Attack of the Seniors

DSC_0001As I approach senior citizen status, I’m beginning to experience what it means to belong to this age group—young people look upon me with pity and I probably should schedule a facelift. On the bright side, I’m allowed to become cranky with anyone who doesn’t respect my opinion as the only one that matters.

I’ve also started to take a modest interest in things labeled “senior.” Thus I was attracted to the recent headline in the Fort Bragg Advocate News: “Senior Center Vote to Fire Bush Baffles All.”

On the surface, the senior center board had silly reasons to fire their executive director Charles Bush. He allegedly has a messy office, spends too much time in the dining room, not enough time fundraising, and refuses to fire a crabby volunteer.

Of the 9-member board, the vote came in 4-2 with 2 abstaining. The ninth member claimed that the vote was called for illegally and walked out before it was taken.

Tensions ran high at The Purity as people wondered aloud: Was Charles fired or not?

The plan to dump him began brewing over the summer. The seniors who frequent the center are highly supportive of him and none too happy with board members who favor letting him go.

After the “firing,” the board president was spat upon one afternoon while walking through the halls of the center. Another time, she found her car had been keyed. She received a death threat. All board members suffered harassing telephone calls.

How could I not be captivated by a story that included death threats, crank calls, car keying, senior citizens spitting on one another, sex, drugs, alcohol and adultery?

(The sex, drugs, alcohol and adultery claims have not been corroborated—so it’s probably best not to repeat them.)

seniorcenter2Suffering from a lack of drama in my life (new puppy notwithstanding), I decided to attend the senior center board meeting on September 27th.

I arrived 15 minutes early to find people pouring into the vast dining room faster than Charles Bush could haul out chairs to seat them.

I looked toward the open kitchen and saw two people stirring a large cauldron. Others plucked feathers from chicken carcasses. The thick scent of tar hung in the air.

The room was packed with a growling gray-haired mob, worrying stones in their pockets and hoping their aim was as good as in years past. I estimated 10,000 people, but it was probably closer to 200.

A weary looking vice-president attempted to call the meeting to order amidst problems with the sound system.

Angry cries of “I can’t hear you!” and “Put the microphone up to your mouth!” reverberated throughout the room.

The glitches were worked out. The vice-president’s first announced was that the president (who had previously been spat upon and received death threats) and three other board members would not be at the meeting. The crowd grumbled.

What would become of all that tar, all those feathers?

The collective expression of the five board members present was a mixture of fear and disdain, self-protection and disgust. They would not cower before a bunch of peon vigilantes.

Charles pleaded with everyone to simmer down, to treat one another with respect. This harkened me back to the days when my daughter Laine attended Redwood Elementary. Each Friday, the student body gathered on the playground for “Friday Opening.” The short session ended with everyone reciting the Redwood Oath: Be kind. Be safe. Be responsible.

Fort Bragg Advocate News photo

Fort Bragg Advocate News photo

The crowd grudgingly shifted from feral to nearly calm. A half hour was set aside for public comment. Each person who wished to was allowed a few minutes to express his or her opinion. The opinions were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Charles as executive director.

At the close of public comment, four letters of resignation—from absent board members—were read into the record. The crowd gasped.

Another letter of resignation was read, then one more. The crowd gasped again as the two grim-faced quitters got up and walked out of the room. 

In less than one hour, the Redwood Coast Senior Center Board of Directors went from nine members to three. I have not witnessed such drama since “Dynasty” went off the air.

The senior center should have no trouble filling the vacant board seats. Perhaps the person who spat on the former president will apply. And the one who keyed her car. And the one who issued a death threat.

The final three seats can be fought over by those who made the threatening phone calls.

Before each board meeting, the principal of Redwood Elementary can lead a recital of: Be kind. Be safe. Be responsible. Don’t threaten to kill one another.

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We Eat Meat

In 1992, our son Harrison entered first grade at Redwood Elementary School. A couple weeks later, he brought home the reader We Eat Meat. (I kid you not.)

If you’re a parent, you know the warm pride of listening to your young child read. In this case, I had to press my knuckles to my lips and refrain from making eye contact with my husband Gary so I wouldn’t ruin the moment with laughter as Harrison recited the lines: “Meet Pete. Pete eats meat.”

When our daughter Laine entered Redwood three years later, the book had disappeared. Perhaps it has been banned.

Laine is a vegetarian. Harrison is a meat eater. Is this merely a coincidence or the product of early educational imprinting?

Gary and I are meat eaters. While I fancy I could easily become a vegetarian, he grows faint at the mere thought of two meatless dinners in a row. He’s also of the mind that to eat Mexican, Italian or Chinese food more than once a week is to venture precariously into uncharted epicurean territory.

imagesIt took years before I realized that Gary has some serious food issues. (Never mind that missing my daily 10:00am latte makes me break out in distress hives.)

Gary has suffered from Type 1 diabetes since the age of 12. When he was diagnosed back in the fifties, his physician told him he’d be lucky to live past the age of 40. (Inmates on California’s Death Row have longer life expectancies.)

