than ever before.

One notable portion of this genesis was Marlo Thomas’s Free To Be You and Me promoting the idea of a post-1960s gender neutrality, with its emphasis on individuality, tolerance, and being comfortable with who we are. Its main message being we are all capable of great things, and one’s gender should not be a factor in achieving those things. There was a time, and not all that long ago, that we weren’t free to be whatever we wanted. No. Not an option. Yet while we have moved forward, we’ve still got “a ways to go.”

Just this morning on Meet the Press – March 20, 2016 there was a discussion about Hillary Clinton’s orating skills. She’s accused of not smiling, having an “angry-looking” face, sounding harsh and loud, and being “pushy” when she speaks. I’m no fan of Hillary but does this seem like a rejection of gender stereotypes to you? I haven’t heard anyone invoking similar kinds of stereotypes about the male rhetoric in the current bid for the presidency. Despite the fact that demerits have been earned by Marco Rubio for his child-like looks, Ted Cruz for his scary, weird, almost unnatural face, and Donald Trump for his outlandish comb-over and unvarnished hatred for just about everyone and everything not “Trumpian,” these are not gender stereotypes. Low blows, certainly, however.

Free to be You and Me is about changing long-standing perceptions at the outset, enabling children to grow up thinking differently right from the start.

And what about the elderly? Will that change the existing stereotypes of them, too? One doesn’t hear much rhetoric about this demographic group that has seemingly outlived its usefulness, unless the topic has to do with the latest innovations in nursing home technologies. There was a time when the elderly were respected as contributing members of both the family and the community. Their wise counsel was sought and appreciated. They were cared for at home by family. Not warehoused until they died – often alone, ignored, with few if any visitors, except for the occasional over-worked social worker briefly checking in before moving on to someone else.

That particular portrait of the elderly is beginning to change, but far too many are still treated like children, thought unable to handle their own affairs, and viewed as dependent. They often get dismissed, are judged differently and under-valued accordingly, and assumed to be too old to be useful. And while some of them might be those things, many are quite capable of contributing to on-going conversations that require more than a modicum of intelligence.

One so often hears, particularly in restaurants,  “terms of endearment” usually reserved for children, directed at the elderly patron. What’ll you have dear? Thanks sweetie. Or Hi honey, and sometimes an aside to a fellow server:  “Isn’t she cute.” To talk that way to an adult is neither cute nor endearing. Rather, it is both demeaning and insulting, even if it’s not intended that way.

This is an issue that is fast-becoming more important as our aging population continues to outpace those rising in the ranks behind it.

The elderly are like any other group of individuals for whom identification – from birth announcements to obituaries – is age-based. And let’s not forget that age is but “a number” – not sum and substance of what the individual knows, thinks, says, or can or can’t do. It’s a number – it does not define who someone is.

At 75 my grandmother was riding her bicycle – a coaster-brake bike, no less – all over Barberton. A woman ahead of her time in many ways.

Redefining our approach to this issue may be our only saving grace. And how we treat the elderly in our own families, in our neighborhoods, and in every other aspect of our lives as we encounter them may well determine what kind of care and consideration we are accorded when we reach that numerical era ourselves.

Dealing with the elderly can be frustrating, but so is dealing with unruly teenagers or smart-mouthed 20-somethings who, as we are all aware, know everything. Only with age do we begin to absorb the lessons others have to teach us because we tend to become more open to listening later in life. At least we used to be. No one seems to be listening to anyone anymore (a topic I’ve dealt with before), and in this regard, the elderly often have no recourse but to capitulate. To accept their fate.

Grandma never accepted “the inevitable.” If she wanted something, she had to fight for it. And fight for it she would.

Why should older people be treated differently just because they are older? White hair, wrinkles and hobbled postures need not be synonymous with a wizened brain, physical incapacity, or mental deterioration. We all want to be who we want to be, not conform to the preconceived notions of others.

Celebrate who we are. Celebrate all we can be in every hour given us. Only then will “you and me be free to be you and me” – whatever our ages.

Offerings

Against the dusky blue backdrop a hawk spreads its wings and glides in sweeping figure-eights back and forth across the sky at the onset of twilight. The figure-eights revolve as if gliding along an unseen disk moving slowly in a circular pattern like the top of the CN Tower in Toronto or the Space Needle in Seattle. It’s a pattern so smooth – in perpetual motion like a gyroscope.

The stars my father loved to look at, telling me about the stars, the planets. How they moved about. What they depicted. How far away they were and what they might signify. They spoke to him, drew him into discussions about astronomy, life, death. Where do we go? What happens after?

A child’s smile. Some children don’t, and you are grateful yours do. So sad for the others, it sometimes makes you cry. You cry for happiness when yours smile, when they laugh, when they comfortably lean into your body as you tell them a story, asking questions, thinking of the characters in the stories as real people. Like them: worried sometimes, fearful, brave, happy, sad. We are all the same. None of us alone.

A pile of clothes covers the bed. You’ve not worn them in forever and are giving them to someone you don’t even know who needs them. They will not be required to pay anything and the gift will be anonymous. You have washed and folded them neatly because it’s important and the doing of this will make the recipient(s) feel the importance you recognize they have to someone else. They will not be invisible, not to someone, not to you.

A grandchild who feels wanted, whose life is cherished. A child who wants nothing more than to be wrapped in the comfort of your arms to watch television, to be read to, to be sung to, to be rocked to sleep in safety. To be acknowledged in any way as being loved and cared about. Too many are important to no one.

An unusual bouquet of brittle, dead leaves that have lost their beautiful autumn colors because they were picked off the ground just before snow began to fall. You are careful to arrange them in a small vase so they don’t crumble to bits too soon. Your little one knows you love these pretty things, even if he’s not as discerning about which leaves it is you love. Here, he says, I picked these for you, Mommy. And you love them, love him, because he did.

An adult child who has blossomed into the most beautiful flower. Who has overcome the most difficult obstacles set in her path at almost every turn. She has survived, more than survived. She has opened her petals in the warm face of the sun. Bright, beautiful colors reflect the light within her. She shines though she thinks herself a useless weed with nothing to offer the lovely, fragrant garden that surrounds her.

A lost love, remembered and forever cherished for the ways in which his love helped you find your true self. With gifts of kindness, tenderness, intensity, and passion that knew who you were before you did.

A friend who loves you as you are. Imperfect. Flawed. You can tell her anything. Every terrible thing you’ve ever thought, or done, and she will love you the same tomorrow as she does today. She will care. She will listen. She will be there when you need her, drop everything to listen, to help. To show you she cares. And you will do the same for her.

Standing at the top of a snow-capped mountain in the Alps, awestruck by the stark, quiet beauty of the surrounding landscape, the crisp air, the height from which everything below you is there yet can’t be discerned because you are thousands of feet above it all.

Walking along the lowest point of Death Valley, its unrelenting heat radiating in ephemeral waves off the sand dunes, the roads, the vistas, silent save for wind gusts that stir the sand and heat under a blistering sun. Unprotected skin burns in no time at all. You thirst. You can barely breathe in this insufferable clime. So beautiful it takes your breath away. You stand there to feel it, to think about it. You don’t want to leave. You want to return in the spring when it comes alive with desert blossoms.

Guaranasia, Brazil. A place of love and laughter, of friendships both old and new made in several different languages, two of which you can communicate. The others you manage with hand gestures. So much fun. New experiences, new foods, altered landscapes. Parrots in the wild. Ant hills the size of small huts. Friendly, welcoming people in the town of a very close friend who is getting married that weekend. Different from any other place and wonderful in the best of ways. A place, and people, forever remembered.

Driving alongside the Rhine. Ancient castles, long past the point of keeping hoards of inhospitable, plundering armies at bay, dot mountaintops along the river’s edge. Ancient towns with ancient histories. So much to be learned from yesterday. And today.

Truly beautiful things are not to be hoped for in the dawn of a new year but rather in things given little if any thought in the course of a busy day. A tape recording thought lost. A beloved grandmother’s voice singing a Slovenian lullaby to her great-grandchildren. Her soft, lilting voice a comfort, a joy. Sorely missed, even after 41 years.

Slow down. Take time. Remove those earplugs from your ears and stop talking, if only for a while. Allow quiet moments into your life. Moments to recognize, to think, to reflect. To relish what the smallest things have to offer.