Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Safety Sealed Hell

What do you most fear about old age? For me it has to be opening food and medication packaging. I’m so tired of struggling to open sealed pouches that boldly proclaim “New! Easy Open Tab”. I squint trying to find the tab. It’s usually a nearly invisible thread. I grasp it between my big clumsy finger and thumb and tug. Zip! Out comes the little thread. The package remains stubbornly sealed shut.

Brick cheese and many other food products now come in resealable bags. You tear off the top only to discover there isn’t enough surface left to grab on to for opening the reclosable seam. I’d rather use my own ziplock bags. Maybe if they would spend less on gimmicky packaging they could either lower the price or improve the product.

Then there are those annoying plastic safety seals under the outer lid of just about everything – butter, pudding, coffee cans, microwave entrees, you name it. I find it challenging enough just to find the one small area along the edge that is a hair wider than the rest, laughingly referred to as the pull tab. Impossible for me to grasp. I usually resort to poking a knife through the top and tearing it off in pieces.

You can forget about saving any unused portion by covering it with plastic wrap. The sharp serrated band, which is supposed to allow you to tear off just the right amount of wrap to do the job, is very good at tearing apart your fingers but useless at cutting through plastic wrap. You’ll end up with at least one third of the roll before you manage to wrench it free at which point you can admire the superior clinging ability it has used to wrap itself into a ball.

I’d like to condemn the inventor of child proof caps to an eternity of trying to open them. I don’t know if they prevent children from opening the bottle but they sure defeat me. The last thing I need when I stumble into the bathroom in the middle of the night to retrieve the aspirin is a bottle I can’t open. For that reason alone I purchased a Dremel rotary cut-off tool.

While I’m sentencing inventors of cruel products, I may as well include the jerk who came up with blister packs. You know, those things that hang from metal rods in the stores like miniature versions of back-of-the-door clothes hangers. I understand their appeal to the retailers; they don’t have to pry the damn things open. Nor do they have to pick up all the pieces when the lid finally springs open and spews out its contents all over the floor.

Speaking of spewing, beware any carton that boasts of it’s new, improved no-spill spout. That’s a guarantee that you will be mopping up every time you use it. The absolute worst is International Delight coffee creamer. I wonder how many people have returned that stuff to the store because nothing comes out, not realizing that the entire top third of the bottle is an empty “no spill” spout with an aluminum foil seal hidden inside. If you do manage to get the foil ripped open and put the contraption back together you can expect equal parts of creamer in your cup and on the counter top.

From individually bubble wrapped pills to easy-open safety sealed food, I see a rough old age ahead for me. No wonder Meals on Wheels is so busy.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Riding the Rails

I am an advocate for public transportation but sometimes enough is enough. Last Friday I headed out to Fire Island Pines where I have a share in a beach house. Since I had volunteered to cook dinner that night, I needed to pick up supplies to prepare dinner for 10 people.  Grocery shopping at the Pines is limited to one small convenience store which charges very inconvenient prices so I decided to buy everything in the city and take it with me. I also needed my requisite case of beer, multiple wardrobe changes, a steamer case of skin care products, my CPAP machine and a jug of distilled water for same. In short, I was not travelling light.

My journey began by rolling a carry-on bag and a luggage cart, to which I strapped a 48 quart cooler and the case of beer, along the sidewalks of Astoria to the elevated train where I was greeted by 4 long flights of stairs up to the platform. It was impossible to carry both the cart and the suitcase so I had to relay them up. The train wasn’t too crowded so the ride into Manhattan was uneventful.

At the great labyrinth which is the Herald Square station I discovered how frustrating it must be for the handicapped. Just finding the hidden location of the elevators is hard enough and it’s unlikely that they are working once you do find them. More steps to drag my stuff up.

The two block schlep to Penn Station was difficult. Everyone else on the sidewalk was going in the opposite direction and showed no sympathy for me as I huffed and puffed my way along with the cart in front of me and the bag in tow.

Once inside Penn Station I found my way to the sub-basement where a disorganized throng of Long Island Railroad commuters awaited departure announcements. When my train was called there was a mad dash for the platform while I stood waiting for the elevator. I finally tugged my caravan into the train where I immediately discovered that the aisle was just wide enough to allow me to get everything hopelessly wedged. I could go no further forward. As it turned out, I couldn’t back up either.

My fellow passengers were an impatient crowd. “Would you mind getting out of the way?” someone demanded. Soon there was a chorus of contempt as I struggled to free my trapped baggage. With a terrific tug I lurched my carry-on bag overhead only to discover that the luggage rack was designed to hold nothing larger than a brief case. Now drenched in sweat, I let if fall onto an empty seat.

“May I please pass by!” another infuriated passenger demanded.

