Monday, April 30, 2012

Notes from the Home VI

   I’ve lost my rookie status at Covenant Woods. The “Welcome the New Residents” bulletin board, with its pictures of the ten newest residents, is across the hall from the mailboxes. When I went for my mail Saturday, my mug, which had graced that board since March 26, was gone. I guess I am now an old timer at the old-folks home – excuse me, in the retirement community. I better watch what I say. A lot of the old folks here are old enough to be my parents and a darn sight more spry than I am. But, as long as I’m in my electric wheelchair, I can beat any of them in a foot race. 
   It was two youthful miscreants, however, who enlivened last week’s happy hour. Every Friday afternoon, Covenant Woods serves the residents wine, beer and munchies. William and Richie, the two youngest residents, according to Richie, had been working on getting happy long before the appointed hour. Richie, stumbling in, joined us in the library toward the end of the hour and reached for a bottle of wine. But Penelope, the activities director, swooped down and snatched it away.  She offered him a Sprite. After some not always polite discussion, Richie was sent to his room.
   Apparently William wasn’t noticeably drunk at the start of happy hour – I got there halfway through – but he was getting obnoxious when it ended. Al, a retired Army colonel in his nineties, told William, “You’re making a damn fool of yourself.” And William went on making a fool of himself, even after he and everyone else had adjourned to the dining room for dinner, where Penelope played bouncer for a second time.
   Saturday evening, Al didn’t tell me that I’m a damn fool, but he did tell me to be careful. I was out taking my evening tour of the grounds, and as is my wont, I went down the entry road to the main road, which is a busy four-lane affair. Just as I was turning around, Al came by in his car. “You shouldn’t come down here, and don’t even think about crossing the street,” he said. And he asked if I had a cell phone on me – I did – in case I needed help. Sunday morning, he came into the library as I was availing myself of the Wi-Fi and said several residents over the years had wandered out on to the road. He said he once came upon a resident in a wheelchair crossing the road who had no idea where she was. Now it scares him whenever he sees a resident, whether walking or in a wheelchair, near the road.
   A long hallway connects Building B, where I live, to the main building that houses the offices, dining room, the activity room, the library, and a few other things. There are lots of windows along the way; it is not a dark and dreary place. But the hall isn’t wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass, which results in those of us in them and those who use walkers spending time waving each other on and saying, “No, no, you go first.”
   Music is piped into the hallway. On my first trip down the hall, I assumed it came from Sirius or some elevator music supplier. But it wasn’t long before I came to the conclusion that there must be a pile of CDs stashed somewhere. I’m also convinced the person who selects the music changes weekly. The award for the programmer with the most eclectic taste goes to the person who was running the show my first week here. It seemed that each trip up or down the hallway that week was accompanied by either Patsy Kline singing “Walking After Midnight,” or a classical orchestra playing  J.S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.”
   I don’t know the words to many country standards, but I am familiar with “Walking after Midnight.” Anna was an Ash/Craft client I worked with for a few months in the early nineties. She was a short woman, a little on the pudgy side, nervous when she was in groups, and she had an accent right out of a West Virginia holler. But, oh, could the lady sing, and she knew a huge number of country songs. Anna was always anxious to get home, but she was scared to venture out into the hallways when they were filled with other clients rushing to the buses, and she would ask me to walk with her. As we made our way to her bus, she would look up to me with her big blue eyes and a smile that seemed to say,” Oh, Tom, you’re my hero,” and sing “Walking after Midnight”.
   Back in the halls of Covenant Woods, we listened to soft, instrumental versions of “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” for a week. Last week was big band week: mostly Glenn Miller, and mostly “Moonlight Serenade” and “In the Mood,” another song that takes me back to the days when I was out and about and an intrepid sports reporter for the Star Beacon. One Saturday I covering a basketball game at Pymatuning Valley High School, and PV Jazz, a group far superior to your average high school pep band, was entertaining the crowd between the JV and varsity games. One of their selections was “In the Mood,” and across the way from me, two white-haired ladies clapped and swayed to the music just as they must have when they were young and the song was new.
   It’s funny how a song can take you back to a place. On Myrna Drive in Bethel Park, there was an organ in our living, and Mom, a very talented organist, played it for several hours every night. Dad made frequent stops at Volkwein’s music store on his way home from work to get sheet music for the old standards and the non-rock-and-roll hits of the day: songs such as “Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Mack the Knife,” “I Left my Heart in San Francisco,” “Hey Look Me Over,” and the like.
   One time during my teenage years, I spent several nights on the couch reading Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln was Shot, while mom played and Dad sat in the rocking chair and read the paper. Mom played a particular song a lot those nights. I no longer remember what it was, but for several years afterward, every time I heard that tune, either when Mom played it or on the radio, I was back in Ford’s Theater.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Notes from the Home V

