Thursday, July 24, 2014

No Thank You

Nursing homes have changed. Despite my good intentions of visiting old friends stacked away in what I pictured as sad institutions, I haven’t made it past the lobby and into a nursing home resident’s room in twenty years. In my mind nursing homes were like the one I worked at in the seventies. A long yellow brick building stretched parallel to the street, three floors and a basement housing the kitchen, dining room, and recreation area. Three nurse’s stations were stacked one on top of the other in the very middle of the building, two long dark halls extending each way from the nurse’s stations.

Small identical rooms on either side of the hall housed two patients each, save for special single rooms near the nurse’s station for the dying. Square floor tiles covered the patient’s room as well. On them were two hospital beds and institutional steel furniture. A narrow table on casters that extended over the bed, a bedside stand with one drawer, built in closets. Those waxed tile floors echoed the clacking of hard leather heels and made the cushioned soles of the nurse’s white shoes squeak. Handrails, seldom used, ran the length of the hall on each side. Rubber tired wheel chairs glided silently by.

Day rooms bright with windows at the end of each hall had a TV. Wheelchairs were parked there or close to the nurse’s station most of the day. Ventilation was poor, it was terribly hot year round, and the smell of urine was pervasive. From time to time a voice was heard from a room down the hall. A tired voice yelling, pleading maybe, or simply trying to find a way to make individual pain something others realized. If you listened closely the faint sound of a radio might break the silence. Time passed slowly in the nursing home where I worked in the seventies, for both the residents and the help.

I was back there this week, geographically anyway, in the block where that nursing home once stood. In its place is a collection of buildings, roof lines, gardens. It’s safe to say the nursing home I worked at is completely gone. When you see the building from the street you don’t see a nursing home. You see a residential complex.

When you go in there’s a fresh smell. The floors are carpeted, soaking up the noise. There are more people than I ever remember in any nursing home, wearing street clothes, offering to help. Old people in wheelchairs are incidental to the activity that seems to be going on in the building.

A woman I met by the front desk gave me a little tour. A vaulted two story atrium sat over the main part of the building where six short halls, each with a nurse’s station, go out like spokes on a wheel. In between the halls is the sports bar (I didn’t see beer signs) with lots of flat screen TV’s on the walls and popcorn available. The smell and sound of it popping filled the area. The Tuscany Room with comfortable couches, like we might have in our own homes, had a library and a door leading outside to the garden activity area. You can get free ice cream anytime in another small room. As we walked by a nurse’s aide was helping a resident fill a cone with soft serve. I was a nurse’s aide. That was never part of the job.

The patient rooms are still small, but decorated better, and each now a single room it appears. The rooms have carpeting, paint, and window treatments that compliment one another. The furniture is wooden and has a homey feel. Each room has a flat screen TV and a fully electric bed that can be raised or lowered, the back or the feet raised, all controlled by the patient. When I think of how I cranked on those old beds, called in especially to do so, my patient thanking me when I was done. Patients were so dependent then on the staff. Here it looks as if the facility encourages free movement and variety, as much as people can still make choices and carry them out.

I used to be part of the settling in process that was going on while I stayed with my friend, showing patients where we kept their clothes, how to use the call button, explaining meals in the dining hall, the routine, how the day was structured. New, since my day, was the aggressive physical therapy component designed to build strength and movement so a patient can go back home. The person I was there with has had surgery and needs help regaining strength and vitality. With any luck only a short stay will be required. At the nursing home in the seventies we never promised that. And it rarely if ever happened.

All that aside, when it came time for me to leave my friend was surrounded by people just met. Each was very nice, but all were strangers. We exchanged a look as I left. I was walking out to my car, driving home, or wherever I wanted. My friend was staying, now a part of the place, and in the hands of others. Night would come and finally the lights would go off. My friend would be alone in that room. Quiet would creep down the nicely carpeted hall. Maybe somewhere a voice, calling out, would break the silence. I imagined how it might feel to be in my friend’s place. I wouldn’t want to be there.

Monday, July 21, 2014

This post interrupted by an urgent message

Hustling Hoppers

There are eighteen 4-H clubs in LaSalle County. You have your Pouncing Panthers, South Prairie Pioneers, Pacesetters, Leland Ribbon Winners, North Prairie Kids, Fox River Warriors, Dimmick Braves, Covel Creek Rough Riders, Brookfield Indians and my favorite, the Hustling Hoppers. The Hustling Hoppers must have chosen their name when being known as a hustler meant you worked hard and quickly. I don’t know what the hopping is about. Eighteen 4-H clubs for LaSalle County is a lot of clubs for a county of just over 110,000, I’m guessing.

