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Love and Sex, Then and Now

EDITOR'S NOTE: Donald Murray at the Boston Globe has written a bittersweet piece today about how, as we age, we grow closer to our parents and long for the answers to questions we didn't ask when they were alive.

There has been quite a discussion going on around our corner of the Web recently about sex and love. Here are some links, in order of posting, if you’d like to catch up. Be sure to read the comments too, particularly at Sex and the Single Mom:

The Friendliest Thing Two People Can Do
Sex and the Single Mom
Lolita and Lothario
An Old Lady’s View of Sex and Love

Today’s entry was prompted by a Comment from Tim under An Old Lady’s View of Sex and Love who posits that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I partially agree.

I don't think sexual behavior has changed so much in my lifetime as has the openness of it. The controls on sexual behavior, primarily the fear of pregnancy, but social pressure too, have been removed. And, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, coupled with the simultaneous development of the birth control pill, changed sexual behavior when women claimed the same rights to fool around that men had always had. Before then, only bad girls "did it" which, of course, was a false classification.

You were labeled a bad girl in my youth only if it was known you "put out" or if, god forbid, you got pregnant and went to live with Aunt Minnie in Michigan for a year. There was no legal abortion in those days and daycare in high schools could not have been imagined. One of my friends was not allowed to walk across the stage for her diploma, in 1958, because it was apparent she was in the late stage of pregnancy. That she had been married for a year made no difference to the school authorities, and this was at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley, California, which was, not too much later, in the heart of the so-called free love and crunchy granola set.

Unmarried pregnancy aside, good girl status could be maintained if she and her partner didn't tell.

In 1959, I moved into a co-ed boarding house in San Francisco that was well-known for its unique - and risqué - living arrangement. Although young men and women each had their own rooms, we were mixed together on the same floors which was forbidden in other young people's boarding houses. Whatever went on among other tenants, I don't know and I wasn't dating anyone at the boarding house, but young folks being what they are, I'm certain some people were mixing it up. I was suspect for a period for spending most evenings with my next door neighbor, Nathan, but he was teaching me how to play chess and that's all we did. It is an insight into my character, no doubt, that I enjoyed the gossip.

Our attitudes toward sex (and just about every social issue) are strongly affected these days by the media. Movies and television have been saturated for years with unmarried, unashamed sex, so how else are we to behave. By contrast, in bedroom scenes in movies and on TV in the 1950s, only single beds were shown even for married couples.

When I was 12 or 13 (in the early 1950s) - there was a watershed movie that caused a nationwide scandal. Titled The Moom is Blue and starring David Niven, William Holden and Maggie McNamara, it was about two playboys attracted to the same woman. The controversial moment of the film comes when one of the men refers to Maggie as a "professional virgin." The word "virgin" had never before been used in a movie and that veiled reference to the existence of sex caused debates in newspapers and magazines about whether that language would corrupt our youth.

Doesn't all this sound antiquated now.

When, in 1965, my about-to-be husband and I lived together out of financial expedience for a few months until the wedding, it was something that friends knew, but we were careful not to make a big deal of it. It certainly was done in those days, but not entirely in the open yet, though within a couple of years, those strictures were gone.

It is still a tenet of our time and culture that sex is better accompanied by love. I've never been sure that's true, and love - I am speaking of romantic love, not familial - is such an ineffable emotion, hard to grasp or put into words. When we are in the throes of it, we speak words like "forever" and "eternal" and "true love." But it goes away for all kinds of reasons. Anthropologists have written volumes on sexual behavior, love and the speculative genetic reasons for the attachment of men and women to one another. Personally, I've had good sex without being in love and sometimes not-so-good sex when I've believed I was in love, so what do I know. I'm back to John Lennon and "whatever gets you through the night."

The economics of marriage have changed in my lifetime too. In my youth, married women mostly did not work outside the home. Few families had clothes dryers yet and laundry hanging in the back yard was ubiquitous. Even vacuum cleaners were not commonplace. There were no microwave ovens. No frozen food. Eating out was saved for special occasions. Take-out barely existed.

Women starched and ironed all the family's clothes and there was a lot of it before modern, no-iron fabrics made their appearance and, later, wrinkled clothing became acceptable. Wives still kept kitchen gardens (left over from World War II Victory Gardens) and they canned fruits and vegetables for winter and made their own jams, jellies and pickles. Being a housewife was a full-time job and then some. The divorce rate was low because it was still shameful, because women had few business skills and men had no household skills. Couples rode out their differences.

Nowadays, a family generally cannot get by without two incomes. Modern appliances and services take up the housekeeping slack. And when a couple runs into difficulties, divorce becomes an easier solution than compromise.

Aside from food and shelter, sex is undoubtedly the most powerful of human urges. When shame - of social position and sexual activity - is removed along with possible pregnancy, we are free to indulge it at whim and the connection between love and sex seems unnecessary and becomes confused, which is what has happened over the past 50 years. The question is, was it ever a hardwired, human need or is it an artifact of times and cultural imperatives that are coming to an end?

Helen Fisher has written a fascinating book, among others, on all this titled Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray.

Raising Retirement Age

category_bug_ageism.gif Speaking at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last week, Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan, noted that the percentage of the U.S. population over the age of 65 will increase from about 12 percent today to about 20 percent by 2030. This will significantly reduce the number of Social Security contributors per beneficiary, he said, resulting in a chronic deficit to Social Security and Medicare and reduced benefits unless something is done.

[There is much more to his speech and you can read a transcript here.]

Some experts have weighed in to refute Greenspan’s claim of impending Social Security deficits, but since this debate erupts every two or three months, let’s go with Greenspan this time. And don’t go letting your eyes glaze over. This is important stuff – for you, your children, your grandchildren and beyond.

Assuming Greenspan is correct, remedies are needed. Among the Fed chairman’s suggestions are:

  • Cut benefits
  • Promote personal saving
  • Increase productivity
  • Raise the age for receiving benefits
  • Promote longer working life

None of these is new, although they gain importance from Greenspan’s support, and they all deserve vigorous public debate. But today, we will concentrate on the last two which are mirror images of one another.

Depending on how old you are, you may not have noticed that the age for receiving Social Security benefits has already been raised slightly. I, for example, am not eligible for full benefits until I reach age 65 and 10 months. This is the result of some 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act increasing the age from 65 to 67, phased in over a 27-year period which began in 2000.

However, as Greenspan noted in his speech, there is a growing scarcity of experienced workers and, he says

“…despite the improving feasibility of work at older ages [due to improved health and longevity], Americans have been retiring at younger ages.”

Early retirement has been the norm in the United States for a couple of decades, according to AARP*, and more Americans begin collecting reduced Social Security benefits at age 62 than wait for full benefits when they are 65.

No survey I can find has asked why Americans retire earlier than the established age, but I believe I have part of the answer: Some unknown number are forced into taking early benefits not because they want to retire, but because they can’t find work. I know four people in their 60s who are healthy, active and accomplished in their fields. But younger people were hired in their places and now, instead of contributing, these folks are a burden to the system. It is a terrible waste - of public money and of manpower.

There is a nasty little secret that government policy wonks and officials like Alan Greenspan do not acknowledge in discussing postponement of the age for Social Security benefits and promotion of additional working years: age discrimination.

