Watching my Parents Get Old

Posted September 5, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

My phone rings.


Hi Tom.

It’s my father. He’s at home now after spending the day at the rehab center with my mother. He calls all the time. Whenever the phone rings I expect to hear his voice coming out over it. It’s a baritone a lot like mine. But he sounds like an old man and phone calls take a long time. He’s always rambled. But now it also takes him a long time to get stuff.

Yeah, dad. I know. If you need a ride, call Uber. Do you have your iPhone? Just push the button and a car comes. Have you figured out how to check your voicemail? I left you a message. Didn’t you listen to it?

My mother fell and hit her head on the pavement while she and dad were washing their car about a month ago. She ended up in the trauma ward with a brain injury and then in a Hillcrest rehab center. Early on, she’d lie in bed for a long time, not wanting to get out. She looked tired.

If my parents’ old age was a movie, this was the wrong screenplay. Mom was the one who was supposed to be healthy and with it. She was supposed to outlive my father and we’d eventually have to find some assisted-living place for her. No rush though. Irene will do just fine for the time being. But what if she isn’t the stronger one? What if dad isn’t the first to go?

The rehab center was clean. Four stories tall with dark wood floors, lots of light and a friendly Philippino nursing staff. There were days my mother seemed her old self. Other times she had that defeated look of a woman in a nursing home.

Dad was at her bedside every day. He made her get up and sit in a chair and not just lie in bed. He made her eat, spoon-feeding her when he had to. Sometimes I would go over there to watch the Padres game on TV.

A few days ago, my mother finally went home. Suddenly she was able to get around by herself. She had a walker but she abandoned it in less than 24 hours. This wasn’t what I expected. In fact it was a little weird, as if the whole hospitalization thing had been some kind of drama she had been putting on.

Is she back to her old self? When people get old, things never really get back to normal because age continues to wear away the person you know. It’s not a matter of whether they’ll become infirm but how soon.

On a recent night my wife and I were on the sidewalk in front of our house, seeing off some friends who came for dinner. My kids chased their car as they drove away, and as they were running down the street a neighbor came up to us and told us he had bad news. The son of a couple who live on the street had died. He was in his 20s and was their only child.

When old people die it’s natural and expected. When kids die it’s a tragedy. All you can do is pray for the first and not the second.









Cash Gone in City Heights

Posted August 25, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

Sometimes you lose stuff and it’s like you weren’t even there. I was at the City Heights Farmers Market and one minute my wallet was in my pocket and the next minute it wasn’t. I retraced my steps and searched though the box of eggplant the Vietnamese sell. I checked the tables covered with chard where I bought two bunches from the Africans and then, of course, the watermelons at the Mexican stand.

City Heights Farmers Market

City Heights Farmers Market. Photo by Sam Hodgson

I made a scene. By the end of it everyone knew I was looking for my wallet and the vendors asked me if I’d found it as I walked by them the third or fourth time. The pretty African girl I see at their stand every week — maybe she’s not African; talks like she goes to Hoover High — told me to talk to the market manager. Maybe it’ll turn up.

I had already picked out some stuff from the Mexican stand and couldn’t pay for it, but they told me to just take it home and pay them next week. I come by pretty much every week and they figure I’m good for it.

I left my name and phone number with the manager and, as I was headed home, I got a call on my cell. They found it. I returned, and saw all of the credit cards and ID’s were still there but the cash was gone. It was close to a hundred bucks. Still, I was grateful the thief didn’t make my life more complicated than he could have.

“Well, they probably needed the money,” some lady said to me.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they were entitled to it,” I said to her.

It was an expensive trip to the farmer’s market and I still owe the Mexicans twelve dollars. But the strawberries were good, as usual. The green beans look real fresh and I think the watermelon will be sweet.

As usual.



A Story about Robin Williams

Posted August 12, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

We just heard that the great comic Robin Williams died, likely by his own hand in the hands of depression. Lots has been said about him. Here’s my story.

A former co-worker of mine was a hobby cyclist who went to France one year to take in the Tour de France. He was there with a number of friends, and one of them was a buddy of Robin Williams, who hooked up with the group as they took their own bike rides into the countryside after the Tour had passed by. These were serious cyclists who set a fast pace, and on at least one ride Williams joined them.

One of the guys was asked to fall back if Robin, who was older and not as fit, couldn’t keep up. This did happen, and designated cyclist reduced his speed so Robin would have at least one person to bike with.