This blog interrupted by an urgent message

For the past two mornings I’ve been glued to the TV, rather than being out here in the shack, following two events mainly; the Malaysian airplane carrying 298 innocent people which was blown out of the sky over Ukraine, and Israeli ground troops rolling into Gaza. OK, yeah, from time to time I checked in on the British Open. (Tiger blew up on the second day and Rory McILroy ran away with it by the way.) I listened to our U.N. Ambassador’s whole speech on the downed Malaysian aircraft, Obama’s hurried remarks , John Kerry, and even the panel of aircraft disaster experts CNN reassembled. Bill Clinton weighed in from Vietnam. I listened to Wolf Blitzer talk from Tel Aviv about Israel’s incursion into crowded Gaza. I checked the New York Times website on my smart phone. I couldn’t stop myself. The story in the Tribune on the driveway became old news, but still important.

As I watched TV news I became mindful that previously important stories: the rogue nation being formed in Eastern Iraq and Western Syria, ongoing instability in Afghanistan, violence in Central America and the immigration crisis on our own southern border, are now pushed aside just as Ukraine and the plight of the Palestinians once were. Our attention, limited it seems, is entirely pulled one way, then another, by crises.

In fact, it was the Israeli/Hamas conflict that first diverted our attention from the hot mess created by Ukraine, Russia, and rebel separatists. Now both are vying for our limited attention. Who knew until the tragedy that many planes had been previously shot down in the contested region of Ukraine? That they were Ukranian military aircraft seemed not to warrant news. Who knew powerful and complicated missiles capable of shooting down aircraft at altitudes greater than 30,000 feet were in the hands of rebel groups on the Ukraine/Russia border? Well, we know now, and we found out the hard way. But as the world falls apart overseas, the quiet movement that is 4-H goes on in LaSalle County.

The four H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. Supported in Illinois by the University of Illinois, units of local government, and private donations, and similarly funded across the country, 4-H represents the largest youth development organization in the nation. And it does so pretty quietly.

You notice 4-H most when the fair is on, and the rest of the year 4-H is not real visible. But they‘re out there, having meetings, planning projects, getting to know one another. The adult leaders are volunteers, like Cub Scout and Boy Scout leaders. They become something of mentors to the kids involved. Traditionally 4-H was made up of farm kids, kids who lived in the country, but increasingly town kids are involved.

I was in 4-H for a short time. My club was Danvers Industrial Youth. We may have been industrious, but there was nothing industrial about us. We were all farm kids, and most if not all of us had animal related projects. I showed a Jersey heifer at the fair, my friend John Nafziger brought pigs, Tom Walsh brought his horse. Most farms were small then and nearly all had livestock. In my school in Danvers, population 800 (27 in the class of 1969) there were more country kids than town kids by far. I think that’s all changed. Advances in machinery have made large scale farming possible, along with a host of other factors. The farms are so much bigger, primarily grain operations without livestock, and as a result fewer kids are living in the country. I can remember whole places now gone where houses stood, surrounded by shade trees, vegetable gardens, and yards where people lived, raised kids, and died. The corn cribs are torn down first, then the barns, and finally the old farmhouses disappear. Everything changes. Farm life sure has. 4-H has had to change with it.

After I judged the baked goods Thursday I went back on Friday to see the farm animals and watch some of the livestock judging. I was pleased to learn there are still Jersey cows at the LaSalle County Fair. No Guernsey cows though, or Ayrshires. Holsteins, Jerseys, Milking Shorthorns and Dutch Belted made up the dairy show. Dutch Belted? Never saw one as a kid. The dairy cows belonged to the very few area families still milking cows, with the Hoffmans from Earlville taking most of the honors. At time there was only one cow in an event. Even the Holstein class was small.

