Something’s going on, and I’ll probably never get it…
— Song lyric from She’s Crafty by the Beastie Boys
I amaze myself at how incompetent I can be. If someone asked me what traits I hoped I instilled in my kids, my list would be 1) Politeness, 2) Empathy, and 3) Competence. That’s the order I’d put them in, but only because it sounds nice to start with polite and empathetic. Really, number one on my list is competence.
As a child and a teen, no one called me competent. Not in school, not in sports, not with the ladies, I wasn’t all that polite either. As an eleventh grader, Spanish II was my bane. I enjoyed Spanish I the year before. My young, laid-back teacher made learning a new language fun. I can still recite the first dialogue we memorized in its entirety— Está Susana en la casa…
On the first day of Spanish II, Mrs. Eddie called me out in front of all the other students. She told me to drop the class; she predicted I would fail. Pissed, embarrassed and determined to prove her wrong, I stuck out the year. I passed, barely, and on the last day of school, I brought home the mangled remnants of my Spanish book. I channeled all my hate of Mrs. Eddie into that book. The front and back covers tore off before Christmas, and I broke half the binding strings by jabbing at them with my pen. I doused what remained of the book in gasoline and burned it to ashes in my back yard.
I’ve lost my point. Oh right, not so polite. During a Spanish test, Darryl Caplan whispered something to me and I responded. Clearly, I wasn’t offering a correct answer—no one would cheat off of me in Spanish II—but Mrs. Eddie saw my lips move and she reacted harshly. “Baby! Move your desk against the wall.” She directed this at me, not Darryl. Mrs. Eddie saw my lips move again, as I spoke under my breath “You god damn fucking bitch.” She suspended me. My dad, disgusted by my lack of respect, my impoliteness, also responded harshly. I spent my whole suspension scrubbing every window screen in the house with oven cleaner.
Like many (most?) adults with a substance abuse history, I love coffee. Strong coffee. Each night I fill my thirteen-cup* espresso percolator with coffee grounds and water and leave it on the stovetop ready to brew in the morning. At five o’clock, my alarm pokes me awake. I feel my way through the dark house, shuffling to avoid falling over any misplaced shoes, and into the kitchen to fire up the stove. I brush my teeth, dress in jeans and a flannel shirt and return to the kitchen, this time flipping on lights as I go. As I arrive at the stove, the coffee pot spits the last bit of fluid from the reservoir into the pot, I pour my mud and cream and settle down on the couch to read. I love this routine.
* That’s thirteen espresso cups, not one hundred and four fluid ounces of coffee.
Last Thursday night, after filling the pot with coffee grounds and water, I put it on the burner and lit the stove. I flipped off the lights and went to bed. Four hours later Susan and Eli woke up to the smell of burning coffee. The liquid boiled dry and the steel pot glowed red. The rubber gasket melted. We’re still trying to rid the house of the smell.
In 1995, I collided with a van while riding my bike. I got pretty dinged up. I needed a week in the hospital, two surgeries, and about a year of rehab to recover. In addition to various internal and orthopedic injuries, I whacked my head pretty good. It’s taken me decades to take stock, take inventory of my deficiencies, but recently, I’ve begun to realize I might have some brain damage.
There’s my vision, double after the accident, surgically corrected and doubling again all these years later. My hearing has degraded to the point that without hearing aids, I can’t hold a face to face conversation with Susan in a quiet room. And I’m unable to hold unscripted conversations. In a work setting, conveying facts and figures and stats, I do fine. But when socializing, when I need to carry my share of a pleasant, free ranging conversation, my brain goes blank. And now I’m burning down my house.
Like so many blog posts, this one started with a comment. Chatting today with a wheelchair bound blogger I wrote: I imagine you move a bit slower to accommodate your lack of mobility. So much easier to do that alone than with others around you moving at their own pace. This was brought painfully to mind this weekend when I was hanging out with family. My brother and I were trying to rescue my father from a rain storm. Mentally, I move very deliberately, and when that needs to mesh up with someone else’s pace, I come off looking pretty bad.
Or maybe even stupid. Leaving a rained-out Orioles game, my brother Dana and I walked a mile or so to his car. My brother David hung out with my father under cover, waiting for us to pick them up. Dana drove, I navigated, sort of. I couldn’t figure out how to clear the last map setting so I could enter a new one. At one point, Dana reached over to grab my phone out of my hands.
Competence. I just don’t have it, and it’s getting worse. I simply can’t think fast enough to keep up with those around me. In addition, my hearing and vision handicap me further. Repeatedly, I get these phone calls. A man dials my number looking for the ‘Visiting Nurses Association.’ Each time, I explain to him that he connected to my private cell phone—I’m a wrong number, he should try again. We review my phone number, and he comments how similar it is to the one he tried to call. He always remembers the last time we spoke and says something like “Bless you, you’re so patient with me.”
I’m pretty sure that’s me calling from the future.
My family has adapted to move at my pace. My slow responses when asked a question, my deliberate decision making, those few extra seconds it takes my brain to process what was said. It frustrates me that I see the problem, but I can’t fix it. I can’t make myself think any faster, and if I’m noticing, others are too. I’m turning into the Visiting Nurses guy as I watch.