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A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11

category_bug_journal2.gif When I left home at age 17 within a week of graduating from high school in 1958, it was unspoken but understood between Mom and me that the move was permanent, that returning home was not an option. Or at least, that’s what I believed and belief, warranted or not, is all that is necessary for some things to be so.

I also believed then that Mom had nothing to teach me, certainly nothing about the big questions that bothered me in high school: Why don’t the popular kids like me? How will I know when I’m in love? What do I do with my arms when a boy kisses me? Is there really a God? Where do we go when we die?

Looking back now with the forbearance of age for youth, including one’s own, it is obvious my belief in Mom’s ignorance had no foundation. With the arrogance of teens immemorial, I had never bothered, before condemning her, to ask the questions.

It was many years before I appreciated what Mom did teach me throughout the ten or so years of my childhood I can remember, and she did it decades before that guy wrote a book about what he learned in kindergarten:


  • Walk on the right of the sidewalk.

  • Watch where you are going.

  • Hold the door for people to leave the shop before you enter.

  • Don’t complain. It is unseemly and no one else’s business.

  • Learn to roll with the punches, Sarah Heartburn.

  • Modulate your voice to your surroundings.

  • Give your brother a chance to talk.

  • Don’t slam the door.

I can hear her voice still in each of these lessons and many more like them. She taught them by repetition as my behavior dictated and their simplicity belies their power and their wider application. There was another lesson that today would horrify child experts and possibly get her reported to child welfare authorities.

When I was three years old during World War II, Mom sent me to nursery school. She walked me the four blocks down the hill from our house where she handed me over to the bus driver. He let me off at the school where the teacher waited. In the afternoon, the process was repeated in reverse except that instead of meeting the bus at the bottom of the hill, Mom watched for me from our living room window.

I have no memory of this. When Mom told the story over the years, the punch line was about how she “chewed her fingernails down to her elbows” worrying until she saw my head bobbing up over the hill.

There was no reason for her not to meet the bus in the afternoon, she said, except that “there are no certainties in life.” Dad, who was fighting in The Philippines and New Guinea, might not survive the War. And because anything could happen to her too, at any time, it was important to teach me as much independence as possible as young as possible.

It was the first big lesson she taught me. Fifty years later, she took on another one just as big and who is to say now that it was not done with as much intention and design as the first.

Caring for Mom during her final three months was the most profound and powerful experience of my life. It was a gift, a grace, a blessing I would wish upon everyone.

Perhaps if I had been a mother, if I had raised children, I would already have known the pleasures of protecting and nurturing, of being needed and wanted. But I had not. So it was a surprise, while caring for Mom, to realize I was the happiest I had ever been. Not lighthearted or joyous and certainly not carefree, but fulfilled and complete, at one with myself. For the first and only time in my life, I was doing something that mattered.

A friend said to me that he believes it is the last, great lesson a parent teaches a child: how to die. Mom left me with an exceptional standard to live up to when my time comes, and she did it with a courage and dignity that I, to my shame, had never given her credit for.

She did not complain, but she was not passive either. Though she gave over the household decision-making to me with never another word, she also never shied from making known what she wanted. She never apologized for, or even acknowledged, waking me three, four and more times a night. If she knew it took me five hours of driving around Sacramento to find the watermelon she requested one day in February, she seems to have considered it her due and ignored my effort. Just as she seems to have ignored the full-time job I was doing while caring for her.

For three months, she operated every day on the assumption that I would make her comfort my priority. And she was right.

Until Mom asked me to go to Sacramento to be with her during her final days, I had led a self-indulgent life. Oh, I supported myself, paid the bills, met my responsibilities and I don’t remember asking for help for anything more important than fixing a broken lamp.

Conversely, I did anything I wanted, came and went as I pleased, spent or saved money on little more than whim. By no means could I be considered well off, but life was relatively easy and though I recognized my good fortune, I gave back little. Beyond contributions to charities, I had made hardly any effort to be of service through the years in any personal way. I was bothered by this from time to time, but not so much that I considered changing my life. I lived superficially and believed myself to be somewhat of a failure as a person, though not a bad person.

No one who knew me then, least of all me, would have much reason to think I would take on round-the-clock care for an indeterminate length of time of anyone, family or not.

But my mother did. And in those three months with her, I discovered depths of caring and compassion I had never imagined I had.

Sometimes it gave me the ferocity of a mother bear as when I fended off a nosy neighbor whose daily meddlings were more ghoulish than friendly; as when the hospice revealed that the price of their freely-offered assistance was too high in surrender of privacy.

It helped me locate my last ounce of energy when fatigue invaded even my bones. It fueled my ingenuity as successive medical problems required new and untried solutions. It led me to trust my instincts. It expanded the limits of my patience and temper. It gave expression to generosity and kindheartedness I had never used.

In those months we spent 24 hours a day together, Mom showed me the better, most decent parts of myself. She showed me how to reach for more than I thought I had. She saw to it that I found the best in myself.

In her last, most important lesson, Mom gave me the greatest gift of my life: She taught me about my own goodness.

…to be continued…

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript


The grandmother gene: Repeat

category_bug_journal2.gif Because I was thinking a week or so ago about looking grandmotherish, it’s a good time to mention my theory of the grandmother gene.

When I was in high school in the mid-1950s, it was more common for girl graduates to get married and have babies than go to college. Some even dropped out a year or two early to get married and if they weren’t pregnant within a few months of the wedding, there was some heavy explaining to do to parents and in-laws.

A large number of the girls I knew in high school had a serious jones for babies. But that urgency never touched me in the same way. There was so much to know about the world, so many places to go, things to see, people to meet, books to read and I knew a husband and baby would hinder those quests.

When I did marry seven years later, I wanted some time to work out the relationship, find out what sharing a life, forever, was all about before I brought another person - one who would need full-time attention - into the mix.

When it turned out that forever lasts only six years, I was relieved to be divorcing sans a child or two. It was hard enough to start over while confronting all my own conflicts without having to juggle the emotional well-being of kids too. I was 31 years old and I believed I had a long time before I needed to face the imperatives of my biological clock. Plus, the mommy thing still wasn’t registering strongly.

As my life crept toward 40, however, I had to take the baby matter seriously once and for all. After a year of private struggle to-and-fro-ing the issue, I decided against it. There was no one on the near-horizon I wanted to marry and I dismissed the idea of becoming a single mother because I believe, whatever might happen to a relationship later, it’s a good idea to give a kid a shot at both parents up front. And I still wasn't hearing the siren call of motherhood.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the postponement of babies and my final, late 30’s decision was that I didn’t much like kids. They’re loud, expensive, tend to get the sticky kind of dirty and they want you to pay attention - all the time. I was way too focused on me, I believed, to be much good at that and what’s the point of having babies if you’re not going to give it your best effort. I would not feel unfulfilled without a child, I decided, and having settled the issue I moved on without a backward glance.

I have never lamented that decision. I have no doubts that it was the right one for me and I still feel pretty much the same way about kids in general except for the unexpected eruption, about ten years ago, of what I’ve come to think of as the grandmother gene.

Does this happen to every woman? Are we programmed for this even if we skip motherhood? Geez. I spent all my adult life diligently avoiding my friends’ children. I sent gifts. I showed up for christenings and the earliest birthday parties that are for the grownups anyway. I sent money at bar mitzvah time. But baby sit? Not a chance. When I gave parties, the invitations stipulated “no children.”

Then out of nowhere about a decade ago, I found myself going all gooey when I saw a mother in the street pushing a pram. I’d be rushing off to a meeting or a dinner with friends or just neighborhood shopping on Saturday, and when an infant turned up in my view, I’d get all soggy at how cute the kid was. Since this about-face, I’ve discovered all babies are cute and now I’ve even got what I consider a couple of kid friends. One almost-three-year-old in particular, Sophie, is my kind of kid.

I’m still not sorry I didn’t have children. Had I done so, I would have been a decent mother because I was born responsible and I take my obligations seriously. But I would have missed a lot of other things I have done in life and I suspect I would be sorry now about that. We choose different paths, each of us, and I am happy with mine...

...which is why I can’t figure out how this grandmother gene kicked in.


40 Versus 62: Repeat

EDITOR'S NOTE: While Crabby Old Lady and Ronni Bennett take a couple of days off, they are posting favorite repeats. This is the first entry on Time Goes By originally dated 27 September 2003.

category_bug_journal2.gif I posted this on my fotolog today about turning 40:

I had hardly noticed 30; 40 was the one that horrified me. I spent my entire 39th year boring friends with unfunny jokes about my fear of this impending black day. Then I read the card from Jim that accompanied the 40 perfect tulips I found on my office desk that morning. (The card, which is part of the fotolog image, read, “See how lovely 40 can be?”)

And Yolima asked, "How does 40 compare in retrospect?"

Looking back, I got sucked in by cultural attitudes about hitting 40, and I should not have.

One of the things that’s nice about getting older is that I’ve experienced enough not to be afraid very often anymore. I like that; I like knowing how to handle pretty much anything that comes along. I also like knowing that there aren’t many decisions, beyond putting a gun to your head, that are irrevocable, and that saves a lot of dithering.