Unlike my role as judge of baked goods, the dairy judge was the real deal. He had a microphone and explained (to a very small audience) why he rated one cow better than another, commenting on their udders, how they stood on their back legs, their rib spread which he called “capacity.” He’d obviously studied diary judging, and cow confirmation. Showmanship was also a factor. One poor girl’s heifer just wouldn’t let itself be led around the show ring on a halter. While he liked that cow’s make up better than others, he placed it lower because of a lack of cooperation. That’s the responsibility of the 4-H member, making sure your animal meets the standards, which includes its behavior. The kids showing animals in the ring were gracious whether winning blue ribbons and getting last. In fact, the atmosphere of the whole fair was calm. Close to polite.

For example, while waiting in the lunch line for a fair cooked lunch and homemade pie the little boy behind me, waiting with his Mom and the rest of the family, tapped me in the back and said something softly. Actually I thought someone was talking near me but I couldn’t place it. Turns out it was this little kid whose voice was coming from below my waist.

“You have a tag on your pants.”


“You have a tag on your pants.” With that he picked at something on my jeans. They were new Carhartts from Farm and Fleet, dungarees with the hammer loop and pliers pocket.

“He hates tags,” his mother said loudly. “Obsessed almost. He wanted me to tell you but I told him he had to.”

I looked on the back side of my thigh and saw a long narrow tag telling everyone my waist size and inseam, over and over. I pulled it off, rolled it up into a little tube, and put it in my pocket.

“Thanks pal. I hate tags too.” He looked away shyly. He couldn’t have been more than eight. Cute, quiet kid. I could have been looking at myself fifty five years ago, a farm kid at the fair with his Mom.

After the dairy show I went to the poultry barn and caught part of the chicken show. I’d never seen chickens shown at the fair. There is a row of empty cages that 4-H members put classes of chickens into so the judge can inspect them. As he makes up his mind on the order of finish, which hens or roosters or mixed pens of a certain ilk rank above one another he begins to move them from pen to pen, or instructs their owners to move them. Before you know it a crowd of kids are catching chickens, holding them against their body or hanging them upside down by their feet, walking around each other, putting them in different places. Most of the chickens allow themselves to be caught fairly easily. They’ve obviously been through this before.

To my disappointment, the poultry judge was very brief when it came to justifying why one bird was better than another. I had hoped to learn something about what makes a good chicken. He preferred to say things like “this first rooster is a very fine bird. Its owner should be proud. Heck all the kids should be proud. It’s not easy picking one of these birds ahead of another.” The closest he got was calling one particularly skinny chicken “leggy.” You can’t learn much if the judge doesn’t point out good and poor characteristics of the things on which he’s passes judgment.

But it was in the poultry barn I met an old friend. My wife keeps telling me I should get out more and I generally tell her I think that’s overrated. But in this case I was very glad I decided to make an extra trip to the fair. The old friend was a foster Mom I’ve known for twenty years. She and her husband are 4-H leaders and big into chickens.

Actually, more and more people are into chickens these days. They’ve become almost fashionable. The chickens are not aware of this however. Fortunately, popularity has not gone to their little heads. They remain the same, somewhat aloof, very interested in pecking whatever is on the ground. It’s us humans who have changed our opinions on chickens; wild after organic eggs, interested in the exotic breeds, intent on besting each other with fancy chicken coops. I don’t look for this to last.

“Dave, how are you? I miss your blog. Ever since you retired I stopped getting it.”

“I’m still writing it. Give me your e mail address and I’ll put you on the list. Say, how is Paul? (Not his real name.) He must be in high school by now.” Paul was a foster boy she and her husband adopted during my time at YSB.

“He’s seventeen. Ready to graduate.”

“You’re kidding. What’s he planning after high school?”

“He’s joined the National Guard and has done training. He loves it. After he completes that, he’s planning to go to IVCC and study criminal justice. He wants to be a policeman.”

“God that placement worked out well. He came to you at a very young age if I remember.”

“Just turned three. We took him for respite. Jami asked on a Friday morning if we could keep him till Monday. He’s been with us ever since.”

“How good for him. Thank you for making him part of your family.”

“He’s a great kid. Not that it’s been easy. But we stuck with him and he stuck with us. This is the first year Paul has not had projects at the fair.”

“So Paul was in 4-H?”

“4-H was great for Paul. In 4-H he was just one of the kids from Brookfield Township. It wasn’t about him, it was about his chickens, or his vegetables, or whatever he was working on. I think 4-H was a way for him to find out who he really was without adults.”

That’s the kind of news I’ve missed during this past year of retirement. Kids succeed, foster families excel at their role, adoptions happen, lives are saved, and no one knows. I miss that. I think of avoiding the stress of things that go wrong and I lose sight of the good news that occurs over and over when things work as they should.