“Yes,” I shot back at her. “Just turn around and go out the exit, walk up the platform, and re-enter the train.”

I finally managed to get everything off the floor and onto seats and I slumped next to the cargo. I thought for sure the conductor would object to my using the seats as a luggage rack but I guess he took pity on me because he only muttered something unintelligible.

At least I was on the train and we were underway. It would have been nice if the next stop were along side the ferry but life is never that simple. I had to change trains in Babylon. Realizing the hassle that awaited me, I began relaying my bags and cooler and carts to the vestibule well ahead of time. To my delight, the transfer was across the platform. No steps.

I was not so foolish as to enter the car body on the second train. I decided to stand in the vestibule. As we rolled through the Long Island countryside I began to relax. The worst was behind me. Soon I would be enjoying a carefree weekend on Fire Island. At that moment the train lurched and the cart with the beer and the cooler toppled over. The cooler opened up and spewed all the ice and groceries all over the vestibule floor.

Somehow I managed to collect everything and eventually get it from the train to the shuttle van and finally on to the ferry. As I struggled with the last of it, I watched a car pull up to the dock. The occupants unloaded all their paraphernalia onto the dock then drove across the street and parked. They looked fresh and happy whereas I looked disheveled and deranged.

Next time I drive.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I have always been a lukewarm supporter of same-sex marriage even though I am gay. I used to tell gay marriage advocates that I did not risk having my head bashed in at Stonewall to earn the right to mimic the failed institutions of heterosexuality. At the same time, I have always recognized that there is something wrong with laws that bestow certain rights to one class of citizen but deny those rights to others.

Several years ago a friend of mine lost his partner in a sudden accidental death. When he attempted to enter his partner’s funeral he was denied access by the family. Even though he had been the most significant person in his partner’s life, the family, which had previously shunned their gay son, was able to prevent him from attending the funeral. This was an outrageous, unacceptable tragedy and the pain my friend felt can never be erased but he had no legal recourse. Clearly there was something wrong with the applicable laws.

Marriage conveys a long list of legal rights and responsibilities including the right to jointly own property, the right of inheritance, hospital visitation rights, the right to make medical decisions should the partner become incapacitated, the questionable right to file joint tax returns, the responsibility for each other’s debts, and many others. As Judge Walker recently ruled in overturning California’s proposition eight, the state has no valid interest in limiting these rights to opposite sex couples.

It’s interesting to note that the same rights are denied to heterosexual couples who, for whatever reason, choose not to marry. It might be possible for two consenting adults to draw up a large packet of legal documents that would convey the same rights and responsibilities as marriage. But it would be tedious and not bullet proof. It should be possible to accomplish the entire package with a single simple contract. In same states, it is. It’s called domestic partnership.

Oh, my, the red flags are waving and the alarm bells are ringing! Not that second class citizenship thing again. Well, I’m not even going to get into that argument because I could never accept one status for heterosexuals and a different one for same-sex couples. The fact is, I don’t think the government should be in the business of recognizing anyone’s relationship. Rather than advocate for same-sex marriage, I would like to see the abolition of all state-sanctioned marriages. Domestic partnerships for all; state licensed marriage for none. (I realize, of course, that the likelihood of repealing marriage is zilch.)

Throughout the rhetoric of the same-sex marriage battle, I don’t recall ever hearing either side define the term “marriage” other than opponents insisting that, whatever it is, it is for one man and one woman only. That’s part of the problem. It is an emotionally charged word that has many different meanings. To some it is a beautiful garden party where everyone is dressed in white. To others, it is a commitment ceremony witnessed by friends and families. To some, it is a religious sacrament. With all these issues whirling around the debate, it is often easy to forget that we are talking about dry, legal contracts.

How did the marriage issue manage to become the primary focus, perhaps the sole focus, of the gay rights movement? During the nineties, gay rights activists realized that in order to gain support for legal reform, we needed to educate non-gays about who we really are. We needed to dispel the myths that we were a tiny group of deviants and child molesters who would tear apart the moral fiber of America. They also realized that it is harder to be biased against a group of people if you personally know members of that group. Posters on subways and buses and ads in newspapers and magazines began to appear which featured montages of everyday people – letter carriers, nurses, business people, police, etc. – with the tag line “someone you know is gay”.

It was a good idea but it also carried a risk. All of the images were of stereotypical middle class (mostly white) people. The subliminal message was that gay people are exactly the same as straight people. The new message to middle America seemed to be that we are so indistinguishable from everyone else that we could not be perceived as a threat.

Then the anti-gay fundamentalists began their campaign that we had a hidden agenda to convert their children to homosexuality by promoting the idea that there is nothing wrong with being gay. (Why do they always think that gay life is so irresistibly attractive that without strong constraints, everyone will fall into it?) They started throwing the term “family values” into the word battle. At that point I suppose it was inevitable that we would start talking about our families too. Once again, nobody bothered to define the term.

