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A week in Pittsburgh

September 24, 2009—Well, the G-20 summit turned out to be a nonevent as far as I was concerned—what a relief! All the fuss was downtown, and it turns out that Donald lives far enough from there that we couldn't see any effects... no crowds, no police, no closed streets, no traffic jams.

The bad news is that the weather, which was clear, cool and dry the night I arrived, turned humid and rainy overnight, and stayed that way the entire week I was in the Pittsburgh area. It's exactly the kind of weather I hated when I lived in the east: leaden skies, constant drizzle, and worst of all, humidity that makes me feel as if I'm walking inside a damp sponge. In the morning and evening the hills were wreathed in heavy fog. The constant dampness in the air made sleeping difficult. I ran the air conditioner, but it didn't seem to help. Where's the crisp fall weather I remember?

I spent Sunday tidying up the rig a bit, but mainly relaxing after all the driving I'd done in the past week and a half. Then on Monday I drove into town to see Donald.


He hasn't changed much, other than the fact that at 83, he moves very slowly with two canes. (Ironically, his 85-year-old sister Deirdre is considerably more spry.) The house is neat, but dirtier than I remember it, and as always, reeks of pipe tobacco.

A friend asked me how it felt seeing Donald at this age. After all, this could be me in twenty or thirty years, since we're physically very similar. I thought about that for awhile. The good news is that Donald is sharp as a tack mentally. He's a man of broad interests and enormous knowledge (see "Conversation With an Encyclopedia"), who owns thousands of books and devotes a lot of time to reading. His memory seems to be as good as ever, and he's a fountain of miscellaneous facts. That's a good omen for me, since I value my mind above all else.

Donald's mobility problems are distressing to see, but he still gets around on his own. And he'd be doing even better if he weren't so extremely reluctant to spend money on himself, an attitude inculcated during the Great Depression that he has never been able to shake off, even now that he's financially secure. Donald's life could be a lot more comfortable with a few easily obtained items such as stairlifts, an electric scooter, better glasses, and so on.


Take those glasses, for example. Donald, like me, is an avid reader, so you'd think he'd take care of his eyes, right? Yet it took me and the rest of the family pretty near ten years to convince him to have his cataracts removed, a simple outpatient procedure. Once he'd done that, of course he needed new glasses, because his prescription had changed. But he was too cheap to get prescription glasses.

When I first saw Donald on this visit, I noticed he was wearing unusually colorful plastic frames. When I asked about them, he explained that they were bargain-basement reading glasses, not prescription glasses. He'd bought three pairs for $5.99 from a women's mail-order catalog he saw at his sister's house. Of course, he went on to say, they don't correct for his astigmatism and other defects, so he sees double a lot of the time. But they were cheap! With Donald, that's the overriding virtue.

Zenni glasses

I recently bought new glasses for myself. I used to get glasses in Mexico, where they're about half as expensive as they would be at a "discount" optician on this side of the border. But then friends told me about Zenni Optical, and I became an instant convert.

Zenni offers hundreds of styles of glasses at prices starting at $8.00 for frames and prescription lenses. (No, that isn't a typo!) That's for plastic or plated-metal frames, the kind I used to pay over $100 for in Mexico, and $200 and up in the US. I chose titanium-alloy frames—ultra-flexible, almost indestructible, and non-tarnishing—and paid a total of $32.90 for single-prescription lenses, frames, case, custom-fit clip-on sunglasses, and postage. They're by far the best-quality glasses I've ever had.

But there was no point in telling Donald about Zenni. He doesn't have a computer (or a TV, or a lot of other "modern gadgets"), so he couldn't order online. He doesn't even have a current prescription, so I couldn't order for him. And he apparently doesn't care whether he sees double with his two-dollar reading glasses, so there's no point in trying to convince him to get anything better.

When I'm in my eighties, I won't be cutting corners on vital things like glasses. I expect to have a much better quality of life than Donald does now. First, I won't be living in a big old three-story house. (I know it was an easy choice to buy his mother's house and move back to his old hometown, but retiring to a multistory dwelling is a Very Bad Idea.) Also, I won't have been chain-smoking all my life, or avoiding doctors.