There are things too that I don’t need to do anymore. I long ago proved to myself that nothing much happens past midnight except people get drunker and more boring, so I may as well go home early and get a good night’s sleep.

Time was I believed I needed to listen to all the latest music. But popular music really was better from the 1930s through the 1960s, so I haven’t missed anything much worth hearing since I gave up music radio about 25 years ago. And when it is any good, it bubbles up enough that even I become aware of it.

A paradox of getting older is that as I have less time on earth, I don’t feel so rushed. If there is something better to do today, I can clean house tomorrow; the dirt will wait for me. If I don’t get to the movie when it’s in theaters, I can rent the DVD later.

In the US, the biggest problem with getting older is that the culture does everything possible to force us to deny aging, or at the very least to not inflict it on the young. Television and magazines are awash in commercials for wrinkle creams, sexual aids and arthritis treatments. Older people are portrayed in TV and movies as mostly dotty old fools and that irritates me. Age discrimination in the workplace is rampant, and you have not lived until a 25-year old vice president asks in an interview, “And what are your life goals, dear?” American culture is pretty much entirely designed for the under-40 crowd, but that’s a rant for another time.

On my birthday each year, I set aside a little time alone to take stock, see where I’ve been in the past year and where I think I might be going in the next. Always, I have learned new things, grown in some small ways, and am generally more comfortable in my skin than I was the year before.

Best of all, I’ve lost my concern with what I look like. If there were any remnants of that, my fotolog has erased them. As I look back on the old photos to prepare them for the flog, I can remember disliking this photograph, thinking I looked ugly in that one. Now I rather like what I looked like then and only regret that I wasted so much time lamenting that I was not one of the great beauties of the world. I looked just fine – and I still do.

So, Yolima, although I didn't recognize it then, 40 was pretty good, and 62 is even better.


Don Murray's 'Now and Then' Column

Crabby Old Lady and Ronni Bennett need a couple of days off from writing to catch up with some personal business. Meanwhile, they will rerun a couple of golden oldies from TGB, but today is the weekly posting of Don Murray's Now and Then column in the Boston Globe. You should read it. You should read it every week. Here is last week's Time Goes By story about Don Murray:

Thanks to Jill Fallon, whose Legacy Matters Weblog you should make a regular stop, Crabby has discovered 80-year old Boston Globe columnist, Donald Murray. His weekly column Now and Then, published on Tuesdays, addresses precisely what Crabby's alter ego means with her banner tagline, "what it's really like to get older." Recently, Murray wrote of coping, after 53 years of marriage, with his wife's Parkinson's disease:

"In trying to adjust to a marriage of daily visits, I have learned many things about Minnie Mae and myself. We do not have to speak but only touch to communicate. When she can speak, we often meet in memories recalled, in familiar expressions, in her quick wit that suddenly flashes out of her unfamiliar passivity."

In another column, after noting some of the technological advances during his 80 years, Murray concludes:

"I am struck, however, that for all the convenience, how essentially unimportant these improvements have been for a man. The homemaker's lot is far different and yet, even there, life is about birth and death, sickness and health, caring and the end of caring - not a microwave."

In the past, the Globe has allowed the most recent four of Murray's columns to be available online without a paid subscription. Crabby noticed this week, that it has been reduced to three, but if you bookmark his page, you can easily keep up with what Crabby Old Lady believes is the best regularly-scheduled writing she knows of on the reality of getting older.


Old Ladies, Cell Phones and Teeshirt Slogans

Would someone please tell Crabby Old Lady what all the talking is about? In a most unscientific, ongoing study undertaken by Crabby when she is out and about in New York City, more than half the people sharing the sidewalk with her at any given moment are talking on cell phones in varying degrees of distractedness.

Yes, Crabby does own a cell phone, though the reasons are becoming increasingly unclear as she almost never has anything to say that can’t wait until she is not surrounded by general traffic hubbub, honking horns and emergency sirens.

Two new studies were released last week suggesting that hands-free cell phone use in automobiles may not be any safer than hand-held cell phone use in automobiles.

"There's a growing body of evidence, even absent this new research we're doing, that suggests using hands-free cell phones does not minimize the risks of getting into an accident," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "The act of conversation can be extremely distracting, whether or not your hands are on the phone."

      - Chicago Sun-Times, 20 July 2004

Crabby now has incontrovertible evidence that the act of conversation - if only of the hand-held variety - can be extremely distracting even when it does not involve an automobile.

In addition, although further study is undoubtedly in order, it apparently causes extreme meanness.

In the late morning on Saturday, Crabby was returning home from a neighborhood grocery shopping trip carrying three bags of food with more in her shoulder bag. As she turned the corner into her block, she was whacked straight-on by another human body. She landed hard on her arse, fortunately well-padded, in a most inelegant position with her groceries splattered and scattered into the street - a smashed tomato, broken eggs, a split melon, shattered light bulbs...

When she looked around to see what she’d hit, Crabby saw a young lady – 19, maybe 20 or 21, she guessed, who was quite attractive by Vogue magazine model standards. The girl was carefully picking her way through the grocery mess as she continued - having left Crabby still on her arse in the middle of the debris - to chatter on her cell phone.

Crabby could muster only an inarticulate “Hey,” as she, still harboring a delusion or two that she is as supple as she was 40 years ago, tried to heave her 63-year-old body upright. The girl glanced back as she stepped off the curb and silently – so as not to interrupt her cell phone conversation - mouthed, “Sorry,” and kept going.

Now this could be just another same old, same old complaint about the rudeness of youthful cell phone users, but there is a kicker. The first thing Crabby noticed when she looked up from the sidewalk to see what had hit her was the teeshirt the pretty, young cell-phone-talking girl was wearing. It said, “Eyes Off, Ears On.”

Crabby Old Lady is wondering if you think that teeshirt slogan is as funny, less funny or more funny than the one she saw recently that said, "Greetings from Abu Ghraib."


A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10

category_bug_journal2.gif We had become family, Joe and me. Three months of shared responsibility for Mom's care had made it so, and it was the natural thing to do when he stayed on with me after Mom died. The companionship of this kind and gentle man was a welcome antidote to the sudden vacuum in my days without the focus around whom all household activity had flowed for so long.

Now there were no dentures to clean, no diapers to change, no medical surprises to field. Even my job as research director for an NBC-TV daytime interview program, One of One with John Tesh, came to an abrupt end when the show was cancelled in the week following Mom’s death. There were new things to be done, but they did not have the urgency of round-the-clock caregiving and a full-time job.

It would be four weeks before The Neptune Society could provide a date for the ceremony of scattering Mom’s ashes at sea. In the interim, Joe and I busied ourselves arranging a memorial dinner for Mom’s friends and with clearing out Mom’s apartment.

It is a sad business sorting through a dead person’s belongings. The stuff of a life that when lived was filled with significance – treasures and mementos and furnishings carefully chosen over the years – now looks pathetically meager and ordinary. You want there to be more that means something. Instead, there are television sets; worn bathroom towels; underwear in a drawer; shoe boxes of snapshots that didn’t make the cut into the photo albums. An old chair that was especially comfortable to the owner in life is merely threadbare and tacky in death.

And yet, there is a reluctance to part with any of it. She looked so pretty in that dress. She loved that vase. She read those books many times. I had never noticed before, in all the years of my adulthood, that the desk in the corner of Mom’s bedroom was the childhood desk I had been given at about age eight.

Joe and I divvied up what we wanted. He took a television set and some personal things that had belonged to his Dad. I took family photos, some kitchen equipment and parceled out Mom’s jewelry among Barbara, my brother and me. The big stone patio table and benches went to another friend as did the car. The two three-story, unfinished dollhouses – my mother built elaborate, electrified dollhouses – went to two friends who admired her handcraft work. And I found a new home for the cat.

Mom was not a wealthy woman, but there were a few bonds and a small life insurance policy for my brother and me. As Mom had suggested, I gave Joe the gold coins and like she had done on the night I arrived, he and I played Old King Midas one day. Mom was right – it’s loads of fun to run your hands through solid gold.

I found an old newspaper clipping, tattered and yellow, in Mom’s wallet just in time to have it printed on cards for the guests at her memorial.

Do not stand by my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am a diamond glint on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awake to the morning hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft starshine at night
Do not stand by my grave and cry
I am not there, I did not die.

       - Mary Frye, 1932

There were about 50 people for the dinner at Frasinetti’s, which had been Mom’s favorite restaurant. I have no memory of what I said that evening and it was overshadowed anyway by the speeches of her friends who knew Mom, from their more frequent times together, in ways I did not.

They talked about the crop of fat, luscious pot tomatoes she was famous for growing each year. And how much she loved to throw holiday parties - any obscure holiday was an excuse. It seems she was a better cook than I remembered too. More than one mentioned how much she loved the sun, the heat of summer and swimming several times a day. They liked how smart she was and how she never complained, ever.

