Down on the Farm

Weekly column by Eric Bergeson.

A dementia-friendly town

 Businesses in Watertown, Wisconsin are working to make life easier for a vulnerable portion of their population: those with dementia. 

Unfortunately, a diagnosis of dementia often results in shame and stigma. It should not. Those diagnosed early in the progress of the disease can live productive and happy lives for years with just a little help. 

For the community to help, they need to know how. Watertown is training those in retail to better serve those with dementia.

An example: Servers at restaurants often bury you with a blizzard of choices. The choices would confuse anybody, but to a dementia patient, they become impossible to sort out. 

Instead, servers are taught to create simple choices and narrow them down gradually.

Rather than offering coffee, tea, hot chocolate, iced tea, lemonade or six kinds of soda, a waiter might start with, “Would you like something hot or cold?”

That cuts the choices in half. Holding up a coffee cup in one hand and a soda glass in the other is another possibility, as visual choices are easier than those filtered through language. 

Watertown has opened a cafe specifically for dementia sufferers. It is full most mornings. 

Such a cafe, where dementia sufferers find understanding and meet others in the same boat, fights the tendency for the afflicted to hide out at home, which is exactly the opposite of what they need. 

In fact, dementia sufferers can thrive if they keep busy attending community events, or having coffee every morning with a group of friends. 

One man I met flies from city to city to speak about his dementia. He is in the early stages of the disease, and his primary symptom is that he occasionally doesn’t recognize his surroundings. 

Enter a smart phone. With his phone to remind him where he is and where he is going, the gentleman gets back on track. 

Although he keeps notes on the podium, he didn’t use them that day. He delivered a great speech, then paused briefly as he left the podium to figure out where he was and where he was supposed to go. 

For those in the early stages, dementia is a mere disability, not a death sentence.

Instead of hiding the dementia diagnosis in shame, the more people who know about it, the better. Instead of whispers and gossip, the small town can surround the dementia sufferer with love and care. 

For instance, if Agnes loses her way while getting groceries, somebody who knows her diagnosis can just pick her up and take her home. 

Service people can slow down a bit and not bury Agnes with options. Townspeople should realize the good they do when they pause to visit Agnes, even if some of the words get mixed up. 

Alzheimer’s takes language before other abilities. It is best not to test those with dementia to see if they remember your name. Instead talk to them the same tone you always have, and about the same topics. Farming. The weather. The Twins. 

Recognition will come. Connection will happen. But it doesn’t happen when we challenge those with dementia: “I am Eric? Remember me?”

Your name now sounds foreign, and always will––but you are not.

Sharing a magazine or a photo album creates connection. Those with advanced symptoms will ooh and ah. However, if you leave the magazine for them to look at later, they likely lose interest. The real reason your friend enjoyed the magazine is it allowed them to connect with you without being challenged or tested. 

Advanced sufferers have lost the past and future. They become more attuned to the present. The buzz of fluorescent bulbs. The rattle of the ice machine. A furnace kicking in—things the rest of us have tuned out.

Many dementia sufferers develop an uncanny ability to assess the true mood of their visitor. It becomes their mood. If you arrive agitated, they get agitated. If you come in truly happy, they can become happy. 

Before we visit a dementia patient, it is best cleanse the mind of agitated thoughts, drop the need to have our name recognized, recognize and resist the temptation to test or challenge––and be ready to be delighted with unexpected, sometimes brilliant comments, or just great smiles, once the dementia sufferer recognizes that you are comfortable with them as they are. 

In other words, be present, just as those with dementia are present!

The number of dementia sufferers is going to increase, mainly because medical science has eliminated so many other causes of death and decline. 

A tragedy? Well, life is tragedy. Instead, let’s remember that each dementia sufferer has something to teach, if we are willing to learn. 

With a little effort, every small town can become a dementia-friendly place. 


Temple Visit

 While in Arizona, I have my own private Minister of Culture, my cousin Tina of Scottsdale. 

In the past weeks, we have visited two art exhibits and the botanical gardens. I also attended a theological discussion and a Bach pipe organ concert. 

I wouldn’t have known about any of the events if Cousin Tina hadn’t rousted me from my desert retreat to attend. 

The main cultural event last week was a tour of the sparkling, gigantic new Mormon Temple in south Phoenix. 

Non-Mormon visitors are allowed until the Temple officially opens in March. Cousin Tina thought we should avail ourselves of the opportunity, no matter our theology or lack thereof. 

When Cousin Tina decides something needs doing, it gets done. 

The Temple tour required advance tickets. For some reason, Cousin Tina decided it would help our cause to declare me mentally impaired. 

Printed right on the ticket were my expected behaviors: “He is really, really slow. We’ll probably be late.”

And late we were. Cousin Tina hoped we could skip the introductory film due to my impairment and just get the Temple tour. 