It is hard to understand how Mr. Greenspan expects to extend the working life of older Americans when no one will hire them as anything other than Wal-Mart greeters at minimum wage. The number of age discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have been increasing dramatically - from 14,141 in 1999 when the rise began, to 19,124 in 2003. And that’s only the people who bother to complain.

One of the excuses corporations offer for not hiring older workers is they cost too much. Older employees want higher salaries than younger folks, executives say. Yes, we do, and it is only right because we have decades of training and experience and we’re better than we’ve ever been. Human resources managers say the cost of benefits increases when they hire older workers, and the costs of healthcare in general are soaring. The latter is true. It is another serious fiscal problem the country must address soon, but it’s not due to older people in the workforce.

One way to help might be to do more than blather about the wanton increase, in the past decade, in executive compensation that rose 9.1 percent in 2003 to an average of $8.1 million per year. The ratio of average CEO compensation to average production worker salaries was 400-to-1 in 2002, compared to 42-to-1 in 1982, according to one source. Other estimates go as high a 900-to-1.

Chop just $1 millon from one executive’s salary and 20 workers can be hired. Chop $5 million and a hundred can be hired. And if you don’t know how to live on $3.1 million a year, I don’t believe you have the skills to run a corporation effectively or efficiently.

Perhaps I am more sensitive about this right now, fairly distressed as I am at facing a limp job market in September with sharp memories still of a 14-month period of unemployment three years ago when colleagues in their thirties were being hired after only a few weeks of searching. I know the shocked look on the faces of 25-year old vice presidents who thought I was their age in our preliminary conversations on the telephone. I’ve been through the bum’s rush of 15-minute cursory interviews, and I am cringing again at the indignity of removing years of valuable experience from my resume because, the experts say, it makes me appear too old.

Mr. Greenspan’s and other policy wonks’ ideas about a longer career life are good. Sixty-five was an arbitrary choice for retirement anyway when the Social Security Act went into effect in 1935. (Greenspan himself is 78 and began his fifth four-year term as Fed chairman in June.)

Today we are healthier, more active and better educated that we’ve ever been. It is time for corporate America to take advantage of our expertise rather than toss us out on the street. How cheap will those younger workers be when corporate America will need to raise salaries to afford the higher taxes to pay increasing millions of competent older folks not to work?

* Raising Retirement Age: How Much of a Solution to Rising Support Burdens in the Developed World [PDF]
   - AARP Public Policy Institute, June 2000

EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't miss the the most recent Comment on Time Thieves from Buffy dated 29 August 2004. I promise you will laugh out loud.

Time Thieves

Anyone who regularly reads between the lines here knows that Crabby Old Lady reserves her highest dudgeon for time thieves. She figures she’s got fewer years left here on earth than younger folks and there are a lot of things she wants to do. So anyone who impedes her progress due to inattention, laziness or corporate incompetence deserves to forfeit their left little toe.

You think that’s mean? That’s nothing. Ask Crabby sometime why she opposes the death penalty and what she would replace it with, if you want to know mean. There are acts heinous enough, Crabby believes, that extreme measures are necessary to right the wrong, and she classifies some only a few ladder rungs below the pre-meditated taking of life. Stealing time is one of them because it is the only thing of real value any human owns.

Crabby will undoubtedly recover her equilibrium once her electronic connection to the world is restored, but right now her dudgeon is about to burst through the upper reaches of the scale.

At this writing (Wednesday), Crabby’s ISP, Roadrunner by name, has been off line for 26 hours. When she calls the help line, she gets a recorded announcement in an impenetrable accent from some nether region of New York City that drops the last letter or syllable of every word. She believes the message is related to “working to restore service” - if that’s what the phrase that sounds something like “wor’ t’ rest’ serva” means.

This outage follows closely several weeks of on-again, off-again service – for which Roadrunner erroneously blamed Crabby’s equipment – culminating in another recent day of downtime.

For several years now, the Internet has been no less a necessity than a utility. When telephone service is disrupted or there is a blackout, it is treated as a local catastrophe. Radio and television cover it like a hurricane. Executives of the utility in question hold press conferences to update the extent of the problem and estimate recovery time. The mayor usually gets into the act too. It is understood that business and personal life come to a standstill without these services but it has not yet penetrated the pea brains of those who run the media, local government and Internet providers that when Internet service is disrupted, the public must be kept apprised of the repair progress to be able to plan their lives around the outage.

Crabby has been listening to news radio all day. There has been no announcement of the loss of Roadrunner’s Internet service, yet this is no two- or three-block disruption. Telephone calls with friends at various locations around town confirm that at least a third of Manhattan is affected.

After a trip to Philadelphia on Tuesday, Crabby had set aside six or seven hours at the computer for Wednesday. Her attorney is expecting notes for a negotiation. Some edited materials need to be delivered to a colleague. There are some electronic documents with a time limit that need forwarding. Online research that will take a couple of hours is needed to find the gift she wants for a friend’s fast-approaching 40th birthday. It is time to pay next month’s bills online.

Crabby had a full schedule planned for Thursday and Friday, but time, when it is lost, can not be recovered and she will scramble through the rest of the week now to meet deadlines. A pleasurable lunch will be canceled. Perhaps a meeting postponed.

Today - Wednesday - Crabby has been trying to accomplish on the telephone what would be easier online. It amazes her that no one complains about the collective billions of minutes stolen from consumers each year in the form of telephone menus. Phone any business and there are 10, 20 and more choices to navigate hoping, before the end, for one that matches the intent of the call. As frequently as not, it doesn’t exist and some evil companies have no live help.

Whatever happened to the operator?


CALLER: I need to speak with the billing department.

OPERATOR: Thank you. I’ll connect you.

Five seconds.

And there is another problem with telephone menus. On many home telephones and all mobile phones, the buttons are located on the receiver which must be removed from the ear to punch in the selection. On returning the receiver to the ear, the announcement has already moved forward to “…select number 1. For the shipping department, select…”

Select number 1 for what? The choices come so swiftly after a selection that the first part of the next choice is missed. How hard is it, Crabby asks, in preparing a recording, to skip a beat before proceeding to allow for that second of time?

There is no remedy but to call back and start over (no small effort if the caller had already managed to navigate the first four or five selections), this time keeping the phone as close to the ear as possible while making one selection so as to not miss the next. More time gone for what is, usually, an inconsequential, but necessary, maintenance of life issue.

And that doesn’t count, after reaching the correct selection, hold time until a customer service representative is freed up from other callers.

Multiply all these five- and ten-minute menu navigations (they get even longer when several commercials for unwanted services are forced on the caller) by however many millions of adults there are in the U.S. and then by however many of these menus each adult must tolerate per year and the collective man-hours could solve world hunger.

Crabby knows from past experience that when her Internet connection is again in working order, there will be no announcement as to the cause, no assurance that steps have been taken to avoid the problem in the future, and there will be no refund for the downtime on her next bill.

Crabby is not getting any younger and since no one can return her lost Wednesday and portions of Tuesday and Thursday, she is meditating on what, if she were king of the world, would be the proper penalty for this most recent thievery of her time. Would a forced 24-hour session with telephone menus do it? Or how about the little toe of Roadrunner’s CEO?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Roadrunner’s final downtime before restoration of service totaled 46 hours. To get up and running again, a call to the help desk was required. When Crabby asked the techie why someone had not considered an announcement on local radio, he said, “Lady, the Internet is a luxury.”