What followed, as they peddled along the road, was a non-stop comedy routine by Williams for an audience of one. He made fun of the French. He told jokes about the Tour and the absurdity of climbing hills with two wheels and no engine. You name it.

We can all play amateur psychiatrist and guess at what really caused Robin to end his life. But prior to his death, he was a guy who lived to make people laugh, even when he was pumping up a hill in the presence of nothing but grass, maybe some sheep and one other guy on a bike.

When you know you’re just one of the herd

Posted August 11, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

About a month ago I finally got glasses. Not just reading glasses to correct my middle-age vision but glasses you wear all the time. I got glasses with black frames, just like the ones everyone else wears.

Of course I didn’t realize then that everyone else wore them. That occurred to me later, when I walked through my workplace and noticed how many people had black-framed glasses… both women and men. I also noticed this at the convalescent clinic where my mom is staying after her bad fall. She even pointed it out, telling a male nurse, “You have the same kind of glasses my son has!”

My new glasses.

But it wasn’t just him. It seemed like all of the nurses who wore glasses had black frames.

About four years ago my wife and I were shopping for a car, and we were seriously considering a Subaru Outback. I soon took a walk in my neighborhood and was surprised to see an awful lot of Subaru Outbacks. I shouldn’t have been surprised. And I shouldn’t have been surprised a few months after my son was born, when I took him to the pediatrician. A nurse came into the lobby and said the doctor was ready to see “Nicholas,” and three sets parents with babies or toddlers — including me — stood up in response. She finally gave the last name and most of us sat down again.

There are things that are important to me that I do differently from other people. But when it comes to most things, I now realize that I’m just a part of the herd.


Where did the kids go?

Posted August 7, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

There’s a book lying around the house that came home from the library. It’s called The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Houses. It shows how architects have creatively designed homes that are under 2,000 square feet. But there aren’t many pictures of people in these houses and nothing, typically, that tells how many people live in them.

Judging by the tastes and income levels shown by these houses, I’m guessing the couples (if there are more than one) who live in these homes have either one child or none at all.

Here’s another interesting book: It’s the memoir, Call the Midwife, from which came the popular British TV series about the women who delivered babies on London’s East End in the 1950s.

In the introduction, the author wrote about the coming of “the pill” in the early sixties, saying that her troop of midwives had 80 to 100 deliveries a month in the late ‘50s and only about four-a-month in 1963.

My vacation to the UK last month showed the same thing. Children are highly guarded, small in number and seldom seen. It’s a lot like it is here.

I have wondered, along with others my age, why parents these days are so protective of their kids compared to the days of my childhood, when you wandered the streets and biked many blocks to visit your friends. All your parents cared about was that you come home for dinner on time.

It hadn’t occurred to me that it comes back to falling birthrates.

When children went out the front door of their houses after school 50 years ago, they joined a gang of kids already on the street. They probably took a brother or a sister with them, and there is safety in numbers. Compare that to today, when the streetscape is empty except for some guy walking his dog whom you may or may not know. Do you want your kid hanging around a place like that?

Parents prize their children so much today because there are so few of them. Low birthrates brought us the helicopter parent. It brought us gay marriage, which is the logical conclusion to having so many childless couples. I guess having kids is no longer reason we tie the knot.

There are still a lot of people populating the planet, so we’re in no immediate danger of the human race dying out. But there’s a simple arithmetic to only having one child per couple. You’re halving the population, and not just once but generation after generation. Maybe the human race won’t die out. But what about the German race or the Italian race? This could be the end of white people!

I remember my dad a long time ago talking about having two kids, my brother and me. He said he and my mom were “replacing” themselves. This made people, having families in the 60’s, seem very logical. It was zero population growth. No more. No less. And maybe it’s possible that people in the coming decades will be logical too.

“OK. We’ve not been having a lot of kids lately and we’ve brought down a dangerously high birth rate (remember those broods you saw in Call the Midwife). But now it’s time to start reproducing again, so let’s go!”

Even if that’s possible, I wonder what it would look like. I suppose we could fashion a whole new culture where having manageable families is our reason for being. Maybe big families will become cool again, and that will encourage at least some people to have them. Maybe women will stop seeing work as the thing that fulfills them. Is it worth giving paternalism another try?

I’m a modern kind of guy. I work full time but so does my wife. Yet we have two kids, and I’m not sure how it happened. There was no plan to have kids. My wife was between jobs and could take some time off to get pregnant, nurse and watch babies. My parents lived in town so babysitting was cheap and plentiful.