The Temple’s parking lot was jammed. Dozens of volunteers, one every twenty feet or so, lined the drive. Cousin Tina worried that we would have to park in the boonies. 

With terrifying suddenness, she developed a bum hip. Terrific pain. Bone on bone. 

She ordered me to roll down the window to inform one of the volunteers of her malady. 

I decided to assert control over the ethical emissions from my car and I refused. However, without thinking, I stepped on the gas and shot right between two of the volunteers into the prize parking lot right in the Temple’s shadow. 

We scored a parking spot near the Temple. We hopped over several barricades and marched to the main gate, hoping to get right in. 

No such luck. A cheerful volunteer intercepted us. We had to go to a side chapel for the movie. “You won’t want to miss it!” she said, “It is really, really neat!”

Any time I am required to take part in something which is simultaneously mandatory and “really, really neat,” I want to escape. But I was too impaired. 

I decided my mental impairment would resemble Forrest Gump’s. I buttoned my top top shirt button, hitched my pants way up high and talked like a rube. 

After a wait in line for the movie, a woman took our ticket. I acted like Gump, but in vain. She didn’t even look at the ticket. She just smiled at me in pity. 

As we entered the chapel, not only was my mental impairment healed,  but so was Cousin Tina’s hip!

After the movie ended we were ushered towards the Temple. Before we entered, more young volunteers fitted us with haz-mat slippers so we wouldn’t track the floors. 

The Temple’s interior was opulent, like heaven is depicted in the movies. Everything glowed celestial in the extraordinary lighting. The marbled halls resembled a flagship Macy’s without the clothes racks. 

We were to be silent. Our guide wasn’t allowed to talk. If we had questions, they were to wait until we visited the white tent in the parking lot afterwards. 

Instead, she gestured at placards, which we were free to read on our own. 

Here is the massive baptismal font, she gestured. Here is where married couples are sealed for eternity. Here is where you get certified to enter the Temple. Here is the changing room where Temple visitors change into all white clothing before services. 

I don’t like getting herded around in tours. I don’t care if it is the White House. I want to explore on my own. But this time, due to the ever-present volunteers, I had no choice but to stick with the group. 

Part of it is that I can’t stand the corny canned speeches of the guides. At the Temple, the guide was mute, which was a great improvement. 

Back at the house with my impairment healed, I did some research on the internet to help me understand what I had seen. 

The Mormon Church is as dominant in the Mountain West as the Lutheran Church is in the Upper Midwest––so I compared the two. 

The most important theological difference between Lutherans and Mormons, I decided, is their view of coffee. Good Mormons don’t touch it. Proper Lutherans consume it in mass quantities, as if it is one of the sacraments. 

No wonder the Mormon Temple is so well-lit! They need bright light as a substitute for coffee to stay awake during services. 

It all fell together, even though Cousin Tina and I skipped the white tent. 

Another successful cultural experience!


At the Zoo

 The Reid Park Zoo in downtown Tucson celebrated the birth of a baby tapir a couple of weeks ago. 

The tapir is an endangered and bizarre creature from South America. It looks like a pig with an elephant’s trunk, but it is related more to rhinos and horses than pigs. It uses its mini trunk to pull up plants for food. 

A while back, zookeepers brought in a male tapir from another zoo to impregnate Mama tapir. Although the breeding was successful, the pair’s relationship was rocky. The male proved abusive, and was removed once the desired results were attained. 

I know all of this only because my next door neighbor here in Tucson helps the zoo provide proper nutrition for the animals. 

When Mama tapir rejected baby tapir, Howard was called in to fix up a nutritional regimen which zookeepers would hand feed to the infant tapir. 

“It is likely that the mother was traumatized by the male,” Howard said. “Animal families are like human families: they are sometimes dysfunctional.”

When baby tapir waddled after Mama tapir for milk, Mama apparently thought the baby resembled the father and fled for safety. 

After studying the chemical content of tapir milk, Howard decided a diet of goat’s milk would be best for the baby. He found a goat herder in northern Arizona willing to donate milk. The man even threw in some colostrum for good measure, yum, yum. 

Alas, baby tapir coughed at the wrong time, inhaled some of the goat’s milk into its lungs, developed pneumonia and died. 

With my curiosity piqued by Howard’s story, I decided to visit the zoo last Saturday. 

My last visit to a zoo had been several years ago. The Tucson Desert Museum twelve miles west of the downtown is an excellent zoo which features animals of the Sonoran Desert. Zookepers do the best they can to provide realistic habitats for the incarcerated critters. 

However, as I watched the playful otters repeat their same routine of sliding down the waterslide, twisting in the water, jumping out and diving again, I became depressed that they weren’t free to do the same in the wild. 

