Thursday, April 29, 2010

Death in Texas

I live in a retirement community. I am surrounded by old people. You would think I would be accustomed to people dying, yet this week I was saddened and shocked by two deaths.

Leona and Arlan rented the apartment next door to me two days before I rented mine. We moved in at the same time. Arlan was in poor health and never left the apartment. Leona, a tiny little woman, was constantly going down to the dining room to pick up trays for breakfast and lunch. We urged her to sit and eat with us, but she would not keep Arlen waiting.

Leona was always on the go, doing laundry, walking her beautiful collie (he looked like Lassie), and driving to Greenville once a week for lunch with ladies from her church. She was almost 90 and had the energy of a woman half her age.

For months I used her cart to carry my dirty clothes to the laundry room. When I finally bought my own cart, she said, “You didn’t have to do that. You could use mine any time.”

Six weeks ago she went to Baylor Hospital for tests. The biopsy revealed advanced, aggressive cancer. For the past month I’ve watched people going to and from Leona and Arlan’s apartment: sons, in-laws, grandchildren, many who loved her. When Leona and Arlan met, she was a young divorced woman with two sons; he was also divorced with two young sons. They raised the four boys together. They were married for 47 years.

She died this week. Now Arlan will have to go to a nursing home.

The day after Leona died, another resident learned that her granddaughter was murdered. The newspaper called it “a domestic dispute.” The grandmother is devastated. When she moved into this retirement home, the granddaughter helped with the move and stayed for two weeks to help her grandmother get settled.

The young woman who was murdered had a mixed up life, married and divorced twice, with two boys by the first marriage, a three-year-old daughter by the second.. While she went to vocational school, her baby was cared for by the paternal grandmother. The young woman completed her vocational training and found a job, but her ex-husband’s mother did not want to give up the little girl. The young woman got a court order and went to the home to pick up her child. She was met at the door by a man with a rifle. He pumped four bullets into her.

Even if she had been foolish and irresponsible at times, she did not deserve this death.

I mourn Leona. But she had a long life and a happy second marriage. The young woman’s second marriage ended violently leaving three children without a mother. Life is full of ironies. And so is death.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Let's Laugh

When the kidney doctor told me I needed dialysis, I said, “No, just let me die.” Then I reconsidered. For over a year now I’ve been sitting in that big chair three days a week with needles stuck in my left arm while my blood is pulled out, scrubbed, and pumped in again. I am getting a lot of reading done.

One day a week I work through The New Yorker, holding the magazine and turning the pages with my right hand, tricky as the glazed pages tend to stick together. But this is a great magazine.

Cartoons in the April 19 issue made me laugh. I can’t reprint them on this blog. First, I don’t know how. Second, they are copyrighted. But maybe, since I’ve said such nice things about it, the magazine won’t sue me if I quote a few captions.

A man, all dressed up to go hiking, sits in a big easy chair before a tv. Caption: “Where the Appalachian Trail crosses The Path of Least Resistance.”

A fat woman in a dress shop to a salesperson: “I want that dressing-room mirror fired.”

A dejected man faces his doctor, who says, “Sometimes it helps to turn a question around. Why not you?”

All those cartoon characters could be me. Reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

But another cartoon was one I wish could be printed on tee shirts and passed out to all those nuts who go to “tea parties” with placards saying they don’t want government interfering with their lives.

A house is on fire, flames leaping out the window. A man stands in front with a bucket of water. As firemen approach with a big hose, the man puts up a hand to stop them, saying, “No, thanks – I’m a libertarian.”

Friday, April 23, 2010


Old ladies left their walkers on the grass in front of Montclair retirement home before climbing on buses for an excursion to look for bluebonnets.

The lady sitting across the aisle from me recently moved to Dallas from North Carolina. She never heard of bluebonnets. We Texans enlightened her.

The bluebonnet is a wildflower that blooms all over Texas in April. It resembles a snapdragon with multiblossoms on each little stalk. Each flowerlet is a miniature of an old-fashioned blue sun bonnet, such as ladies wore a hundred years ago, hence the name “bluebonnets.”. On a sunny day nothing is lovelier than a hillside covered with bluebonnets like a fluffy blue down comforter reflected above by the blue sky.