An Old Lady’s View of Sex and Love

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today in the Boston Globe, Donald Murray is taking a lighthearted view of the obstacles to walking around at his age, something everyone should be aware of as we go dashing past older people in our headlong rush to - where?

A few days ago, Nina Turns 40 posted a terrific essay over at her blog titled Sex and the Single Mom in which she linked to my recent post on sex. In it, Nina decried the cultural pressure to endanger one's health to maintain a youthful appearance if you want any man to notice you after a certain age.

“What do I get told about my sexuality as I get older, based on the same criteria of TV commercials? That I have to inject toxic substances (the letters "tox" form part of the name, for crissake) into my face so that, heaven forbid, I don't have a crease between my eyebrows,” she wrote.

She set me off on a diatribe about our culture’s values on appearance and aging which is posted there along with other reader's comments. Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles, who’s been turning up here a lot recently, had this to say at Nina’s blog:

“No one here has addressed the one thing that I find missing in all these equations: love. Perhaps it is a curse of my age, or maybe it is more sublimal/primordial thing, but I have never been able to remove the love factor from the sexual equation. I am not a prude, I enjoy sex, but I do not enjoy it as a purely physical activity.”

From my experience, Pattie, one would hope for love but it and its facsimiles have stung me to the quick so many times (and, if my friends – men and women – are any gauge, many others too) that it has proved to be an elusive, if not impossible, dream. On bad days, I believe each of us is issued at birth a tolerance for only so much emotional pain and if it gets used up before we die, there is also no more room for emotional joy.

But that’s only on my worst days. There aren't many.

I’ve entered into romances that lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years and I knew up front it wasn’t going to be forever. Sometimes I’ve started out thinking it was love only to find out, in time, it was lust and not sustainable. Twice, I loved so much, so deeply that I thought my heart would burst and I believed there was no force on earth that could sever our devotion. I felt that way once about my former husband too. Love goes wrong every day.

We humans yearn to connect with another of our kind and we strive so bravely to do it in a modern media world in which the relationship between love and sex has been loosening its bonds for decades. Ten-year-old girls wear thongs today. Their pubescent music idols’ ticket sales shoot up when their 55-hour, Las Vegas marriages get worldwide attention. Movie stars flaunt their extramarital affairs and when we read the tabloids, there is no mention of the private pain their celebrity spouses suffer as we do.

Personally, I don’t care what other people do individually. I am concerned, however, that we live in a world so cynical that a loving, faithful marriage is considered a snore. It is no wonder some of us are confused, and sometimes, it seems to me, when love cannot be found, like is enough. And occasionally, if you are lucky in like, the sex has been known to turn into love.

There is nothing so sublime as lying close together with one’s beloved after sex. What works best for you, Pattie ("my libido has always been intertwined with my emotions"), is the ideal and I would wave my magic wand over everyone for such if I could.

But in the sexually permissive culture we live in where even the Olympics on television, as Nina notes, are soaked in sex drug commercials, our ideas about sex and love cannot help but change, as it has with the really young ’uns now. Did you know that the phrase, "hook up," which has always meant to me to meet at a mutually agreed upon location, now means to teenagers to get together purely for sex, even when they have met before only online? When one types, "Let's hook up at your place" into his or her instant messenger, it is understood it's for sex. No how-do-you-do. No romantic dinner first. No pretense at even the tentative tenderness of blossoming love. Just sex. I'm not here to judge the kids, but the times certainly are changing.

For us older folks who are unlikely to make such an extreme sexual switch, I believe, as John Lennon said, “whatever gets you through the night.” And if it can only be like, I’m all for it.

The Call of a New Personal Age?

category_bug_journal2.gif There's been just way too much going on here. The pleasant, but disruptive visit of an old friend staying with me for a few days in my one-bedroom apartment, a dinner party, my Website broken for three days, meetings with people about a mutual legal problem, more meetings with an attorney about a condo problem. Some non-blogging writing I'm having trouble with and the mounting pressure I feel of my approaching employment hunt beginning in September. In between, I find myself lying about not doing things that need doing, daydreaming away an hour or two at a time. My body's fine, but my mind is in overload.

I was thinking about what my blogging friend, Cowtown Pattie, said in an email about not liking the hustle and bustle of urban life. In contrast to her, I love the big city, though I live in what is essentially a small town within New York with winding streets lined with trees, 200-year-old, four-story townhouses instead of modern, 60-story apartment houses like uptown. And this neighborhood still has two real butchers, three fruit and vegetable markets, two bakeries, a cheese shop, newsstands, family-owned pizza parlors that have been here for 50 years.

Not much big-town bustle here except on Saturday nights when the young bridge-and-tunnel crowd arrives looking for the kind of bohemian Greenwich Village that hasn't existed since the 1950s. There are no nightclubs nor restaurants that appeal to that group on my street, so they don't get in the way of my peaceful enjoyment of life. The most intrusive noises I hear are the trucks from the nearby firehouse on their way to save lives and I'm grateful they're around the corner, just in case.

Nevertheless, there is a constant buzz in the air of a city this size and uptown-style hubbub can intrude at any moment. The reporter held hostage in Iraq, Micah Garin, lives nearby, across the street from my favorite coffee house, so ten TV vans have been parked there for the past week aiming their cameras at his apartment windows, drawing crowds of gawkers. My block was cordoned off this weekend for a film shoot attracting another set of oglers hoping to see a movie star. Unwilling to give up their spot on the sidewalk with a sight-line to the movie-making action, they made the to- and fro-ing of weekend errands almost impossible and then left their soda bottles and food wrappers on my stoop.

It's times like this with too much personal and public life swirling around that I miss the country house I had in the Catskill Mountains for five years in the 1970s. It wasn't surburban. It was rural. And the nearest town was seven miles down the road. I cooked on a wood-burning stove there, even baked bread in that oven, tended the flower beds in summer, made quilts and refinished furniture in the winter. I never thought of the house as a respite - I was always busy - though looking back from the distance of nearly 30 years, I suppose it was a slower, more contemplative counterpoint to my hectic weekday world.

Sometimes, over past years, even without the temporary invasion of hundreds of extra folks mucking up what I think of as my narrow streets, I have daydreamed about living in a house in a small town in Maine or at the Oregon coast. I've gone so far, occasionally, as to check out housing prices online in those two places, but I've never actually made a phone call or visited them with a purchase in mind. I have no memory of not wanting to live in New York City. I've been here for 35 years, and it is home. Portland, Oregon is little more than a name I enter on forms when "birthplace" is requested.

And yet, I daydream of a different kind of life. Is it my imagination that it happens more frequently now? Might it be that in the personal timeline of our prescribed four score and ten, the day arrives when the swirling kaleidoscope of the 40 years of active mid-life naturally shifts to something different? I've never thought about retirement. I dislike even the sound of the word, and I will continue to work, absent the bigotry of age discrimination, for as long as physical and mental capacities remain.

But something new is calling me and I suspect it is more complex than the desire for a change in scenery. What could it be?