Barbara told of how she and Mom had become special friends from the first day they met, 25 years earlier, when Mom began working in the office where Barbara was employed. And how a day had not passed, since their retirement, when they did not telephone at least once.

When one woman said Mom talked about me a lot, others joined in what came to sound like a chorus: She loved you so much. She was so proud of you. She told us everything about you, where you were working and where you traveled, who your latest boyfriend was. She showed us pictures of your cat and the apartment you bought in Greenwich Village. She read parts of your letters to us…

That explained why these men and women - who I had met briefly, if ever in some cases, on infrequent trips to Sacramento - treated me like they were my aunts and uncles, like they had known me for years. They actually had.

I was dismayed and abashed at what they said. Mom had hardly ever commented on my letters and when I telephoned with news about a new job or an interesting trip or an award, she was more likely to say she was grateful I had a paying gig than congratulate me for any achievement. When I had poured out my heart to her in a long letter after I left my husband years before, I was looking for a little TLC. I got a brochure, by return mail, on how to get a cheap divorce.

That Mom loved me I never doubted, but I had thought, until the night of her memorial dinner, that it was in a less motherly, more distant and formal manner than her friends were telling me. The mother I knew would never brag on her daughter. The mother I knew was too busy with her own life to bother with the details of mine. The mother I knew was too sophisticated to bore friends with photos of her kids.

Obviously, I was wrong and had misunderstood an important part of who she was.

At the end of May, my brother drove down from Portland, Oregon, with his girlfriend. They and Joe and Barbara, two other friends of Mom’s and I boarded The Neptune Society yacht in San Francisco Bay for the scattering at sea of Mom’s ashes.

It was a gloriously fresh, bright, cloudless day. The breeze was light and the bay was calm as the boat sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge to an area where we idled off the Marin County coast.

A burial, whether in the ground, a crypt or at sea, is for the living. It puts finis, or at least the beginning of finis, to formal grieving and begins the period of re-establishing daily equilibrium. I thought I had done most of my personal grieving in the month leading up to the burial, but I know now you should not trust such beliefs in times of high emotion.

On that perfect, crystal, blue-sky day, floating just beyond the Golden Gate with the sun glistening off the water, I was unexpectedly struck by one of those god-awful dark nights of the soul, sucker-punched out of nowhere with the horror and pure, naked fear of my unutterable aloneness in the infinite desolation of the cosmos.

At the same time my brother, who had just emptied the urn of Mom’s ashes into the bay, was saying something – a prayer? – and the bleakness retreated as abruptly as it had arrived a few seconds earlier.

Rose petals, marking the place where Mom’s ashes had joined with the sea, floated toward the Marin County beach I had not visited since high school. I couldn’t help recalling how I had hoped then that Mom didn’t know what my boyfriends and I were doing there at night and it came to me how safe, even in the wake of my parents’ recent divorce, I had felt in those days. And how since then, even though I hardly ever acknowledged a traditional mother/daughter connection between us, I had always known somewhere inside the comfort of Mom’s unconditional love.

There had never been anyone else I trusted as completely as Mom in that most fundamental way. There had never been anyone else who approved of me no matter what. And now I was on my own.

…to be continued…

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript


Texas Trifles

If Cowtown Pattie, the proprietor – or as she prefers, the “trailboss” – of Texas Trifles weren’t so obviously one of the funniest and smartest bloggers on the Web, she would have captured me anyway with this headline alone:

Spit Out That Fry! Drop And Give Me Ten, Fatboy!

Such a great Texas kind of line and the rant that followed, on the low carb diet fad, ends with an aria in praise of carbohydrates that will send you straight out to the produce market:

“Wake up, children, and look around you. Mother Nature is at her best in the summertime: plump, ripe tomatoes are pulling at their vines; juicy red watermelons all afloat in ice water just waiting for your thump; sweet, fragrant peaches softly fuzzed; fresh new potatoes smelling faintly of the farm field dirt.”

I don’t know what Cowtown Pattie, who recently turned 50, looks like, but her writing voice takes me straight back to those sometimes intimidating, always entertaining Texas beauties I learned to love and respect when I lived in Houston many years ago. They were all seven feet tall, slim with extra long legs, big hair and best of all, filled with attitude, sass and smarts - like Pattie. It would not be too hard on a clear, Texas, night to sit a spell with her:

“Absolutely gorgeous weather this week. Sat in my favorite rocker on my patio last evening, put on a Billy Joel album (yes I still have a turntable which we use when out on our covered patio in the backyard), poured a frosted mug of Corona with lime and salt and watched the doves come into feed at the birdfeeder with sunflower seeds.”

Although she breaks it up with recipes for peach lemonade and paeans to the blessings of bacon grease and 60’s rock-and-roll, Pattie is an informed political commentator, particularly on environmental issues and I like her Texas-style directness that leaves no doubt as to her point. Recently she was ticked off about a new highway that will cut through the Big Lonesome country of far west Texas:

“Texas has miles and miles of isolated, pristine desert countryside. It is one of the last bastions of No Man's Land, and deserves preservation and protection. Burns my butt to think of it going to trash all for a few million more plastic glasses painted with pink flamingoes and palm trees. Garbage, pure dee junk.”

Her righteous anger is contagious and just when she's got you, the reader, ready to fire off protests and complaints to the powers that be, she'll turn right around the next day and go all sentimental on you. Here’s Pattie’s online announcement of her recent third wedding:

“For over a year we have been committed to one another, and for various reasons, never saw the immediate need of becoming legal. But you know what? No matter how special your relationship, no matter how close you are, nothing compares to hearing those age-old words spoken from the heart and given with earnest promise. Kman (who still does not like that moniker) is a gentle giant of man with a kind heart and strong values. He is truly my King Arthur on a white steed, but most of all, he is my best friend.”

I think mostly Pattie can't resist telling a good story, and she is just so dang Texas good at it. One of her all-time great posts is The Great Texas Buzzard Massacre which is not to be missed. I don’t want to give it away, you should read it for yourself. But here’s a snippet to get you started:

“Road kill. Buzzard buffet on the backroad. Between Glen Rose and Hico, I began to notice ominous flocks of turkey buzzards roosting in the last of winter's bare-limbed trees. Now, some fancy bird watchers - ornithologists - would say the correct term for this graceful, soaring bird is a vulture. To that I would answer, you can put your boots in the oven, but that don't make them biscuits.”

Now click that link and go read the whole thing because it's gonna be the best laugh you have all day.


The Older Bloggers Survey Results

The biggest surprise from the Older Bloggers Survey is the age of the respondents. It is a surprise for several reasons: this was labeled an “Older Bloggers” survey. We live in a culture that deliberately hides and ignores older folks. And this timegoesby.net Weblog is openly, blatantly, intentionally about getting older.

Nevertheless, 40 percent of survey respondents are younger than 45.

This is not a complaint. It is most gratifying to have an intergenerational audience. In fact, that was a goal from the launch of this blog, though not one I have yet put much attention to accomplishing except for the description of timegoesby.net used in Web directories:

Age is the one minority we all, with luck, will join so it behooves us to find out what it is really like.

As agreeable as it is to have a wide age range of readers, it also means the survey, purposely unscientific to begin with, is not about older bloggers now. It is about bloggers of all ages who responded to the survey. But, it is more interesting than originally planned, I believe, for the comparisons.

Personal Information
Answers were about evenly divided between “little” and “unconcerned” as to how much personal information to reveal. Slightly more than half use their real given names. One uses an alias to avoid tipping her employer to her political opinions. Two responses help show that there may be more common ground among generations than is commonly thought:

“I don’t have difficulty or any reticence about revealing anything I have experienced. I have no rules about what to post or not to post. I let the moment guide me.” [Thomas, 61]
“I don’t worry too much about revealing personal information, but generally I don’t go out of my way to do so.” [Laura, 20-something]

Computer Proficiency
Several older bloggers began using computers before there were PCs and now, thanks to the simplicity of Weblog services, creating and maintaining a Weblog something almost anyone can do. Still, computers and the Internet can be confusing for some older folks:

“I had my first taste of computers in 1959, in the Air Force using them to control long-range radar (a flop, by the way). The need to use a computer did not resurface until 1999. I still have not come close to catching up.” [Byron, 63]
“I watched a 70-year-old man learn to use the computer and become completely addicted. Even so, when I said I would email him, he still insisted, ‘I need to turn on the computer first, wait!’“ [Sylvia, 36]

Younger folks may take to the technology of computers and the Internet more easily than some older people, but one older blogger made this age distinction:

“I am always thrilled to find older people blogging since they write well on a variety of topics and can also spell. I also admire the younger ones’ ability to design an interesting, beautiful-looking blog even if what they post is only about their friends and school life.” [Carol, 56]

To be fair, I believe, we should note that older bloggers often write “only” about their friends and work lives too. If older writers are more interesting, perhaps it has to do with accumulated years of experience. The kids will catch up.

Online Friendships
It surprised me that so many believe online friendships are as strong, or nearly so, as their real-world counterparts. They are less comfortable, says GT [age unknown], “but only a little.”