It’s starting to warm up here. I looked at’s  ten-day forecast yesterday, and the prognosticators said the highs will be close to or in the nineties for the next week. At least for today, Friday, they seem to be right. When I got up this morning about five o’clock, the thermostat said it was seventy-four in the room, and I opened the sliding door to let in the cool air. After two hours with the door open, the temperature in the room had risen to seventy-six.
   That is quite a change from Monday and Tuesday. After dinner Monday, I set out in the buggy to make to at least two laps around the Covenant Woods’ grounds. My goal was to see the wheelchair’s odometer reach eight hundred miles. If two laps didn’t do it, I was prepared to keep circling the place until it read 8-0-0. Prepared, that is, until I got outside, where I discovered that despite the abundant sunshine, it was not an evening for shorts and a T-shirt. I made one quick lap before hustling back inside, the odometer only slightly closer to the magic number. I don’t know if it was any warmer Tuesday, but I was better prepared, sporting jeans and a sweatshirt. After two laps that evening, I began my quest for nine hundred miles.
   Russ didn’t have to go to work until four, Tuesday, and he was kind enough to cart the old man around in the morning. We had lunch with Karen and Cecil, one of her colleagues, in a little restaurant downtown. It’s in a renovated building that must date from the 19th Century. We parked a block or two away, and the walk along the tree-lined sidewalk to the restaurant was very pleasant. While there were no signs of it that day, there must be some construction going on in the area, because in the middle of the block, next to the large red-brick building, in the shade of the trees, was a port-a-potty.
   Inside the restaurant, there was lots of wood: wooden floors, wooden tables, wooden chairs and wooden counters. And you could watch the pedestrians and the cars through large picture windows. It wasn’t ornate or anything, but it had enough ambiance that I thought it might be a little pricey. But the prices were reasonable and the food was good; an excellent combination.
   Back in Ashtabula County, the writing class convenes every Thursday morning at the Kingsville Public Library. I am indebted to Mary, who got me involved with it in the spring of 2009, when it met at the Conneaut Community Center for the Arts. I miss sitting around the table with Mary, Katie, Chuck, Jeannie, Gitta, Elaine, and Suzanne, our esteemed leader. And I think often of Celia, who has passed away, Joyce and Nancy, who have moved, and the others who dropped in from time to time. It was a most pleasant coincidence yesterday – Thursday – when I found a manila envelope from Suzanne in my mailbox. Inside, were marked up copies of a few things I’d e-mailed to her, and the program for the reading the group gave last Friday evening. And there was a clipping from the Star Beacon which said, “The reading will be dedicated to Tom Harris,” a very touching, but certainly undeserved honor. Between that, the ego-building lies Suzanne scribbled on the things I’d sent her, and her suggestion that I check out about the possibility of putting a book together, I suppose I’ll have to dedicate myself to being a more dedicated writer.
   Yesterday afternoon, there was a little get together to recognize those of us with April birthdays. Shirley, the receptionist, saw me heading into the dining room for the festivities and came after me to present the bill for the May rent. That blow was softened ever so slightly a few minutes later, when each of the birthday folks received a five dollar WalMart gift card.
   The entertainment was provided by Van Barnett. In the morning, Penelope, the activities director, announced over the intercom that Mr. Barnett sings just like Frank Sinatra. She must have been confused, because instead of Ol’ Blue Eyes, Van sounded much more like Ol’ Swivel Hips, and his show included several songs Elvis made famous. The highlight, for me anyway, was “Hey Good Looking.” The reason I enjoyed it so much was because I was sitting next to Evelyn, who is either ninety-one or ninety-two, depending on when you talk to her, and she enjoyed it much, much more. Swaying and clapping her hands to the beat, she joined right in singing, “Hey, hey, good looking, whatcha got cooking? Hows about cooking something up for me.” Two hours later, I talked to her for a moment at dinner, and she couldn’t remember having been to the party and was angry that no one had told her about it.
   Not wishing to be overdressed for the affair, I wore my Ashtabula Icons T-shirt.  Ashtabula Icons is the name of the multiple sclerosis support group that meets monthly at KSU-Ashtabula. As I made my way back to my room, a man headed the other way looked at the shirt and said, “Ashtabula!” He was in a hurry and didn’t stop to talk; he kept going right out the door. But he said “Ashtabula” as if he is familiar with the place, and he didn’t pronounce it “ash-TAB-ula.”
   The number of people who are aware of Ashtabula often surprises me. When Nancy and I went to Boston last summer, a gentleman on the train told us he was living in California and had lived in Indonesia for several years. When he asked where we were from, we hurried to explain where Ashtabula is in relation to Cleveland. But, he cut us off. “I’m familiar with Ashtabula,” he said. He had retired from General Electric and had made several visits to the Conneaut plant over the years.
   A few days later, we went to hear the Boston Pops. The couple at the table next to us ordered what they thought was a small bottle of wine. It wasn’t a small bottle, and they shared the wine with Nancy and me. After the concert, we talked for a few minutes, thanking them and unsuccessfully trying to give them money for the wine. They too were from California, and they weren’t at all mystified when we said we were from Ashtabula. The man had been a musician in his younger days, and one of his friends at the time was a trumpeter from Ashtabula.
   Bethany sent some more video clips of Hayden this week. It is a long, long way from rolling around on the floor with him and cuddling him and trying to get him to say “Grandpa,” but it’s the next best thing. And I’m eternally grateful that Beth and Ken take the time to make and send them, and for the modern technology that makes it all possible.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Morning in May

