Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Roar like a Lion!


While looking for some software in an old desk drawer yesterday I came across a clutch of old family photos. Most were once jammed into something of a collage that hung near my mother’s bedroom dresser for many years. Calling it a collage gives it greater artistic intention than was ever intended. It was really just a dozen or so snapshots taped to a piece of cardboard and held in a flimsy frame by more tape and gravity. When my mother moved from her last apartment to assisted living about seven years ago the whole affair fell apart in my hands. The glass in the frame was long gone, the tape had lost its hold, and the edges of the photographs were dry and warped.
Most of the photos in that frame, like the one above, are yellowed from fifty years of exposure to the sunlight. (The right side of this photo holds its color better because it was covered in the frame by another photo all those years.) That any semblance of the original color remains in this photo at all is more a testament to the quality of even the most basic Kodak processing of that era than any attempt on my family’s part to preserve these images. I don’t know if it’s possible to restore the yellowed side of this photo. I might give it a try when I get a chance.
In the meantime, here I am in Virginia Beach at the Cavalier Beach Club in July of 1953, sixteen months old and full of myself, no doubt yelling at the ocean to stay in its place.
I’m still tilting at windmills.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

More Things I Just Can't Ignore

Blue in Bala, 2012

Last week’s travel included early, early mornings and late, late nights, with just a few minutes in between to catch my breath. I didn’t carry a “good” camera because I knew there’d be little time for serious photography. But I was aware that just because I was distracted by some intense “day job” work I couldn’t let my photographer’s eye go unfed. In fact, the few stolen moments I had in which to take pictures with my camera phone were just the thing I needed to get break up the week.
Sometimes it’s big things that catch my eye. Gorgeous landscapes or nature. Last week it was little things that caught my eye, like Blue in Bala, above. This is nothing more than the shadow cast by a tree on the backside of a ground level sign in front of a hotel in Philadelphia. The sign occupies only a tiny part of a much larger landscape. But as I waited for my car to be brought around it was the play of the shadows on the sign that caught my eye. I dropped my bags long enough to run down to the edge of the driveway and grab this shot.
Later that afternoon I found myself on the 22nd floor of an office building in suburban Chicago. Despite the elevation, there wasn’t much interesting to see from the expansive range of windows. Instead, I happened to glance back into the interior of the room and notice this little tableau of shapes and shadows. Nothing special, but for me an interesting moment.
Shadows in Schaumburg, 2012

The next afternoon in suburban Dallas I happened to look out the window of yet another office building and notice these scallop-shaped reflections on the building across the way. They changed as the sun changed its position. (Or was the earth that was changing its position?)
Dialog in Dallas, 2012

By the end of the week I’d taken a bunch like these. Most weren’t worth sharing and were quickly discarded upon review. But even the ones that weren’t any good reminded me yet again that there are little moments of awareness and elegance in even the most hectic everyday life if you care to look for them.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Would it kill them to....

