Monday, January 31, 2005

One Good Line

Another day on death row. We used to laugh at the lowering of our own standards: "If nobody dies, its a good day." Well.... they're gettin' lower. It was a pretty good day.

Last week we went to get new cell phones. One of the great things about being married (there are so many) is consolidation. He puts both phones on one lower bill and pays it. How can I go wrong? I know there are those of you out there who disavow (well, you'll disavow almost anything. admit it) the loss of womanly independence and the right to fuck up your own credit, but I'm loving it. I married a responsible man. And those of you who know me can relax now. Quit worrying. I can't sink the ship. I'm not driving.

So anyway, there we were, in cell hell, the ATT/Cingular phone store. If it was Safeway, there would have been a mass exodus, people would have mutinied in earnest. Take a number my ass. My husband, bless his sweet unexpecting heart, said, "We'll just run by and pick up the phones on our way to the meeting." "Okay, Honey" I said, knowing--knowing all along how it goes. He tells me, "I did this all over the phone already. It will be a breeze." I smile. I know we'll never see the meeting. He says, "Don't worry, I even have the guy's name I was talking to. Sergi." But I know we'll spend the evening looking at ear buds and lime green disco phone covers and leather phone holders and god knows how many different kinds of the same damn phone. And there is one chair for a bzillion people, and I keep thinking of Asha, who says don't lean on things... if you stand without support you will have better balance and be more graceful, and I know she's right, but I'm so tired after a long day among the old and older. But I do it: I stand. And I am all the more graceful for it, if you can imagine that.

Back in cell hell it finally became our turn. OUR TURN. Then its all fun and games, shooting the shit with the twenty-something kid who tries to explain the difference between analog, digital and gps. The shape and frequency of radio waves. Remember: I don't care. But we sit there like a tree full of owls as he explained ad nauseum about how there are no long distance charges. And it was like being in the dollar store. It's how much? a dollar. how 'bout this? Dollar....

Sergi says:

There's no charge for long distance
NO charge?
Yeah. There's no long distance.
What about when we're out of the calling area?
Yeah. Then too. NO long distance.
What about...

And on it went. It was all one dollar. NO LONG Distance.

But then came the part I want to talk about. We started to talk about guarantees and bringing things back and what do we do and (as Cooky says) who shot Willy. I'm sure you know what happens when you bring back a cell phone without the box. I don't have to explain that do I? It's as though the box was the single most important feature of the purchase. "Oh, I'm sorry, we can't return it if you don't have the box." Now, let's not even talk about how impossible it is to get the damned thing out of the box in the first place, let alone back in. And to maintain the box in its pristine original condition. You'd think it was a first edition Hemingway. But you gotta have it. That's gospel. I'm tellin' ya.

So, the guy, his name was actually Sergi (Sair-gay) tells us about the phones. We ask, "How's the reception?" And he says the thing I'm writing this whole goddamned post about. He says: "None of our products are guaranteed to work. That's why we have the 30 day guarantee."

I had to hand it to him--he kept a straight face.

I didn't.

I used to sell drugs. I'll admit it. The statute of limitations is up. But I sure as shit wish I'd thought of that line. I really do. "I'm sorry, none of my products are guaranteed to work." To amuse you, this is the best one I came up with after many years of practice: "This shit's so clean you won't feel it until about fifteen minutes after I'm gone."

See. There's a reason I have to be a social worker for two more months. It's pennance.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


So, my theme has changed from apathy to, well, whatever is a step up from that. The primal shrug. It isn't so much that I don't care, as that I can't care about everything as much as it seems to need to be cared about. There you have it.

I'm so happy for Mark that he finally made it out of there. Another one. Another in an endless line of lives that have, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, touched mine. He was so smart. The history is this: Mark cracked his head while four-wheeling at 19 years old........ then, died at 45ish. Long damn life. He should not have lived. Quadraplegic, mostly deaf, half of half of one eye. But you gotta hand it to the guy, he could still appreciate Victoria's Secret catalogs. God bless testosterone. He could hand spell, and so could I. That was the basis of our friendship. That, and I had the rarely respected authority to boss around the people who took care of his body. I tried to take care of his mind.