Watching the intelligent otters do the same trick forty-three times in a row reminded me of a brilliant homo sapiens wasting days playing solitaire on the computer. 

Thanks to the plight of the otters, I soured on zoos. But I wanted to see Mama tapir, so I drove downtown and joined the hordes of schoolchildren. 

The tapir was something to see, but I had the most fun watching the five elephants. Elephants are grand, playful and intelligent. According to Howard, “They have a great sense of humor.” 

I witnessed it. As a baby elephant extended its trunk into the moat to get a drink, an adult stood across and watched. As baby’s trunk fully extended, the adult reached across with its own trunk, wrapped it around the base of baby’s trunk, and squeezed tight. 

With its trunk squeezed shut, baby elephant couldn’t get water. But it was a joke. The adult pulled away, as did the baby, and I swear I could see both of them smile at the prank. 

The elephants played. They pulled dust into their trunk and sprayed it at each other. They wallowed in the mud. I didn’t witness them use their trunk to fling dung at the crowd, but it has been known to happen. 

Interesting human behaviors were on display at the zoo as well. As the animals performed their natural functions, little kids commented without restraint. And the adults squirmed. 

“Mom, the mama elephant is peeing!” shouted a little girl. 

“How do you know it is the mama?” the human mother responded in an attempt to change the subject, unwittingly opening the door for even more embarrassing comments. 

A young male giraffe, only 2300 lbs. (adult males reach 7,000 lbs) attempted to ensure the survival of his species. He was rebuffed. 

“What is he doing, Daddy?” said a little girl. 

“Let’s go see the otters,” said Dad. 

“Why don’t you want to watch the giraffes, Dad?” 

The delights of parenting. 

After a beautiful afternoon spent in awe of the odd and the beautiful, I decided the zoo is a pretty good place. 

A big reason was the kids. If only a handful of them maintain their excitement about animals into adulthood long enough fight for their preservation, zoos are worth it. 

As for the adults, perhaps the obvious intelligence of the elephants, or the miraculous oddity of the tapir, will inspire them to question the depraved dogma that humans are the sole purpose of creation. 


Senility etiquette

 A question of manners: What is the proper way to inform a friend that you have already heard the story they have started to tell for the fifty-third time? 

Equally vexing: What is the proper thing do when the look on the faces of others makes it clear you have embarked a story they have heard fifty-three times before? 

Do you stop mid-sentence? Do limp onward, hoping that the story will bear retelling? 

As senility advances, these questions become more important. 

One friend’s wife has decided that he should number his stories one through forty-six. When the urge arises, he can just say, “number thirty-nine!” She will dutifully laugh, go back to her newspaper and be saved the agony of hearing the whole tale once more. 

Some politely say, “Yes, you mentioned that!” as a way of cutting things short. 

Others patiently fold their napkin and listen with tolerance. 

If people want to be nasty, they wait to inform they already have heard the story until they spot an inconsistency with a previous version. 

“Last time you told that, you only saw four hundred deer,” they’ll say, pulling the rug right out from under you.  

At that point, I stop and let somebody else tell a story. When you get caught inflating the number of deer present, it’s pretty much over. 

Many stories detail youthful indiscretions, things you can talk about now that the statute of limitations has expired. 

The trouble is, if we mature at all as we get older—and that is not guaranteed—we create fewer new stories. We’re stuck retelling the same ones over and over for the good reason that our lives have gotten boring.

If you sit on important boards or run a local business, it is probably best not to climb the water tower at three o’clock Sunday morning. There are risks to creating new stories. So, you tell old ones. 

To solve these dilemmas, I have decided to rely on the old proverb: “Do unto others as you wish they would do to you if they had it in them.” 

When Uncle Wilbert starts the story about rolling Grandpa’s 1936 Dodge into a Hereford cow, I resolve to act interested, look him in the eye, nod and laugh as if it is the first time I have heard it in my life. 

I will look for variations, but not to pin him down. Rather, I will study the variations to understand why the 1936 Dodge came up at this particular instant. 

One elderly relative adapts every story to suit the present situation. If I stopped her from telling the story because I had heard it before, I would miss the latest twist. 

She was thrown from a horse sometime between World War I and World War II. That is the basic story. However, the story can be varied to explain any present ailment. 

If her back goes out, it was due to that horse. If she gets forgetful, it is because she hit her head on a rock on the way down. Sometimes she’s mad because her Dad left her alone with a skittish horse, other times she’s disgusted that he spooked the horse by dropping the hitch on the hay wagon nearby. 

You just never know how the story will end. 

Story-telling is not journalism. The truth is never the point. The point is entertainment, or maybe a lesson. 

Truly good story tellers know that they have told the story before but take care to improve it each time. 