And most of all, I'll take full advantage of any technological aid that can benefit me. I'll have a scooter with racing stripes. (Actually, in twenty years I hope to have a powered exoskeleton.) Unlike my father, I'm not too proud, or too "thrifty," or too technophobic, to get help from technology. So even if I have weakened legs like his, I'll get around a lot better than Donald does.

One of the first priorities of my visit was to take Donald out to do some errands, especially grocery shopping. (Normally, my cousin Hugh takes him shopping once a month.) So we climbed into my little red Honda and drove to the bank, the tobacconist's, and the supermarket. Donald used to shop at a small and rather shabby Giant Eagle, but that has closed down and been replaced by a huge, modern Market District store a few blocks further along.

I was delighted by the variety of choices. (You have to remember that I mostly shop in Walmarts, because there's one in just about every town.) Look, for example, at the range of Indian foods they offer:

Indian foods

I've never seen so many varieties in one place before. Most of these are ultra-pasteurized, in foil-and-plastic pouches with a 12–18 month shelf life... ideal for an RVer. Some of the packages even contained a free Indian classical music CD! What a great idea: you get the sights, tastes, and smells of an Indian meal, and the musical atmosphere to go with it. Indian food—I mean the kind that comes from New Delhi, not from Navajo country—is hard to find in small New Mexico towns. I stocked up.

Donald, on the other hand, dislikes the big new store because there are too many choices (translation: it's too hard to locate the Dinty Moore section). He stocked up too... on cookies, jam, cheesecake, ice cream, donuts, Coke, and of course Dinty Moore stew and canned Spaghetti-Os. Anything that would kill a diabetic, he bought. Yes, he's mildly diabetic. No, I didn't say anything. I know better than to try to change his habits. Look, the guy has a Ph.D. from Harvard. He's not stupid. He's made his choices—the smoking, the high-carbohydrate diet, the refusal to see doctors. I wish he'd chosen otherwise, but it's his life.

Donald hates spicy foods, so he wasn't going to want to share any of my Indian meals. I've tried his Dinty Moore stew and found it gristly and revolting. And the less said about his kitchen, the better. So I ended up taking him out to eat at a local Boston Market. The food there is at least decent, though not as good as it was before McDonald's bought them out.


Driving back to the campground that night, I was struck by the brilliant, colorful displays on my Honda Fit's dashboard, and realized that I hadn't driven the car at night since I bought it back from the dealership after buying it in January. Heck, I'm retired... it's not as if I have to drive home in the dark after working late, the way I used to. One time when I was on a hot job, I even brought my old motorhome Gertie to work, and slept in the parking lot to avoid that late-night commute. But nowadays, there's no need to drive around in the dark.

The next day, I took Donald out to visit his sister Deirdre in her new apartment. She's just sold her house of forty years and moved into a newly built retirement/assisted-living community. The apartment is spacious and bright, with a sun room overlooking the woods in back of the complex. Very nice! We chatted for awhile, then went downstairs to one of the three dining rooms, where we had dinner. My turkey and artichoke sandwich on grilled bread was excellent.

The drive home was a different story. After dropping Donald off, I headed back to the campground in Tarentum, and quickly ran into increasingly dense fog. It's only a forty-minute drive, but it starts on expressways and ends on tiny, twisting country roads... not fun to drive in the dark with a heavy blanket of fog!

The odd thing was that Pittsburgh itself was almost clear... but the higher I got into the hills, the thicker the fog became. Usually it's just the opposite. By the end of the trip, I was crawling along in first gear at ten mph, leaning forward in a vain attempt to see better in visibility that had dropped to ten or fifteen feet at most. The campground entrance is on the left side of the road and not at all well marked, so it's a miracle I was able to find it.

I pulled in, feeling drained. Alix was very glad to see me, having been left alone (and probably bored out of her mind) all day. She purred and rubbed against me in an uncharacteristically affectionate way. It's always nice to be missed!

I would have liked to go to bed immediately, but there are always emails to answer, requests from freelance clients, and online chores in the Lazy Daze discussion group I moderate, so I spent an hour catching up on computer work before dropping into bed, exhausted.