A TGB Mom Issue: Home Care For Aging Parents

A number of important issues came up during my series, A Mother's Final, Best Lesson, that deserve an airing and discussion outside the context of a personal memoir. The first was Toward a Change in Views on Aging. Today's TGB Mom Issue concerns home caregiving. You are invited to join in, either with comments (any length is welcome) or perhaps on your own blogs.

When I was a little girl in Portland, Oregon, old people were as common in the neighborhood as children. You’d see them sweeping their sidewalk in the mornings, gardening, having a stroll down the block or reading the newspaper on the porch in the evenings. They were part of the landscape, our sometime babysitters and we kids knew them all.

Some were older couples whose children had grown and gone. There were widows and the occasional widower living still in the three- or four-bedroom houses where once they had raised their children. But most of the older folks were the grandmothers or grandfathers who lived with my friends’ families.

Sometimes they’d give one of us kids a dollar to run to the local market for bread or milk or sugar when they ran short. “Oh, and be sure to get yourself a candy bar or Popsicle while you’re there,” they’d say.

And some were sick or disabled, bedridden or just old. My friends in families with an ailing grandparent were among the caregivers. “I can’t come over today, Ronni,” one would say. “Mom’s busy and I’ve gotta take care of Gramps. Why don’t you come over here.”

This is not an exercise in nostalgia, but a reminder that until about 40 or 50 years ago in America, old people were an integral part of community life and three generations living under the same roof were not the exception. That was back in the days before our corporate employers required work to supersede all other of life’s claims on our attention, and before we began warehousing our older folks in “facilities.”

When my mother, living three thousand miles away, was told in 1992 that she had terminal cancer, Beth Polson, who was the executive producer of the television show on which I worked, didn’t blink. She immediately arranged for a rented computer, printer, fax and additional phone lines to be delivered to an extra room at my mother’s home, and I took my job with me while I cared for Mom during her final three months.

Not all jobs lend themselves to that kind of mobility, but many could - if employers would make what is, usually, a small effort. In our age of computers, VPNs, email, instant messengers, cell phones and overnight delivery, it has never been easier.

To care for our older relatives also requires a shift in a cultural attitude that seems, sometimes, to have slipped its rails. Recently, I read of a full-time mother who rejected the idea of caring for an ill parent at home because, she said, her kids had to be driven to soccer practice and games, music lessons, tutors, dancing class and other activities, plus she had tennis, swimming, her women’s club and what-all. There was no time.

That is shameful and I am embarrassed for that woman. Cancel tennis and the women’s club. They will be there after mom is dead. Get other mothers to drive the kid to the swim meet. Tell the kids to give up half their activities for a year and help care for grandma. It will enrich them throughout their lives far more than any kickboxing class.

Have some empathy, for god’s sake, get a grip on what’s important and think about what you are teaching your kids. Do you want to be socked away in your final days in a cement room with peeling green paint and no one to change your diapers but once a day? We all believe it won’t happen to us, but for some, it will.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on how we can make caring for aged parents at home possible again. Perhaps you have others.

  • In the workplace, maternity and paternity leave are mandated and most companies provide sick leave, bereavement leave, personal days and some even have “mental health days.” Caregiving leave could be instituted particularly, as with my mother, when there is a relatively fixed time until death. For longer periods of care, corporations can develop – or government could mandate - a caregiver’s temporary telecommuting program for jobs that can be done long distance.
  • Small businesses, obviously, can rarely absorb leave, but many might be able to institute temporary telecommuting.
  • Enlist the family to help, including the children. Even a five-year-old can carry the newspaper or a glass of water to grandma. If your brother lives an hour or two away, he can donate two Saturdays a month. Make up a schedule for other family members to help.
  • Older children can be made responsible for cooking dinner twice a week or caregiving for three hours after school so the main caregiver can get out of the house to shop, have a swim or just rest from the constant need to be on call.
  • There is no extra bedroom, you say? Would you really begrudge turning your dining room or part of the living room or family room into a comfortable place for your mother or father during their final illness?
  • I’m way out of my area of knowledge on this one and don’t know what I’m talking about, but perhaps caregiver’s insurance could be established that would provide money to replace at least some of a caregiver’s salary when the employer can’t or won’t pay during a leave. We have pet health coverage (and I’m not denigrating that), so couldn’t we have coverage for family caregiving too? It all depends on what a culture believes is important.

Depending on the nature of an older person’s condition, some cannot physically be cared for at home, at least not without a team of professionals that only wealth can provide as with the actor, Christopher Reeve. But for those who can, we need to do more to encourage home care and some of it is in our own capacity to accomplish.

We can rearrange our lives when an aging parent needs us, give up some activities, interests and postpone some desires – a backyard pool, a new car, a trip to Europe - for a couple of years. Our parents did that for us. It’s our turn when they get old.

It will enrich our personal and collective spirit, help ensure our own later years, and bring death back into life where it belongs.

Other TGB Mom Issues
Toward a Change in Views on Aging

Graying Vanities

category_bug_journal2.gif Men, you have permission to take the day off from Time Goes By. I’m pretty sure this is mostly a women’s matter, though you might be interested in the associated cultural and psychological issues.

Take a look at those photos up there on my banner, specifically, number six from the left – the ‘fro. Time's passage has made it funny, even a folly, but in the early 1970s, it was the height of cool for a white girl in New York City. I was even a little ahead of the style curve on this one by a year or so.

It was at that time I first noticed more than a few gray hairs. In fact, there got to be so many the lobby guard where I then worked, asked one winter morning if it was snowing.

I grayed early. For awhile, I thought it was cute for a girl in her thirties, but it didn’t take long for my hair to become mostly gray and I still thought in those days that I might marry again. Not wanting to be overlooked as aged by potential mates, I gave in to coloring though it was hardly a momentous decision. I chose a red slightly lighter than my natural color and so it has remained - more or less - for 30 years. About three years ago, I allowed a streak in my natural color to emerge in front. I was shocked at first that it is pure white, then it became a signature look.

One of the things about getting older, I have found, is a growing disinterest in the smaller vanities. Neatness counts for fingernails, but lacquer has become an occasional indulgence, not a requirement. I haven't painted my toenails in 10 years and the days when I would not go to the corner deli without makeup are gone with the waistline.

It may or may not be related to a recent email from a friend in the Middle East who noted that she had let her hair go gray, but I have missed by three weeks so far my monthly hair color touch-up. It feels like I have made, among the hither and thither of daily life, an ad hoc decision to match my friend's courage.

It will, when my hair grows out, mark me definitely among the older generation. One reason not to have done this earlier is the necessity to earn a living. Recent past experience in job hunting, which I will write about fairly soon, removed any doubt that age discrimination is alive and kicking in the U.S. workforce, so I question this decision made so casually. After being laid off in June, I gave myself permission to take the summer off, but September looms and I will again face those 25-year-old vice presidents who haven't resolved their relationships with their parents, let alone their capacity to manage a stranger with a grandmother's visage.

So it is a risky move, going gray. Although I am reserving the right to change my mind, it feels like a permanent decision - part of, perhaps, Jung's seven tasks of aging which David Wolfe at Ageless Marketing is currently writing about. In this instance, number four: "letting go of the dominance of one's ego."