As we headed south from Dallas on Interstate 45, Daisy and I sat right behind the driver. Jackie kept the bus speed at 60 miles per hour. “If I go any slower, I’ll get a ticket.”

From the windows of the speeding bus Daisy and I spotted beside the highway clumps of bluebonnets flashing by from time to time. But as we looked at the rolling hillsides, we saw fields bright with daisy-like yellow wildflowers. Beyond the edge of the highway we saw no bluebonnets.

We rode so far I thought we might be headed for Houston, when Jackie turned off into side roads so narrow that I wondered how she could navigate the big bus around the turns. At time trees arched over the road in tunnels reminding me of little country lanes in England. Where there were no trees, occasional clumps of bluebonnets grew along the verge.

On these roads far from the city, we saw big new houses, veritable mansions, as if Texans aped British nobility with their country estates. Handsome horses grazed in green meadows. But no bluebonnets.

After driving for hours around the countryside, where mansions surrounded by green meadows gave way to trailer homes on two-acre plots, Jackie gave up and headed the bus back to the interstate and Dallas. We got home in late afternoon.

On my telephone I found a message from my friend Pat. I called her back and told her I had been on a futile chase, going all over Texas hunting for bluebonnets.

Pat said, “There is a big field of bluebonnets around the corner from my house. People are parking cars on both sides of the street and getting out to take pictures.”

Pat lives less than a mile from Montclair.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I Remember Minsk

A volcano in Iceland creates an ash cloud which cancels jet travel between the U.S. and Europe. A plane crashes in Russia killing the President of Poland and 92 other people. Residents in our retirement community have something to talk about besides how many doctors’ appointments we each have next week.

Old people, including me, have memory problems. Sometimes memory may be accurate but the conclusion based on it may be faulty.

As we sat around the table after lunch I told about the bus trip I took from Moscow and Warsaw. Until I looked at the newspaper map of the plane crash, I forgot that between Russia and Poland lies the nation of Belarus, with its capital at Minsk.

Yes, I remember Minsk. The city was 90% destroyed during World War II. Rebuilt when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, it is a dull, industrial town with not much to see or do.

To eat breakfast and dinner at the Minsk hotel I had to take the elevator down from my upper story room to the first floor lobby, with its high ceiling, and then climb a long, curving stairway to the dining room. When I complained that the elevator did not stop at the second floor, the desk clerk dismissed me, saying, “The elevator never has stopped at the dining room.” To him the problem was not with the hotel but with us indulged Americans who pampered ourselves with our arthritic knees.

When Lee Harvey Oswald showed up in Moscow with delusions of being an important man in the Communist regime, the Russians sent him to Minsk to get him out of the way. I mentioned this at lunch. The sweet little old lady, sitting across from me at the table, asked in a whispery voice, “Do you think Oswald acted alone when he killed Kennedy?”

“No doubt about it,” I said. “He was a nut.”

(Any one interested in the assassination should go to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. It lays out the facts and let’s you look out the window. John said, “My God! I could have shot him from here.” However, no exhibit can adequately portray how completely delusional Oswald was. I recommend Hugh Aynesworth’s book.)

I said, “Do you think someone took the rifle from him, said, ‘Let me do it’ and then handed the rifle back to him?”

“I still think he had help,” said M., who is 86 years old and otherwise an extremely sharp lady.

She also wonders if the volcanic eruptions in Iceland foretell the end of the World.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tricks of Memory

Memories can be deceptive.

The plane crash near Smolensk which killed the Polish officials evoked vivid memories of my tour of Russia and Poland. After several days in Moscow, we got on a bus and rode for miles on a wretched two-lane road across Russia, passing Smolensk before crossing the border on the way to Warsaw.

Moscow was depressing. Miles of big, gray apartment buildings had broken balcony railings and windows patched with cardboard and plastic. In the subway I saw women trying to sell their clothes for money to buy food.

We left Moscow on a bleak September day. From the bus window I saw barren fields with occasional patches where elderly men and women stooped to dig among low plants. As they stood up, their shoulders bent under heavy sacks of potatoes. Were these farmers? Or city people come out to the countryside to dig for food to keep from starving during the long Russian winter?