But even if all of those things fall into place for other couples, the question remains. Why have kids at all in the age of the pill? Do you do it so there are offspring to take care of you when you’re old and frail? Do you do it with the high-minded goal of replacing yourself? Do you do it to continue the family name and family history?

My children are wonderful gifts and they’re also a lot of work. We can hope people of the future will look at that tradeoff and come to a conclusion that our civilization should carry on with a new generation.










Scotland. Aye!

Posted July 30, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

It was a trip we could ill afford. The cost of airfare for the kids didn’t seem justified by what’s become a mundane exercise for them, which is seeing Europe. But there we were, on an overnight British Air flight from San Diego to London to see Scotland and Wales.

Our flight, ultimately to Glasgow, left us bone tired. But good things began to happen. Our taxi driver from the airport had a beautiful Glasgow accent. A lot of them you can barely understand, but his speech was precise and clear with the rounded tones of Scottish that made him a pleasure to listen to. It didn’t hurt that he was smart and funny.

Glasgow, Scotland.

Glasgow, Scotland.

If Glasgow has a bad reputation it’s undeserved. It’s a handsome city of blond and red stone row houses. We stayed in a neighborhood near the University. Maybe this was gentrified district. But the whole city has been dressed up since they stopped blackening the buildings by burning coal in every fireplace.

People are friendly. You say two words to a Glaswegian and you have a 15-minute conversation. I stopped in a hardware store and the owners wished me a happy Fourth of July. I had forgotten it was Independence Day. The airport cabbie had told us about the Scottish independence vote coming up in September.

Our first morning in Liz’s flat, Karen set the French press on fire by not knowing you’re not supposed to put it on the burner to make coffee. She threw a pan of water on the flames, and when I got up she was holding her head and told me she had struck it against the edge of a cabinet. I turned on the gas burner and a jet of water shot up from its center. I felt like I was in a bad TV comedy.

Who is Liz? She’s a retired nurse with whom we swapped houses. She and three of her friends stayed in our place in San Diego while we were in Glasgow.

The Tuesday, after we arrived, I went for a walk to a bar that was crammed with guys watching the World Cup soccer semi-final between Germany and Brazil. I saw one goal scored and decided to walk home to see the rest. It took 15 minutes to get home, and by the time I got there the score was 5-0. I couldn’t believe it! The only clue was I saw two German players embrace on a TV through someone’s window during my walk.

On the train to Edinburgh.

On the train to Edinburgh.

The first week, we drove to Prestwick to visit our friend Jean. Beautiful, charming Jean. She was a mom in our kids’ playgroup in San Diego going on ten years ago. Jean is a blond Scot who grew up in Uruguay but went to boarding school in Prestwick, just south of Glasgow. She and her American husband broke up while they were living in San Diego. She moved to Buenos Aires but soon left, after armed robbers broke into her home and held a gun to her son’s head. Now she’s a small business owner. She runs a gardening maintenance and design business and has a critical take on the British welfare state.

She lives two blocks from a bay that opens up to the Atlantic Ocean and we walked there with the kids. Small waves lapped the shore the afternoon we were there. The sky was blue overhead and pure white clouds exploded on the horizon. We were joined on our trip to the beach by her yellow Lab who had boundless energy for chasing  balls. Jean’s old boarding school is still on the edge of a vast field of grass, which leads to a seaside park on the opposite side. The school had stone walls and gray spires, looking as mysterious as the film version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

It was great to see Jean and sad to say goodbye. Friends so warm and kind shouldn’t live so far away.



The only other trip out of Glasgow was a train ride to Edinburgh, a proud hilltop city that can dazzle in the sunlight but is filled with tourists in summer. The view from the castle is punctuated by church spires with the Firth of Forth in the distance. It cost 52 quid for a family of four to get into the Edinburgh Castle. We had lunch at a cafe beforehand and we ordered deep-fried haggis. Karen took a photo of it before we ate it, just like a tourist.

The day before we left Scotland we were still trying to figure out how to get our iPad to scroll for air signals when we had no WiFi. We ended up in a mobile phone shop in Glasgow that was run to two Arabs observing Ramadan and playing prayers over a speaker. A customer in the store looked like a wreck that comes from years of cigarettes and whiskey, and she had the kind of Glasgow accent you could barely penetrate. All I understood was when she wondered why anyone wanted to travel to other places when it so fookin’ easy to get drunk in Glasgow.