He wasn't a very good speller.

Or driver. He had an electric wheelchair -- one of those giant red Jazzy models that take up more room that they should and weigh as much as my house. But the thing about Mark was he never really got it that he couldn't do stuff. He kept a very high opinion of his abilities, all evidence to the contrary, and was fearless.

He thought he could roam the streets in this wheelchair--no eyes, no ears-- and we just couldn't let him. I wish we could have. I wish I could have just opened the door and let fly. But better judgment won out and he remained imprisoned. Cared for. If we had care about him rather than for him, we would have locked him in a room with scantily clad women drenched in hot mustard and barbeque sauce and let him indulge himself to death. He did love mustard. I tried to explain to him, time and again, the importance of safety and my burden of protection. But he didn't get it.

The place where he lived, where I lived from 8 to 5 monday through friday for years and years, sat on top of a hill, with locked doors and window alarms. One day the locked door was just open, just barely, and he charged it in his electric wheelchair. He made it as far as the curb, tipped and fell into the street. As I ran out behind him, righting the ten-ton chair with six other staff, his fingers were madly spelling "I- l-e-a-r-n-e-d." I don't know if he did or not. We took the chair away from him. It wasn't safe. It wasn't. Still, I hated doing it. But he was running over people, and that wasn't okay.

With the old people, tributes feel different. With Mark, it just seems a long time comin'. There is no life to review. There is a State system of care provision that is imperfect and easily indicted, and Mark was a victim and recipient of it. It is better than nothing. Idealists would not agree with me, but fuck them. Idealists don't want the Mark's of this world free or visible. They think they do, but they haven't been to the circus. They haven't seen the man behind the curtain. Mark was not pretty. His life was miserable and expensive, and I can't speak for him, but it looked too damned hard from where I sat.

Some tribute, eh?

Thursday, January 20, 2005


There's more. There always seems to be more. Once you begin to see the story of it all, the willingness of the aged to tell the tale, there is nothing but story, and in between, paperwork. Frances Lee's mother sits in a wheeled recliner during her waking hours. She yells, over and over again for her daugher and for water. She can only drink thickened liquids, so her question is never answered, her thirst never quenched. Her daughter visits almost every day. They are from Kansas, the Kansas of long ago, with prairie-straight hair, parted in the middle and wound into braids that sit on either side of her head like Danish. If you listen, you can tell their hair used to be red. She was telling me a story about her mother becasue her mother is sitting in the chair dying, and I'm new, and she hasn't told it to me yet. She warns me that she never shuts up, but living among the dying, I've learned to end conversations. She tells me about her grandfather, on mama's side, and " his big cavalry moustache and long red hair." How he fathered thirteen children with an invalid wife (ya think?), and raised them all. She tells me about all of the children in her mother's family, how one of the 13 was murdered while she was walking home after a bingo game. I was kind of surprised to learn that they played bingo during the depression, but I guess life goes on. They shot her through one eye and she lived for awhile. She reminded me that back in those days, they didn't keep you in the hospital if they expected you to die--they sent you home. And they made her mother sleep on the sofa so Mary could die in her bed, and all she remembers is that the cat had kittens that night. That's the story Frances Lee's mother told her, handed down to her, and she tells me so I'll know a little of her mother, the woman she was before she was taken by Alzheimer's. She's back-woodsy--Frances Lee is. Could have stepped out of the cast of Deliverance. She doesn't understand medication. Calls them magic pills. She's old herself. Her mother must be a hundred.

So that's the story for today.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

one teensy little lie

I lied today. I have said for a long time, and this by way of literary bio: I'm a liar, not a writer. Truth be told in these few pages....