“He’s so full of it,” we say about such people, but think about it: you never, ever stop a good story teller from telling a story you’ve heard before. The fun of it is hearing how far things have stretched since the last telling. 

Kids know this. 

“Tell the one about the dog eating the Thanksgiving turkey!” they say, eager to hear Grandma go through the whole story again. Grandma adds new spice to each telling, and the kids laugh harder each time. 

Until they grow up. Then it is all facts, facts, facts. “That’s just a story, Jeremy, don’t believe everything Grandpa says.”

Middle-aged killjoys. 

Once again, the very old and the very young get it while the rest of us don’t. 

So, a couple of rules: 

When you hear a story for the tenth time, humor the teller and listen hard. They’ll probably respond to your attention with a new and improved version. 

And when you tell a story for the twentieth time, make darn sure it sounds better than the nineteenth, even if it means increasing the number of deer.



 The oil boom hit Casselton, North Dakota last week in a big way. 

With a couple of big booms, the myth that crude oil which moves through our towns on long trains won’t explode went up in smoke. 

If an oil train derailed in a major city, the consequences could be dire. 

Other myths deserve to be exploded as well. 

One is that this oil boom will burn itself out and things will eventually return to sleepy normal on the Upper Great Plains. 

People who subscribe to that myth aren’t living in the real world. There is enough oil beneath the prairies of North Dakota, the western provinces of Canada and the plains of Texas to feed the world’s addiction to fossil fuels for generations. 

The massive estimates of oil in place use conservative assumptions, and they only account for present technology. 

In fact, the ability of explorers to extract oil from the deep rocks improves with each passing month. 

Not included in estimates are several layers of oil-soaked rock which haven’t yet been studied, much less drilled.

But, skeptics say, how can we keep fouling the earth’s nest by burning fossil fuels which increase carbon dioxide levels and harm the atmosphere which sustains us? 

That’s like telling a drunk, “we would like you to stop drinking for the good of yourself, your family and your community.”

“Oh, and by the way, we have just put 50 barrels of whiskey in your garage which we would prefer you didn’t drink.” 

It is going to take a cataclysmic event larger than the explosions at Casselton to scare the world’s economies into into treatment for oil addiction. 

It will take a massive political sea change—perhaps a rise in ocean levels of 10 feet or so—to create a crisis sufficient for the people to demand an intervention.

Given the 100s of billions of dollars at stake and the perceived geopolitical importance of “energy independence,” the Great Plains oil boom is here for the lifetime of anybody reading this. 

In the meantime, we will be faced with local consequences of the worldwide thirst for oil. 

Those consequences are not limited to North Dakota, but will spread to the entire region. 

Increased violent crime. Increased drugs. Increased desecration of once-lonely prairie. Rising costs of property. Rising rents. Overburdened infrastructure. Crumbling roads. 

The present political climate, fueled by short-term thinking and a naive “drill baby, drill” ideology, tilts towards unfettered looting of our newfound bounty—but you might ask the long-time residents of western North Dakota whether they are better off now than they were before the looters arrived. 

Follow the money. Wherever there is lots to be had, there will be thieves. 

When thieves get enough money, they buy their way into legality through contributions to politicians.

Oddly, the prevailing political ideology has conned the little people into thinking the looters will allow something to trickle down to them. 

Think again. If the president of Exxon showed concern for the little guy, he or she would be canned within the month. 

The underlying demand for oil is so huge that the industry can stand a little regulation, no matter how loudly their well-paid lawyers cry poverty. 

For example, Texas—Texas!—demands oil companies capture their less profitable natural gas and sell it rather than flaring it off, as is done in North Dakota. 

Is that so difficult? 

How about the increased costs of law enforcement, emergency medical services, road construction and maintenance, schools, welfare, and property costs?

If the world wants this area’s fuel, it should pay for the effects of removing that fuel from our once-pristine and blissfully-neglected region. 

But for a government body to insist upon such responsibility takes courage and foresightedness. 

Thanks to our round-the-clock media circus, such qualities are in short supply. To get elected, politicians must spout the same popular falsehoods accepted as dogma by the bozos with a twelve-year degree in talk radio. 

Drill baby, drill. 

Politicians know they are lying when they dispute science, but just as they did when they supported the obvious lies of tobacco companies, politicians go with the flow—the flow of money into their campaign coffers. 

To make the best of the oil bonanza—to make sure it doesn’t do us more harm than good—we need leadership. 

But until the people demand such leadership, they will get just what they deserve: Short-term thinking and the destruction of their way of life. 


Guatemalan Grandma

A tiny Guatemalan restaurant is my favorite here in Tucson. In the kitchen, Guatemalan Grandma produces delicious food which I chronicled here a few years back. 

I still go there weekly. Guatemalan Grandma must think I am still growing: The pile on my plate mounds higher with every visit. For eight dollars, I get two healthy meals: One at the restaurant, and another for lunch the next day.