So that’s the week. The situation in the Mideast goes from bad to worse, fools with powerful weapons create a dangerous international incident, and important events all over the globe lose focus, pushed into the background by the latest crisis. But at the same time, kids show their cows and chickens at the 4-H fair, adults in the community support them, winners take home blue ribbons, and life quietly goes on. Everyday triumphs are barely noticed.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Judging at the 4-H Fair

As it turned out I didn’t judge biscuits at the 4-H Fair after all. I had a different assignment-sponge cake, pie crusts, Focaccia bread (be careful how you say that) and dark German rye bread. Six of us were judging baked goods; five women and me.

Like last year I was teamed up with Carol Elmore, retired Home Economics teacher from Mendota. I was glad to see her. She knows what she’s doing in a big way. I took care of the rating sheets, wrote the comments, and offered observations. Carol made most of the decisions. Had we been broadcasting a baseball game Carol did the play by play and I was the color man.

Judges are able to award blue, red or white ribbons and indicate either Very Good or Improvement Needed. Under the improvement needed category the choices are some or much. It’s a system that works pretty good most of the time.

I was surprised at how many kids chose baking projects, and how many were boys. I guess gender stereotypes really are dissolving. I secretly would loved to have baked stuff when I was ten but that seemed pretty much off the table for a boy in 1961. I was especially interested in a local boy’s apple pie. It stuck out among a shelf full of pie crust shells. Really nice looking pie.

“Carol, look at this. It must be in the wrong category.”

“No, there is not a category for pie. Just pie crust.”

“They don’t want pies?”

“No. Once in a while they have a separate pie baking contest. But for your baking categories pies aren’t included. There’s too much variety among pies and cakes. They want them simple, like the sponge cake, no icing, straightforward. And for pie the emphasis is on the crust.”

“So how about this guy? How are we going to judge his crust when it’s part of a pie?”

“We’ll have to give him a white ribbon. He didn’t follow the instructions.”

I looked at that pie with much regret. It looked great. But we hadn’t gotten to the pie crust category yet. We were doing sponge cake. Everybody works off the same recipe. This was a golden sponge cake with lemon flavoring. Sugar, flour, baking powder, lemon zest and extract, eggs. You make it in an angel food cake pan. The entrants are to put the cake on a paper plate in a plastic bag with the recipe and a menu of a meal of which the cake would be dessert. We judged the menu too for variety, color, and having the proper food groups. We had four sponge cakes. One was noticeably higher than the rest
“Let’s start with this one,” Carol said. She had the knife. She took it out of the bag and cut us a couple of pieces. I popped mine in my mouth immediately. It sort of melted. The lemon taste seemed in perfect proportion with the sweet.

“Oh boy that’s good.”

Carol was still looking at hers. “Nice even texture, no air pockets. Very light.” She put it in her mouth.

“You’re right. It has a really good taste too.” The rest of the sponge cakes just didn’t stack up to that first one. They weren’t as light, and one was barely lemony at all.

“I don’t get it Carol. If they’re working off the same recipe, why wouldn’t the lemon flavor be identical? I mean it’s lemon extract. How much variety can there be?”

“You never know. Maybe the product was old and lost its flavor. Maybe they put in the zest and not the extract or vice versa. Maybe they lost count of the teaspoons or used the wrong measure. Anything can happen. But this volume question, the fluffiness, that’s pretty much dependent on how much or how little you beat your eggs, especially the whites. In the end it’s all about following the directions.”

I don’t believe that about directions. As one who often ignores directions altogether, and cares very little or not at all for detail of many kinds, it pained me to hear that.

We had three loaves of Focaccia bread that were of two kinds. The best was tall but coarse, with a good rosemary taste and a salted top. It was chewy, but good. You could taste the olive oil and feel it in your mouth. The other two were flatter and more dense. That denseness seemed to kill the flavor somehow. Part of the recipe allowed them to add one or two tablespoons of lour when working the dough. Carol figured the bakers of the flatter loaves overdid it with the additional flour.

An eight year old girl baked a loaf of dark German rye bread that was just delicious.

“Oh boy Carol. This bread…” Words failed me.

