Rose: ‘You live here, in an old folks home?
Maggie: It’s a retirement community for active seniors.’
“In Her Shoes”
There were plenty of empty seats on my American Airlines direct flight to Palm Springs – hopefully not cause for ending nonstop service, as is the case between May and October. I dropped my boarding pass going through the TSA rigmarole, but someone alerted me. It was raining in Palm Springs, a rare event indeed. An Avis representative outfitted me in a Chevy Cruz whose headlights came on automatically at night, unlike previous Toyota and Mazda rentals. On the second day, however, a dashboard indicator warned of low tire pressure, so I took it back to the airport. Instead of checking things out, Avis simply gave me a Corolla with a device that showed what was behind me when I was in reverse gear.
At Mirage Inn assisted living facility I found Midge now wheelchair-bound, except for in her apartment. She fell a few days earlier in the bathroom, leaving discoloration near her left eye and a nasty cut on the arm. Nonetheless, she was in decent spirits except for complaining about being a “drudge.” Her gnarled hands made writing difficult, so I addressed 50 Christmas cards during my four-day stay. One was for Donna Chandler, now an octogenarian but a sultry, sexy brunette when she babysat me. I helped Midge get rid of piles of junk mail, including rightwing, anti-Obama appeals for money. One charity sent her a check for five dollars as a ploy for a larger donation. It reminded me of gambling casinos mailing out checks that could only be cashed on the boats. Midge and I only went out to eat once, but the institutional food was palatable – especially my BLT on toast at lunch and pork loin dinner. Midge finished off her meals with a chocolate chip cookie while I opted for a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.
Afternoons at Mirage Inn feature bingo with very large boards and Wii bowling. In Midge’s apartment is a trophy she won a few years ago, but she no longer Wii competes. She usually has a glass of wine during Happy Hour, however, with centenarian Shirley; several people told me how much they like her. She rarely wears hearing aids, however, so conversation is limited. She is also too vain to wear diapers that might reduce the spills in the bathroom, which is poorly designed, with towel racks far from the sink and no carpeting save for a couple throw rugs. Old age is not for the timid. When I started taking a diuretic, I refused to wear a diaper on trips and had several close calls and near disasters.
While Midge’s short-term memory is poor, but she recalls past events vividly when we looked at old photos. I learned she was named for Aunt Mamie Ackerman, whose real name was Mary Ann. Aunt Mamie paid for her college expenses and, after she no longer drove, gave her and Vic a car a Buick with no back seat but enough rear deck space for two kids to fit during trips to Easton (PA) from Fort Washington to see great grandmother Grace Frace and her daughter Ida. Aunt Ida came to live with us after Grace died at age 98 and subscribed to the Easton Express for the obits. Midge reminded me that I called her Idaho Potato Patch, and we reminisced about her baking crumb pie and sticky buns on Saturdays. Her mortal enemy was Midge’s father, Charles Elwood Metzger, who went by the name of Elwood, and visited most Sundays (I’d pick him up in Chesnut Hill at the south end of Bethlehem Pike). Midge recalled that “grandpa” was upset I wasn’t named Elwood, a name I like but not as much as James.
Shadow Mountain Band
I spent Friday and Saturday evenings at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown, located near Joshua Tree National Park. The four-mile drive from 29 Pines Highway to the roadhouse is quite spectacular, given the rock formations and Joshua trees. The awesome band Dust Bowl Revival played a peculiar brand of swing, and bluegrass, kind of a mix between Tex-Mex and New Orleans. Saturday the place was packed when Shadow Mountain Band took the stage at 5:15; at the bar I had a couple pale ales on draft along with sausage soup and chips with salsa, all for under 20 bucks. I’d heard Shadow Mountain Band before, and they did not disappoint, doing a moving version of the Steve Goodman classic “City of New Orleans,” about an obselescent Illinois Central passenger train that’s got “the disappearing railroad blues,” traveling 500 miles with just 15 “restless riders”:
“The train pulls out of Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing trains that have no name
And graveyards full of old black men
And graveyards full of rusted automobiles.”
I successfully finished two USA Today crosswords – a rare feat. One clue – crushing defeat – was for an eight-letter word. The final two were “oo” and the middle two “er.” I finally realized the answer was “Waterloo.” The clue for a 15-letter word, Jack Dawkins, stumped me until I filled in most of the letters spelling “The Artful Dodger.” I knew of the Charles Dickens pickpocket character from “Oliver Twist” but not his given name.