After I finished eating on a visit before Christmas, Guatemalan Grandma came out from the kitchen with a care package: Two massive Mayan tamales all wrapped up in tinfoil. 

Lots of gibber in broken English as Grandma and daughter simultaneously taught me how to reheat the tamales. You don’t microwave them. You steam them in a pan. 

The tamales, each a meal unto itself, contained a uniquely Guatemalan mix of sweet, sour and hearty. Corn meal. Peppers. Raisins. In each, a single giant green olive. All of it wrapped in a banana leaf.

On a visit this past week, instead of tamales, I got a history lesson. 

The founders of the restaurant came from the Mayan highlands of Guatemala in 1982. They came to this country illegally, smuggled across by Catholic Church missionaries. 

They had fled Guatemala for their lives. 

The United States has a long and troubled history in Guatemala. In 1954, when an elected president started to fight the United Fruit Company’s efforts to defraud Guatemalan peasants of their land, President Eisenhower authorized a successful CIA coup to replaced the elected government with a military dictatorship that was more banana-friendly. 

In an odd coincidence, Allen Dulles, brother of then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, sat on the board of United Fruit. 

When democracy again reared its ugly head in Guatemala in the 1970s, American favorite Efrian Rios Montt put a stop to the non-sense with a military coup. 

A Pentecostal minister trained in California, Rios Montt showed up on the 700 Club with Pat Robertson. He and Jerry Falwell were friends. 

President Reagan called President Rios Montt “a man of great personal integrity and conviction.” 

In reality, Rios Montt was a ruthless butcher. 

Using American military aid, Rios Montt’s death squads slaughtered the Mayan people of the highlands. Bodies of men, women and children––entire villages––filled the ditches. 

Even the CIA was appalled. However, American military aid continued to flow. 

To escape the slaughter, Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter escaped underground to Tucson. 

Last week, a man named Carlos joined them at a table in the back. The ladies teased him in Spanish and explained to me in English: Carlos had just kicked some Mormon missionaries out the door, and the ladies told him he would suffer for it!

To defend himself, Carlos changed to English: “I believe in God, just not religion!” 

“What about Rios Montt?” I said, impulsively, remembering the name from a course I took in Latin American history in college. 

The man’s eyes grew big. He switched back to Spanish. Guatemalan Grandma translated.

“I was imprisoned for six months,” he said. “They said I was a communist. I was merely in a trade union.” 

He showed me scars on his arms from torture. He had been handcuffed behind his back the entire six months, not allowed to lie down, and was forced to drink his own urine every day. 

His imprisonment ended when Rios Montt’s bloodthirsty regime was overthrown after only 17 months in power. By then, 200,000 had died, mostly Mayans. Over 1.5 million Mayans were uprooted from their homes. Many were enslaved, others ended up in concentration camps. 

Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter escaped to Tucson to start their little restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall no more than fifteen feet across. 

The walls are covered with murals of jungle scenes and posters of Guatemala. The restaurant is a happy place. 

Rios Montt was convicted of genocide in May of 2013, but second court overturned the verdict. A new trial begins in 2015. 

Guatemalan Grandma and her daughter work hard. They are the restaurant’s only employees. Last night when I made my weekly visit, both looked tired. 

Guatemalan Grandma asked me about my trip to Minnesota. I asked her what she did for Christmas. 

“I slept!” she said. “That’s all!”

Daughter looked haggard. 

Turns out, she had major surgery only three days before. 

“I try to be tough!” she said. “There is nobody else to help!” 

I almost offered to wait tables on the spot, but it was closing time. The next day was Sunday when the restaurant is closed. Perhaps she will get some rest.

These are hard-working people with a difficult story. Our country is better off with them here to tell it. 

And here I am, privileged since birth, growing fat on Guatemalan Grandma’s food!


Tucson Mamas

 One thing about city living: You can go days without any outside social contact other than the checkers at the store!

The checkers here are friendly. They tend to be retirees. Quite a few are “Tucson Mamas,” a name cooked up by outsiders for female Tucson natives. 

Tucson Mamas have straight, long hair. None of this piling your hair up in a big poof like Midwestern women of a certain age. Tucson Mamas let it hang. 

Their skin is leathery from years of sun. They wear heavy Southwestern jewelry that jangles when they walk. Tucson Mamas are fond of capes and other flowing garb. No Mom jeans to be seen. 

When you see a Tucson Mama, you think of herbs. You probably can smell some herbs. They are earth women, tuned in to the desert. 

Tucson Mamas usually have a long, bombastic history of unsuccessful marriages. They tried the traditional thing, and now they’re done with it. In the unlikely event they have a man now, he’s been successfully tamed and is back at the house watching HGTV.