It reminded me of bread that Margaret Melick used to bake on their farm in Danvers. If I was at their house when Margaret baked it her son, my friend Jeff, would cut thick long slices out of the middle of the loaf for he and I. Margaret made her dark rye in a bigger loaf than this girl had baked, a similar circular loaf baked on a cookie sheet rather than a bread pan. It might have been a Swedish recipe. We’d spread butter on Mrs. Melick’s bread and go outside, each holding a soft slice in two hands, bending our necks to eat it like a taco. It was sweet with sugar but sour with the rye flour. Beautiful dark brown. This little girl’s bread was like that, not quite as sweet and enhanced by the added taste of caraway seed. It was the only entry in that category.

I flashed to comments my kids once made to me. We were doing this or that in the kitchen together and I suggested that if I quit my job at YSB perhaps I could become a food critic, visiting restaurants and writing about the experience. My son Dean immediately objected.

“Dad, you’d make a lousy food critic. You like everything. You’d give everything five stars.”

“Yeah,” my daughter Maureen added. “It would be ‘try the pasta, it’s out of this world’ and ‘order the garlic bread, its terrific’ and ‘you have to have the cannoli for dessert.’” My kids know me pretty well.

We ended our stint at judging with the pie crusts. Having accepted Carol’s wisdom about recipes I read this one. Pretty standard; flour, sugar, salt, water, butter. The recipe described making two crusts, listing the ingredients for two crusts and how you might add a fruit filling, but the project clearly called for only a single bottom crust baked in the bottom of a pie plate. The first one we tried was like concrete.

“Carol it’s so thick.”

“I think this boy” (he was twelve) “may have combined the ingredients for two crusts and put them both on the bottom and baked it.” His crust was chalky white and solid. It was hard to even break a small piece off the edge. Not even close to what anybody would call flaky. It occurred to me that he might have tried again but didn’t. Maybe he did it last minute. We gave him a red ribbon.

Another was thin enough, but had an off taste. I couldn’t pin it down. It was flaky, with a nice color, but that taste. Despite that we gave it a blue ribbon, and noted our concern about the taste in the comment section.

We also gave a blue ribbon to clearly the best crust. It was uniformly golden brown, flaky but not overly crisp, and just delicious. How can something so plain, with so few ingredients, taste so good? It did. In addition to a detailed menu, she included a short narrative. In it she said “It took me five tries to get this right.” For her, persistence paid off.

Last, we judged the pie entered in the pie crust category. The pie had a beautifully tan top crust. We broke some crust off the edge and agreed it was very good. Carol sliced into the pie and put a wedge on a paper plate. The slice of pie lifted out of cleanly, both bottom and top crusts intact. It was apple. The apples, obviously fresh, peeled and sliced thin by hand, were cream colored, white turned slightly brown by baking, bathed in and held together by a sugar cinnamon syrup.

“Well, let’s try it anyway,” Carol said.

I put a forkful in my mouth and closed my eyes. When something tastes really good, I close my eyes to concentrate on the taste. The cinnamon was clearly present but not overpowering. The apples were soft but not mushy like the canned kind. The smooth feel and full sweet taste of the apples blended beautifully with the flakiness of the crust and its distinct taste. Chewing on that mouthful of pie created a carnival of sensations in my mouth.

“Jesus Carol this is terrific pie.”

“Yes it is,” she said. “Too bad the recipe called for a pie crust.”

“But the crust is really good.”

“Yes it is. But it’s a pie.”

“Can’t we give him at least a red ribbon? It’s so damned good.”

“Nope. Participants have to follow directions. It’s got to be a white ribbon. That’s how they learn.”

Participants have to follow directions and judges have to stick with the guidelines and get with the program. Sometimes judging others is just plain harsh. I believe that not following directions, like this boy clearly did, can produce great results, which he had achieved. Determined to communicate this, I said this in the comment section.

“The category in which you participated demanded baking only a single pie crust. You baked the entire pie. For that reason you could not be given a satisfactory ranking. However, while not following the instructions, you created a terrific and delicious pie. Read more carefully and follow directions better next time, but don’t stop baking pies. While you aren’t getting a blue ribbon, please know that this pie is a winner.“

After sampling and rating all the baked entries, all of us judges got together and were given the opportunity to recommend six items for state fair competition, six alternates, and name one entry best of show. To be entered at the state fair, you had to be at least ten years of age. Because our dark German rye bread baker was only eight, she could not participate at the state level so after all the other judges tasted her bread we decided to name her little brown loaf of German rye best in show. Our lemon pound cake went to the state fair, along with other really good stuff. There was a Swedish tea ring like my Mom used to make for Christmas that would knock your socks off. It went to state.

