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Tick...Tick...Ticked Off!

by Julia Sneden

     My friend, Maeve, is known as a patient person. She taught school for twenty-five years, reared four children, and now takes care of an elderly parent. Its a life history that has worn down the rough edges of impatience.
     Maeve has a reputation for being good in a crisis. Shes dependable. She has great self-control. It takes a lot to bring out her temper. Shes a reasonable, cheerful person, willing to put up with a lot. 
     In short, shes someone who usually manages her to keep her cool. Thats why I was dumbfounded when she called me the other day with a long rant about the pruning of trees. 
We live in small city that prides itself on its beautiful, old trees. There is one stretch of road that is lined with huge, old maples, planted before 1920. Before she retired, Maeve and her fellow teachers (of whom I was one) drove that stretch every morning on the way to work. In the fall it was like entering a great, glowing tunnel with flaming reds and oranges and golds. In winter, the tracery of the limbs against blue sky was spare and handsome. In spring, the leaves came out and made us realize suddenly that what we had been missing all winter was not so much the leaves, but the shade they provided. And in summer, the green canopy gave us dappled sunlight and the illusion of being cool. That short bit of road never failed to lift our hearts and make us grateful for its very existence.
    And then, our local power company sent in a tree service to trim back branches that threatened their lines. Only they didnt just trim, they butchered. Instead of cutting a space for the lines to go through, they cut every single limb on the side of each tree that faced the wires. Imagine a row of trees, 40 to 60 feet tall, with half the canopy gone. The poor things look like giant toothbrushes. The pruning (read: mutilation) destroyed not only the aesthetics of the tree, but also in all probability its very existence. Aside from the stress that such brutal surgery brings, the next good ice storm should produce lots of flattened trees, pulled down because all the added weight will be on one side.
     Its not just the stupidity of it thats making me crazy, Maeve snapped. Its the fact that we had no warning. Had I known the plan, Id gladly have protested, organized others, even chained myself to one of those trees, but it just happened. One day the trees were there. The next day, they were butchered. End of story. 
     It seems to me that there are many kinds of stupidity in the world, from individual moments of non-think (for example, the time I couldnt find my coffee cup until I opened the refrigerator and discovered it steaming away on a frosty shelf) to the major follies that come from large entities like government or businesses. Often the latter have simply grown too large to police their many branch stores and offices. It was a sub-contractor of our local power company, for instance, that did the tree pruning. Its not that anyone intended to be stupid, but
     Another example of careless stupidity, or lack of overseeing the work done by local employees: if you have tried on clothes in a large department store recently, you will understand me when I say that the so-called fitting rooms are a disgrace. The floors are filthy, obviously never vacuumed, or if they are, the rugs are so old and stained that youd never know whether theyre clean or not. You cant avoid stepping on them if you need to remove your shoes (to try on a pair of slacks, for instance), which is disgusting. There is clutter everywhere, and not a wastebasket in sight. Pins are stuck into walls. The little plastic clips used to hold garments just so on the hangar, or the elastic on clips used to give a hung garment some shape, are dropped on the floor. What would it take to provide a wastebasket, or better yet a small recycling shelf with a container for pins, clips, etc.? Its as if the stores, having gotten you inside their doors and presented you with their merchandise, dont give a hoot about your comfort or their image. 
    Sometimes the stupidity of large organizations comes from a lack of sensitivity to the needs of its customers. Even the most caring of nursing homes seems to have a problem keeping track of the patients clothing. From time to time, for example, strangers clothes appear in my mothers closet even though the nursing home doesnt do her washing. When I first insisted that I would do her laundry, they looked at me with wide eyes and said: Why on earth?
Well, I had had some experience, thats why. I had firsthand knowledge of three nursing homes, and I can tell you that when they did the laundry, they cooked it in water so hot that things shrank. A ruined sweater was the least of it, but that particular garment mattered to Mother because it was one she had loved for years, and by the time the homes laundry finished with it, it would have fit a two-year-old. In addition to ignoring the washing instructions on labels, the nursing homes with which I am familiar dont iron. Anyone with cotton shirts is simply out of luck. And, of course, they often lose things despite the fact that there are names written in them.
    Old people who must live away from home and family have very few possessions left. Clothes are personal and important to them. Surely it wouldnt be too much to ask the personnel of the nursing home to take this fact seriously. In my experience, they shrug and smile and say Oh, that will happen from time to time. 
    And then there is the inexcusable stupidity of all those government regulations that are designed to protect, but often wind up hurting people. The INS was due for a major overhaul, even before the circus surrounding Elian Gonzalez. Its bizarre regulations and unresponsive bureaucracy have caused distress to millions. All you have to do is read the newspaper to realize that the agency is way out of control. So, for that matter, is OSHA, that watchdog of workplace safety. 
    Back to my mothers retirement community, for example: In a nearby building, there is a lovely living room with a large fireplace. On cold days, she loves nothing better than to be wheeled away from the nursing center and down the hall to sit by the fire. She tells me that the thing she misses most about leaving her own home is not having a fireplace. Its a sentiment shared by many of her peers.
    This fall, Mother is looking forward to moving into the beautiful new nursing facility that the retirement community has built. Their administration is justly proud of it. When I asked if there would be a fireplace, however, the man in charge shook his head sadly and said: OSHA wont let us have one, not in a nursing home. He added that one of the newer nursing homes in town has a fake fireplace that doesnt even put out heat, but the patients draw up their wheelchairs around it, just as if it were real. There is something quite pathetic in this. If OSHA is concerned about safety, surely there could be accommodations made (lockable glass doors in front of the flames, for instance) that would allow for safety without denying residents the comfort of a hearth. God knows there are few enough comforts in their lives.
    I know that its futile to lose sleep over what the perpetrators probably view as small matters, but they certainly dont seem small to me. Its important, I think, not just to complain, but to be heard when one complains. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper, or to the home offices of stores (bypass the complaint department; its usually a dead end), or to the CEO of a wayward utility. Some may view you as an old crank, but at least you wont be a silent old crank, seething with unexpressed resentments. When youre angry about something, tell somebody!



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