I picked up a box of Kleenex and a bunch of bananas the other day. A Tucson Mama checked me out. 

“Well, that should get you through the night!” she growled. 

I laughed. I enjoy the no-nonsense cracks of Tucson Mamas. 

I walked to my car. As I opened the door, a voice behind me said, “Here.” Tucson  Mama handed me my credit card, which I left at the till. 

“Typical,” I said, and thanked her with an embarrassed laugh. She did not laugh. 

“You probably needed the attention,” Tucson Mama said. 

“Just like my ex-husband,” she grumbled as she walked back to the store. 

Yesterday, I was checked out by an entirely different sort of Tucson Mama. Her name was Juanita. She looked exhausted. 

“What’s the matter?” I asked. 

“My body says it needs rest!” she said. Then she explained.

“My grandkids left the fridge open. It froze up and everything spoiled,” she said.  “I spent yesterday throwing everything and defrosting the fridge.”

“I am very tired!” she added.

Juanita looked to be in her late sixties. Latino families are big loving clans who honor their matriarch. Juanita probably has grandkids in her house every day. 

Yet, Juanita, who by all rights should be retired and enjoying her grandkids full-time, was checking groceries. 

It occurred to me as I walked to the car that refilling her fridge probably cost Juanita a day’s wages. You aren’t getting ahead at that rate. 

I felt bad for Juanita. 

Tucson’s largest convenience store is Circle K. There are 110 stores in the metro area. When they advertise for employees, they emphasize they want people who are “friendly and outgoing.”

That’s what they get. Many of the clerks are Tucson Mamas, and they don’t hesitate to banter. They aren’t intimidated by the gruff truckers who come in for coffee in the morning. They tease them until they loosen up and show a little humanity. 

One trucker asked for a pack of Marlboro reds.

“You’re sure you don’t want two?” said Tucson Mama. 

“Nope. Quitting after this pack,” says sullen trucker. 

“Yeah right. Heard that before. There’s a deal on two. Here you go.” Tucson Mama said as she rang up two packs of Marlboros. 

Sullen trucker shrugged, paid and walked out. 

Another Tucson Mama sings to the radio through every sale. Loudly. Nobody bats an eye. She’s out of tune. But she keeps singing while she makes change, bopping her head back and forth. 

So refreshing. No “have a nice day!” fake friendliness in the Tucson Mamas. They do their job, they do it well, but they do it their way. 

I get the feeling the company values their uniqueness, because every Circle K store has its resident character, male or female.

“Where you headed today?” they ask a trucker they see most mornings. 

“You need to go home and get a warmer coat!” they bark at young bucks who try to get by without a winter coat when the Tucson temperature sinks below 60 degrees.

I wish I could do something at Christmas for the Tucson Mamas at the checkout. 

You can’t have a Christmas meal for them because they’re at the store working. These stores never close. 

And they’d be too proud to show up anyway. If there is anything Tucson Mamas have, it is pride. They’re proud of their tough lives, and they’re proud that they came out sane. 

I guess if there’s anything I can do, it is to keep forgetting my discount card, leaving my credit card at the till, spilling coffee, and other typical behavior so they can scold me a bit and take care of the problem. 

Sigh. Another hopeless male. 


Wisdom of the Aged

 Flew home from Tucson a few days last week for an early Christmas with family. 

I discovered anew why I went to Tucson in the first place. The high temperature during my brief visit home was one degree above zero. Lows hit -25 F. 

I dragged my Ford Ranger out of the shed to serve me while back home. The old pickup seemed reluctant, almost arthritic. The starter groaned. The engine died at intersections. It wasn’t the Ranger of those first 250,000 miles, that’s for sure. 

“What are you doing back here?” locals asked wearily. Seemed like they had about 250,000 miles on them, too. 

I stopped by Fair Meadow Nursing Home to see great-aunt Olive. She’s 102 years old. 

I don’t know how many miles that is. 

The cold doesn’t bother her.

“I couldn’t have it any better!” she said, as she always says. A warm room. Good food. Good people. A nice rocker. 

“I could just sit here forever,” she said. 

I call Olive from Tucson, but it is difficult to communicate over the phone, especially when she misplaces her hearing aid. 

Two weeks ago, I called and couldn’t for the life of me get her to hear me.

Finally, Olive shouted, “Call again and see if we get a better connection!” 

So, I waited five minutes and called back. 

“Hello?” Olive said. 

“Can you hear me now?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s so much better,” she said. “That other ear isn’t worth a hoot.”

When I tell her I am wintering in Tucson, she tells her two Tucson stories. 

Her brother, Uncle Johnny, encountered salsa for the first time in Tucson in 1972. Thinking it was tomato juice, he threw back a whole glass. The salsa was Tucson hot. It nearly finished him off. 