I cannot claim a conscious choice to move in the direction of this phase of getting older. I seem to be drifting toward it, propelled by unknown inner or outer forces, but it is not unwelcome. I am intensely curious and eager to know what kind of old lady I am becoming and letting go of this vanity feels like a good next step.

[Updated on 17 May 2005 here.]

The Friendliest Thing Two People Can Do

EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't miss Don Murray's latest column in the Boston Globe. Today he writes about the luxury age gives us of the time to reflect.

category_bug_journal2.gif A couple of weeks ago as I was crossing Carmine Street in loose, summer-beige pants and a loose linen shirt (the better to camouflage a mid-section that threatens lately overcome my tits in girth), a gorgeous man of about 30 or so grinned as he passed and said, “Lookin’ good, baby.” Aside from a fleeting thought about his need for an ophthalmologist, it brought back memories.

When I was younger and cuter and in particular, skinnier, I liked wearing, for casual days running about the city, tight jeans and high-heeled shoes. A bit of a trashy, tart-ish look? Yes, indeed. Did it cause men to react with various expressions of sexual innuendo? You betcha. And unlike some other feminists who believed men are being sexist when they throw out a bawdy glance or phrase, I liked every minute of it.

It has been about 12 or 15 years since I garnered that kind of attention in the streets and the young man two weeks ago was a reminder of how much fun it was – a randomly-scheduled but regular confirmation-without-consequence that I was, when I wanted to be, a foxy chick.

For all but ten years of my adult life, I have been single with an additional handful of moderately short-lived, full-time attachments and no children. Therefore, being a normal, healthy, horny woman, I never saw a reason, in between periods of fidelity, to let my unmarried, uncommitted status inhibit my participation in what is, arguably, the friendliest, most pleasurable thing two people can do.

Besides the fact that it just plain feels so damned good, sex comes in many delicious flavors. Leaving procreation aside for this discussion, it can be playful, loving, raunchy, lazy, flirtatious, friendly, urgent, serious, funny, companionable, romantic – well, you know what I mean. We’re all grownups here. It can overcome anger, brighten a rainy afternoon and it can express the ineffable as when the word “love” is sometimes not enough. I have known it in all these ways and more.

So it was shocking when I realized one day about ten years ago that I hadn’t thought about sex in a week or more. Never before had a day gone by without at least a fleeting image or two or ten of some recent evening in dishabille or anticipation of an upcoming la nuit d'amour. As weeks and months passed, it became apparent that my libido, at least in its former vigor, had left the premises, and I was saddened.

I liked my former sexual self. She was an important part of how I defined me. She had been a pillar of my self-image from age 15, and she had given me enormous pleasure which I joyfully and enthusiastically shared with my partners. Now, without her, I could not be certain of who I was, and I mourned the loss of her.

In time, happily, a new and unanticipated sexual self came to live within me. She is a bit a more dignified. She exhibits little of the old-style, ceaseless and unfocused horniness which demanded satisfaction one way or another. Instead, she waits patiently on the other side of thought until an object of desire crosses her path. And then she rears her head in all her former glory though not as much gluttony.

How delightful this new sexual self is and I wish sometimes she had joined me when we were younger. There is more time now for friends and cooking and reading and movies and thinking and writing this blog. And I get more sleep at night.

More importantly, she helps prove that as age dims some pleasures, it awakens others – and all we need to do is be there to accept them.

Tilting At Windmills

Last week, Crabby raised a mild ruckus in the comment section with her complaint about registering to read online, particularly smalltown newspapers. One reader pointed out that this Weblog required a name and email address to post a comment – though there is the convenience of a checkbox to save the information for next time – and Crabby spoke to her alter ego, Ronni, who has now removed that requirement.

Nina believes a name and address for a blog comment is a different issue from newspaper and other site registrations because blog commenting

“…is akin to writing a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper, and you usually provide a return address when you do that.”

Crabby agrees. And without those names and email addresses, she would have been denied the pleasure of some new online friendships. As she noted in her own comment, however, there are, at times, good reasons to post anonymously. Most seriously, some people have been fired from their jobs for opinions stated on their blogs and elsewhere online.

Eric argues that registering is what pays for the content and he also advises

“…against phony registrations…It’s theft,” he says, “(even if there’s no law against it) and it demeans you.”

That is a strong charge and Crabby not only respectfully disagrees with both points, she considers the requirement to answer up to two dozen questions to read an article of unknown value theft of her personal information and of her time which, at her age, is limited.

There exists excellent software to track visitors’ location, ISPs, operating systems, browser versions, keywords used in searches to reach the site, referring URLs, IP addresses, paths through sites, time of day, click-through rates on ads and a lot more. Large amounts of additional information can be extracted and extrapolated from these bits to offer advertisers. They do not need name, snailmail address and telephone number which are useful only in selling to postal direct mailers and telemarketers.

Additionally, Crabby’s alter ego knows personally of unscrupulous third-party software partners of Websites, which usually supply the technology to collect personal information, who retain the information on their own servers for their own marketing use. The slightly more ethical Websites include a note in tiny print that they share information with their partners (almost always unnamed), but it’s hard to find and frequently hidden in the privacy statement, many of which are littered with legalistic gibberish making it impossible to figure out if they “sell, lend, trade or share” information.

In addition to her editorial responsibilities, Crabby’s alter ego has been the privacy officer at every Website at which she has worked. She has attended numerous privacy conferences in Washington at the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce. She has worked closely with her employers’ sales and marketing teams and with their data collection managers to find the ethical balance between preservation of site visitors’ and customers’ privacy rights and the necessities of profit. She knows it can be done without coercive means.

So until there is effective legislation controlling the collection and use of private information online (unlikely in Crabby’s lifetime) along with more transparency from Websites about how they use the data they collect, she will continue to submit bogus information to help control the use of her personal information by others.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Crabby knows it’s an exercise in futility and we have already lost most of the privacy we once owned, never to be retrieved. But Crabby read Don Quixote and the righteousness of the battle attracts her.

Embracing Age

David Wolfe at Ageless Marketing today has posted a story objecting to the L.A. Times dance critic's call for baby boomers to "throw our demographic weight behind denial, or at least an ironic obfuscation of the facts" of aging.

"Amid all the blather about how boomers will age differently than their parents hardly anyone has examined boomers’ aging from a developmental perspective. Ms. Fisher is going through a stage and chances are she'll get past it and discover unexpected pleasures in life as an "old person."

I couldn't have said it better myself and I urge you to read David's post and return to his site as he continues this series he is calling "The Reality of Aging and Dying."

A TGB Mom Issue: Toward Change in Views on Aging

Charlotte Jessie Banta Chambers.

That’s my mom’s name and I want you who have read and responded to A Mother’s Final, Best Lesson to know that. The generosity of your comments online and in emails of a more personal nature have overwhelmed me in their openness and kindheartedness during the three months or so it took to write the story. I have learned from all of you, and some of you have become my friends. My heart is gladdened.

Together, we raised a number of important issues during this series that deserve a greater airing and discussion outside the context of a personal memoir, and I will be writing about them over the next few weeks under the general heading, A TGB Mom Issue. I invite you all – and any newcomers - to join in, either with comments (any length is welcome) or perhaps on your own blogs.