Some Hotel Somewhere, 2012

Back when he was riding the crest of the In Search of Excellence popularity wave, author and management consultant Tom Peters came to Norfolk, Virginia, to give a speech. I remember very little about the speech. But I do remember the story he told at the beginning.
It seems that Mr. Peters doesn’t like to have to entertain or be entertained by the local burghers when he goes someplace to give a speech. Accordingly, when he came to Norfolk he arrived the night before his presentation and went straight to his hotel.
Upon entering his room, Peters found a giant fruit basket and personal note from the hotel manager. He appreciated the gesture, especially the thoughtful handwritten note.
As he contemplated the fruit basket, Peter’s eye was drawn to a large and luscious looking strawberry atop the mound of fruit. But when he reached to grab the strawberry he found that the half of the berry that wasn’t visible from the outside was mushy and covered with mold. As you might imagine, that sight deflated any interest Peters might have had in digging deeper into the pile. And like many of us who look for experiences to pull into our presentations, Peters used this experience as a lesson in how a good idea can turn into a bad customer experience all because of a small detail not being executed carefully.
I’m not a celebrity, so I don’t expect hotels to shower me with ambrosia. I used to be impressed that the desk clerks at Doubletree hotels gave me freshly baked cookies at check-in. But then I learned that they do this for everyone.
I like to think that I don’t expect too much from hotels. But last week’s travel reminded me very quickly that I’m pickier than I thought. To wit:
·      Why is that hotels can’t seem to find radios that have controls that are intuitive, that work well for FM stations and that have decent fidelity?
·      Why is it that the “hotel that loves business travelers” doesn’t have a desk big enough to actually work on?
·      Why is that so many hotels that cater to business travelers can’t seem to come up with desk chairs that don’t make it necessary for me to stack up three bed pillows to reach desk height?
·      Why do hotels that cater to value travelers offer free wireless internet service and hotels that cost many hundreds of dollars more a night charge you an extra $14 for the same service?
·      Do you suppose the people who specify and purchase those little courtesy shampoo bottles with round screw-off tops have ever tried to open one when their hands were wet or soapy?
I don’t travel every week. But I do travel frequently enough to be a minor connoisseur of hotel design, wayfinding and ergonomics. Let me suggest that the people who design hotels should be made to go spend a few nights in one of their hotels. If they did we travelers might have a much better time.  And while they’re thinking about that, maybe they could do something about the radios. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Family Does Laundry

[I've traveling most of this week. So I'll leave you with this story.]

Family Does Laundry

Roger looked at the neatly folded pile of laundry on the bench in the back hallway. I need to take it over there and see her, he thinks. But other thoughts intervene and another day goes by before he picks the laundry up and puts it in the car instead of walking by and pretending its not there.
Its not that Shademere isnt a nice place to visit. Like many nursing homes serving the affluent, its an attractive place. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and carefully maintained. The interior is bright and colorful, more like a country club than an institution. The overt references to aging and death are subtle. Family members, Roger thinks all too truthfully, want to know their loved ones are being well cared for. They might complain about the cost. But when all is said and done they really dont want to know too much about how the work is done. They dont want to see the institutional shower rooms, the equipment for lifting residents who cant stand, the diaper bags, bed pans, pumps, carts and all the other unpleasant tools of this trade.
Rogers learned that as long as you dont visit Shademere in the morning, when all the biological maintenance is being done, its almost like visiting someone in an upper middle class apartment building. The cleaning, wiping, sanitizing and air freshening has all been accomplished by lunchtime, after which the staff settles into a pattern of benign professionalism, hovering around, checking records, dispensing medications and filling orders now that the aides at the bottom of the heap have completed the messiest of the daily duties.
A nursing home is an island of sadness. Nobody wants to be there. Few have any chance of leaving unless it is to go to the hospital or to the undertaker. People who havent spent much time visiting a nursing home are usually surprised at how many new people they get to know once they become regular visitors. Roger has them sorted the residents into several groups. The Rollers are capable of propelling themselves around in wheelchairs. A man named Roberts is the king of the Rollers. Roberts used to be president of a local company. When Roger came out of college he interviewed with Roberts. The old man still has a commanding presence. But most days now he sits in his wheelchair at the junction of the hallways near the lobby, monitoring the comings and goings of visitors and managing nothing more complex than the arrangement of items on his lap tray.
 The Sitters, like Merriam Hudgins, sit just inside the door to their room. They watch the life of the hallway and count the hours until the next meal. Some clutch baby dolls or stuffed animals.
The Rockers are the ladies who occupy the rocking chairs near the entrance. They like to see what’s going on. They’re like the men at Roger’s dad’s old tavern. There are no assigned seats. But don’t even think about sitting in one of those rocking chairs if the ladies are present. Mrs. McElroy will give you a polite nod the first time you make that mistake. The next time she won’t be as nice. There’s a lady of Lebanese descent, a stroke victim no longer able to express herself verbally, who sometimes tries to sit in the chair usually occupied by Mrs. Fieldston. When this happens the other ladies descend on her, pushing their walkers right up to her and squawking like mad birds and cursing like sailors.
Roger particularly enjoys the residents he calls the Sparks, the people who still have a glimpse of charm about them. Mr. Tanner, who lives down the hall from Louise, plays the same six Glenn Miller Orchestra records all day long at ear-jarring volumes, occasionally inviting the female nurses in to dance with him. Sometimes they take him up on the offer. One of the nurses tells Roger, You have to watch that mans hands, though.
Roger wishes he didnt have to do Louises laundry. He is uncomfortable handling her underwear. He doesnt sort the colors from the whites. Over the years she has been as Shademere, Louises clothes have taken on a more rumpled look. When she first moved to Shademere she insisted that Roger take her clothes home and wash them lest they become mixed up with those of other residents. Shed heard stories of how peoples clothing was lost or stolen in the Shademere laundry. The aide taped a big FAMILY DOES LAUNDRY sign on the door of Louises closet to assure her that this wouldnt happen.
Why are women so picky about their clothes, Roger wonders? Men dont worry about that kind of stuff. Roger had to pull all the old papers out of the cabinet under the kitchen counter to find the instruction manual for the old Maytag, its edges worn and its porcelain chipped from years of battering from laundry baskets. Roger was initially offended when his neighbor Frances Ray politely asked if he needed any help with the wash, but later appreciated her tips. 
It wasnt long after moving to Shademere that Louises memory started failing her. On her 87th birthday Roger asked her to tell some of her favorite stories about her mother and aunts. Hed heard these stories hundreds of times over the years. He and the children could recite them from memory. But now she could remember only the highlights of a few stories and could not explain how the people in the stories she did remember were related to her. 
Sometimes Roger takes Buster the terrier with him when he visits Louise. Buster was Louises constant companion in her last years at home. He followed her around the house, nestling up against her on the couch when she read or dutifully sleeping on the floor close by when she stood to attend to some task. Buster missed Louise more than anyone else. Roger brings Buster to visit Louise more for Busters sake than Louises. She doesnt recognize him any more and no longer tolerates the little dog licking all over her face when Roger puts him up on her bed.