“They’re not on the level of people I’ve known in the real world for years longer, but they’re pretty dear friends.” [Laura, 20-something]
“Like real-world friends, sometimes you just find a commonality or kindred spirit that has the feeling of a longtime friendship.” [Cowtown Pattie, 50]
“Ah yup, a few, including you…” [Thomas, 61]

Personal Importance and Rewards
For every respondent, blogging has been weaved into daily life, sometimes at the expense of other interests, but the pleasures are a powerful attraction to continue.

“A means of expressing my passion for the philosophy of gadgets and light science is what led me to blogging. I have another urge that’s driving me: I’m sick of conforming; I’m really having issues with doing what is expected of me. The freedom of expression that is at the centre of blogging, the downright, bare-faced irony and thirty-something cheek that shines out from so many blogs also attracts me.” [Jason, 35]
“It gives a lot back. Strong friendships with multiple people I would not easily maintain contact with otherwise.” [Laura, 20-something]
“Very [important]. Any further opportunity for self-expression, to play with different parts of my personality. Sometimes I wonder what other activities I could be doing with the time I use blogging.” [Thomas, 61]
“My blogging has become a very important, almost obsessive new creative activity for me. It does take time away from other things, so sometimes there are conflicts of time management.” [Marja-Leena, 50-something]

One respondent, Sylvia, is an online friend from fotolog.net, a sort-of reverse Weblog in which photographs take center stage with text as the accompaniment. A few people – Sylvia and I are examples – have adapted fotolog into a hybrid Weblog/fotolog as she explains:

“It’s a nice outlet for my short stories. Losing that would hurt most, I think. But I also enjoy the community and the bouncing off each other and, for fotolog, the varied imagery from other people. For whatever reason, it works better for me than a text-based forum like LiveJournal.” [Sylvia, 35]

Blogging is Here to Stay
It’s fascinating, addictive and ego-building, the easiest vanity publishing there has ever been, and all who responded agree - it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

“Are you kidding. People love to tell others what they think and it’s so easy to do now. There’s always going to be opinionated schnooks like me to do this sort of thing. [GT, age unknown]
“Let’s be honest. Lots of people love to write, love to express themselves, love to think others are watching. We can go out there and read and connect with people…we might otherwise never have encountered.” [Laura, 20-something]
“…as long as online access is relatively inexpensive.” [Thomas, 61]
“Yes, without a doubt. Indeed, I am confident we shall all be talked about as the blogging generation, the pioneers of text-based form of expressions that defined the turn of the new millennium.” [Jason, 35]

And as one of timegoesby.net’s youngest readers put it:

No matter how far apart you go,
your keyboards will keep you together,
and in your heart you will know
you don't need a face to be a true friend forever.

So, How do you explain this to people
who've never been online?
I guess it takes a gesture of friendship
& a little bit of time.

       [SV, 20-something]



The TGB Book List

The subtitle of this Weblog, as you can see on the banner, is: What it’s really like to get older. The intent is, over time and from differing angles and points of view, to shine a bright, clear light on what has been a public secret for as long as I’ve been alive.

For years I have tried to find good writing on growing old. I wanted to know what would happen to me physically, intellectually, socially, and in general, what to expect in my later years. But I could find nothing that was not insulting, sentimental or just plain silly. Realizing, after a time of searching, that the writing does not exist was the genesis of timegoesby.net: if no one else would write about getting old, then I would do it myself.

That is not to say there is no writing at all on aging. There are thousands of books on aging – exactly, as I write this, 60,096 at amazon.com. A large number of them have the phrase “anti-aging” in the title, about which Crabby Old Lady will have something to say in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, there are a small number of books that soar in regard to understanding what it's like to get older and you should know about them. Herewith then is the inaugural TGB Book List which contains the best, and only the best of the lot. It will reside permanently on the left rail of the blog, and will be added to only when excellence dictates. Here are the first four.

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty
By Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Part of the brilliance of this book is that it is not about getting older, it is about being older. From the scholar, feminist essayist and author of the Kate Fansler mystery series (under the pseudonym Amanda Cross), The Last Gift of Time is filled with wisdom and reflections that can be used to illuminate one’s own passage into older age. Again and again, she speaks of the kinds of insights I had been seeking for so long:

“The greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of ‘last time’ adds intensity, while the possibility of ‘again’ is never quite effaced.”

The Summer of a Dormouse: Another Part of Life
By John Mortimer

Former barrister, playwright, screenwriter and novelist, John Mortimer is best-known in the U.S. as the author of the books on which the BBC-TV series, Rumpole of the Bailey is based. The Summer of a Dormouse is the third volume of his autobiography/memoir. Sometimes, when I want a good laugh about growing old, I pull out this book and read the first two paragraphs:

“The time will come in your life, it will almost certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud. ‘From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.’
“To the young, to the middle-aged, even, this may seem a remote and improbable accident that only happens to other people. It has to be said, however, that the day will most probably dawn when your pale foot will wander through the air, incapable of hitting he narrow opening of a suspended sock. Those fortunate enough to live with families will call out for help. The situation is, in minor ways, humiliating and comical.”

Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying
By Ram Dass

The man who taught some of us thirty-odd years ago how to Be Here Now is back to show us how getting older is another opportunity for spiritual growth and understanding. As always, in his patience, humor, humanity, clarity and lovingkindness, Ram Dass is just far enough ahead of the rest of us in the journey to be able to show us the way.

“…here’s the paradox, the secret of spiritual practice is that our limits may become our strengths if we learn to work with them skillfully. Similarly, as our bodies slow down, we can use this change to increase our mindfulness.”

The Merck Manual of Health & Aging
By Mark H. Beers, M.D. [Editor]

I have reviewed this medical reference before and it only gets better with use. The writing is clear and easily understandable by a layman. It is informative, useful and places a good, strong emphasis on prevention.

“Pessimists might see an effort to prevent health problems in older people as an attempt to ‘close the barn door after the horse is already out.’ These pessimists think preventive measures pointless once a person has reached old age. Although beginning at an early age is best, it is probably never too late to start on the road to prevention.”

There are other books on getting older that are good, better and a few excellent. The best of those will be added in time, but slowly, with careful consideration.


A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9

MomBob1916smcaptioncategory_bug_journal2.gif In life, our bodies are inviolate by law, exposed only with our consent as when to a physician or a lover. In death, they become public property. Most frequently in the United States, preparation of a body for viewing and cremation or burial is done by strangers at a funeral home without family involvement. It is how our culture helps paper over the reality, the finality, of death.

Sometime after Mom died, Joe carried her body to her bedroom for me. I removed her bed gown and for the last time, the diaper, that object of so much indignity and cruel humor from no-talent comedians. As I washed her body, I was washed in a confused emotional jumble of embarrassment, grief, remorse and fascination. It seemed a brutal intrusion on her privacy, but I could not take my eyes off Mom’s naked body.

What stood out first was the criss-crossed network of deeply etched lines on her face and arms, testament to the decades of her fruitless efforts to coax a tan from her uncooperatively fair skin. There were the big, rude scars from her two hip replacements a decade before that no one had bothered to minimize. That was true too for scars from the more recent removal of her breast for which she had refused follow-up implant surgery. Her remaining breast, without its match, seemed shockingly mislocated, out of place by itself.

Hardly any flesh remained on her bones. Knees and elbows protruded like knobs and I could count her ribs as easily as the bars of a cage. Her hipbones poked sharply against skin as thin as tissue paper, but fifty years before when she was a fresh, vibrant, juicy young woman, I had been born of those loins. I was of this body. Part of this flesh. We, Mom and I, were made of the same stuff of life.

I wept as I washed her body, and I learned the meaning of the word keen that day. I keened for my mother and for me. For the times I refused to understand her choices. And could have. For the visits I did not make. And should have. For the closeness I might have tried to foster and did not. And for the rebukes she might have voiced to me and never did. I had not liked this woman. We had so little, I believed, in common. I was stunned on the day of her death by the force of my love for her.

Barbara arrived in time to help select a dress for Mom from her closet. Joe had arranged fresh linen on the sofa and he carried her there one more time. Having no personal or family ritual for the dead, I did what seemed right at the moment. A garden rose for her breast from the bouquet a neighbor had left the day before and a candle in one the ruby goblets Mom had used at holidays all my life.

Then we sat, the three of us, with Mom. I am sure we talked, though I don’t know of what. Joe wandered out to the patio now and again. Perhaps he made drinks for us. Barbara cooked, somewhat aimlessly, I believe. I went into my bedroom once or twice to lie down and have a private cry.

Toward evening, it came to me that there is a legal requirement to report a death to the local government and it was time, I thought then, to begin those procedures. Upon my arrival in Sacramento three months earlier, the night Mom had run her hands through her gold coins like old King Midas, she had also shown me the papers regarding her membership in The Neptune Society.

When I telephoned their office, a kindly woman explained the two options: I could phone 911 and the authorities would rush to the apartment with all the bells, whistles and sirens as in an emergency. Or, I could call a different number and the same authorities would arrive quietly. I chose door number two.

