In the ‘Hood

 I’ve lived in at least a couple of the world’s great cities, but where I am now is a very eclectic little piece of the planet . We have, to name a few, a former mayor of the funkadelic town, Baltimore, (home to an amazingly high ratio of good movie directors,) an artist, a physicist, and a husband and wife who are both pilots, which around here means they guide the huge shipping- container-sized ships into port.  When the weather is fine, people will stroll down to the water at the end of the day with a little cocktail in hand, or maybe with a cute little kid on a trike and a Chesapeake Bay retriever in tow. You can walk right down the middle of our streets because it’s quiet and everyone drives slowly and watches out for kids and dogs and joggers and cyclists. It’s post racial, meaning it’s about half black and half white and everybody is very live and let live.

But the guy who really interests me is the unsuccessful drug dealer across the street. He’s a very gentle seeming guy, even with the pit bulls, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get his business off the ground.  I don’t think he sells any heavy drugs, because the customers that come and go don’t look scary.   But he’s definitely in the biz.

For some reason, a lot of the action is really early in the morning, and as I am an early riser, I sometimes lean against the counter in my kitchen with a cup of coffee and watch the activity through the window.  The reason I think he is not successful is that he never seems to have any money. The house isn’t too much of a mess, but it’s pretty basic - a kind of upgraded double wide. I think his grandmother left it to him. Every few months, the police show up and cart him off, and he neither goes willingly nor puts up too much of a fight. My understanding is that the thing he was caught for was running illegal cigarettes, or maybe it was stealing a few packs of smokes while he was high on PCP. But his demeanor is kind and he is well spoken. I believe his dad is the principal of the middle school.

There was a terrible altercation recently involving one of his pit bulls and a teacup Yorkie, and you can imagine who came out on the worst side of that one. I am a fervent dog lover, but somehow I couldn’t get mad at my neighbor, and the doggie is recovering, thank goodness.

I find myself wishing the best for my neighbor, hoping that his huge 70’s type car holds up (he gets in accidents about as often as the police show up for the drug busts) and for his pregnant girlfriend, who I’m pretty sure is off the meth, and for the dogs, who they have finally started to take on walks around the neighborhood. I hope he gets his business sorted out, because let’s face it, when you’re a felon, you don’t have a lot of choices, even if your dad works in the school system.

But he makes it even more interesting around here, and I can mull over what he might be doing, driving off at 6.00 on a Sunday morning, only to return an hour later.   A bit later the joggers and walkers start appearing, and in my neighborhood, the day has begun.

Ode to a Vacuum Cleaner (with thanks to JessBen)

I’m having friends over for dinner and that means hauling out the Hoover and attending to a chore I despise. That’s why I asked my husband to vacuum the house. 

But it also puts me in mind of the upcoming anniversary of the patent for the first vacuum cleaner, issued on October 3rd, 1899. Granted, it was gasoline powered, not to mention bulky and loud, but it augered a major turning point for women in society.  By 1907, the portable electric vacuum cleaner had been created by a cranky 60 year old janitor and tinkerer names James Spangler. The following year, in 1908, he sold the patent to his cousin’s husband, a guy named Hoover.  And there was no turning back.

No matter how much we may think we still feel the yoke of housework, electric appliances like the vacuum helped fling open the window for women back in the early part of the 20th century.

Think of it! No more dragging heavy Persian rugs outside to beat the bejesus out of them for hours on end.  Finally! Some help cleaning the endless soot that settled from gas lamps and fires.

By the 1920’s, electric appliances like the vac, the washing machine and the iron were being marketed as the new servants to middle and upper class women alike. Yeah, that put some servants out of work, but it also gave women the room and the time to start to think about something other than the laundry and to experience the world and society in a whole new way. They got out more, and that started a revolution.

Some studies show that women still spend close to the 52 hours a week cleaning that they did decades ago, because cleanliness standards have increased.  Maybe, maybe not. Still, as much as I resent my vacuum cleaner, I have to give it props for clearing the way, in both senses of the word, for generations of women to come.

The Incredible Shrinking World

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We gave a surprise party for my Dad when he turned 90 last year, and I had a lot of time to think back on his remarkable ability to find new sources of fulfillment and joy as the years have taken their toll.

Fifteen years ago, he tragically lost his only son. My sweet brother was brutally murdered in his own home. I watched as my dad took the lead for our paralyzed family, clawing his way through the shock and pain of that nightmare, in much the same way that he had crawled through the snow during the Battle of the Bulge after he was badly injured and left for dead.

Eventually, he found some sort of distraction and energy in sports, doing surprisingly well for a man of 75.  A quadruple bypass was scary but he recovered well. The carotid procedure went well too. Then his back began to go from the severe scoliosis. First it was the golf, then the skiing, then the tennis. All gone. Back surgery followed failed back surgery, each one seeming more invasive and frightening than the last.  One day at a car wash, someone told him he had blood on the back of his shirt.  Pieces of the metal that were holding his spine together had broken free, worked their way out of his body and pierced his skin.  They patched him up and he marched on, if more slowly, enjoying a beer, his friends, even parties, despite the damage.

When the pain got beyond bad, a neurologist told my dad he was amazed he could walk at all, because his spinal cord was basically the only thing holding the two halves of his body together. The neurologist said most people would be curled up on a sofa in agony. Another major surgery was planned and, at 80, we knew the risks.  He made it through, and my husband and I sat with him in the hospital room afterwards, all of us laughing together about how slurred his speech was from the meds.

But it wasn’t the meds. We were sitting there watching him have a stroke.

The shrapnel in his head from WWII made the MRI difficult, but they managed to assess the damage and rehab began immediately. He was grouchy and frustrated, but he carried on. His speech went from “word salad” to perfectly understandable over the months. It seemed and still seems an act of will, though all due credit to the excellent medical team.

A couple of years later, when the peripheral neuropathy set in, he searched and searched (and is still searching) for an answer to the pain.  Getting out and socializing became a major endeavor, and though he did as much as possible, he gradually became mostly housebound. He could still walk around the block with his cats, the neighbors keeping a close eye, but it was a long journey to the solace of the shady little park.

In a spare room, he began to build an elaborate train set echoing the one he had built decades ago that we’d loved so much as kids. The electrical engineer in him came out as he worked on the tiniest of switches and lights and tracks and motors till the train set filled the room, the engine chugging along, whistle blowing. He fussed for hours over the parts under a magnifying lamp we got him, enjoying every second of it. He created houses and shops and hills and factories for the journey, with tiny people going about their business—a miniature world.

When that became too much because of all the bending, he discovered his back yard. My dad, who had never been concerned about anything but keeping the grass mowed and who had always seen weeds as an enemy of the people, suddenly discovered the beauty and tranquility of nature. He couldn’t do it himself, but he found a wonderful woman who transformed his average suburban plot into a secret garden filled with little trails lined with flowering shrubs and perennials and huge fragrant climbing roses.

When he could no longer walk around the block with his cats, he got a scooter. And when that proved to be too much, he began to take the scooter the few yards into the back garden and feed the birds.

Now he sits on his deck and watches the birds and waits for things to bloom. His younger friends have never deserted him and neither has his resilience. Photos of his son surround him. His ability to adapt as more of his movement, flexibility and strength have disappeared is utterly remarkable. If he’s not a model for aging well, I don’t know who is.