No farm houses as we see in the U.S. Scattered settlements consisted of a few dilapidated houses, all shut up behind rotting, unpainted wooden blinds. If there were any cows or pigs, they must have been penned up in log structures attached to the rear of the one-room houses. I remember no livestock in the fields.

Near Smolensk I had vague memories of some connection with World War II. In September, 1939, Germany attacked Poland and overran the country in a few days. I knew a young woman who as a child escaped from the Germans by fleeing with her mother into Russia. The amazing account of how she came to be working in an office in Chicago in 1953 is a story I’ll tell another time.

When I heard about the plane crash, I remembered Smolensk as being near the border. I also remembered how much better the farms looked in Poland. Fences were mended. Farm houses were old but no sagging roofs, no unpainted walls. The whole country looked as if people still cared for it.

In my mind the contrast between Russia and Poland occurred in one day. Then I picked up the newspaper with an account of the plane crash and a map. My brain had played a trick on me. The map showed clearly: between Russia and Poland lies Belarus, with its capital at Minsk. I had forgotten an entire nation!

As soon as I saw the map, I remembered. The bus ride from Moscow to Warsaw took two days. We spent the night in Minsk.

So much for the accuracy of “eye witness” accounts. However, although I may not remember the details of each trip, I learned to read with skepticism. Seeing with my own eyes helps me to confirm or discount things I’ve read. The Russia I saw in 1994 had not recovered from the devastation of World War II. There never was a real threat from Russia during the Cold War.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Great Expectations

Every trip I took, I was surprised. I started each journey with a mental picture of the place I was headed. Who doesn’t idealize romantic Paris after seeing the city in numerous movies? The first time I saw Paris I was with my 13-year-old son. David and I had a good time, but it was not “Casablanca.”

I love Monet’s paintings of water lilies. Twice I went to the small town on the Seine to see Monet’s house. In spring his garden was a delight with tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils. In July snapdragons, marigolds, cosmos, and other summer flowers filled the entire garden with brilliant colors. But under the trees beneath the arching Japanese bridge the pond was dank and dark without a single water lily.

Many times in my travels I learned something that gave me an entirely new perspective on a nation or a people. With the exception of waiters in Paris, I’ve found people every where friendly and eager to know and help an aging American woman wandering about in their country. On a packed mini-bus in Turkey a bunch of scruffy looking Turks, who did not speak English, smiled, gave up a seat for me, and with hand signals helped me get to my destination.

Best of all were surprises making me keenly aware of this “one world” we live in. Today I read Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country”, about his trip across Australia. And I remembered Spain.

On a sunny afternoon in Seville, I strolled in one of those romantic Spanish plazas with a gently murmuring fountain and quiet walkways under big, old trees. I heard English voices. A young couple, back packs at their feet, rested on a park bench. I did not identify their accent.

“You are talking English,” I said. “But you are not English.”

“We’re Australian,” the young man said. “And you aren’t English either!”

“No,” I said. “I’m from the States. From New Mexico. Where in Australia do you come from?”


“Oh! In Albuquerque I know of someone from Perth. Luke Longley was the star of the University of New Mexico basketball team.”

The young man, sitting on a park bench in Spain, said, “His mother was my math teacher.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

That's Business

I am a would-be capitalist. I own stock. I would like to buy more. But today the stock market is a giant Ponsi scheme, as brokers bid each other up and up, each gambling on selling high before the market crashes again. .

As for American business, corporations have been corrupted by the greed of CEO’s abetted by complacent boards of directors. All of them are overpaid. These people vote themselves grants of enormous blocks of stock. They are less concerned about the profitability of the company than the price of stock, which they can sell to enhance their own fortunes.

This week I received annual reports from two corporations in which I invested my money. I was asked to vote for boards of directors who will continue these corrupt practices.

I own 400 shares of American Electric Power, a utility company based in Columbus, Ohio. My husband bought those shares more than 20 years ago with cash he earned working for 40 years for International Truck.

Last year Michael G. Morris, chairman and CEO of AEP, received a base salary of $1,294, 808 and $5,265,750 in stock, plus “other compensation” for a total of $7,539,278.