It is rare these days for people to elect to die at home and doing so, I learned, causes a lot of bureaucracy to lumber into action. Thirty minutes after my call, two firemen arrived who quickly determined that Mom could not be revived. They stuck around for the hour it took for three police detectives to show up. The five officers consulted with one another in the kitchen for a few minutes, after which the firemen left.

The cops questioned Barbara and Joe and me together and separately before settling their attention primarily on me, the one blood relative. They wanted to know Mom’s diagnosis and why I had not taken her to a hospital. How long had she been confined to bed, they asked. What medications were prescribed? What time did she die? Was I there when she died? What were her physician’s name and telephone number? Where was her will? Were there valuables in the house? Why had I waited four hours after her death to telephone.

They were not unkind, but they were insistent.

They were particularly interested in the brown glass bottle of morphine, holding it up to the light several times to check the level of the remaining liquid. Not until the officers put me through the same set of questions the second, or perhaps it was even a third time did it strike me they were trying to determine if I had murdered my mother. I wondered what I would have been feeling or how I would have answered their questions if I had “helped her die” as she had asked.

The police officers had been there for more than an hour before they reached the coroner who, I learned then, was required to officially pronounce Mom dead of natural causes and not misadventure before her body could be released to The Neptune Society. It took another hour for the coroner to track down Mom’s physician by telephone and determine that he would not need to come to the apartment, that Mom’s death, he felt assured, was not a crime. The police then backed off their professional attitude and offered to stay, if I wished, until Mom’s body was removed.

They had been pleasant enough, given what they are paid to do and I could not blame them for their questions. They had no way to know, until Mom’s physician explained her disease, that someone had not killed her. (Only I knew how close to the truth that might have been.)

But the death of a loved one is a private matter. I wanted the strangers to go away. I wanted just a little more alone time with Mom before she would be physically gone from my life forever.

As Joe and Barbara and I sat together with Mom awaiting The Neptune Society hearse, I saw that her face had relaxed as if, in the hours following her death, the physical world had let go of its hold on her. The lines and wrinkles appeared to be gone and when I stroked her cheek, it felt as smooth as a newborn babe’s.

…to be continued…

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript


The Speed of Time: Cache Time

EDITOR’S NOTE: One reader’s response to The Speed of Time is so intriguing, I want to share it with you. Eric Antonow is president and CEO of Katabat, a real estate technology firm. In two of his other lives he is the father of a nine-month-old and he is a blogger with so many interests it takes eight or nine Weblogs to express them. d o c u m e n t is a good place to start. Here is Eric’s ingenious theory on the apparent increase in the speed of time as we age. He calls it The Caching Problem.

For the sake of intellectual efficiency, our minds cache vast amounts of information for quick, later reference. Just as Web browsers store images of frequently and recently visited sites, the human brain stores parts of the world that we interact with everyday such as the shape of an eggplant, the golden retriever that belongs to our neighbor, our neighbors themselves.

As a result, much of what we think of as experience is actually the act of accessing the cached data rather than processing the real-life visual or auditory or other experience.

As there are fewer experiences, over time, involving new data and an increased number using cached data, the world seems to move faster because we are processing old data for the second, fiftieth, hundredth time (so it really is faster). And because there is a fundamentally different experience in seeing something for the first time and seeing it again, in one sense, we do not experience cached data, we merely process it.

To explain it another way, think of the computer again. If we access an image locally (the cache in our minds), it is pretty much guaranteed to be exactly what we saw before (yawn). If we have to go out to the network (ah, the world) to get the information, there is the chance the world may surprise us with something different.

Metal and silicon computers use the cached data only when it is exactly the same as the current reference. Humans, however, are much less strict. We are willing to replace even modestly similar experiences with a cached reference. This is a separate abstracting function in our mind: this golden retriever is close enough to the last one I saw that I don’t have to “see” it again. It could be a very different animal – a temperamental golden lab, for instance - but a person still sees that other referenced benevolent dog.

(A digression: as my nine-month-old son is learning what a book is, he uses what seems to be a parallel process in learning the abstraction that his Very Hungry Caterpillar and my Incomplete Education are both books.)

To summarize: time seems to accelerate as we get older because:

  1. We tend to increasing refer to cached data because that cache seems increasing to encompasses our experience.
  2. We tend to access cached data in cases where it is not an exact match with current experience (a false assumption).
  3. The process snowballs as we gain a sort of self-righteous confidence that the world is what it is (the grumpy old man problem), and our ennui makes us lazy. Our mind-set biases us towards dipping into the cache versus dipping into the world.

If you accept this theory, the answer to slowing down time would seem to be to find creative ways to “clear the cache.” My modest experience has been that travel can do this. That is, if you go to a very different place and experience it as it is, then you can return to the your world and experience things fresh again. (A month in rural India or Morocco or, for most of us, The Bronx should do the trick.)

If travel is not available, there are more commonplace rituals we can use to clear our personal caches. Meditation and other methods of mindfulness may be a route.

It could be that one of our worst difficulties occurs interacting with other people. It probably accelerates the caching (Point 1); increases the false assumption rate (Point 2); and definitely exacerbates our belief in grandiose assumptions that we know what all people are like (Point 3). I haven’t really thought too much about this last part, but I have a gut sense this is true.

Lastly, I keep thinking of this Thomas Hardy quote from Tess of the d'Urbervilles:

“Experience is as to intensity and not as to duration.”

I think that’s really the crux. Experience (in time) is not really related to time (per se) but to intensity of the experience. And the level of intensity depends on how intimately or powerfully or emotionally we are interacting with the world versus our cache.


How Crabby Old Lady Got That Way

Several years ago, Crabby Old Lady signed up for the New York State “Do Not Call Registry.” That’s the list that allows anyone, by registering, to remove themselves from receiving telemarketing calls. The local versions were so successful that the Federal Trade Commission launched a national registry a few years ago and Crabby signed up for that too.

It means that, on pain of severe monetary penalty, telemarketers may not call Crabby. The exceptions – you knew there are exceptions – are political organizations, charities, telephone surveys and companies with whom there is an existing business relationship. Keep that in mind as this story unfolds.

It is currently that time of year when the annual donations to some of Crabby’s public interests are due. Because Crabby’s employer last month - in the most recent fit of what has become a series of regularly-scheduled “business realignments” - fired Crabby and some of her colleagues, she had laid aside the appeals for her charitable renewals while she assesses her financial position.

Apparently she set them aside for too long.

Crabby has now learned that there is a short window of opportunity for such donations to be made following which solicitors take full advantage of the exceptions to the Do Not Call Registry. Worse, during the years in which she has enjoyed a respite from the daily onslaught of calls to purchase dubious merchandise of questionable utility, the charity hucksters have acquired the fast-talking skills of their commercial brethren.

Representatives from two of Crabby Old Lady’s charitable donees recently made use of a nasty little tactic that in the past has contributed to the granting of the sobriquet by which Crabby is here known.

Having been interrupted, Crabby was only half listening once the caller identified himself as a stranger who wants money, and she made the mistake of agreeing when asked if the renewal mailing had been received. This acknowledgement turned the staid charitable representative into the scurvy, snake oil salesman he undoubtedly was before the Do Not Call Registry went into effect: “Then I’ll put you down for $50 more than last year.” ("Heh, heh, heh. Aren't I clever" he thought as he twirled his mustache.)

Crabby, whose attention was now fully engaged but hadn’t a clue how much she had given that organization last year, snapped back with the venom the man deserved: “You’ll get what I give you if and when I feel like it.”

A week or so ago, a sales person from the multimegacorp which supplies Crabby’s home and mobile telephone services phoned with the offer of a new and improved calling plan. Crabby politely declined but like all good sleazebag marketers, this was a man who believes “no” is an opportunity. He insisted. Crabby affirmed her refusal. He pushed. Crabby pulled. He pressured. Crabby lost it. “The last time one of you [expletive deleted] sold me a new calling plan, it cost me an additional ten dollars a month. So go [cheney] yourself and leave me alone.”

Crabby sometimes wonders, when driven to such – uh, colorful – language, what the reaction of these solicitor punks would be if they could see the grandmotherly sort who is voicing it.

But the more interesting question is what the multimegacorps believe they gain with such offensive tactics. Can it possibly be that they make more sales this way? Do they not know that Crabby, probably along with millions of other consumers, may not cancel their contracts now, but when the opportunity arises, will have no compunction about going over to a competitor? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter since all the competitors practice the same sales tactics, so their customers will switch too when it is convenient to do so. If that is true, Crabby suspects the trade comes out about even, so it still makes no sense.

Crabby also wonders if these are among the tactics that fool old folks - the ones who may have lost a button or two - into buying a thousand dollars worth of magazines or a million dollars worth of life insurance that will never pay off.

As to the charities, their overbearing representatives have not, so far, prevented Crabby from sending her annual donations. But yesterday one of the tactics they have borrowed from the commercial solicitation world resurfaced in Crabby’s life - another one destined to drive Crabby to a potty-mouthed rejoinder before long.