The next morning I drove into the town of Tarentum to get the Fit cleaned, since it had acquired quite a coating of dust and grime in its travels from New Mexico. At the car wash, the manager asked me about the towing hardware on the front of the car, which lead to a discussion of how he'd love someday to do what I'm doing, if only he had the money... which lead to my explaining that retiring in an RV can be a lot cheaper than retiring in a house, if you choose your locations (e.g., New Mexico). I ended up with a sparkling-clean car, which made me feel good.

While they were putting a final buff on the polish, I walked across the street to photograph this tiny cathedral, the smallest I've ever seen. Maybe it's just because I grew up near the massive Princeton University Chapel, a full-scale Gothic cathedral, but I thought this miniature version—not much bigger than the modest residence next door—was both cute and a bit comical.


I spent each of the next few days with Donald. I took him out to a big Lowe's hardware store to buy parts for his living-room floor lamp, which had a defective switch/socket assembly. Easier said than done: the socket was for Mogul base bulbs, the big industrial type normally seen only in schools and businesses. Lowe's had the 100/200/300 watt Mogul-base bulbs, but not the hardware to go with them. We finally swapped in a standard Edison-base three-way socket and 50/100/150 watt bulb, but because they were so much smaller than the old Mogul-base ones, we had to do a fair amount of machining to make them fit. What should have been a simple job ended up taking all afternoon. But the result was a nice, bright reading light by Donald's favorite chair, so it was well worth the effort.

In the evenings, we watched DVD movies on my Macintosh laptop. Donald has no TV, and almost never gets out to the movies, so it's a treat for him to see them at home. Because he's a naval history buff, I'd purchased "Master and Commander" years ago, since I knew it would be right up his alley, but I hadn't watched it until now. In its details, it was a very accurate portrayal of naval warfare during the Napoleonic era (ca. 1806)—which is to say that it was extremely bloody. The amputation scenes were not for the squeamish! Donald said that with regard to tactics, it was more fantasy than history, but he enjoyed it very much just the same. (Personally, I wouldn't want to sit through it again.) On another night we watched "Silent Movie"—not Mel Brooks's best work, but still funny and enjoyable.

When Thursday rolled around—my final day in Pittsburgh—I hauled out my packet of literature on Stannah stairlifts and did my best to convince Donald that he should have some installed. Getting up and down the stairs in that big old house is a major obstacle for him, and there's no bathroom on the first floor. My two biggest worries are that he'll fall asleep with his pipe lit and start a fire, and that he'll fall down one of the three flights of stairs. Stairlifts would eliminate one of those concerns.

I've seen these devices in operation at my friend Frank Lewin's house, and was very impressed with how well thought out and well built they are. They fold neatly out of the way when not in use. They have swiveling seats so that you can exit into the hallway rather than onto the staircase. They run on self-contained batteries, so that if power fails, you can still make a number of trips... yet they recharge themselves automatically. They can be used on staircases that are curved or have corners. The rails are mounted to the stairs, so you don't have to worry about whether your walls will bear the weight. In short, they're really slick. And they make it feasible for a mobility-impaired person like Donald to live in a multistory dwelling that would otherwise be impracticable.

Donald's reaction was lukewarm. He was "not opposed to the idea," he said, but felt that he'd wait until he really needed one. The trouble with that philosophy is that he won't admit he really needs one until he's taken a major fall down the stairs... at which point it'll be too late. I pointed out that it's like saying you'll keep on crossing the street with your eyes shut until you really need to open them. I don't know that I made much of an impression, though.

I left the stairlift literature with him (to add to the pile he already had—I and others have been urging this on him for more than five years now) and appealed to sentiment: "I may not be back this way for awhile, and I'd like you to still be around when I do come back." But appealing to sentiment is a weak argument with Donald. Truth is, I don't know any strong arguments. Appealing to logic, always my first instinct, doesn't seem to have worked when I've tried it in the past. Sentiment doesn't seem to work. He pretty much just does what he wants to, even when it's bad for his life expectancy.

In fact, I have no inclination to return to the east after this trip. Much as I love my friends and family here in the east, I really have become a southwesterner at heart, and the climate east of the Rockies is something I'd like to get away from as soon as I can. As I hugged Donald and said goodbye, I knew it might well be the last time I'd see him.

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