It’s great to know that in 2014 kids are learning how to bake from scratch at an early age and that the art of baking lives on at county fairs and the kitchens everywhere. It’s not yet all out of a box. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes and keep on baking. I plan to continue tasting whatever they create, directions notwithstanding.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Week in Review

Some weeks fly by and some weeks crawl.

My 4-H Fair judging packet came in the mail. I’m not sure how I became a 4-H Fair judge. They’ve assigned me once again to judge baked goods. I have to say, in all modesty, that while I’m no expert in the baking process I feel more than qualified to judge baked goods. I don’t think I’ve turned down anything baked in my life be it a biscuit, shortbread, cookie, brownie, piece of pie, slice of cake, you name it. I have deep experience in this category.

They sent along just one judging sheet to remind me of how this works. I do it only once a year after all. The one they sent is for biscuits. There will be a whole slew of biscuits, some prescribed number on a plate covered by plastic wrap, and we’ll judge each entry on appearance, tenderness, texture, flavor, menu, and knowledge of the exhibitor. There’s a space for comments.

Under each category are characteristics we’re asked to mark as very good, some improvement needed, or much improvement needed. These are kids after all, and there’s no need to be harsh. Everyone can improve. And really, is there such a thing as a bad biscuit? Reading the biscuit characteristics makes me want to head back to the house and whip up a batch. For appearance, the factors are golden brown top, symmetrical shape, uniform size, fairly smooth level top, creamy white inside. I can picture them. Under tenderness just two measures-crisp and tender crust, moist and tender interiors. Tender biscuits. Now there’s a part of life we often overlook don’t you think? That’s Wednesday morning the 9th. I’ll be out at the fairgrounds south of the river having a biscuit or ten. Someone has to do it.

The Cubs astounded me Wednesday night by completing a sweep of the Boston Red Sox. In the series finale the Cubs scored sixteen (that’s right 16) runs. When Cub players were on base other men in Cub uniforms got base hits. I was amazed. They scored in almost every inning, with players other than Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro driving in runs. Second baseman Darwin Barney went four for four. Darwin Barney hitting .214. If you remember, this is virtually the same Boston Red Sox team which won the 2013 World Series by beating the Cardinals 4 games to 2. The Cubs swept them. It hardly registers. It’s as if I write the words in English but they appear on the page as another language.

Not that the Cubs can actually do anything at this point. I mean, they only won 9 games through April. They won 11 more games in May, ending the month with a 20-33 record. They won 16 games in June, which included a five game win streak, and now their first two games in July. So here we are on July 4, 2014 with the Cubs in the cellar of the NL Central with a W-L percentage of .446, 12½ games out of first. That’s second best among the six cellar dwellers. Only Minnesota in the AL Central has a better W-L percentage at .452. The Cubs could be the worst team in baseball, but they’re not. That distinction belongs to Arizona with a record of 36-51.

Where do we go from here you ask? My goals for the Cubs are modest. They have trades to make and prospects to bring up. I’m hoping that by the end of July we are the best cellar dweller among the six and that by season’s end we not only lose less than 100 games but finish within ten games of .500, finishing no worse than next to last in our division. Go ahead. Call me a cock eyed optimist. But I’ve been wearing my Cubs hat rather proudly this past week.

As you might have guessed it was a slow week here at the shack. S-L-O-W. But you know what they say. You should make hay while the sun shines. I read two great books: Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do they Live Forever? by Dave Eggers and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. Dave Eggers has written a lot of books. I got started with Zeitouan, a chilling non-fiction account of an Arab American caught up in the Katrina disaster n New Orleans. I followed it up by reading A Hologram for the King, westerners holed up in a rich and modern Mid East oil kingdom. Joshua Ferris has written only three books. I read his debut novel And Then We Came to the End, an insider’s tale of the unraveling of an ad agency and how it affects the people who work there and their relationships. He’s adept at describing the interplay of people who are close to one another but not intimate.

I love it when I race through books. They used to be page turners. Now they’re Kindle clickers. I have the font pumped up fairly high so I was clicking like crazy on my old first generation Kindle. Dave Eggers explores the scary mind of a man unhinged in a book that is pure dialogue, simply and only the verbal exchanges between the wacked main character and his victims. The America it paints is one that scares the hell out of me. I can’t quit thinking about it. It’s a gripping book and a quick read.