CALLER: May I speak to Crabby Old Lady please?

CRABBY: Who is calling?

CALLER: Irritating Marketing Person.

CRABBY: And what organization are you with?

CALLER: My name is Irritating Marketing Person.

CRABBY: Yes, you’ve said that. What organization are you with.

CALLER: Let me tell you about our fight against…

CRABBY: Mr. Person, I’ve asked you what organization you are with.

CALLER: (mumbling) The ABCD. (more clearly) Mrs. Lady, we appreciate your recent donation. I’m calling because there is an urgent need right now…

CRABBY: Goodbye.

What is the point, Crabby wants to know, in hiding the name of the organization? In this particular case, it was Crabby’s first donation. There is unlikely now to be a second as once again, the world has forced her into the behavior that led to Crabby’s characterization of herself.

NOTE: Exceptions notwithstanding, The Do Not Call Registry is outstandingly successful in reducing the number of telemarketing calls. If you have not registered, you can do so online at https://www.donotcall.gov/.


The Speed of Time

It is a well-known phenomenon that as we get older time appears to move faster. What took ages to get here in childhood is done and gone now before we realize it’s on its way. Time flies too “when you’re having fun” and when you are deeply engrossed. No one believes time really accelerates, but no one knows why it seems to do so either.

On a trip around the Web recently to see what the latest thinking on this phenomenon might be, explanations, both reasonable and crackpot, surfaced which I’ve labeled as follows:

1. Proportional Time: The most common reason advanced is that time is perceived as a proportion of time lived. That is, to a five-year-old, a year is 20 percent of his entire existence. To a 60 year-year-old, one year is it only 1.67 percent of his life.

2. Complex Time: Another well-worn theory is that as we get older, life gets busier and with more things to do, there is less downtime so life speeds by. This is a weaker argument as there are plenty of not-so-busy people who perceive time as moving faster than in youth.

3. Stupid Time: It’s forgetfulness according to this theory. Memory weakens as the years pass and because we can’t remember what we did yesterday, let alone last week or last month, time flies. Perhaps my mind has flown, but the logic of this one escapes me.

4. Routine Time: This argument postulates that as we age, our time is taken up with increasing numbers of practiced pleasures and predictable tasks that provide little intellectual stimulation. If, instead, we spent our time in new pursuits, this argument suggests, time would slow down. This almost works because it blends nicely with my new theory on this phenomenon, Tense Time:

Time is perceived at different rates of speed depending on whether your mindset is primarily in the past, present or future tense.

Children generally are future tense types. They can’t wait to be big enough to ride a bicycle or stay up later or go to the movies alone. Their anticipation of holidays, birthdays and summer vacations in addition to the constantly moving target of age-related privileges guarantees that each wait will feel like eternity.

Young adults live mainly in the future tense too, looking forward anxiously to that promotion, finding the perfect wife or husband, affording a fancier car or bigger house. Even raising kids is on future time – vying for the best schools and saving for the right college. Time moves more slowly during the first half of life because we are anticipating the next thing we want rather than enjoying what is here and now.

To the contrary, older folks tend to live in the past tense, recalling triumphs and tragedies from their younger years, sometimes complaining about new-fangled ways of doing things and lamenting the loss of the “good old days.” I don't like admitting it, but even I, who prides herself on being oh so au courant on just about anything but popular music, have been known, for example, to complain about the alarming deterioration of education in the years since I was in school, and to wonder aloud more than once why the fad of boys wearing pants so low their butt cracks show has been around for an entire decade without waning.

Living in the past tense may speed up time perception because the anticipation of the new is missing. And so, I am suggesting that an ideal solution for everyone – the young who wish to increase the speed at which time passes and the old who want to slow it down - might be to adjust the tense in which we live to the present.

Or, this could be just another crackpot idea I'm having.

NOTE: This theory is a close match to what some people call “mindfulness.” It has its origins in Buddhism, though no one is required to be an adherent to benefit, and it is worth looking into for its instruction into the rewards of living in the moment.

Mindfulness Practice Center
A Guided Mindfulness Meditation
Living With Mindfulness


A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8

category_bug_journal2.gif From my birthday forward, I woke each morning wondering if that would be the day Mom would repeat her request to me to "help her die." I also wondered if it had been the right thing to require an exhausted, dying woman to voice such an audacious question a second time before I followed through. But there was no one to consult without making the person a potential accomplice to a crime.

The natural end, Mom’s doctor had told me, would come quietly. She would fall into a coma and although her breathing would be raspy and sound painful to me, it would not be so for Mom. She would remain in the coma for a couple of days, and when her breathing quieted, she would die soon after.

One morning in the middle of April, Mom sat up with more energy than usual and announced, “This is a red letter day. I don’t have a twinge of pain and I don't feel tired at all. I’ll think I’ll celebrate with a bourbon and water.”

Oh yeah, let’s have one of those right over here - a bourbon and water for the little lady who throws up tapioca pudding. But hey, she was dying and I was cleaning up worse than bourbon every day, so why not if that’s what she wanted. She nursed that drink all day with tiny sips. I added ice now and again. And she finished the whole thing easier than tapioca pudding ever went down.

About a week or so later, Mom had what appeared to be a similarly ill-considered whim: filet mignon, charred and rare, with asparagus and roasted new potatoes. How could I refuse. And again she surprised me, finishing the entire meal and happy to have done so.

On a lazy Saturday evening at the end of April, with the household chores in order and the shopping done, Mom and Joe and I picked out what we guessed might be a mildly entertaining movie on television, Dances With Wolves. Joe and I slouched on the floor with our backs against the sofa where Mom lay.

Within a few minutes, Joe noticed that Mom had fallen asleep. She was snoring, but the quality of it was different from the past and I realized this was the coma Mom’s doctor had told me to expect.

With no experience at a death watch, I had nothing to go on but instinct and what that consisted of mostly for the next two days, was to not leave Mom alone in her final hours. I sat next to her by day and slept on the floor by the sofa at night where I could hold her hand. She squeezed back occasionally the first night. Then she didn’t anymore.

Her friend Barbara came by to sit with Mom and Joe and me for a while on Sunday, and I slept on the floor again that night. By morning her breathing had eased. Barbara visited again for about an hour. Joe was changing beds and doing laundry. I sat on a little stool holding Mom’s hand.

I thought about the other end, the beginning of Mom’s life. Her mother had died of blood poisoning after surgeons left behind a sponge when Mom was born by Caesarian section in 1916. She was raised by a succession of her father’s several wives or shipped off to an aunt across town when a wife did not want a kid around.

High school was not required in her day, but she knew she would need the skills to support herself. To pay for classes in typing, stenography and bookkeeping, her aunt forced Mom to sell the gold beads that were her only memento of the mother she never knew.

It would have made sense for Mom to marry into a big, loud, messy, loving family to make up for the emotional deprivations of her childhood. Instead, she fell in love with another essential orphan, my father, whose father had disappeared when he was a toddler and whose mother had abandoned him to her sister when she wanted to remarry.

These two damaged people who had known nothing of a loving, safe home life growing up and had no knowledge of how families work, tried the best they could to invent one. The degree to which they succeeded or not with their two children was unimportant that day as I sat with Mom. I'd stopped blaming her long before for the parenting mistakes I once believed she'd made.

I thought too about my earliest memories of Mom, when Dad was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. I remembered how proud I felt to pick out his faraway location on Mom’s big, round globe. The Philippines and New Guinea are still the first places my eyes seek out when I come across a map of the world.

Whenever we returned from shopping in those days, in downtown Portland, Mom bought two, little, square cakes – I can still picture them - in a bakery near the bus stop and we ate them together when we got home, sitting on stools at the breadboard in the kitchen. That had been a half century ago, but it seemed like only yesterday as I sat with Mom in her living room on the last day of her life.

As Mom’s breathing slowed, I knew she was near the end. I wanted Joe there with us, but he was off in the laundry building across the way. I thought to go get him, but I couldn’t leave Mom to die alone. I strained to hear his step on the walk but that distracted me from Mom. I looked at the door, willing Joe to be there, then brushed him from my mind to leave it free for Mom. I laughed when I realized it was beginning to feel like a comedy tennis match with me glancing at the door hoping for Joe, then back again at Mom, at the door, Mom, the door…

Then Joe walked in and a minute or two later, Mom took her last breath. It was 1:20PM on 27 April 1992.

It happened so quietly, this death. It had an easy, everyday quality to it. Ordinary, you could say. But it wasn’t ordinary. It was my Mom. And a minute ago, she’d been there just having a nap it seemed. And then she wasn’t there and it wasn’t just a nap. And I couldn’t figure what had changed. What went away? What part of Mom wasn’t there anymore? And why didn’t she just open her eyes and ask for a bourbon and water.

...to be continued...

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript


Ageism Hits as Young as 35 in Seattle

Idly surfing around the blogosphere this afternoon, Crabby Old Lady came across a blog named The Two Hour Lunch of which “Pops” is the proprietor. He points with a good bit of righteous indignation to a story in The Seattle Times seeking applicants who want to blog in the newspaper about how the election campaign is going among folks in their community.