To alleviate the dispiriting notions we hold about older people, which are inexorably entwined with dying, there must be a change in our culture’s attitudes toward death. A number of you spoke eloquently about this:

Denny Coates said,

“I’m afraid that if we deny the reality of death in life, then we close ourselves to the rest of what is real and incomprehensible and wonderful in life.”

Jeanne noted that,

“Death has been carefully depersonalized in our modern Western society – the family might not witness the death and are certainly seldom involved in the physical actions of preparing the body…”

Fran Pullara reminds us that

“…many religions have the ritual of washing the body before the morticians, coroners, etc. get hold of it. We live in such a fragmented society where the naturalness of death is hidden.”

Although she was speaking in a slightly different context, Marja-Leena said,

“…something is not right in this country with the way we handle terminal illness. It leaves people no dignity in their most vulnerable hours that they are on parade during visiting hours when they are flat on their backs in pain, dying.”

That so many of you wrote of discomfort with the Western way of death indicates that we yearn for something more meaningful.

In other writing here, I have not infrequently referred to that baby boomer “pig-in-a-python” generation, larger by millions than the generations preceding and following it. By their overwhelming numbers, they have changed much in our culture and my new cyber-friend, David Wolfe, believes they will also change our attitudes toward getting older.

“I'm optimistic about a sea change in society's views on aging. It has to do with what I call the “psychological center of gravity” [PCG] - people within five years of the adult median age. They have a disproportionate influence on mainstream values and thoughts. Currently, with an adult median age of 45, the PCG is occupied by people from 40 to 50. Over the next few years, the adult median age will rise to 47, placing the PCG at 42 to 52. That's enough to begin working a major transformation in how society views aging.”

[By the way, you should look in on David’s blog, Ageless Marketing. You don’t need to care a whit about the marketing industry. He is lobbying with expert knowledge and passion against the denial of aging and his arguments are consistently smart and insightful.]

Too often we use the word “society” to mean some amorphous blob of humanity. Away from the printed page, it is each of us and we can, by the individual choices we make at the end of the lives of our loved ones, be part of the solution that David - and I - believe will soon begin.

Until then, too many families are stuck with Jeanne’s experience last year when her mother died:

“I hated the whole impersonal, ‘conveyor belt’ feeling of my mom’s funeral, and I know my mom would have also. But there was so much pressure from the family to do the conventionally accepted thing and I was hurting too much to want to put up a huge fight. We should learn to follow our instincts more and not automatically do what society deems ‘proper’ in such intensely private situations.”

I did not plan to be my mother’s caregiver in her final days. It was thrust on me. It made death, as Denny speaks of above, a part of my living and it enriched my life beyond any other single experience.

Other TGB Mom Issues
Home Care For Aging Parents

Sins of the World Wide Web

UPDATE: As Mark Smith notes in the Comments section below, and much to Crabby's chagrin after all her bitching, her own site has mandated a name and email address to leave a comment. She has remedied that and anonymous posts are now allowed. However, Crabby has made a nice group of new cyber-friends by responding to some of her commenters and she hopes readers who want to will leave their addresses.

The tune for today, friends and neighbors, is the Sins of the World Wide Web and you may sing along if you know what Crabby Old Lady is talking about. This is the verse about stealing time.

Crabby’s home has two sets of sliding glass doors. They are 20 years old and one set does not slide very well anymore. On Sunday, Crabby clicked over to to see what they have that might fix her problem. She navigated to the appropriate section, found an item on the list worth reading about further and clicked on it.

Instead of a page explaining the workings of sliding glass door rollers, Crabby got a long registration form asking many personal questions. Crabby was not ready to buy yet. Crabby didn’t even know yet if Home Depot had the information or the products she needs. But that didn’t bother Home Depot. No more product info for you, you silly old lady, until you give us your life story.

Crabby ignored their rude request and typed l-o-w-e-s into her browser’s Google tool bar, then clicked on over to that other home repair behemoth. Again, Crabby found the correct department and clicked on what appeared to be an item that might be useful in solving her problem. Lowe’s is not as snoopy before a purchase as Home Depot, but they did want a Zip Code.

Crabby sighed deeply. It is not possible to travel the Web today without being stopped at every Website border. Why, just two days ago, Crabby saw a note on a low-traffic blog (she checked; 0 links at Technorati) that said: “Please register to leave a comment.” Who do you think you are, you twit. You should beg for comments, thought Crabby as she closed the browser window without reading further.

Having a stroll around the Web these days is increasingly like driving a surburban neighborhood with speed bumps every 50 feet. Sign in here. Register to proceed. Tell us about yourself. Help us make this site more useful for you. Oh, right, and Crabby’s got this bridge you might be interested in buying…

Crabby can’t post on cyber-friends’ LiveJournal blogs with her name inserted because the software allows only LiveJournal users to do that. Anyone else must post as “anonymous” or remember to put their name in the body of the comment. What genius, Crabby asks, thought up that irritation? Do they believe it is in the best interests of their business and their users to make it hard to pursue the interplay that gives blogging a large measure of its satisfaction?

Crabby subscribes to a number of Google news alerts. Each day, a list of latest stories related to her keywords drops into her email box so she can easily follow her topics of interest. She likes that the alerts search newspapers all around the U.S. and the globe so she is as likely to find an interesting story from the Butler (PA) Eagle – not a paper she would otherwise seek out – as The Guardian, the South China Morning Post or the Washington Post or the New York Times.

As often as not, however, when Crabby clicks the link to a story she wants to read, she instead gets a registration page. All these small-town newspapers seem to subscribe to the same registration service, and except for differing logos at the top, the forms are identical. They don’t want just an ID and password. Oh, no. They want first name, last name, snailmail address, telephone number, email address and sundry questions about how often Crabby reads the paper, how she subscribes, who her favorite columnists are and what she had for breakfast.

It is not a fair exchange to require more information from a reader than reporters or newspapers are willing to give about themselves - just try to find an email address to complain. This is particularly so for information that takes longer to enter than it does to read the story that may not be worth the effort after all. Crabby may quote them and she always links to them when she does, but it is with the disheartening knowledge that her readers, if they follow the link, will be confronted with the same tedious form.

Crabby had stopped following links to small-town papers no matter how intriguing the headline and blurb in the alert email. Stopped, that is, until she was introduced to a new service created to thwart these nasty newspaper forms. Thanks to JD's New Media Musings, Crabby has found and you should know about it too.

Type in the URL of the site that’s bugging you about personal information and it will serve up a plain vanilla ID and password someone else has posted for everyone’s use. If there isn’t one yet for the site that’s badgering you, it’s your turn to contribute. Make one up to use then and to share with others.

It’s not ideal. Surfing is still interrupted. But there’s some small pleasure to be had in not typing in the same information for the hundredth time and in foiling the idiots who gain nothing from their questions anyway because Crabby, as thousands of other Web denizens, always lies.

At Crabby's age, her most precious possession is time. Stealing that makes Crabby angry and you don't want to do that. There is a reason she is called Crabby.

Crabby's follow-up: Tilting At Windmills

Proof of the Speed of Time?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Don Murray's column today in the Boston Globe is about "the wonderful realities we rush by during the busy years in the center of our lives."

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece here on some theories of why time seems to speed up as we get older. Eric Antonow responded in an email with such an interesting follow-up that I posted it too.