Shirley MacLaine in "In Her Shoes"
TV watching during the four days in California consisted mainly of the news (a hostage crisis in Australia and revelations of CIA-approved torture at Guantanamo) and snatches of movies, including one with spunky Hillary Duff and sexy Heather Locklear. The most memorable, “In Her Shoes,” was about two estranged sisters, one of whom (Maggie, played by the sexy Cameron Diaz) visits her grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine at the top of her game). Jerry Adler, loan shark “Hesh” Rabkin in “The Sopranos,” plays a senior citizen with the hots for Ella. A scene of them dancing brought a tear to my eye. Red Scare victim Norman Lloyd, 90 years old in 2005, played a blind professor who has Maggie read the Elizabeth Bishop poem “One Art” to him, then asks her what it means. After she answers that it deals with losing a friend, he says, “That’s an A+.” It’s a transformational moment on her path to self-esteem. Here’s an excerpt from “One Art,” which also is about aging:
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
To be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.”
At Applebee’s I learned that favorite waitress Andrea Aguirre got a promotion and is in training to be a manager at an Applebee’s in Indio. Last time we talked she had turned down a similar opportunity because she could make more money waitressing and bartending. Hope they sweetened the pot. She’s a natural, charming but efficient.
I reread Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” about an event I participated in, the 1967 March on the Pentagon. I learned such new words as pullulate (multiply or breed rapidly), salience (prominence or likelihood of being noticed), and badinage (banter or give-and-take). Symbol of the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon, to Mailer, represented the “blind, five-sided eye of the oppressor, greedy, stingy dumb valve of the worst of the WASP heart, chalice and anus of corporation land, smug, enclosed, morally blind.” Mailer’s answer to Vietnam –get out, leave Asia to the Asians – could apply equally to our present Mideast policy quagmire. So could a poem Robert Lowell recited on the eve of the March:
“Pity the planet, all joy gone
From this sweet volcanic cone;
Peace to our children when they fall
In small war on the heels of
War – until the end of time
To police the earth, a ghost
Orbiting forever lost
In our monotonous sublime.”
Landing at O’Hare, I appreciated the multi-colored Christmas trees and other seasonal decorations - kudos to their landscape architect and work crew. The flight being 20 minutes early, I enjoyed a Chicago-style hot dog before catching the 7:15 airport bus to Highland. Unlike last winter I didn’t have to battle a snowstorm to get home, only a steady rain.
Would I want to be in Midge’s shoes at 98 going on 99? On days when my knee, wrist, neck or ankle hurts, I shudder to think of their condition 25 years hence. No longer can I play ping pong or tennis and my bowling days are surely numbered in years if not months. With more and more deceased friends having been crossed off Midge’s Christmas card list, the poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem became obvious. If like the “In Her Shoes” blind professor, I can still impart insight or wisdom to others, then hopefully I’ll realize that all else is no disaster.
In The Times: local stories of murder and mayhem plus a police bust of a party near Valparaiso University that resulted in 45 arrests for underage drinking. More than half were VU athletes, including 17 football players. One young woman hiding in the attic fell through the ceiling onto the shower floor. Also: news that Gary’s Building Commissioner plans to convert abandoned City Methodist Church into a “ruins garden.” Photographer Guy Rhodes, lamenting the deterioration of the inspirational but unsafe Gothic cathedral, said, “It’s heartbreaking. It’s like watching a building melt.” Rhodes added:
“There’s ornamentation on the steeple that you’d never see from the ground, like hand-carved owls where they etched every feather and every claw. Skilled stone masons built it as a gift for God.”
above, NWI photo by Jonathan Miano; below, Miller South Shore station by Samuel A. Love
Northwest News ran a feature on friendly Grounds Maintenance Supervisor Tim Johnson, who started at IUN 35 years ago after graduating from Portage H.S. He seems to love working outdoors and said: “Right before school starts, usually toward the end of August, when we are out in the parking lots painting the curbs early in the morning and the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s just beautiful.”
In a holiday message entitled “It’s the Time to be Thankful,” IUN poet laureate Hollis Donald of Physical Plant laments the impending retirement of Business professor Marilyn Vasquez. She was a “truly wonderful human being,” as Donald observed accurately, whose joyous smile was contagious. Jeff Manes should do a SALT column on her. Donald concluded
“If you’ll make joy your goal, you can wear a smile on your face when all the reasons for being happy are gone. Joy will carry you through any rainy day, when all your friends or help are gone. Why? Because you have learned to be so thankful for your life.”
Marilyn Vasquez with Surekha Rao (2012); NWI photo by Tony V. Martin