Friday, April 29, 2016

The best damn pie in the whole wide world

I belong to a gym located in a strip mall that also contains a Winn-Dixie supermarket.

A month or so ago, following a workout, I popped into Winn-Dixie to pick up something to grill for dinner. Just inside the entrance was a display of pies promoting the chain’s newest variety, Apple Caramel Drizzle, which, the sign proclaimed, was awarded the 2015 National Pie Championship by the American Pie Council. (Forget the UN: The United States should fund this worthy organization if it truly wants to promote world peace and happiness.)

I don’t even like apple pie. On the other hand, if someone were to drizzle caramel over dog shit I’d probably try it so I picked one up. And that evening, after a healthy dinner of grilled chicken, I cut myself a slice.

There are some things you will never forget. Holding your newborn, for instance. Your first forkful of Winn-Dixie Apple Caramel Drizzle ranks right up there with life’s most profound experiences. This is the best pie not only in America but in the world. The sugary but still slightly crunchy apples in a gooey sauce. The flaky crust. The buttery caramel -- not too little, not too much, just the right amount to complement the filling and allow your mouth to know you've tasted perfection. There isn't a tarte aux pommes in all of France that could hold a candle to it. I allowed my wife one small slice then ate the rest myself, except for a small sliver I saved for breakfast but I couldn’t wait – I got up in the middle of the night to polish it off.

While I’ve always been a casual gym-goer, I now go every other day, which just happens to coincide with how often I need a new Apple Caramel Drizzle pie. Last week I went into full panic mode when I discovered my local store had sold out but, mercifully, the Winn-Dixie in a neighboring town had one (but only one) left. 

The good news: Thanks to an incentive to go to the gym every other day, my chest, arms and legs are nice and toned. My rapidly expanding pot belly, on the other hand, makes me look eight months pregnant. I don’t care.

Only a handful of my loyal readers live in states where Winn-Dixie supermarkets are located  -- the chain's web site says they're in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana -- but trust me when I say that Winn-Dixie Apple Caramel Drizzle pie is worth moving from wherever you are to be near one.

I could go on and on but I need to go to the gym.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The rewards club

Twenty-something blonde cashier at shoe store: Hi, are we a member of our rewards club?”

TD (placing four boxes on counter): No.

Cashier: Okay, give me a moment while I check these sizes. (She opens one box and looks at the tongues of both shoes to make sure the sizes match. After examining the second pair, she asks …)

Cashier: Are we a member of our rewards club?

TD: No.

Cashier (after examining the third and fourth pair). Okay, they all match up.

TD: Glad to hear it.

Cashier: Are we a member of our rewards club?

TD: Um … no.

Cashier (after scanning UPC codes on all four boxes): That comes to $231.82. Are we a member

TD (interjecting):  No! We most definitely aren't.

Cashier: Okay, slide your card. Is that credit or debit?

TD: Credit.

Cashier: Do you want your receipt in the bag?

TD: Sure.

Cashier (placing receipt in one of two bags and handing both to me): Okay then, here you go.

TD: Aren’t you going to ask us if we want to join the rewards club?

Cashier: Are you here with with someone?

TD: No. Just me.

Cashier: So why would I ask if you and someone else want to join?

TD: Because four times in the last minute you’ve asked, “Are we a member of our rewards club?”

Cashier: Well, do you want to sign up?

TD: No.

Cashier: Okay, have a nice day.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Old Lives Matter

I always gave my mother, Ruby, a book for her birthday, which would have been tomorrow. Mom, who died last year at the age of 102, was a voracious reader. She stayed up late the night before she checked into the hospital for what should have been routine surgery to finish the latest birthday book I had given her.

I want to give Ruby one last birthday gift by writing about something that was important to her, the way our society treats the elderly.

Webster’s defines “elderly” as “rather old; being past middle age.” That requires defining what the term “middle age” means. Webster's says it means, “The period of life from about 45 to 64.”