We saw Fountains Abbey on the way to Wales. Hundreds of years ago it was a Catholic monastery and a big local landowner for the Church of Rome, which had its own profitable taxing jurisdiction before Henry VIII created the Church of England and drove them all out. Today it is a ruin in the Yorkshire countryside. Such a beautiful ruin.

Since the monks left the church and its adjacent complex of buildings, the elements have sculpted them into something much more wonderful than they ever were. Lovingly preserved, it would just be another Gothic cathedral. Left a ruin, the arches and walls of gray stone meet the bright green grass below and your view strides from one to the other. The lack of a roof lets in the sky. The bare, broad windows let in the forest. It’s part cubist, part Gothic and wonder of erosion.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

York is a city that looks the same as it might have 500 years ago, apart from the cars and the retail boutiques. Like I said. Full of tourists. But that’s okay if it weren’t for the overpriced B&B we stayed in with tiny rooms and thin, papered walls, no ventilation and doors that shut noisily late at night. For this we paid 300 pounds for two nights!

For breakfast the first morning I didn’t have enough room on my table for my plate, so I pressed my knife against the raised edge of my dish and sent a full English breakfast flying into my lap as the plate did a somersault. They gave me another breakfast as I went upstairs to change my clothes.

In Scotland we tried to take our children into a pub and the barkeeper said they couldn’t come in. Was that a British law of some kind? A man spoke to us on the street in York and we told him about the Scottish pub law concerning kids. He said that wasn’t the case in England and it must be some form of Scotch Presbyterianism. He was a short, talkative man who walked very fast. He recommended three restaurants (all pubs) as he glanced at his iPhone until he strode ahead of us and out of sight.

All this time we’re driving on the left side of the road, with the added disorientation that comes with trying to shift gears with your left hand. There are few actual streets signs in urban Britain, or so it seemed to me, and road signs in the UK seem to be put up for people who already know their way. Maybe the signs matter even less in Wales because you can’t pronounce the names of any places.


The Welsh countryside was served up next to the cottage we rented with two other families. The farmland was divided up into green squares that lay along sweeping hillsides that were dotted in the distance with sheep and cows. Sophie named all of the cows that lived in the pasture that lay next to hour house. The cottage looked like a feature photo in English County Home, assuming there is a magazine of that name and there must be. It had an outdoor dinner table on a slate patio. Cover it with wine glasses, salads and handsome dressed-up English-looking people and it was a photo I’m sure you’ve seen.

The history of Wales, on the other hand, is a picture of hard work and poverty. We saw some of that history when we went to the “Big Pit,” an abandoned mine. Wales is a treasure of coal, and men, women and children spent centuries working in the mines, following the black seams underground until they ran out or the ceilings came crashing down.

About to Enter the Big Pit

About to Enter the Big Pit

Our guide was a former coal miner. He looked young to have worked in an industry that practically died out in the UK 30 years ago. He had blue eyes and a pugnacious manner. Don’t get him started on the subject of Maggie Thatcher. He had a Welsh accent, I think, though I couldn’t mimic a Welsh accent and wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it in San Diego. “You use the canaries to check for carbon dioxide underground, yeah?” That’s how he talked… said “yeah” at the end of most sentences.

The Welsh are fighting to keep their language. Only a few thousand speak Welsh but families in the populated south are sending their kids to Welsh immersion schools. Will there be an independence vote for Wales in the next few years?

Staying with the in-laws was similar. I still mistake Diane for my wife, who is her twin sister, and Diane’s Anglo-Canadian husband Giles still defends England from criticism and is resentful of American eminence. Giles did all of the food shopping and the cooking, and his food is amazing. Meats are cooked to moist perfection, the seasoning is aggressive but never overbearing and the choice of vegetable is inspired. Food and drink have a sacred place in his view of the world that shouldn’t be marred by petty health concerns or the narrow tastes of children.

Over ten years of visiting Europe I have seen obesity become more of an issue. I remember being astounded during a 2004 trip to London at how fit people were. But trips since then to Northern France, Ireland, Germany and the UK have show people progressively overweight.

In fact, visiting Europe isn’t so different from being in the U.S. An old German told me 35 years ago that if you want to see people living differently, travel north to south, not east to west. It’s still true. People in the UK are a lot like us. The young people get tons of tattoos, just like here. The girls wear black tights, just like here.