The company has 13 directors. One of them is E. R. Brooks, a 72-year-old retiree, living in Granbury, Texas. Mr. Brooks’s compensation for serving on the board of AEP in 2009 was $95,750 in cash and $120,000 in stock, plus other compensation for a total of $219,413. It seems to me Mr. Brooks can live very well down in Granbury on the money he gets from people paying for their electric lights in Ohio.

I also own 300 shares of Kraft Foods, which I bought this year with money from the sale of my house. My kids grew up on Kraft Dinner, and I figured even in tough economic times people would eat macaroni and cheese.

Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO, received a base salary of “only” $1,470,000. But she also got stock and other compensation for a total of a whopping $26,345,201! To me is obscene. Four other executives were paid more than $5,000,000 each.

Kraft has 12 directors. Three of these each received payments in cash and stock totaling $271,144. These men were also highly paid executives in other companies. John C. Pope is chairman of PFI Group, “a financial management firm.” Frank G. Zarb is managing director of Hellman & Friedman, “a private equity firm.” Frederic G. Reynolds, former Chief Financial Officer of CBS, is also a director of AOL, Inc. I wonder what any of these men know about making and marketing cheese.

I paid $7,787 of my money for my 300 shares of Kraft. Then the board GIVES themselves and the company executives thousands of shares. Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft was given stock valued at $7,829,391. This is the way business is done in America today.

I also wonder what the men and women who work at the Kraft plant here in Garland think about how hard they work for their pay, while directors, who meet four times a year, take enormous payments back to their mansions scattered around the country.

I read in TIME, March 22, 2010:
“In 1978, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio of average CEO pay to average wage was about 35 to 1. By 2007 it was 275 to 1.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wasting Time

For me the greatest luxury is a day when I have nothing to do.

Of course, there are many things I should do and many things I could do. But the truth is that I enjoy wasting time.

Is time wasted when it is spent with friends? Time after breakfast sitting over second cups of tea with Bob and Norman. Time going to supper with Lois and Pat. Time talking on the telephone with Gertrude in New York or Frances in Albuquerque.

I would rather spend time talking on the phone rather than reading e.mails, but I don’t like spending a lot of time on the phone with friends who live nearby. If they want to talk to me, come over. Let’s talk face to face. I can waste many hours gabbing with a friend.

I don’t like to shop. I have everything I need. Why waste time looking at stuff I am not going to buy?

I love wasting an afternoon sitting on the patio with a good book. I like books that tell me why other people do the things they do: a good biography or an insightful novel. Khalaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” told me more about Afghanistan than any thing I read in TIME or saw on television. Was it a waste of time to read that novel?

I waste time watching television. Sometimes I learn something. Weekends CSPAN’s BOOKTV keeps me informed on current books. This week on PBS I saw programs on the Mormons and the Buddha.

The Mormons are a paradox: the Mormons I’ve known are wonderful people, loving and generous. But anyone who believes the Book of Mormon is a dolt. Its “history” is pure fabrication, which makes a rational person question the rest of Joseph Smith’s dictates. Oh, well, they do no harm and mostly they do good. I just don’t want someone who believes that nonsense to be President.

The Buddha said there are three poisons in the World: greed, anger, and ignorance. I will remember that.

After dialysis I am too tired to do anything but sit in front of the television. Thursday night I was reduced to watching a senseless murder on “48 Hours” and people buying multi-million dollar apartments in New York. A waste of time, but it got me through until bedtime.

Today I wasted all day reading 26 e.mails and found one thing to keep in mind:

Sometimes when I am angry
I have the right to be angry
But that doesn’t give me the right to be cruel.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

We're On Fire

Sunday at 5:20 p.m, black purse on my shoulder and car keys in my hand, I was ready to go to Taco Bell for burritos. Before I could open my door, Mickey banged on my third-floor apartment. “The building’s on fire. Get out quick!”

Charlie stood in the middle of the living room with a look on his face that said, “Where are you going now?” I turned my back on the puzzled cat, stepped out onto the walkway, and slammed the door behind me.

Mickey was already at the apartment next door. I called to her, “What about Norman?”
“I’ll take care of Norman. You go!”
“Can I use the elevator?”
“Yes. Just go.”