A few years earlier, Olive traveled through Tucson and stayed in a resort. She and her travel companions went down by the pool. Ruth, a free spirit like Olla, promptly put her feet up on the furniture, which earned her a withering glare from a resort worker, and a scolding from her sober husband Orville. 

Olive and Ruth got the giggles. They had to go outside so they could laugh out loud. 

Olive’s father died in 1916 when she was four. His death shaped her childhood. 

“Mama didn’t have any discipline,” Olive said. “We did whatever we wanted!” 

That included staying up until four a.m. playing whist. 

“The neighbor kids all had stern Norwegian fathers,” Olive says. “No nonsense with them! 

“But we ran wild.” 

“No wonder the kids always came over to our house!” she laughed. 

Aunt Olive had a brush with cold weather as a one-room school teacher. A school program ended with the great March blizzard of 1941. Olive engineered a tent made from horse blankets around the school’s wood stove. The kids sang and played games, while Olive kept watch for a chimney fire.  

The parents didn’t fear. They knew their kids were in good hands. 

“They’re all gone now!” Olive said of her relatives and friends. 

“But, I don’t miss them,” she added, philosophically. “They lived their lives.”

People laugh off musings of the elderly. “Oh, she’s so cute,” they say when the old person says something a little shocking, like that she doesn’t miss her friends who have died. 

I think we should listen. Aunt Olive has reached 102 years-of-age for one reason: An extraordinary attitude. 

She always looks forward. She can’t die yet, she says, she still has a lot of pictures to sort through. She still needs to clean out her closets.

Grief? She has felt it. All six of her siblings have died. So did her husband. Some of her former students in country school, now in their eighties, are passing on. Her step-son is in a nursing home. 

But Aunt Olive limits her grief. One time she told me she grieved one of her friends “yesterday morning.” Boom. That was that. End of the mourning period. 

So when Olive says she doesn’t miss the departed, I know what she means. I often feel the same way. A completed, honorable life is a beautiful thing, something to be contemplated with gladness. 

As she sits in her rocker, her friends are as real to Olive as they were seventy years ago. 

Just as she accepts that nobody lives forever, Aunt Olive takes the decline in her physical health in stride. 

“My brain is half shot,” she says with disgust. “I have had so many strokes that blood vessels are just hanging loose in there.”

“But what can you expect? I am 102-years-old!”

True enough. 

I decided not to complain about the cold, or my arthritic pickup. 


Christmas list

 Count me amongst the world’s fortunate: I cannot for the life of me think of one thing I want for Christmas. 

I walked up and down the mall the other day. It all bored me. Only the pet store drew me in with its cuteness and possibility, but five minutes of that thought was enough. 

The pet store is no place for impulsive decisions. 

The book store carries fewer interesting books all the time. Perhaps the good books have been already written. That’s why I like used book stores better than new book stores. 

People give me gift cards for books stores and other places, and I give others gift cards, but I really wonder if anybody ever uses them. I don’t. They sit in my sock drawer. I try to remember to bring them along, but I don’t. 

So the cards decay. Not literally. They’re plastic. But their value can decline through fees. Or, if you never get around to using the cards, the company gets off scott free. 

When a gift card languishes in the bowl by the washer where I put keys, markers, chewing gum, small change and munched up toothpicks, it gets dirty. Who wants to walk into a store with a gift card caked with spearmint gum? 

I shouldn’t care what the clerks at the store think, but I do. 

“I am sorry, but this gift card was purchased in 2003,” the clerk says, which was when she entered junior high and well before the invention of Twitter. 

I can see her Twitter to her Twitter mates: “I had, like, this really weird guy come in today with, like, a gift card from before I was, like, born.”

About $5 billion worth of gift cards go unused each year, according to a consumer publication. Recently, the estimated total value of unused gift cards sitting in the nation’s sock drawers was $41 billion. 

So, I am not the only one. 

We millions of gift card hoarders should arrange to use our gift cards in one day and see what that does to the stock market!

Some people give me gift certificates for local businesses for Christmas. Local gift certificates are nice. I like to spend other peoples’ money at local businesses.

But now it gets personal. What happens when the business changes hands? How must it feel as a business owner to have somebody walk in with a gift certificate that’s not only from a previous decade, but from a previous owner? 

Small towns being what they are, the business owner is also a friend, or at least they’re trying their best. Do you really want them to think you are some sort of a jerk, bringing in gift certificates that are long off the books? 

I have decided I won’t use the 2004 certificate in 2013 if the business changed hands in 2008. You have to draw the line somewhere. 

In fact, I have trouble using local gift certificates that are more than six months old. It just doesn’t seem fair. 

Why? I have sold gift certificates. Once you sell them, you forget you sold them. You spend the money. There’s a record somewhere, but who looks at that. 