The aides do their best to get Louise dressed each morning and into her wheelchair for a few hours of upright time. At first, Louise joined in with the Rollers. Now she spends much of the time in her wheelchair parked in the hallway outside her room, her head tipped over as she dozes. She gets lost easily if she goes too far from her room.
A lot of the residents of Shademere have dementia. Roger couldnt figure out why, when Louise first went to Shademere, so many of the rooms had hats and stuffed animals tacked onto their hallway doors. But now, having helped countless confused old men and women get back to their rooms after finding themselves lost on an unfamiliar hall, he realizes that the only way some residents can tell one door from the other is by the sight of these personal items.
The Shademere staff is good with Roger. Hey, Mr. Lewis! they call to him when he approaches the nurses station. Miss Louise is having a good day, they tell him as turns to go down the hall to Louise room. Youre not supposed to tip the staff. But Roger has figured out which of the staff members are just sucking up to him and which are most attentive to Louise. The latter he tips liberally at Christmas.
Some days they talk a little. Louis doesnt have much to say. She has a hard time finding words. Thoughts escape before all of the words have been assembled into sentences. Roger he sits beside the bed and looks out the window and watches clouds. Some days hardly seem to move, as if sky is completely still. Every conversation with Louise starts with a question about the children. Yes, Amys in Dayton with Rob and the kids. They were just here two weeks ago to see you, remember? Marthas in Palo Alto with Jens. Peter and Leslie are still in Brussels with his company.
From Louises window all you see is another wing of the building. In the windows on that wing Roger can see the relatives of other dazed and semi-conscious patients looking out as if they, too, are searching for an excuse to leave.
As the dementia progresses Louise frequently dozes off in the midst of a conversation. Sometimes theyll have the same conversation about the children several times during a visit. In the absence of anything more to talk about, though, Roger plays along. He learned long ago that it is not worth correctly or contradicting her stories. Its smart to bring a deck of cards, hes learned. You might need to kill some time playing solitaire.
In the fall Louises condition worsens. Suddenly it seems shes confusing everything, saying Marthas name when she really means Amy and asking Roger if its time to open the lake house. One day when Peter calls from Brussels, Louise thinks its her father. She calls Peter Daddy, and asks him to bring her chips from the icehouse.
Another week. On Sunday morning Roger notices its time to buy more washing machine detergent. When he stops by Shademere on the way home from church Louise starts to say something, but cant complete more than a few words before losing her thought. Roger can tell what shes trying to say. Involuntary responses come out complete because the neural pathways in her mind for such thoughts are well worn. But new thoughts get lost quickly. When this happens Louise looks over at Roger as if to say, you know what I meant. He nods because sometimes he does. But sometimes he doesnt, but wont upset her by saying so.
The plant in Louise's room becomes a metaphor for her condition. When she first moved the Shademere, Louise insisted that he windowsill be full of plants. Her daughters and daughter-in-law sent new plants on birthdays and holidays, sometimes for no other reason than to cheer Louise up. Initially they all thrived. But as the children visited less and Roger was less inclined to spend his visiting time tending to potted plants, the windowsill garden decreased to just a single anemic philodendron. Louise used to insist that Roger trim and water the plant and turn it weekly to get even light. Now she barely notices the plant and some weeks Roger doesnt remember to water it. The plant's sinewy tendrils now drape like scrawny vines over the ledge of the windowsill. The leaves, once dark green, are now more a mix of yellow and white.
Amy tells Roger on the phone that he needs to visit Louise more often. Roger thinks back to how his father had been when Rogers mother was dying. Dad would have never spent any more than a few minutes at her hospital bedside. Hed call from work to tell Rogers sister Estelle to fix something for dinner. Hed come home and eat and then stop by the hospital to visit Carol for a few minutes before continuing to the tavern where his bowling buddies hung out. It would have never occurred to Roger or Estelle to tell their father he should visit their mother more often. Why does Amy think she can talk to him like this?
Roger appreciates how the Shademere staff seems to have increased their level of attention to Louise. They speak loudly to get her attention and rouse Louise when they find her slumped over asleep in her wheelchair. Theyre unfailingly upbeat. The tall Jamaican housekeeper named Christy pops in and out of Louises room during the day, joking that she and Louise are going to get out of this place and go dancing. The aide name Connie has taught Louise to say, Shake your booty. Before coming to Shademere Louise would have been insulted by this level of familiarity and coarseness. But now these cheerful antics bring a smile to her face.
Whenever Louises friend Edna Gold visits, Edna calls Roger as soon as she gets home to tell him all the things he should be doing. I dont like the way theyre dressing Louise. How can you expect her to eat that dreadful food they serve there? Would it kill them kill them to put some lipstick on her? Roger placates Edna, knowing, as Edna has not yet realized, that Louise is barely conscious of her clothing and will not let the aides put makeup on her face.