I’ll turn 65 in November. Just eight months more until I am, by Webster’s standards, elderly.

While I don’t think of myself as elderly, some people clearly do. The tattooed twenty-something who held the door open for me at the gym yesterday. The ticket seller at the movie theater who extended the senior discount without bothering to ask for I.D. I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled and get a free senior-sized soft drink at Wendy’s with any purchase of 99 cents or more.

While I’m just starting to confront the concept of my impending elderliness, my mother had to deal with it for nearly 40 years. Ruby hated being old because, as she learned, people tend to disregard old folks, particularly the uber-elderly – those 90 and up. And the older she became, the more she found herself disregarded.

Mentally, Ruby never deteriorated. Not. One. Whit. Not only did she never forget anything from her early years – she could easily recite entire poems, like Hiawatha or The Raven, that she had memorized as a schoolgirl – she, unlike many uber-elders who can remember picayune events from decades past but have forgotten what they ate for lunch, could rattle off the previous day’s closing price of Apple or AT&T.

Ruby’s worst nightmare was that she might someday become mentally infirm, as her older sister had in her final years, so she did everything she could to keep her mind sharp. She worked Sudoku puzzles, read two or three non-fiction books a week, played duplicate bridge, and cruised the Internet on her iPad.

I always joked that, when she died, we were going to donate her brain to science so pathologists could study it to see whether her sharpness was due to determination or to genetic luck. But we didn’t; she had a post-operative stroke the day before she died so her brain was damaged.

Physically, however, Ruby deteriorated as she aged and the deterioration accelerated once she reached her nineties. Her hearing failed. Her blood pressure sometimes surged into the stratosphere, requiring hospitalization. Following a series of falls in her late nineties, she had to use a walker. Despite her infirmities, she remained determined to continue living in her own house. It wasn’t until her ninety-eighth year that she finally conceded defeat and moved into an assisted living center. 

Judging strictly on the basis of her physical appearance, people who didn’t know Ruby tended to write her off as just another old person, someone to be treated like a child.

Two years ago I received a phone call from the head nurse at her assisted living center, inquiring if I wanted mom to receive a flu shot. “Why don’t you ask her?” I said. “She makes her own decisions.”

“She does?” the nurse replied, sounding astonished that I would even suggest such a thing. “Have you ever talked with her?” I asked. “No,” she admitted. This woman was in charge of dozens of elderly residents yet assumed that anyone mom’s age didn’t have the ability to make his or her own decisions.

Ruby was disgusted when I called to tell her the nurse would be stopping by. “She sits in her office all day thinking we’re idiots,” she said sadly.

My sister always drove Ruby to doctors’ appointments. Because our mother had trouble hearing, she would accompany her into examination rooms in case mom missed something the doctor said. While mom had outlived most of her long-time doctors, those who had known her for years addressed her directly, explaining what they were recommending. New doctors addressed my sister, referring to mom in the third person, like a pediatrician speaks to the mother of a toddler. “Don’t talk to me,” my sister would advise them. “Talk to her, she’s in charge. And speak loudly.”

In November, 2011, when she was still living in her own home, mom made the near-fatal mistake of opening her door to a home invader who kicked her, beat her and left her for dead. After attacking two more elderly women in their homes, he was arrested and charged with assault, battery and elder abuse, a crime for which he had already served a 20-year prison term. Mom refused to dwell on what happened and rarely talked about it.

Preparing for his trial, Ruby was deposed by his defense attorney who assumed that, because of her age, he would have an easy time making her appear less than certain about identifying her assailant.

“Had you ever seen (the perpetrator) before the day he allegedly showed up on your doorstep?” the attorney asked.

“No, mom replied wryly. “He and I don't run in the same social circles.”

“How is your eyesight?” he asked, thinking he could discredit mom because her vision, at her age, had to be iffy. “It’s 20/20 in my left eye and 20/40 in my right,” she told him.

“How would you know that?” he asked.

“Because I went to the eye doctor last Thursday and that’s what he told me. Would you like his name?”

The deposition wound up quickly as the attorney realized his strategy was doomed to fail.

But when mom later testified at her assailant’s trial, the local newspaper ran an above-the-fold headline, “99-year-old testifies.” It would have never printed that a “45-year-old testifies” or a “28-year-old testifies” but it implicitly discredited mom because of her age. Adding insult to injury, the paper revealed her name, something it didn’t have to do, which made her and her family – I’ll never forgive the Columbia (Mo.) Tribune – furious. “They made me sound like I didn’t know what I was saying, just because I’m old,” mom said bitterly.

The jury realized otherwise and the judge sent her assailant away for the rest of his natural life and then some. Reporting on the trial’s outcome, the Tribune went out of its way to point out that the African-American perpetrator was tried by an all-white jury, implying racial prejudice on their part, but didn’t acknowledge its own prejudice against old people that it had unwittingly revealed. The Tribune’s coverage caused mom nearly as much anguish as the crime itself had.

Horace is a friend we consider part of our family. For years, he has wintered here in Florida at his condo. At 96, he is not only mentally unimpaired, he’s in great physical shape. Last week he won a golf tournament in which men half his age were competing. While he would like to golf every day as he once did, he says that nowadays, when people find out how old he is, they don’t want to play with him.

Every Monday night his condo association holds a poolside potluck that Horace has attended for 30 years. This year, he says, he only went to a few of the parties because hardly any of his new neighbors – most of his friends who bought condos when Horace purchased his in the mid-1980s have passed on – will have anything to do with him. They assume he is either incapable of saying anything of interest or will soon be gone.

Horace flew C-47s around the Pacific during World War II.  Over Easter lunch, he was talking about the day, near the end of the war, he landed his plane on a roped-off Manila street that had been turned into a landing strip to enable him and his fellow airmen to pick up American prisoners of war who had been relocated to the San Miguel Brewery after being liberated from Japanese POW camps.

Coincidentally I had just finished a book about American POWs in the Philippines in which that daring street landing was mentioned. “That was you?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Mine was one of several planes that landed one after another at the brewery. They didn’t tell us before we took off for Manila who we were picking up but I’ll never forget how God-awful those men looked. They’d been starved and beaten for years.”

The people standing around the pool at his condo are making small talk about minutiae -- their golf scores, grandchildren, politics and the like. Little do they realize that the white-haired man sitting off by himself, balancing a plate of food on his lap, is a living, breathing history book, an American treasure the likes of whom we will never see again. Horace says that this is the last year he will winter in Florida. He has said that for 20 years but this time we sense he means it. 

There’s a lot of talk these days about lives that matter. Black lives matter. White lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Latino lives matter. Unborn lives matter. I have yet to see anything about a movement called “Old Lives Matter” and that’s a shame because they matter every bit as much as anyone else’s.

A month or so before she died, I asked mom what she, being presumably closer to death than I was, felt Christianity was all about. Is it about eternal life? About being reunited with those you lost on earth?

“Jesus's main message wasn't about heaven, it was about the Golden Rule,” she replied. “Being kind, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And that is how all of us, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof, should treat everyone, especially the uber-elderly who almost universally find themselves the victims of age-related prejudice, even from people who think they harbor no prejudices at all.

It is safe to say that none of the uber-olds, whether they remain in full possession of their mental faculties or have lost some or most of them, set out to live as long as they have – there is no upside in outliving your contemporaries and those you love. But, because they have somehow managed to, they deserve and yearn to be spoken to, and treated, like the valuable members of society they are, and to be shown the same respect to which all people are entitled.

In other words, treat old people like you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes because, thanks to modern medicine, genetics, determination or a combination of all three, you just might find yourself in them one of these days.

Happy birthday, mom.