The Speed of Time
The Speed of Time: Cache Time

Eric was having so much fun with the theories that he posted three more stories about them on his site:

Theories of Time's Passing: Clearing the Cache
Travel and the Cache
Psychology Support for Caching Theory

And travelertrish chimed in on her site with more thoughts about Slowing Time Down.

Now, two researchers believe they have proved that time, in at least one circumstance, does fly.

“Dr. Anthony Chaston and his research colleague, Dr. Alan Kingstone, have proven, once and for all, that time really does fly when you're having fun. Or, at least, it flies when your attention is engaged.”

          - NewsWise, 6 August 2004

Their research involved having test subjects estimate how long they would spend at a task before they had done it, called prospective time, and estimate how long they spent at a task when they had finished, call retrospective time.

“There's generally a big difference between prospective and retrospective time estimations,” Chaston said. ‘In our society, we're pretty good with prospective estimates. Most of us wear watches, and we're pretty good at keeping track of the time because we have to for most of our regular, daily lives…
“’This really shows that even if you know in advance that you're going to have to estimate the time of a task, the more attention the task requires, the faster time flies.’"

          - NewsWise, 6 August 2004

Unless I’m confusing the issues, these researchers seem to contradict what Eric, travelertrish and I and some people who commented concluded that being engaged is what slows down time. But they didn’t have the advantage of our thinking about “cache time.”

Older Folks and the Employment Scene

The Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] reported last week that corporate America created a dismal 32,000 new jobs the previous month. Even so, President Bush, on the campaign trail, repeats his mantra that the economy is strong.

Without getting into an election year debate, Crabby Old Lady has a couple of bones to pick with the government and the media’s reporting of employment news which is so superficial as to be meaningless. (Now don’t go letting your eyes glaze over on this. It's important and if Crabby can take the time to figure it out, you can take the time to read it.)

There is no doubt in Crabby’s mind that if the real unemployment figures were told, John Kerry would already have a lock on the November election. Here is why:

The BLS reports each month on “initial unemployment claims,” that is, the number of people who sign up for a weekly stipend for which their former employers deducted a tax from their salary each month. An unemployed person is entitled to this stipend for 39 weeks. When it expires, that person is no longer counted as unemployed whether or not a job has been found. Does anyone have any idea, Crabby wants to know, how many who now collect no unemployment check are still unemployed and how much that would add to the current 5.5 percent unemployment rate?

Here’s another area where employment figures are skewed. The rule of thumb on the cost to a corporation of employing someone is that taxes and benefits add about 30 percent to the person’s salary. That is, if a company pays an employee, $50,000 a year, it costs them $65,000.

In a widespread and unreported scam that sends Crabby around the bend when she thinks about it, corporations skirt or deliberately ignore the law to avoid paying those taxes and benefits by misclassifying employees as independent contractors. The IRS and the Department of Labor have specific guidelines for those two classifications, but enforcement is spotty – rare unless a contractor files a complaint with the IRS.

And that’s the Catch-22. The IRS has a special form [pdf] to complain about misclassification. The complainant fills out one side, then the IRS sends it to the corporation who then knows the name of the contractor who complained and guess what? There is no regulation to keep the company from firing the complainant. How’s that, Crabby asks, for protecting workers’ rights? “Here you go, we’ve got a remedy for you if your company is screwing you, but they’re allowed to fire you if you use it.”

To be clear, not all contractors are misclassified. Some people choose to freelance and that is what the independent contractor designation is for. These people have more than one client; they are a one-person business paying all the taxes themselves, but with tax deductions available that misclassified, full-time employees do not have.

Here are some of the things that happen to a worker who is misclassified as an independent contractor. Crabby advises a Valium before reading:

  • In addition to his own, the worker pays the corporate half of FICA (Social Security) and Medicare
  • No unemployment insurance tax is paid by the corporation so when the contractor is laid off, he cannot collect unemployment insurance
  • No benefits are paid. That means no health insurance, no 401K or other pension program, no year-end bonus, no employee stock purchase plan
  • No paid vacation, no paid holidays, no paid sick leave, no paid family leave, no paid maternity leave, no paid personal days

Companies often have other employee benefits such as childcare centers, discounted homeowner’s insurance, discounted commuter tickets, discounted legal advice, even discounted pet health insurance which are unavailable to contractors.

In addition, if a contractor applies for credit of any kind – mortgage, home equity line of credit, a new credit card, auto loan – he will be denied because his employer will tell the credit checkers they have no record of him. The credit companies contact the human resources department but the “employee” is listed as a vendor in another department.

The company benefits, of course, by saving 15 percent of their employee costs for whatever number of “contractors” they have hired. In addition, this practice reduces the figure for their cost of doing business in their reports to Wall Street because their payroll costs turn up artificially low against revenue. Crabby would be interested to know how many Wall Street analysts take this into consideration in rating companies. (She also wonders how much the practice of hiring illegal contractors contributes to the vaunted U.S. "productivity" numbers because so many contractors who are doing a lot of the work are not being counted.)

With all that in mind, the “official” unemployment rate of 5.5 percent is make-believe, fantasy, illusion. It does not count both the unemployed whose benefits have expired nor illegal contractors who invisibly come and go at corporations without a single blip on the statistical radar. There are certainly other factors and Crabby is no expert on this topic, but if she can figure out this much, how much else could be hidden under a rug somewhere? is concerned specifically with growing old, so how does this apply? Let Crabby tell you.

It is one thing for 35-, 40- or 45-year olds to be forced in tough economic times to take whatever job they can find under any circumstances offered and if contractor-status is all there is, well - it puts food on the table and pays the rent. It is wrong, but Crabby has lived long enough to know that no matter how bad things are, sooner or later they will get better and there will be better jobs. People in this age group have time to catch up again before they are too old to work.

But older folks, from about age 50 on up, do not have the years to make up the difference. Individual health insurance can easily cost ten times what it does as a member of an employee group. Paying the company’s seven percent chunk of FICA and Medicare is a big loss out of a salary check. Missing out on a 401k or pension plan, stock purchases, bonuses, even commuter discounts means a lot less money to save for a rainy day – whether that be illness or old age.

Misclassification of employees is a widespread practice. It is deceitful, unfair and corrupt and will consign many people to a poverty-ridden old age. And it, together with dishonest and misleading unemployment figures creates a massive misperception of the labor market.

Crabby thinks it is time for somebody in the media to take on this topic and dig up the real numbers and consequences to real people.

A mother's final, best lesson: postscript

category_bug_journal2.gif On the day we returned to our respective homes, Joe to San Francisco and me to New York, Joe drove me to the Sacramento airport. After four months of getting to know one another in round-the-clock intimacy of caring for a woman we both loved, the parting was painful. We were both teary, but neither of us doubted we would be in touch often and we promised to follow up on our plans for Joe to visit me soon in New York.

Mom’s friend, Barbara, was becoming my friend, Barbara, and we phoned several time a week after I left Sacramento. At first, she spoke mostly of the times she and Mom had shared over the years and how alone she felt without Mom. Now we were discovering our own commonalities.

When the phone rang one day about two weeks after I got home, it was the first time I had heard Joe’s voice since we had left Sacramento. He was hesitant and a bit distant. He said he had tried to write a dozen letters to me, but the words wouldn’t come and now the telephone seemed the only right way to say what he then blurted out:

“I’m gay and I’m HIV-positive.”