When Roger visits on Tuesday he discovers that Louise has lost the ability to say more than two or three words at a time. He gets the impression that she is still having thoughts, but that she isnt able to put the thoughts into words. Roger has to work harder to anticipate her needs, to imagine the words shes no longer able to find and use.
On Friday Roger finds Louise in bed at lunchtime instead of in her wheelchair. Her head is thrown way back. Her mouth hangs open, her beautiful straight teethall of the members of the Louises family were known for their beautiful teethare exposed. Connie says, Shes been like this all morning, Mr. Lewis. I think the Lord hes gonna call for her soon.
The call comes not long before sunrise. Buster, nestled in a pile of wrinkled shirts atop the soft cushion of the chair beside the bed, is the first to hear the phone ring. Eventually, Roger sits up and answers it. It is Shademere. The doctor has been summoned. Roger should come, too.
There is little traffic, but the road is slippery from rain. Roger finds a parking space beside the night entrance. When he gets upstairs he finds Louise in her bed surrounded by the night nurse and two aides. They have moved the other furniture out of the way so that they can all be close. They are talking to her, but she is not responding. Her eyes are open, but are fixed on some far away point. She is calm. Every couple of minutes she takes a deep breath. Her body has to work harder to find oxygen.
 And then, with barely a hiccup or whisper, on a day that will be cold and gray and the ground will be covered with leaves wet from the mornings rain, Louises last breath crosses her lips and she expires.


Another day. Buster stands by the door, hoping to be let out for a walk. Roger looks at the laundry basket and thinks of the closets that still needed to be. Maybe tomorrow.