But there I was, hard at work among the dyin'. I was in Ardith's room, asking the "20 stupid questions." They range from, "Have you had any hospitalizations in a psychiatric facility," which almost no one answers ambigously; and "Are your bowels regular?" But my favorite by far is this: "What is your lifetime occupation?" My favorite answer to this question so far is this: "Oh, honey. Get a chair. This is going to take awhile." And it did. It took me awhile to find a chair, because I was in a hurry, and I only had 12 spaces to fill in and I tried to pry the one fact out of her. Just one word. Sum it up. Snap it up. I have work to do. And then, as the moment settled around me, as I saw the longing of her unexpressed story, the madness of not being able to say it outloud, of having to play it over and over again in the waning light of a vanishing mind, I sat. Impertinent. Stupid. And she told me of her husbands, and her life as a model. A model. As her body spread around her like shade. And just a little about her children. And this is the lie of it all.

Ardith died this morning.

You can't judge families. I know this. If there is one thing I've learned about dyin' is that there is no right way and no wrong way. Everybody does it different. Some teach us how to live, some how to die. Ardith's daughter hadn't visited her very often at all and the staff judged her for it. They had a tough relationship, from what I hear. And I don't know anything. But she showed up this morning--the daugher--and she was the way daughters are upon the death of a mother: Orphaned. Lost. It doesn't matter what went on before. The gaping wound of childbirth and all the years between lay exposed to the neon halflight of the hospital room, her mother's trinkets lining the shelves above the single colonial maple dresser she had hung onto, stautes of dancing dolphins and stuffed valentine bears, precious trash, dollar-store bingo prizes, all packed and moved in an instant. And the staff was mad at her. She was desperate to know if her mother had asked for her, if she was mad at her, if she loved her. She asked that: "Did she say she loved me?" No one could answer the question. What can you say? They are all good Christians, and I'm the kind of Christian you'll find in Anne Lamott's book Travelling Mercies. Barely Christian. Just barely.

So I made up a story. It wasn't a whole lie. I had let Ardith tell me the story of her life. I just made it a little bigger, a little sweeter, a little more of what she was looking for. A little more about her.

She thanked me. It was that easy. Then it was over. And I let the rest of them think I made the whole thing easier on her, but really, as always, I was just making it easier for me.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


Mae died. I'm not sure when. It doesn't really matter. It hardly mattered that she lived at all. I was only one of many who cared for her, who lifted her from bed to chair and back again with the help of many other paid people. But I cared about her. She was odd. It was her psychiatric diagnosis: Funny Looking Kid Syndrome. Look it up. It sounds awful, but it seems that the endless barbs of the young and insensitive take their toll. Her appearance, however, did not keep her father from fucking her, or shipping her off to the nuthouse when she delivered an 8 pound tumor at the age of 11. Oh, I know I'm not supposed to tell these stories. But they are an enduring part of the medical record and I just don't want them to die with her. Who else will tell them? She was sterilized. Probably for the best.

To look at her was to view the work of an unskilled sculptor-- a haphazard face, eyes too wide set and off by several degrees, big and round and accusing. Her hair, thin feathers around her face, had no color really at all. Her body didn't work very well. I don't know that it ever did. Like so many, she found comfort in food, in the food from her own metal tray and the trays of nearby, less observant, inmates. Rolls of Mae spread around her like shade, and as she grew ill toward the end and the fat began to go away, and she began the long process of disappearing, her skin simply stayed, stretched like pizza dough over bones as pourous as sandstone, subject to gravity like the rest of us.

The thing is.... she had this Barbie collection. Looking back, it seems unusually unkind to have purchased Barbies for Mae. Shit--it seems mean to buy them for me. It seems mean to make them at all, but that's not the point. I wonder what happened to them -- those skinny dolls, the gold standard of body types. They must have been worth a mint. She had boxes of perfect, unwrapped barbies, guilt presents no doubt from dear old dad. But I don't want to focus on the legends, the hospital stories, handed down like nasty treasure from one shift to the next, morsels of sexual myth that keep the interest of underpaid caregivers, and which may or may not be true. They seem true. They could be true. She did give birth at 11. They did call it a tumor. She came to the nuthouse and stayed... long before the trend in therapy was in full swing. She grew up there. Then, we brought her to live with us.