Joshua Ferris on the other hand creates a middle aged neurotic dentist seeking identity, and finding it. Alone, without family or faith, he is closest to the women he employs in his dental practice. He is portrayed as a man who lives dangerously deeply in his head but manages to think his way out of it and into some semblance of normal life by the last page. He makes great use of references to social media and digital communication throughout the book. I wouldn’t say you have to read these books. Of course you don’t. But if you do you’ll probably like them.

And finally, at the 900 word mark, I cannot let the week go by without relating this memory of my Mom. I wanted to say I don’t know why it popped into my head, but I do, so I won’t. After my Dad died my Mom made an annual trip or two to Ottawa, usually on Mother’s Day and later in June for the kids’ birthdays. She’d stay for a couple days. She did it to see us of course, and her grand kids, but also to prove to herself she still could. She made the trip well into her eighties. During one of those visits, one of the last ones I think, she broke our stove.

To appreciate the story you have to know some stuff about my Mom. She was a physically imposing figure. Both tall and heavy, she carried herself well with her shoulders back and her chest out. Big chest my Mom, and big arms. Big. Strong.
She was smart and never forgot anything. She said what was on her mind. When we did the same she challenged us. While she could be extremely kind she could also be tough as nails. She worked hard all her life and was proud of her ability to get things done; cook big dinners, clean any mess, milk cows, drive a tractor, push a milk cow around when it got out of line. Watching her work, and live, made one cautious to criticize her.

That’s why it was so surprising when she began to fail. She slipped and fell in the barn carrying a bucket of milk to the milk house. Fell, with her leg under her, and broke the small bone next to her shin. I don’t know where I was then. They called to tell me. Dad had to milk by himself for a while. She was back in the barn, with a walking cast, in a couple of weeks. But realizing she was vulnerable at all was new to me.

She started taking a pill for arthritis. After Dad sold the cows they both slowed down. They bought two recliners and got a satellite dish to pull in WGN and watch the Cubs. She started walking a little brokenly. She wouldn’t exactly say if it was her hip or her knee. Probably both. She started to get that side to side gait, coming down heavy on her feet.

It was that problem exaggerated, years later, which caused her to break our stove. By that time Mom was holding on to anything and everything she could as she walked through the house. She had a cane, used it sparingly, and while helping Colleen cook, going from the fridge to the dining room, she held on to our stove handle, put her weight on it, and snapped it right off. As little kids will do, Dean announced to everyone

“Grandma broke the stove!”

I came in from the other room and sure enough there was my Mom, a yellow dish towel in one hand and a three foot chrome stove handle in the other. I took the stove handle from her and guided her to a dining room chair. I sat next to her. She put her head in her hand.

“I want to pay for that.”

“Mom, the stove came with the house. It’s probably thirty years old. We’re going to remodel anyway and buy a new gas stove. Why they put an electric stove in a house that has gas is beyond me anyway.”

“Yeah, well I feel stupid. How are you going to open that oven door when it’s hot now?”

I looked in the kitchen at what remained. “I think I can get some vice grips on those posts there and get it open just fine. We’ll make do. Please, don’t worry about it.”

“I still feel dumb.”

“Mom, the bigger problem is with the way you have to walk. I think you need more support. Have you considered getting a walker?” I shouldn’t have said that.

“You won’t be seeing me use a walker anytime soon.”

“OK. How about using your cane more, or getting a better cane. One of those with feet on it maybe. Mom you have to face this. You’re not getting around very well.”

“Do you think I need you to tell me that?”


“Well let’s make a little deal then. You take care of yourself and leave me up to me.”

“OK,” I said. That was the end of that.

That deal became one neither of us could keep. Mom fell, injured her neck and spine badly, and never walked again. We thought it was her knee but it may have been her heart that caused her to pass out at the top of the stairs and tumble backwards. She lived her last years in a power wheel chair, with round the clock help, in that same house. She had to accept help. I became the manager of the nursing staff, my sister the banker, my brothers the maintenance men. We had to work things out. My brothers and sister and I had to care for her and she had to accept it. She did so with a surprising amount of grace. There were bumps along the way but we worked them out.

I write this today because all week I have been wishing my family did not have to watch me grow old.