“Know your community? Like to talk politics with your friends, colleagues and neighbors? Want an opportunity to blog about your observations?” asks the paper.

Even Crabby, who has been known to disdain such cutesy-poo efforts at involving journalistic “civilians,” might go along given the crucial nature of the 2004 election and the generally abysmal job the mainstream media has done so far in raising the level of political discourse. Perhaps the civilians could do a better job at writing about the real concerns of the public, thought Crabby - that is, until she read the next bits in the story, and the reason for Pops’ indignation:

“We’re looking for contributors 35 and younger who are following the ’04 campaigns…There’s no pay involved; only a chance to make the voice of the community heard.”

If this were a paying gig, that advertisement would be illegal under the federal ADEA (Age Discrimination in Employment Act).

This is the kind of kneejerk, gratuitous ageism American culture engages in every day, and it sends Crabby Old Lady right around the bend.

What does The Seattle Times think – that people past age 35 don’t know their communities? Don’t talk politics? Maybe they think no one over 35 has any friends, colleagues or neighbors?

And how old – or, rather, how young, do you have to be to run such a nasty, ageist news operation?

Here’s the executive editor’s email address in case you want to complain: mfancher@seattletimes.com. Crabby sent him a copy of this blog entry.


Try the TGB Older Bloggers Survey

Teens and 20-somethings make up 92 percent of bloggers, or at least that’s the estimate Perseus delivers in their recent survey of eight blogging services.

According to a related story in the San Jose Mercury News [free registration required] which I found via J.D. Lasica, blogs are a serious new addition to the teen social scene.

“In many ways, what transpires online is an extension of the social interactions that take place at school,” writes K. Oanh Ha. “There are online cliques as well as the digital equivalent of hallway banter and gossip. Yet, what occurs online mostly lives in a digital reality that seldom crosses over into real life.
“Most teens abide by an unwritten code of the blogosphere: What happens online stays online. Many have digital friendships with classmates but never socialize in real life ‘because we don't hang with the same crowd.’”

         - The Mercury News, 5 July 2004

Teens today seem to have a whole new repertoire of exclusionary criteria that were unavailable when I was their age.

What the San Jose Mercury News piece ignores is the other end of the survey which reports that older folks [age 50 plus] make up only .7 percent of bloggers, or 32,400 of us. Broken down further to my personal age category, 60 and older, we are just .3 percent of bloggers or 13,900 of us. With stats like that, we'll soon all know each other.

Our numbers will grow as more older folks join the online world, as younger people grow into our age demographic and as blogging software gets easier to use. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to know now, among us Older Blogger pioneers, what it is we - as opposed to the teenage hordes - get out of blogging, what purposes we put it to and why we do it.

I am not looking for numbers in this very casual, completely unscientific survey. Instead, I’m asking that you send me an email or leave a comment on this entry about how you use blogging. In a week or so, I’ll see what trends or commonalities emerge – or not – and I’ll post some of the most interesting answers.

It’s not necessary, but it would add, I believe, to our understanding, if you include your age. Here are some questions - not necessarily to answer, though you may - to get you started thinking:

  • How did you discover blogging and why did you start?
  • Were you a proficient computer user when you began? How difficult was it to master the technology?
  • Is yours a journal, or do you write about a specific topic? How do you choose what you write about each day?
  • How much personal information do you reveal? Do you have rules for yourself about that?
  • Do your friends and family know about or take part in your blog? Do they read it and comment? Do you use your real name or an online alias? Are any of you “secret bloggers” who don’t tell anyone who knows you?
  • Have you made new friends because of your blog?
  • How comfortable have you become with new friends you have made through your blog? Compare to offline, real-world friends.
  • How important to you is your blogging life? What does blogging give you that you don’t get from other parts of your life? What does it take away?
  • Do you think blogging is here to stay?
I look forward to hearing from you.

The Impending Rape of Social Security

There have been conflicting headlines this election year about the solvency of Social Security and although Crabby Old Lady hasl a few years until she is eligible, this development is making her – well, crabby. Here are the high points:

On 14 June, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office issued its first-ever assessment of the Social Security system and found it to be in better shape than the public has been led to believe. The trust fund, will not be depleted, according to the report, until 2052.

The Social Security trustees, a different group of officials, came to a similar conclusion in March 2004, though they estimate the the trust fund will be exhausted a decade earlier, in 2042. Still plenty of time for tinkering to keep it going after that.

In February 2004, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress to help reduce the astronomical budget deficit by reducing future Social Security benefits.

And back in January, Mr. Bush had this to say in his State of the Union address:

“Younger workers should have the opportunity to build a nest egg by saving part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account. We should make the Social Security system a source of ownership for the American people.”

     - State of the Union Address, 20 January 2004

Translation: the president was talking about “privatization” of Social Security and here, according to columnist Saul Friedman, is what that initiative means to you and Crabby Old Lady:

“If the president wins a second term, he can be expected to move aggressively to turn part of Social Security into millions of 401(k)s with their billions of dollars invested in Wall Street. Earlier proposals called for diverting one-sixth of the 12.4 percent in Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. This time, Bush and advocates of privatization will propose increasing to 50 percent the chunk of Social Security taxes to be shifted to private accounts.”

     - Newsday, 3 April 2004

And if that doesn’t scare you about funding your old age, Crabby will do her best to supply you with hot soup in winter at the cardboard box you’ll be calling your retirement home. Here is why.

Privatization would change Social Security, which even President Bush has admitted is the most successful social program in history, from a guaranteed lifetime income for old folks (current average monthly payment is a modest US$992) into a Las Vegas longshot, and Crabby has lived long enough to know that whether it is a casino, Wall Street or corporate America, the odds always favor the house. Just ask those Enron and Worldcom employees who were coerced into putting most of their 401k funds in company stock.

And consider, if Social Security is privatized, who will manage your portfolio. Do you know how to read an annual report? Or what discounted cash flow analysis is? How about the differences between the many kinds of stocks and bonds funds, or how to know if a REIT is better investment than equities for your circumstances?

Wall Street brokers and analysts - financial "professionals" - are paid to know this stuff. They work at it 52 weeks a year and they get it wrong all the time. So how do you expect find the time to educate yourself and keep up, year after year, with market twists and turns to ensure your old age? What if there is another stock market massacre? Or dotcom bubble burst? Can you trust your broker not to call Martha Stewart first when something goes wrong?

Make no mistake, Wall Street is a crapshoot. But Social Security, as it operates now, is a guaranteed payback for payroll deductions during working years and it keeps paying until you die, no matter how old you live to be.

The Social Security program is not broke nor is it not broken, and the privatization scam has nothing to do with solving a presumed financial crisis. It has to do with the transfer of wealth from you and Crabby to the already rich.

America’s leadership and its corporate cronies are, in the words of Newsday’s Saul Friedman, “ideologically opposed to Social Security,” so you can expect Republican allies, over the next four months leading up to the national election, to fan the flames of fear to keep alive this program initiative that might be too hot for the president himself to handle during an campaign. In fact, it has already begun.

“The problem of insolvency is still there, though we have a little more breathing room.”

    - Senator Larry Craig (R – Idaho)
     Newsday, 3 July 2004

In the same newspaper report, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute is quoted as saying that anyone who thinks Social Security isn’t still in trouble is “whistling past the graveyard.”

Crabby Old Lady would like to remind you of the lesson in former SEC chairman, Arthur Levitt’s 2002 book, Take on the Street: What Wall Street and Corporate America Don’t Want You to Know. To paraphrase:

During the dotcom run-up of the mid- and late-1990s, corporate America created increasingly opaque strategies to hide and hoard most of its proceeds from investors. There is no one, said Levitt (and it is still true), representing the interests of individual investors full-time.

The criminal convictions of a handful of Enron and Worldcom executives notwithstanding, there is no evidence Crabby knows of to prove that corporations have changed their ways, and the rape of Social Security is on target to move forward if George Bush wins a second term.

Crabby Old Lady in enraged about this.


A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7

category_bug_journal2.gif Without my knowing, Mom had arranged with her best friend, Barbara, to sneak a cake into the apartment and on 7 April 1992, the two of them and Joe surprised me with a party for my 51st birthday. Later that same day, after Barbara had gone home, Mom said she needed to talk with me alone. I couldn’t imagine what she would not want Joe to hear, we’d become such a tight little family, but if that’s what the lady wants…

I sent Joe out to the patio and pulled up a stool next to the sofa.

“I want you to help me die,” she said. She told me she was too tired to go on. She was worn out from her body failing her a little more each day, and she wanted to go to sleep one last time. “Please help me do this,” she said.

Deep breath. I hadn’t seen that coming and it hit me like a smack in the face. She’s asking me to kill her, I thought. Here on this bright, warm, normal, spring afternoon in Sacramento, California, with the sun streaming through the windows and leftover birthday cake sitting on the table, my Mom is asking me to off her. How can that be?