Living with Mae, which is what you do if you run a residential unit, was sketchy. Its funny. In her chart -- the location of pure truth-- it said things like: suspicious... does not trust caregivers. Hoarding behavior. Well, no shit. What they don't say is that the people who come out of those places, those warehouses for the undead, are crazy if they aren't suspicious, if they don't want to keep all of their worldly goods in plain sight. She wasn't nice -- that much is true. But she was consistent. She didn't like anybody. We coined the word "snarky" to describe her, then, when State surveyors said it wasn't a word, we found it in a british dictionary. She was snarky. She embodied snarkiness.

Oh hell. Mae is dead. It's not that I wish she wasn't. I wouldn't have wished her life on anyone. I guess I just want to say out loud, in the only way I know to say things out loud, that she lived, and in the living, enriched my life.

I just wonder what happened to the barbies.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Whew. Well, I'm feeling better and a little less shocky today than yesterday, yesterday than the day before. We got up Saturday morning and my husband is a guy not to leave things undone. Get on the phone to the insurance people and get it rolling. So, it is rolling. From the moment of impact, however, it now occurs to me, it is all about controlling the information -- the assignation of blame. It starts from the first comment, when she gets out of her car and says, "I was trying to run it. Were you?" I did not answer that question or any other in a natural manner. Insurance keeps me from the real truth, which will come out as I allow it. "I'm not sure." I hedge. "I just stood on my brakes as soon as I saw you." You. Your fault. You should not have been where you were and now we are where we are: standing in the middle of Division during rush hour, the cold hard street slick with sleet. Say that three times fast. And I control my human impulse to care about her. If I care about her, if I commiserate, I will have to pay my deductible, I think. So I maintain my distance, make the appropriate calls, and control the flow of truth. A bit at a time. Leaking out like truth will. It begins to dawn on me that it is okay to go through yellow lights. That this accident, may, in fact NOT be my fault at all. I look at it from her lane (at this point I am still wandering in traffic. The policeman not yet curbing me.) I look up and see the sign: Left turn yield to oncoming traffic. That would be me. I was oncoming like a _________ (you decide.) But not very fast, or the wreck would have been worse. So I begin to adjust my perspective. By morning, the wreck was indignantly not my fault and the insurance company -- hers, not mine -- had better come through. Its funny.

So, blame momentarily assigned, we got a little rental car, a kar, a toy, a KIA. And I am so jumpy. Jeez... If a light turns yellow, god forbid I am anywhere in the vicinity. So, we decide we are due a trip to the coast in a cheap little car with cheap gas. So, off we go to Bi-mart to buy me a pair of waders because it is winter and we are going night clamming. Sneaking up on the damned things in the dark, waves hopefully not sneaking up on us, off we went. The road over there was beginning to get snowy and I was a little concerned for the trip back, but it was such a good diversion from the wreck that I didn't really care. We got a dozen medium clams-- me, the lady with the lamp, K digging like mad when we spotted one.

Now, it is Sunday night. We've eaten the clams, the truck is in the shop, and our world is spinning on its axis, as well as it has since the Tsunami.

Friday, January 07, 2005

mother trucker

Well, I wrecked the pretty red truck. Broke it bad. Some woman tried to do what so many Portlander's try to do: make the left turn off Division and 60th before the light changes. It is the strangest feeling, one I don't really remember because I've always been so drunk when I've crashed, and I've crashed bad in times gone by. But this was so slo-mo. I kept thinking, oh, I'll stop. This won't really happen. But it did. She did not yield. I locked up the brakes and just fucking sailed into her. T-bone style.