Gary views each dinner as his possible last meal. Unlike many people, he is void of the luxury of believing a disappointing meal doesn’t matter.

DSC02750One Saturday evening when Harrison and Laine were home for a visit, we treated ourselves to a meal from Jenny’s Giant Burger. I joined Laine in ordering a veggie burger. Harrison and Gary each requested the giant burger.

In the car on the way home, I snacked on a number of crispy hot French fries (one of my favorite things that I’ve not, till now, confessed to my family). Moments after the food bag was set on the kitchen counter, we attacked it like a pack of starving wolves.

As I choreographed the eating of my meal—bite of burger, one French fry, sip of chocolate shake (one of nature’s most perfect taste combinations)—I marveled at the remarkable deliciousness of my veggie burger.

Half way through his burger, Gary’s face contorted into what looked like a precursor to vomiting. “This burger tastes like crap! It’s the worst burger I’ve ever eaten!”

DSC02751

Beware of the poisonous veggie burger.

I peeked under the bun of my sandwich to discover the reason my veggie burger tasted so good. “Oops! Looks like I got yours, Gary.”

You would have thought I’d said, “Oops! Looks like you just ate rat poison.”

Gary fled to the bathroom where I heard him spit out veggie residue. The kids and I rolled our eyes and chuckled.

When he returned to the table, we exchanged the remainder of our burgers. All was well until later that evening when we tried to reach consensus on what might possibly be the last movie Gary would ever watch.

Gary Eats MeatMeet Gary. Gary eats meat.

Gary likes Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven movies. Gary does not like Meryl Streep movies.

Definitely not Meryl Streep movies.

Definitely not.

Goodbye First Grade

Our youngest, Laine, left for college in the fall of 2007. Over the previous months, I’d become adept at eliciting pity from anyone who didn’t run the other way when they saw me. Laine’s going off to college; I’m so sad; say you’re sorry; tell me it’ll be okay even though I know it won’t. After 21 years, I don’t know how to live without children.

Kim Mertle did not run fast enough, which allowed me to capture her in The Purity. She suggested I might find comfort through volunteering in her first grade class.

What a great idea! Since my own kids were leaving me, I’d replace them with other people’s kids. I did not have to surrender to the desolation of Empty Nest Syndrome.

Initially, I think Kim worried about how my fragile state might affect her classroom. She assigned me to a corner and sent individual kids to read to me.

A darling, cherub-faced child would read with a halting cadence. I remembered when my own children first learned to read, how Gary and I would sit next to them and marvel at their recognition of the written word. They were all grown up now, in college, far away.

When confronted—“Are you crying?”—I’d tell the child, “Me on a Map is such a sad story.”

Eventually, Kim released me to the class at large and let me assist students with their worksheets. I was given a purple Awesome stamp and had the power to brand papers with my approval. It was purple-ly awesome. Sometimes I would use a colorful felt-tipped pen to draw a star on a finished paper. My unparalleled, star-drawing talent never ceased to impress.

I went on every field trip and attended every class party. I was their once-a-week angel and they were my darling babies. I fell in love with every one of them. On the last day of school, I cried.

The following year, I was given the additional responsibilities of checking in homework and presiding over work stations. I was a bit annoyed by this class at the beginning. We’d gone through this material last year and these new kids weren’t getting it. What was wrong with them? Even though these were freshly minted kindergarteners, I found the repetition of last year’s lessons rather boring.

Again, I participated in field trips and parties. Again, I cried at the end of the year.

I carried each year’s child in my heart, missing them. I wondered if they thought about me and how I helped and encouraged them. Every now and then I’d run into a former student and was delighted to see them.

They’d look at me like I was stranger danger. “You remember me from Mrs. Mertle’s class don’t you?” Without fail, none of them did.

I was stunned. I gave these kids the best two hours of my week, every week for an entire school year. I cried when they read to me. I cried.

This was a humbling experience. However, I relearned that children are creatures of the moment. At that moment in their lives, I was important; afterwards, not so much (actually, not at all).

I began volunteering to fill a void in myself. I evolved into recognizing that my role was to be of service—to the teacher and the students. I carried on, still enjoying it, but with less emotional attachment.

Over the following three years, I attended fewer field trips and parties until I attended none at all. I stopped crying at year-end and looked forward to summer break. This past year, I had an inkling of burnout when a girl handed me a snotty tissue and I said, “Why are you trying to give this to me?”

“So you can throw it away.”

“Do I look like your mother?” Even though my tone was lighthearted, she looked puzzled by the sarcasm and reluctantly threw the tissue away. I was ashamed.

In April, Kim announced she would teach at the middle school in the fall.

What about me? How was I going to get my kid fix? A couple of hours passed and I realized I no longer need a kid fix. I had raised kids for 21 years: volunteering in classrooms, going to sporting events, organizing parties, and helping other children. My addiction has run its course.

I am content with my empty nest.