But it was. “I’m not frightened,” she went on, “just very tired.” She wasn’t crazed with pain, nor high on morphine or out of her mind.

The temptation, briefly, is to make a joke of it, but Mom was serious and it would be unforgivable to make light of her request. Was she sure? I asked. She was sure. Did she know when she wanted to do this? As soon as possible. Did she know how she wanted to do this? With drugs to go to sleep, but she didn’t know what kind. Could I figure it out?

Sure I could. I had a sketchy enough background in some illegal substances to still be able make the right phone calls. The question was, would I? Should I?

As with the mini-strokes and other medical surprises that confronted Mom and me every day, it was a question that couldn’t wait. It was the final request from a dying woman to her daughter and I could not fiddle the answer. Still, there were potent issues to consider, and Mom and I agreed it would be good for me to take a day to decide.

I drove to the nearest book store to pick up a copy of Derek Humphrey's Final Exit, about assisted suicide. In it is a handy section for circumstances like this one with drug names, descriptions, best delivery options and their fatal dosages. If I decided to “help Mom die,” I didn’t want to botch the job. That would get us both in all sorts of trouble that would ruin the end of her life she had so carefully planned.

Later that night, armed with names and lethal dosages of several possible drugs, I tracked down an old friend in New York I’d not spoken with in a long while. Amazingly, given his trade, he was still around and he still had the same telephone number, though he called back a few minutes later from a different one. He didn’t ask and I offered no details about why and within a couple of hours, he got back to me with a workable plan to obtain what I needed locally in Sacramento. I told him to sit on it for a day or two and I’d get back to him.

Knowing that I could make it happen relieved me to deal with one potential consequence - prison - which I knew I would be unlikely to avoid. I had no idea what the penalty was in California (there was no World Wide Web yet in 1992) for killing a dying person, but I weighed what little knowledge I had and for no other reason than to move my decision-making forward, I decided to assume it would be relatively light. Ten years or fewer, though I knew I could be wrong.

That left the biggest issue, the moral one: should I help Mom die. I spent all night thinking about that. And the next morning too as I cleaned Mom’s teeth, changed her diaper, brought her some food she didn’t eat and kept her supplied with cold, cold water. Neither of us said much.

I had – and still have - strong beliefs about making time and space and quiet and whatever else dying people need to come to terms with their mortality. I was trying to do that for my mother and now I was unexpectedly confronted with her way of dealing with death rather than my own.

To be certain I wasn't fooling myself or belittling the act I was contemplating, I named it what it was: murder. The most ancient taboo. Every religion, every nation forbids it. Yet I could find no horror in this instance. Mom had always taken care of herself, never complained about the tough times and never asked for help. Now she was dependent every waking moment. Each day, her body betrayed her a bit further, disintegrating before her eyes. We both knew there would be no last-minute miracle, and what she was asking of me was to hurry along the inevitable.

So there was in the end, only one answer: I would do it. I would obtain the drugs. I would administer them. If asked, I would admit the crime. And in that case, I would do the time.

Why? Easy. Because she was my mother and she asked.

That afternoon, while Joe was out shopping, I told Mom about the drugs, how they would work and that it would take two days to get them after I arranged the purchase. Just one thing, though, I told her. I haven’t done that yet and I won’t do it until you ask again. I want you be sure you are ready.

I couldn't stop the tears sliding down my cheeks. Mom wiped them away. “Please don’t be sad,” she said. “I’ve had a long and good life and it’s time to go now.”

...to be continued...

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript


Increasing Your Odds in the Aging Lottery

No one can predict for sure if he or she will win the aging lottery. We all hope for the best, but there is no telling what afflictions fate will visit upon us nor at what age. What is predictable, however, is that for baby boomers and their “senior” elders, it is likely there will not be enough doctors, nurses and care facilities to go around when we need them. Here’s why:

There are 78 million baby boomers in the U.S., the oldest of whom are just beginning to retire and the rest will follow year after year. Coming up behind them, born between 1965 and 1982, is Generation X of whom there are only 59 million, and logic suggests there will be proportionately fewer health care providers than now. There are many other hard-choice ramifications of this population shift to be addressed, but let’s take the selfish one today: Who will care for you and me when we need it?

One good answer is: each other.

News stories about older single, divorced and widowed women joining forces to spend their old age together are appearing with increasing frequency, most recently at twincities.com [free registration required] via The New York Times.

Given the looming age demographics, it is welcome news that interest in these alliances is gaining momentum and already mitigating the fears of women who are pioneering these new kinds of households. Writes Jane Gross:

“Mary MacLellan, who spent down her retirement savings caring for her mother after she broke a hip, wondered, ‘What in the name of God will become of me?’ But her worries eased when she and six other women in Nova Scotia, ages 50 to 68, began discussing living together.”

We could all ease our worries by planning for this kind of living arrangement even before we need it. It is an aspect of what I call Responsible Aging. We can share the pleasures of growing older together while also taking charge of our own and one another’s well-being to the greatest extent possible, relying on what will be a heavily overburdened healthcare system for only the most urgent conditions.

This is not a new idea. Friends and acquaintances and I have been noodling it around in general conversation for two or three decades although our version includes men, unlike the women-only households being discussed in news pieces so far:

“Men do not seem to entertain comparable ideas,” writes Ms. Gross. “Dennis Kodner, executive director of the Brookdale Center on Aging, at Hunter College in New York, says all the men he knows expect that women will care for them. ‘We don’t really have those kinds of friendships,’ Kodner said.”

If that’s so, men are going to have to get used to the idea of shared responsibility, and I don’t believe it’s necessary for housemates to have been life-long, intimate friends to succeed in a group household. I think you need similar sensibilities, mutual respect and a lot of room. Actress Bette Davis said many years ago that a marriage can't survive without separate bathrooms. I agree and I’m pretty sure that applies in these new kinds of living arrangements too.

However it works - and many of the details and legalities are still to be invented - it’s a good thing to help remove a burden from the generation coming up behind us. And whether or not you win the aging lottery, it is also good not to be old and alone.


A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6

category_bug_journal2.gif Mom owned what I still believe was the world’s longest sofa. The day came when she announced she wanted to move to the living room, and the sofa, she said, would suit her fine as a final resting place, so to speak. The three of us laughed together at her joke, I arranged linens on the sofa and Joe carried Mom from her bedroom.

In the weeks I’d been caring for her, Mom's weight had dropped dramatically. There wasn’t much padding left on her bones and it took only a couple of hours to discover that the sofa upholstery was too harsh on her skin, too painful to endure even through two sheets and a diaper.

An experienced caregiver would have known about a product the medical supply business refers to as a “convoluted foam mattress overlay," known in the vernacular as an “egg crate mattress.” It took me, an amateur, the better part of day to learn of its existence and then track down a store where it could be purchased. But once cut and fit over the cushions, Mom pronounced the result to be excellent.

Mom’s physician had prescribed three drugs: Halcion for sleep which she used only occasionally, a non-narcotic pain pill and Roxanol, liquid morphine meant to be administered by eyedropper on the tongue. It was several weeks after my arrival before Mom, always a stoic, mentioned that the pills were not helping her pain enough. Still, she resisted the morphine.

“I don’t want to get addicted,” she said – this from a woman who until her breast surgery the year before requiring a reduction in her alcohol intake, had spent decades in a way too cozy relationship with a bourbon bottle.

It took two days, during which it was obvious she was suffering, before my arguments and the intensity of the pain convinced Mom she was unlikely to run down the block and rob the nearest candy store. We experimented with the number of drops on her tongue until we found the right dosage and frequency and it wasn’t long before she was enjoying the morphine a whole lot more than would have been a good idea had she not been dying.

A couple of weeks later, Mom’s voice wakened me from a dead sleep. I stumbled from my room, not really conscious yet, to find the sofa empty. Not possible. The woman could no longer walk. Still in a mild stupor, I thought she might be in her bedroom, but as I moved to check, I heard her call again from the direction of the living room. When I turned on a light, I found her on the floor wedged between the sofa and coffee table. She had no memory of how she’d gotten there.

With her paralyzed left arm and general weakness, Mom couldn't help me much in getting her back onto the sofa. That she was also stoned out of her mind on morphine made her even less cooperative, but by squatting on the sofa and hooking my hands under her arms, I was able to lift her from the floor. When she was re-settled and comfortable, Mom spoke up: “The heart in the elephant can substitute for the Faberge egg because it looks shiny and bright,” she said. I stifled a giggle and decided to stick around to see where she was going with that idea. “You can have the egg now. I thought you were too young for such a beautiful thing before…He’d be angry because you let me have a cigarette and a drink…I don’t want you to wear that ugly brown skirt to the party…The Dalmation is exquisite, don’t you think…”

Then she looked me right in the eye: “What am I babbling about? I’ve got enough mental capacity to know I’m babbling.” With that, she used her working right hand to pull up the blanket, closed her eyes and went to sleep. She never again asked for morphine, and I have no idea if the pain subsided or if she chose to suffer it to keep her mind intact.

…to be continued…

A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript