Phone Call from the Future

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.

37 thoughts on “Phone Call from the Future

  1. Thank you, Jeff! Thank you for giving voice to what I imagine is happening inside Ben’s head.
    Yes, he is autistic, but a processing delay is a processing delay. I swear at times I can see him trying to get the “gears” in his head to mesh just right so he can get the words out.

    I have hearing loss too, and it’s getting worse. Those shows we loved didn’t help😉 plus🤷🏼‍♀️ I see it as part of aging.

    Almost burning down the house isn’t good, but you are not the first person to do something like that. I am forever forgetting to turn something on, or off.

    We may ALL be destined to become the Visiting Nurses guy. Let’s just hope that we get someone as kind and patient as you when we call.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My biggest concern is that I’m on the fast-track to become the visiting nurse guy. Not too long ago, maybe 2014, I wrote a blog post about how I wanted to live forever. For the most part, everything worked well. The degradation in the last 8 years is a little shocking. I’m sure Ben gets frustrated when he can’t vocalize what he’s thinking. As you already know, I believe I have a ‘mild case’ of autism, but maybe it’s the brain damage I just suggested… it seemed to come on in my 40s. I suspect that what Ben feels (and millions of others) is essentially a much more severe case of my experience.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure one of the most frustrating things is living with someone with hearing loss. It took me a while to get to the point where I agreed I needed hearing aids, and then the last generation of them didn’t work so well (at least the ones I bought). Having two young teenage children with a dad who can’t hear is not a pretty situation. My new hearing aids work remarkably well, and while I have *some* trouble, I probably now hear the best that I have in 10 years (when I have them in). On weekends, I tend to delay wearing them (not sure why) and everyone gets frustrated with me.

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    • … AND, won’t accept he is going deaf. […] He tells me I am mumbling!

      My dear old departed Mum was the same. Denial is such a pain to deal with… I do hope that it’s not inevitable, or inherited.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well that’s a great portrait Jeff, all your perceived incompetence notwithstanding. I wonder about that Spanish teacher calling you out like that, something you may remember all your life, if that was really necessary to have that kind of impact on a young person. But you and that coffee and that smell! Wow, I can imagine that too. And that person with the wrong phone number, that’s a good image you have of you in the future. Really nice piece, pretty damned competent storytelling I’d say. I laughed when you lost your train of thought tearing up that Spanish book!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Bill. “Competent storytelling” is the exact sort of comment I look for. Writing is actually one of the areas of my life where I feel I still have my full faculties. Hope it stays that way.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Jeff, I love this piece on so many levels. This sort of embrace of imperfections should be taught and encouraged, as an antidote to the truly deadly, arrogant confidence that afflicts so many, particularly (it seems to me) men, although I am fortunate to know and love many who have avoided this widely-encouraged trait. It pains me deeply read about the cruelty of the treatment you endured by your Spanish II teacher. I never cease to be amazed/ horrified by the lasting effects of this sort of institutional violence. How wonderful it would be if more of us were saying and hearing more often, these words: “Bless you, you’re so patient with me.” Beautiful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Stacey. I’ve picked up many compliments on how I treat the visiting nurse guy. I have to say it’s never occurred to me to be short with him. He’s very nice and clearly needs help. I think teachers who mistreat students are a special kind of idiot. My son has gotten a lot of that in his life and it really sends me over the edge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can’t agree more how maddening this is. I am a teacher, and one of my primary role is to provide safe space and encouragement for students who have been hurt by the system and/or individuals in it. It often strikes me that the many of the kids who have had these experiences have been punished for being rightfully skeptical, smart, aware, or otherwise unwilling to play some sort of game. I work with numerous people who are similarly motivated, but as we all know — it only takes one to leave lasting scars. Thanks for sharing, Jeff!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. At least you still have fire in your belly. I don’t mean to discount your aging concerns, Jeff. I know what living in the slower lane feels like. Fortunately, your writing still reflects competence and vitality. Be well!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Mark. I actually don’t mind the pace I move, but others seem to. An older friend once told me that decline happens in noticeable steps, not a steady erosion. Possibly, I’ve just gone over a step recently and that’s why this all seems so drastic to me. Maybe I’ll stay right where I am for years.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. i definitely had some shit teachers in grade/high school. i’m kinda shocked that some of your responders are surprised by a less than stellar teacher. teachers are human much like all other humans (ie: they ain’t perfect and not all of them like their jobs!) … not that that makes shitty-teacher-behavior acceptable– ’cause it’s def not. but back to coffee and hearing aids: 1. sad waste of good coffee (hah!) but so glad you did not burn down your house! 2. what? (teasing!). ever consider that all that headbanging rock/punk music back in the day contributed to your hearing loss?– not that the music back then wasn’t possibly worth it!

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    • By ‘back in the day’ you mean yesterday, right? I still tend to listen to my music too loudly, and losing my hearing definitely doesn’t help matters. Yes, I’ve thought a lot about how much of my hearing loss came from loud music. I’m sure some, but I compare myself to my brothers who have a similar background (and Dana even played in a punk band for several years) and I’m the only one whose hearing needs correction. Plus, hearing loss is a potential side effect of a TBI, as is double vision. Plus, my Tourette tics came back right after the accident. I really cracked myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s a sign of a good person who affords to perfect strangers the graces which weren’t afforded to themselves by people who should’ve known better. I admire that about you.

    Your post also inspired to make a cup of coffee! Yum.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I always enjoy the quirky way you recount these actually pretty major difficulties at times and make them seem somewhat manageable. I am terrified of going deaf or losing my hearing partially. I think most other things I could manage to some degree.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hearing loss is extremely isolating, although for those of us whose hearing can be corrected with hearing aids, the advancement in technology undoes a lot of that. My hearing aids automatically connect to my cell phone, so suddenly I can have phone conversations — something I haven’t done comfortably in over 10 years. Also, I essentially have a pair of bluetooth headphones in my ears all the time. Music is a part of my life now like it hasn’t been since college (although I really need to start listening to some new music, everything on my playlist is at least 30 years old).