Erline stood in the elevator door, holding it open.
She said, “I don’t know what to do.”
I glanced down the walkway. Mickey had disappeared into Norman’s apartment. No sign of his electric wheelchair.
I pushed Erline into the elevator and hit the button to take us down to the first floor

Erline shivered in a long, dark blue robe zipped up the front.
“I’m soaking wet,” she said. “I was in the shower. I don’t have a thing on under this robe.”
“You’re fine,” I said.
The heavy robe concealed everything between her neck and ankles.

Outside in the parking lot I looked up to see a woman with a walker was struggling to come down the stairs from the second floor. Norman came out gliding out from the elevator in his electric wheelchair. He was dressed in a dark shirt and slacks, but his big white feet were bare.

Erline walked across the parking lot to put her arm around her best friend. Pat, wearing a white tee-shirt with bright bands of yellow and green across the front, looked dazed. She said, “My whole apartment is on fire.”

Fire trucks, sirens howling, came around the building from both directions. Firemen, in heavy suits resembling men from outer space, unrolled heavy yellow hoses and started up the stairs to the third floor.

Dodie, who has an artificial leg, leaned against the front of a car for support.
I said, “Won’t you come sit in my car and rest until this is all over?”
She kept looking up at the third floor, where the fire started.
Dodie lives in the end apartment two doors away from Pat.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’ll stay right here. I’m worried about my cat.”

I found a fireman talking on a walky-talky.
“My friend lives up there and is worried about her cat.”
“Lady, the fire is in one apartment. Now go over there and get out of our way, so we can do our job.”

I sat in my car with two old ladies who, in spite of the excitement, were too frail to stand.

After about thirty minutes we were told the fire had been contained, but we could not go back to our apartments. Everyone on the parking lot was told to go to the dining room, which is in a separate building. The group walked into the dining room where another big group was singing hymns. Our noisy talk interrupted the Sunday evening church service.

The preacher paid no intention to us but went ahead quietly passing out communion. I leaned over and whispered to him, “We had a fire.” After the final hymn, the preacher said a prayer thanking God for our escape from fire. He made no other explanation. After he dismissed the congregation, there Christians and fire-escapers mingled, talking excitedly and asking, “What happened?” .

It was 7 p.m. before the fire trucks left; the others (except Pat) went back to their apartments. I got in my car and drove to Taco Bell for burritos. After delivering one to Norman, I sat on the couch and opened the paper around the burrito. Charlie climbed on my lap. I tried to explain that it was late and I wanted to eat my supper. He paid no attention and pushed his nose against my face. The cat seemed to sense that something unusual had happened.

Some residents came home after the fire trucks left and didn’t learn about the fire until breakfast the next morning. My friend Betty saw the fire on the 10:00 p.m. news and, concerned about me, called the next day. Bob’s daughter-in-law also saw the television report and called her husband, who called from Afghanistan. My brother and his wife were oblivious of the fire until I told them. .

Why are events like this so exciting? Perhaps it is the thrill of experiencing something potentially dangerous and escaping without harm. None of the residents in this retirement community was even slightly injured. The only damage was in Pat’s apartment.

Pat spent the night with Erline. She came to breakfast the next morning, still wearing the brightly-colored tee-shirt in which I saw her standing on the parking lot while firemen soaked all her burning possessions with their powerful hoses.

In the excitement, I forgot to have compassion for my friend who lost everything.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Waiting for God

Saturday at dialysis I passed three hours watching Book TV on CSPAN 2. One segment was a rerun of the National Book Critics’ awards for the best books published during 2009. I don’t keep up with best sellers, but since I also don’t follow sports, and the movie on TCM was a two-star dud, I watched authors accept their prizes.

The big surprise was when the award for autobiography went to Diana Athill for her memoir, “Somewhere Towards the End.”

I not only read this book, I have a copy sitting on the table beside my recliner, where I set the book down after I finished reading it Friday afternoon. My friend Gertrude mailed it to me from New York, telling me to pass it on to someone else after I read it. I’ll do that next week.

I wonder what the other residents in this retirement community will make of it. A local author came here last month and sold copies of her new book on coping with old age. A “Christian author”, the old folks here found her book inspirational. Ms. Athill’s book, written at age 88 as she contemplated her own death, is a very different kind of book.

Ms. Athill, from an upper class British family, worked for many years for a London publisher. I am jealous that she has friends in the book business who were eager to publish and publicize her book, while I can’t even get my friends to read my blog.

She writes well. Her book contains many interesting passages on the physical limitations that come with age, on religious attitudes towards death (she is an atheist) and on her own approach to dying. The critics love her.

While fascinated by her ideas, I told Gertrude, “I don’t think I would like this woman as a person.”

Gertrude said, “I would hate her.”

Diana Athill is totally self-absorbed. Her attitude towards sex and men is callous. She shamelessly admitted many affairs which she enjoyed for sex without the messiness of being in love. She wrote, “Several of the painless affairs involved other people’s husbands, but I never felt guilty because the last thing I intended or hoped for was damage to anyone’s marriage. If a wife ever found out – and as far as I know that never happened – it would have been from her husband’s carelessness, not mine.”

Childless, her only regret seems to be that she did not have a daughter to care for her in her old age, the way she – admittedly reluctantly – cared for her mother.

I can not remember her writing with compassion about any friend facing the inevitable death.

I also am selfish. I do as I please, determined to enjoy every day I have left. But I hope I never miss an opportunity to show concern and, if possible, make life more pleasant for others. To me helping someone get through today is more important than worrying about which of us will die tomorrow.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Waiting for Doctors

I step out on the walkway, going down to breakfast. The air is cool. I wear a sweater, although the weatherman told me by noon the temperature will be in the 80's. My heart sings to see trees leafing out with shoots of pale green at the tips of branches. Welcome, April! Welcome, Spring!

Except for a visit from son David and daughter Martha, March was a difficult month for me. Besides dialysis three days a week, I had to sit in doctors’ waiting rooms one day each week.

All routine but time-consuming. I wasted one afternoon waiting for my primary care doctor to come in and write new prescriptions. She does that once a year for three pills I take every day. She would not write new prescriptions until she had results of my blood tests. What did she think had changed? I have been taking these same drugs for many years and will continue to take them for the rest of my life.

I taken a thyroid pill each morning for 65 years. When I was a teenager, that was the “drug of choice” for all females who felt tired. Now I know that on those days was when I could not get out of bed and my mother said I was “just lazy,” I was suffering from a severe Depression. It was another 40 years before I was finally diagnosed as bipolar.

About 20 years ago a doctor told me I probably didn’t need thyroid pills, but my glands had become dependent on the medication. To wean me off the drugs would be like sending a heroin addict for a cure. The medication is not expensive, so I keep taking it.

Another afternoon last month was spent waiting for the colon doctor – I spell “gastro-enterologist” so badly my computer’s spell checker can’t find it. After a long session meditating in the waiting room, the doctor looked at the x-rays and said I have the most enormous colon he has ever seen. Then he said what I knew he would say: “We don’t want to do surgery because of your age. Keep taking your polyethylene glycol, and you’ll do fine.”

Every day I mix powder in a glass of water and drink it. I do fine. Why did I have to go to the hospital for expensive x-rays and a month later spend two hours waiting for the doctor to take ten minutes to tell me to continue routine I have followed for ten years?

The worst day in March was the Wednesday that Jackie drove me to the vascular clinic in Dallas to have a specialist look at the graft, where needles are stuck in my arm for dialysis. I was scheduled for 1 p.m. At 12:45 I was lying on the gurney ready to go into the operating room. At 2:30 I was still lying there. Jackie came and asked how soon I would be finished. The nurse said around 5:00. Jackie said she couldn’t wait that late. So I put my clothes on, and Jackie took me home.

The procedure was rescheduled for the following week at 9:40 a.m. I got into the O.R. at 11:00. The doctor found a narrowing in my graft and used a balloon to widen it. The procedure was painless, and I was back home for a late lunch.

Why do physicians think it does not matter if an old woman must sit and wait for two hours after a scheduled appointment? My time is as valuable as any doctor’s. My doctors are the age of my children. They have years to spend however they choose. I am 81 years old. I count my future in days. I want to enjoy every hour.