We flew out of Manchester on a flight bound for Chicago, where we’d catch an airplane home. The night before we left we took the train from our airport hotel to the center of town to get something to eat. Manchester wasn’t much of a place. Britain has some lovely small cities like Hereford and Shrewsbury but Manchester is big and dirty and charmless. Downtown was full of trash. Was there a garbage strike going on? Friday night was full of men drinking, flamboyant queens wearing colored wigs and women dressed as trashy as the landscape. It looked like a place that had been bombed flat in the war and never recovered in any physical or spiritual sense.

As we walked through Manchester we saw several drunks or homeless people pan handling. One was sitting on the sidewalk outside a shop with a cup in front of him. My son Nicholas pulled a pound coin out of his pocket, walked up to the man and dropped the coin in his cup.

Atop a mountain in Wales.

Atop a mountain in Wales.

On the flight home across the Atlantic I sat next to a pretty French woman (wearing black tights) who spoke perfect English. The same happened to me four years ago —  cute French girl, perfect English — when I flew home from Paris. This never happened to me when I was unmarried. The one I met this trip had a job in Leeds and grew up in Versailles. I thought that was just a palace, but I guess it’s a town too.

The weather we had in the UK was great. It rained off and on during the first couple of days in Glasgow but sunny or partly sunny the rest of the time. As we got our cab to the airport in Manchester the rain was steady and persistent. It was time to go home.











The Weekend I Flew to Florida

Posted May 26, 2014 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I haven’t been to St. Petersburg in a dozen years. I flew in while it was still light and I saw Tampa Bay through the jet plane window with it’s endless threads of bays and inlets.  Once I was on the ground I felt the humidity and smelled the teeming green life. It was about 80 degrees at 8 o’clock at night. Perfect.

If I looked out the window of my hotel room when it was light there was a thin strip of blue in the distance between the trees and the sky. That was Tampa Bay.

I was there for a conference at the Poynter Institute, just like 12 years before. I walked the mile from the hotel to the institute, and I decided that downtown St. Pete has a long ways to go before it is a place you want to be.

A park in the center of the downtown was full of drunks and down-and-outs. There’s a street called Beach Drive where the tourists go. There were new condos under construction on 4th Street. Promising, you could say.

See that blue strip above the trees? It's Tampa Bay.

See that blue strip above the trees? It’s Tampa Bay.

Some of us see Florida as being not a part of the South. We think it’s full of Cuban expatriates and transplanted New Yorkers. It’s the diverse collection of scoundrels you would find in a book by Carl Hiaasen.

But going there gives you a different feeling. It feels like the South. The races are held in a frosty separation. Tastes and attitudes look like they haven’t changed much in 40 years, and obesity is a major problem. People are friendly too. It’s not all bad, but it’s not what you think.

One night I got together with a handful of other conventioneers and we went to see the Tampa Bay Rays play the Baltimore Orioles. It was in a domed stadium! I didn’t think I’d ever see major league baseball in another domed stadium after leaving Minneapolis, home of the erstwhile Metrodome where the Twins used to play.

I have wondered why I thought the Metrodome was such a terrible place to watch baseball. Was it the odd angles and sight lines of a multi-use stadium? Was it the plastic turf? Going to the Rays’ stadium brought it home to me. It wasn’t a park.

You go to a park to watch baseball. Not a stadium or an arena. A ballpark is a grassy outdoor oasis in the city. There is nothing wrong with the dimensions of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. But it is covered with a roof and it doesn’t have real grass. You can’t see the stars at night. You can’t hear the ambient noises of the city… the car horns, the cry of a gull or the sound of planes landing at the airport. You can’t see the skyline of the city or the bridge over the bay when you sit in the upper deck.

My partners in going to the ballgame disappeared into the stadium recesses to have dinner and beer and a huge plate of nachos while I stayed to watch the game. They watched on the bar’s TV monitor to see if I’d catch a home run that went into the left-field stands. It was too far away to try.

I’m told the Rays play under a dome because rain delays would be a nightmare of scheduling and lost revenue if they played in the open. It rains a lot in Tampa Bay and when it rains it comes down hard. Too bad. And that reminds me of something.

When I was there, a story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times about a new report on global warming. It was tied to yet another report on the progress of climate change. In Florida, with its many low-lying shores, trees are falling over dead as saltwater creeps up the coast and invades freshwater marshes. But the Governor doesn’t believe in climate change.

You may think a state that is run by idiots might as well as fall into the ocean. Florida is a strange appendage to the continental U.S. Are we better off without it? Twelve years from now I’ll probably go back, so I’ll give it some thought in the meantime.


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