|By Riley McDavid|
In my undergraduate days, I took a class in general semantics taught by the late S.I. Hayakawa. Actually, he wasn’t “the late” then, but very much alive. However, he has since passed on.
Dr. Hayakawa was famous for, among other things, his depiction of a fictional animal named Bessie the cow. Bessie was Dr. Hayakawa’s device for helping people understand the process of abstracting using what he called “The Abstraction Ladder.”1 At the bottom of the ladder (I’m simplifying it somewhat) is Bessie, the one, the only Bessie the cow. On the next rung higher is the word “cow.” Not Bessie, mind you, but just “cow.” In other words a slightly more abstract representation of Bessie. Go up one more rung and you find “livestock,” a term that not only includes cows but other farm critters. Even more abstract is the term “farm assets” which encompasses not only living animals but barns and plows and balers and so on.
Okay, okay, enough already with the semantics lesson. If you’re a parent you know what an abstraction is. You say to your child, “Where are you going?” or “Where have you been?” and the child replies, “Out.” To which you reply, “Could you be a little more specific?” i.e., go down a few rungs on the abstraction ladder.
This all came to mind Sunday evening when I was reading questionnaire replies that some Meals on Wheels recipients had sent to Age Well in December. Some of the respondents simply couldn’t afford to pay all or even most of the suggested donation of $6.50 a day. Others were able to pay but needed meals because they were housebound and, as one lady with severe arthritis in her back wrote, “I am 98 years old and have difficulty standing to prepare my meals.”
Since I became associated with Age Well about three years ago, I have asked many people, in print and in person, to donate to Meals on Wheels. But Meals on Wheels, I realized as I read the responses of the Meals recipients, is too much of an abstraction.
“My niece was helping me pay, but her husband lost his job,” a homebound senior who is unable to pay for her meals wrote. “She is trying to help as best she can. I’m 91 years old and almost blind, so the meals are a true blessing. Thank you!”
That’s Bessie-the-cow specificity. It’s not Meals on Wheels we’re contributing to. No, we’re helping a flesh-and-blood human being who may have no other alternatives.
“[My husband] is housebound and I care for him,” wrote another Meals recipient.. “As a caregiver I need this relief and help at times when I am exhausted or not well.”
“Our finances are very limited and have been for some time,” a lady wrote. But she sent a check anyway, and concluded, “I cannot express how much I have been blessed by Meals on Wheels and your volunteers.”
Many of them cited reasons why Meals on Wheels is so vital in their lives. “I can’t drive to buy groceries,” wrote one. Another said she is legally blind and cannot see well enough to prepare meals. Inevitably some said they were facing high prescription costs and home heating bills. One man checked two boxes on the questionnaire and then wrote in big letters, “God Bless Your Work!!”
A few hours ago after breakfast I drove about two miles to swim at one of our community pools. I don’t mean this as an ego trip, but look at how much you just learned about me in that last sentence. I am able to purchase food and prepare a meal at home. I have at least enough funds to maintain an auto — not nearly new but a functioning auto nevertheless. I have enough vision to maneuver a car without maiming anyone. I have enough wits about me to pass a DMV test. I have enough strength to swim laps, albeit at a glacially slow pace.
If you have all these and other things going for you, or even if you don’t, please donate to help the people who no longer have all these assets and who depend upon Meals and its many wonderful volunteers. And be generous so that when our time comes, Meals will still be there.
The questionnaire said in part, “If you are already contributing at or above the suggested donation level, thank you very much for helping us continue our mission. If you or family members are unable to contribute, but you are still in need, God bless you. We will find a way to continue your service uninterrupted.”
Your contribution will help Age Well find that way. Go to www.myagewell.org and click on ‘Donate Now.”
1 Full disclosure: A few scholars don’t think nearly so highly as I of Hayakawa’s Abstraction Ladder. They say it distorts the work of Alexander Korzybski, from whom Hayakawa derived many of his ideas. I say phooey on them. In eighteen years of teaching high school English, I found Hayakawa’s formulation a terrific tool for teaching young people how to organize their writing.
Next on the Age Well Calendar
The Captain’s Ball. Saturday, March 3 at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel`. The Captain’s Ball gala recognizes companies or individuals who have gone above and beyond in their caring towards seniors. It has been described as “the one ball you don’t want to miss and the best in Orange County.” Black tie.