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  8. I’m not going to say I particularly enjoyed reading this litany of diminishment, Jeff. But I appreciated hugely the disruption to the “I’m all alone and becoming an idiot” track my own brain has been visiting more and more. So we’re all in decline, and it sucks.

    Yesterday I left a comment on an Instragram post (records, of course) and typed “Fine right up”. Didn’t even see the mistake until the next day. Sigh. Guess all we can do is tell the Spanish II teacher inside our heads to go soak her head* and try to be polite with ourselves and each other.

    * edited version. Australians aren’t as polite as Americans.

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    • Ha. The concept of American as polite is hysterical, although having traveled around Aussies I get your point. Hmmm, Instagram. See right there you’ve got a leg up on me. My only social media (besides email) is Facebook. I’m truly the old guy I fear I’m turning into.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I love your openness in this piece. You don’t ever appear incompetent to me, especially with your writing, which is always interesting, honest, and enjoyable. As for that teacher, it’s appalling to have treated you like that. For all you know, with the dedicated and appropriate teaching, you could have been an expert Spanish linguist. It’s so wrong to tread on a child’s toes like that when you were at such a vulnerable stage in life.

    My Mum became very hard of hearing in her later years. I appreciate you’re not in your later years, though, which, no doubt, makes it more difficult. I’m glad your new hearing aids are doing the trick, though. I also have a male friend who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD in his fifties and has had difficulties with many things during his life. It’s common now that many conditions ‘on the spectrum’ are being diagnosed later and later in life, and apparently more so with women for some reason. It must be very frustrating for you to deal with hearing loss, double-vision and Tourette tics all at the same time. I think you cope remarkably well, not that I know you personally, but just from what I glean from your blog.

    I’m also very pleased that your house didn’t burn down after the coffee incident.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Because writing all happens at *my* pace, it seems immune to the degradation so far. Although y’all might be shocked to learn how many hours I put into a story like this. I’m not giving Mrs. Eddie a bye, but really, the whole secondary education model is designed in such a way that it has a negative impact on the self esteem of kids who struggle academically. My hearing loss was pretty evident in my forties and I began getting hearing aids in my early/mid fifties. I’m fortunate that I had a role model who wore hearing aids in his fifties and he always came off cool. I honestly think that really helped me adapt. The vision thing is an absolute pain in the ass. Over the past two years, my double vision has been worsening rapidly, requiring changes in my prescription. It does get to be a bit much sometimes, and I can’t help myself from complaining on my blog a bit. Hope it’s OK that I mentioned you in my post. Bloggers and music lyrics are about 80% of my daily human interaction so they get written about frequently.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a real nuisance having double-vision sounds like. My son-in-law has an autoimmune disease that affects his eyes badly, and he constantly has to get new prescriptions for his glasses. It gets on his nerves as it seems to with you also. That’s perfectly understandable, and I sympathise.

        It usually takes me at least a couple of days to post something on my blog, so I know where you’re coming from with that one. It doesn’t help that I’m a bit of a perfectionist! I get the impression you might be the same as your posts are always clear and lack any mistakes with grammar or spelling.

        It was fine to refer to me in your blog – I guessed it was me. I know exactly what you mean about human interaction. I’m not doing much of that either lately. My life seems to consist of blogging and reading/commenting on others’ blogs at the moment. It’s not that I don’t enjoy that; it’s just that I’m rather preoccupied with my ‘stuff’ currently. Whether I’ll still get any time to continue to blog remains to be seen.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Common sense. That is the one thing I wish for my kids to possess. Unfortunately, a couple of family members (and not two kids) just completely lack common sense. Self-confidence would be up there too, I guess. For me, I feel like my superpower is my ability to tune people out. I don’t know if I possessed this skill before having kids, or if it was something I developed to block out mindless chatter, but these days I realize someone asks a question and it takes a minute before I realize 1. Something was said 2. They said it to me, 3. They are waiting for me to answer. I can’t imagine others are going to see the super in my superpower as I get older. May we all have the same patience with each other that you have with the visiting nurse guy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Common sense is a good one. Not responding: This has come up with Eli a few times lately. I’ll ask him a question and he’ll answer me and then I think the conversation is over, but he thinks I’m supposed to follow up with something. This may just be his reaction to me never being able to hear what’s being said. I really need to work on acknowledging that I’ve heard something.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. 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.

    I think your sequence is fine, on the grounds that one cannot be competent without being both polite and empathetic. It also has the advantage of a handy mnemonic: when necessary, you could remind your children to ‘flex their PECs’ 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I can sympathize with much of this. I’ve felt lost, distracted, forgetful, incompetent, and a host of other self-denigrating words. My recent efforts to ‘change my way of thinking’ includes how I describe myself. (I’m not saying you need to do this, just sharing my view on the journey through apparent madness.) I’m trying to make conscious choices about how I spend my time. Where I devote my attention. Some days I do better than others. This week, with the kid home sick (and still capable of running around like a demented squirrel) it has been harder to stick to my focused goals. It would help if I could remember what they were. I know I wrote them down somewhere…

    At least you didn’t actually burn your house down. That is some consolation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Last night I was introduced to someone : This is Jeff, he’s almost a senior citizen. My feelings of incompetence wax and wane. I’ve felt really on my game for the past few days and it really helps my self esteem. I honestly thing it’s fairly tied to the amount of exercise I get. Endorphins and such. When life gets knocked off course, sick kid, etc, it’s hard not to have the chaos bleed into other areas of your life.

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