If I were to tell you
Of a Saturday morning in May,
Of lying in bed as the sun came up
And brightened the room;

If I were to tell you
Of the fluttering curtains,
Of the cool air flooding in
And how I curled up beneath the blankets to stay warm;
Of the birds, some with sweet songs, others harsh,
Of the thump of the newspaper tossed against the door
And the sound of a train approaching a distant crossing;
Of my thoughts in that sleepy haze,
Of my confidence and anticipation
As I compiled a to-do list in my mind;

If I were to tell you
Of the faded and frayed blue jeans,
Of the torn, paint-splotched sweatshirt
And the battered tennis shoes I put on;
Of standing before the mirror,
And thinking my clothes had seen better days
And knowing those days had never been better than this;
Of my breakfast
Of shredded wheat and toast with strawberry preserves,
And how much better it tasted than it did the day before;

If I were to tell you
Of the coffee that morning,
Of its savory zing,
And how I warmed my hands on the mug;
Of going outside,
Of wondering about the fellow who wrote of the day
And rejoicing and being glad in it;

If I were to tell you
Of that fellow waking on a morning like this,
Of his feelings of awe and inspiration
And how they moved him to write about the day;

If I were to tell you,
Would you remember waking up
That Saturday morning in May?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Crabby Computer

My pharmacy benefits manager’s computer called this afternoon. My pharmacy benefits manager’s computer is a woman; I can tell by her voice. She is a very snooty woman. She has the demeanor of an ill-tempered third grade teacher. She is all business, forever serious, brooks no dissent, never smiles and is hard of hearing.
   “What is your birthday?” she asks. “For instance, say ‘June 15, 1963.’”
   Speaking slowly, clearly and at an appropriate level, I tell her birthday.
   “I did not understand you,” she says. “Tell me your birthday. For instance, say, ‘June 15, 1963,’”
   I try again, this time speaking more slowly, more distinctly and more in the tone of an extraordinarily prim and priggish teacher upbraiding a rambunctious eight-year old.
   “I did not understand you,” she says, and thoroughly exasperated, her jaw clenched and her lips barely moving, she dismisses me with curt “Good bye.”
   I wonder why the computer has this attitude. It could be she works long hours and never gets a day off. I don’t know that for a fact, we don’t talk often, and she never calls just to chat, to see how I’m doing or to ask about the weather. But when she does call, it can be any day of the week, and it can be at any time from early morning to well into the evening. She must work twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week. That would sour anyone’s disposition.
   But she is a machine. She is supposed to be able to handle it. Sometimes I think her problem is that no one listens to her. That seems to be a common problem among women. And in her case, I don’t think anyone does. My prescriptions always arrive a week after she hangs up on me. Her frustration must be overwhelming, as she knocks on the door of Mr. Mainframe, the department supervisor.
   “What is it this time, Sylvia?” Mainframe says, looking up from a folder he’s been studying.
   “Harris? Isn’t he that nice guy from Ashtabula?”
   “He certainly is not a nice guy, Mr. Mainframe,” Sylvia says. “His diction is terrible, and he got snippy with me when I asked him for his birthday a second time today.”
   “Who got snippy?”
   “Harris did, sir. And I don’t like you hinting that I might have been snippy. Yes, I am a no-nonsense person, Mr. Mainframe, but I am never, ever snippy. Never.”
   “Did Harris give you his birthday?”
   “Yes, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. He must have had a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies. He carries around a jar of them just so he can stuff them in his mouth the moment I call. I know he does.”
   “What do you suggest, Sylvia?”
   “We should refuse to send Harris his prescription until he calls back to apologize and repeats his birthday one hundred times.”
   “I’ll have to think about that,” Mainframe says as he picks up the phone. “Henderson, make sure Harris’ prescription goes out today.”
   “Mr. Mainframe, what are you doing?”
   “I thought about for a second, Sylvia, and I decided we ought to send it.”
   “Mr. Mainframe, I’m appalled. I’m on the phone all day long, talking with people who are disrespectful of me and refuse to speak distinctly. Believe me, Harris won’t do a thing about his slovenly speaking habits if there aren’t consequences. People like him are lazy; they have no ambition and they have no concern for others. If you send Harris his prescription, he’ll have a mouthful of cookies the next time I call, and the time after that, and the time after that. It’s easy for you to sit there with that silly smile on your face – what are you smiling about? – I’m the only one around here who does any work ,” Sylvia says, doing a snappy about face and slamming Mr. Mainframe’s door.
   Or maybe the problem is her love life. Maybe she likes that guy computer in accounting. Maybe they went out a few times, but then he stopped calling and coming around. Maybe Sylvia heard through the grapevine that he’s been seen with a sexy little computer who works for an adult website.
   And sometimes I wonder if Sylvia was programmed in India. They say India is awash in computer programmers. Perhaps they were able to program her to speak perfect haughty, rigid, frustrated, schoolmarm English. But while she was being programmed, all she heard was English spoken with a Mumbai accent, and she can’t understand me any better than I can understand the guy at the computer company’s 800 number.
   But when she called today, she was so pleasant. She wasn’t snippy, and she didn’t ask me to repeat a thing. She was a different person – computer, whatever. She closed our conversation by saying, “You’re order will be shipped in three to five business days. There is nothing else you need to do. Good bye.” And there wasn’t a trace of snootiness. It was a good bye that seemed to say, “It’s so nice talking to you, but I have to get back to work. I hope we have a chance to talk again soon.”
   Why the sudden change? Did Mr. Mainframe send her to crabby control classes? Did the computer in accounting buy her flowers and ask her out? Is she more comfortable hearing American English these days?
   Those things are possible, of course, but I don’t think they explain Sylvia’s metamorphosis. I think my new phone number and address have thrown her off her game. She thinks I’m a different Tom Harris; a polite, thoughtful and respectful Tom Harris; a Tom Harris with flawless diction. Alas, I won’t see the look on her face when she discovers the truth. But I will hear it in her voice.
   Oh, will I hear it in her voice.

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

According to an article on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's website, a person with MS is up to three times more likely to exper...