I handle things so well. Not things like happiness or success, but car wrecks, disasters...?? I'm your gal. I was a little shakey, but it was so cold and rainy. All I could think was to exchange information (not something I used to do, oh... i want to tell a couple of stories!!! the 76 El Camino!! the hit and run on the Allegheny Drawbridge) but my hands wouldn't stop shaking, and I realized about ten minutes into it that I was standing in the middle of Division in the rain on Friday at 5:30 and everyone passing hated me. I was in grave danger of being smashed like my shiny red truck. So the nice police-boy asked me to stay in one place, which I could not, and finally (trumpets sound in the distance) my husband showed up in his shiny white charger -- I mean truck. God was I glad to be married just then. He picked up a crow bar and extracted the fender from the front tire so we could roll to the body shop I had conveniently wrecked in front of. They took a torch and cut off the fender that was in the way (at no charge -- I recommend them) and off I went.

What surprised me was how hard it was to call my insurance company with cold fingers and a tiny cell phone. And the help line was hard. Too many choices. It should just say: "Did you have a wreck? I'm sorry. Find the first warm spot you can and go to sleep. We'll make it all better." But having my husband is almost that good. He just took care of biz and got us out of there to die another day.

Then, Jane and Chris came over for dinner. I tried to cancel, but decided it would be a good diversion afterall and it was. It was good to see them both. Them and their rocket racket. I wondered why I was so compelled to prepare enchiladas last night for tonight. What do they say? Always cook casseroles ahead in case you have a wreck. No, that's not it. It's about changing those panties.

Well, my honey is playing White Stripes in the basement and I'm all tuckered out. Glad to be breathing.

It has been a busy day.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


There are things I will need to record as I spend my days in this place. In the mission statement (any company has one nowadays) it says: "nobody wants to come here." I spent some time today with an old woman who wants to go home. She wants to go home so bad that she's losing her mind. And she doesn't get it that she can't. She can go to somebody else's home and be a foster person. She can go somewhere else. But nowhere else is home. And the trouble is, she has no idea where she is, but she has just enough left to know where she isn't. And it isn't really even there anymore. Home. The farm. She spent 60 years in the same house and I can't convince myself to convince her that this is okay, that this alternative living is a little like home. The only thing that is like home is that she's there. It is not not not home.

I sat with another woman today who said, "I look down the hallway and I see the line of old women in chairs and my body won't do what I want it to and I wonder what is next for me." We wonder together which is better, to lose the body or the mind, and neither of us know, but she is closer to knowing. She used to be a hairdresser and vanity left her a long time ago.

And they are dying, one by one by one, and I didn't want to do this anymore and I don't know how long I can.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

yesterday's news

Advancing across this spectrum. We went on a boat ride last night, the Portland Spirit. My expectations weren't huge, but I did expect it to be more like a boat ride than a floating restaurant. But I guess that's exactly what it is. I'm glad it was new year's eve and I was all dressed up because it was pretty fancy. The music was a piano bar of standards played by "the very handsome and wonderful [somebody] Goldberg. " We were up on the top deck and ran into him and I asked him if he knew any blues. He said he did, then went back to his piano and put a little spin on Danny Boy. I like Danny boy. I like Moon River. But we were a captive audience unless you really like to swim, in the rain. The rain. K won the trip by being the guy to take the most alternative transportation in Hillsboro (the Maxx) and so it wasn't much money and the food was great. We just should have taken it in the summer. The starlight deck was awash with puddles deeper than my clogs (don't wear clogs on boats). Our waiter, our personal waiter, was Gherrralll (emphasis on the final sylabal.) He and the rest of the crew could sing too. They had to. It was part of the job. The gay community was well represented, and an old woman sitting at the next table from Roy, Utah was horrified. After we docked, we drove back home, let the dog out, and went to a dance. It was awful. Every song sounded like "Achy Breaky Heart" and I longed for a good blues bar. We won't make that mistake again. We came home and played scrabble. That was the funnest part. I kicked ass.

So it's 2005. I'm going to bake a ham.