When you own a business, nothing’s more deflating than to watch a massive order advance towards the till––only to have the customer pull out a fist full of gift certificates to pay for it all!

Here I anticipated an increase in income, only to find out I had spent the money already and was now paying back the debt. 

Of course, most shoppers end up buying a lot more than is covered by their gift certificate. That is why businesses love to sell gift certificates. Some customers don’t use them, which is great, and those who do buy more than intended, which is also great. 

Or, not so great, if you’re the customer. 

When it comes to Christmas gifts, probably the best thing you can buy me are socks. For some reason, I resist buying new socks myself, even though the last time I looked they cost less than 80 cents per pair. 

I wear them until holes appear, and until they are so thin that they fill with gravel when you go up for the mail without shoes. 

There’s nothing better than slipping into a crispy, fresh new pair of socks. Yet, I never get around to buying them, just as I never get around to spending gift cards. 

For your information, I like 100% cotton. My shoe size is nine-and-a-half. I don’t need the socks to cover my knee caps, but I don’t like those little anklet things, either. 

Thanks in advance. Merry Christmas to you, too. 


Don't be cruel

 Most of us have been raised to recoil at cruelty to animals, at least if it is done within our sight. 

But cruelty to humans? Ha! That’s a different story. That’s how we get our laughs!

After Halloween, a video made the rounds of parents who hid their child’s candy and told them they had eaten it all. The video captured the child’s despondent reaction. 

Their eyes got wide. 

“It’s all gone!” the parents said. “I ate every bit of it!” 

Naturally, the children cried. After all that running around the neighborhood in a hot costume, wouldn’t you? 

Despite the tears, most people saw the kids’ reaction as “cute.”

Over the past few years, video after video has appeared of children surprised by a parent showing up after a long tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

One showed a parent appearing in the child’s classroom. With cameras rolling, the kid burst into uncontrollable sobs. 

“That is so neat!” was the consensus. 

The genre took off. Soon, it became a fad to stage surprise reunions between small children and their military parents at half-time of college football games in front of 60,000 people. As the confused child broke into tears on the jumbo screen, the crowd roared its approval. 

Nowhere did I see a peep of protest. 

As a child, I would have felt betrayed. You all knew Dad was coming home and you didn’t tell me just so you and millions of others could watch me cry? 

You mean you lied to me about stealing my candy just so you could record me crying in panic and get famous by distributing the video?

How sick!

Practical jokes can be cruel, too. As a kid, I loved to play jokes on the people who worked for Dad and Mom. 

One time, I cut up some jalapeño peppers and inserted them into the fresh sliced tomatoes on the table. When the crew came in for noon dinner, I waited to see who would get the hot tomato. 

It was Oscar. Wrong person. Oscar was the most dignified neighbor we had. I wanted to stop him. But I didn’t. 

After putting the whole tomato in his mouth, Oscar maintained his dignity against all odds. He carefully wiped the loaded tomato from his mouth into his napkin, took a drink of water, and announced apologetically, “I think there may be something wrong with these tomatoes.” 

I felt horrible. I knew I had crossed the line.

Cruelty is defined as taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It bothers us when cruelty happens to cute little animals, but less so when we laugh at humans we deliberately place in a situation which strips them of their dignity.

So are all jokes cruel? Are all manipulations of another’s emotion for our own mirth out of bounds? 

I’ll draw the line in the sand and say a little cruelty might be okay, but only if “he had it coming.”

Old Oscar didn’t have it coming.

People used to steal gas. One time, a gas thief stepped in a pail just as our neighbor unleashed his hounds. The thief ran as fast as he could with a pail on his foot. 

He had it coming. The dogs didn’t hurt him. We can laugh. 

I still think its funny when people tape the nozzle of the sink sprayer with electric tape, even if I am the victim. The sad fact is, I am usually my own victim with that one. 

I had it coming. 

However, children never have it coming. Manipulating their emotions for a good laugh, or a good cry––either one––is sick. 

I have helped plan a number of surprise birthday parties, and they can be fun, but there is an element of cruelty to them as well. With cameras ready, we hope to catch the person off guard. Then we laugh and laugh. 

The older I get, the more I am turned off by surprise parties. The charade benefits the surprisers, not the surprised. The surprisers want to catch you off guard, see a little emotion, strip a little of your dignity. 

I can’t help but sensing some betrayal. You planned this all behind my back? What else are you doing behind my back that I still don’t know? 

The moral cover used is that the surprise is supposed to be a good one. 

Daddy’s home! Aunt Ellen came all the way from Seattle! We hid Uncle Charlie from Anoka in the basement for two days so you wouldn’t find out! 

The unselfish approach would be to give people time to prepare for an emotional reunion. 

Losing one’s composure in public isn’t everybody’s idea of fun.