Suddenly it seemed that the ultimate goal of every gay man and lesbian was to get married, move to a detached house in the suburbs with a white picket fence where they would push their baby strollers past lollipop gardens cheerfully greeting their adoring and suitably diverse neighbors. We were no longer the midnight cowboys whose love dare not speak its name. Being gay was no longer, by it’s very existence, an act of social revolution. It seemed that we were moving away from militantly demanding the rights which should be ours to making ourselves palatable enough to the rest of society for them to grant those rights to us.

The problem is that we are too far down the road to reverse course now. The debate over same-sex marriage has, like all of our battles, become a referendum on homosexuality. We have no choice but to support state licensed and sanctioned marriages for same-sex couples and therefore to support the continuation of the same for opposite-sex couples. The entire movement for gay equality has been placed into this one issue. If we lose this fight our cause will be severely wounded. Politicians will distance themselves further than ever from us; the fundamentalists will claim the moral high ground; the  movement will seem to have lost its momentum.

Ultimately the ban on same-sex marriage will be overturned. It’s a demographic certainty: the majority of opponents to same-sex marriage will die before the majority of supporters. When it finally happens, will it mark the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians? Probably not. It won’t even be the most important milestone in the gay rights movement. That honor will still be held by the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas in 2003 which struck down the state sodomy laws which had been used as the primary tools for persecuting and jailing gays. Nor will it be the final battle in the ongoing LGBT movement. There will still be much more work before true equality is achieved.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I remember visiting my British mother years ago in the hospital after she had suffered a stroke. Her speech was badly slurred and the doctors said she would never walk again. (She did, she was very obstinate.) During that visit, an aide brought her a cup of tea. My mother loved tea. She had it at every meal, in the late afternoon, and at night. It seemed to revive her and give her strength to face the rest of the day.

She took a sip from the Styrofoam cup and immediately spat it out. “What’s this?” she slurred. I told her it was a cup of tea with lemon, just as she liked it. “It’s horrible!” she grimaced and pushed the cup towards me.

I doubt that either Gourmet magazine or the Food Channel have ever done a feature extolling the culinary delights of hospital food. But a cup of tea? How badly can you screw that up? Pour boiling water on bag. Serve.

Immediately following a stroke, people often seem to change. They lose interest in things that used to fascinate them, they forget how to do things at which they used to excel. They seem to have a personality change. This is sometimes a temporary phase and they return to their same old selves over time. For others, there are permanent changes. It’s as if the stroke, much like electro-shock therapy, erases parts of their nature.

So I wondered if it were possible for a person to forget that they like something. If the stroke is like pulling up the clear overlay on an etch-a-sketch, wiping everything clean, perhaps the victim literally returns to a fresh palette. According to the Stroke Association of the U.K., loss of taste, or dysgeusia, is one of the less common after-effects of a stroke. “What happens with taste processing is that the taste buds in the tongue send messages about specific categories of taste along nerve pathways up to the brain, ending in an area called the taste zone in the sensory part of the brain. It may be that a stroke can affect either the taste zone, or the areas of the brain through which the taste pathways have to go.”

When my mother sipped that cup of tea and found it repugnant, could that have been her true reaction to the taste of tea rather than something that she had been indoctrinated to like during the bleak, rain soaked years of her young adulthood in industrial, war-ravaged Manchester, England?

We’ve all heard of acquired tastes. Beer and caviar are said to be acquired tastes. For me, vegetables are something for which I have yet to acquire a taste. Is tea an acquired taste? Most people seem to think so. Many people can only drink tea if it is sweetened with sugar or tempered with lemon or milk. Some gradually wean themselves from the additives and eventually learn to love a strong cup of unadulterated tea. Even in tea drinking capitols like Japan and China, generally only adults voluntarily drink tea.

Recovery from a stroke involves various types of therapy such as  physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Patients must learn to reconnect neural pathways that have been damaged or to learn new ways of doing things utilizing the parts of their bodies that have not been damaged. Some skills must be relearned. I suspect that some tastes may also be re-acquired.

The last time I saw my mother I was visiting her in her home. She had defied the experts and was living independently on her own. Despite not having the use of the right side of her body she served tea as it should be served – in a trusted ceramic pot covered by a knitted tea cozy on, what else? a tea cart. There was fine china, lemons in a Wedgewood dish, silver tea spoons, an some dry biscuits.

She poured my cup first, then hers. She awkwardly squeezed a lemon wedge with one hand. It was high ceremony. She held her cup lovingly and closed her eyes as she took the first sip. It obviously was heavenly. The etch-a-sketch in my mother’s mind was fully drawn in once again.