It hit me like a punch in the gut. If, in the 1980s and 1990s, and you had made your home in Greenwich Village for a long time, you could not escape the scourge of AIDS. I had already buried too many people I loved – many of them not much more than boys - and my oldest, dearest, closest friend, who lived in Los Angeles, was HIV-positive too.

Joe had not told me in Sacramento, he said, because he didn’t want to increase the burden I already bore. But he was surprised I had not guessed because of the AZT pills he swallowed at regular times of the day and the several rest breaks he took – both required to maintain his health.

I had assumed the pills were vitamins, and Joe had made so many of the household chores his own, I hadn't noticed rest breaks. It wasn't fair. I wanted to scream and yell and cry and when we hung up the phone, I did. I had found a second brother with whom I had connected so closely, and now the spectre of his early death would shadow everything between us.

We humans are remarkably resilient in the face of horror, and Joe and I had an outstanding ten days together when he stayed with me in September. Joe had never been to New York and he took to it like a native. The subway was an adventure and instead of seeing the dirt and grime and noise, he liked its speed and convenience. We visited museums and walked through Chinatown and went to a Broadway play. We took advantage of the variety of restaurants and we shopped the Bleecker Street stores for cooking at home.

Joe saved my life one evening with the Heimlich maneuver when a piece of cheese caught in my throat.

Joe agreed with me that among the abundance of spectacular architecture in New York City, the Chrysler Building outshines them all. He was as much in love with New York as I have always been and he said, at the end of his visit, that more than anything else, he wanted to walk the winding Greenwich Village streets during a snowfall.

So we planned a February visit.

Late in the year, Barbara phoned with terrible news: a tumor had been found in her brain. Surgery was to be immediate, but the doctor warned about damage to her brain, though there was no hope at all without the surgery. The doctor’s concern proved true. Barbara and I spoke briefly on two, maybe three occasions following the surgery and then her son told me she no longer recognized anyone. Barbara died a month later.

In the days before Joe’s February arrival, I was glued to the weather reports. It was cold, flurries were predicted with a light dusting of snow, but no big storm: good for airports, bad for Joe’s wish. I sent entreaties to the gods. I got my mojo working and some good juju too. I lit a few candles and prayed the weatherman was an idiot.

There were light flurries in the air, nothing serious, when Joe arrived in the late afternoon. We talked and chattered and reminisced for a couple of hours. I cooked dinner and we lingered over the last of the bottle of an excellent Bordeaux I’d saved for his visit. Afterwards, Joe helped clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes, and when I peeked out the window around 10:30, I was giddy to see that my mojo had caused the weatherman to fail. Already, there was more than half a foot of snow on the ground and I could tell it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Joe and I giggled like kids as we bundled up in our coats and scarves and hats and gloves and we were the first, on some blocks, to make footprints in the snow. There was enough of it piled on parked cars that it was easy to ignore them and imagine we were walking in the Village a hundred years before when these same houses were lit with gaslight. When we listened carefully in just the right way, we could almost hear the clip-clop of a horse and carriage around the corner. Joe said the walk was more than he had hoped for and the best thing that had happened to him in ages.

Joe didn’t have as much energy on this second trip to New York. One day, we cut short a visit to the Metropolitan Museum when his entire being seemed to deflate as weariness suddenly overcame him. His enthusiasm for the city had not waned, but his ability to keep going all day had. Nevertheless, by pacing ourselves, we checked off everything on Joe’s list before he went home.

Although we talked about Joe returning to New York and even fantasized now and again about his moving to the city, he became steadily more sick over the next year and a half and spent increasingly more time in and out of the hospital for new treatments. Each took more out of him.

Sometimes, when Joe was too weak, I talked with his caregiver, Jack. By mid-1994, Joe was no longer capable of speaking on the phone at all. In October, Jack said I should come. The end was near.

Jack was sitting on the front stairs of his home when a taxi dropped me there from the airport. He was crying as he hugged me and said Joe had died at the hospital while my plane was still in the air.

There was a memorial for Joe a few days later at the Bay View Boat Club where he was a member. That’s “boat,” not “yacht” club, as befits those like Joe who loved sailing more than any kind of status. His friends told me he had often talked about me in the years after Mom died and about his two trips to New York. And they said he always called me, “my sister."

Some weeks after I returned home, Joe’s friends scattered his ashes near the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

There is no revelatory conclusion here. No grand enlightenment. No flash of wisdom gained. Joe and I, and Barbara too, had been the tight little family surrounding and protecting Mom in her last days. Two-and-a-half years later, there was only me to tell this story.

                                        - Finis -

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: Part 11

A Cyberspace Anniversary

category_bug_journal2.gif A year ago today, I took up personal publishing on the Web. I had bought a scanner to preserve old family photographs that had been mouldering in boxes and envelopes for decades. When I took several to work to consult with some of our brilliant and talented graphic artists on how best to improve or restore the photos electronically, my young friend, Aaron Wertheim, insisted I start a fotolog as some of our colleagues had done.

And he kept insisting for several weeks, saying that the photos are history. Aaron particularly liked this one of my great Aunt Edith and this one of my Dad and this one of me when I produced radio shows.

And so on this date a year ago, I began my fotolog timeline with this photo and mini-story.

Because is a Website meant for sharing images – a photolog, not a Weblog – I set rules for myself about the captions:

  • They could be no longer than six lines.
  • They must be more interesting that just names, date and location.
  • They must tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
  • They should say something that is of interest to people who are not family.

There may have been a couple of other rules, but these are close enough to the original list and for the most part, I met those requirements. The response from people who viewed my fotolog was gratifying and encouraging. Several people flattered me by creating similar timelines of their own.

Without the fotolog, I am unlikely to have finished scanning and restoring the photos and I certainly would never have gathered the stories together.

When the fotolog caught up with the present, I was at a loss as to how to continue. I am not a natural photographer. I don’t take the camera with me often; I even forget at parties and on vacations. And I have little talent for it. Words are my medium.

I have continued at fotolog with tours of my neighborhood (there are links on the right rail if you are interested), but more important to me is that it led directly to launching this Weblog where I can use the words I am far more comfortable with to lobby for the equality of older people in a culture that does everything possible to hide and demean us.

But I will leave my rants for another time. Today, I want to mark the first anniversary of my leap into personal cyberspace.

BF, AF and The Interim Generation

There are so many of them and they take up so much space in the world that the Baby Boomer generation gets all the ink. Everyone older is usually lumped into a general “senior” category, and the younger generations don’t even get real names, just GenX and GenY.

As David Wolfe points out over at Ageless Marketing, these designations don’t make a lot of sense at least from a marketing point of view. In the boomer generation alone - those born between 1946 and 1964 - what do 40-year-olds and 58-year-olds have in common? You’re right, not much.

At 63, born in 1941, I fall into that generic senior designation, but for cultural purposes I have, for decades, considered myself a part of the Interim generation which encompasses, loosely, women born between the mid-1930s up to early-1950s. If men of this age are affected similarly, one of them will have to take on that analysis - I’m dealing with women today.

We of the Interim generation were raised to marry, have children and keep house. If we went to college or work, it was considered a time filler, something to do until we found the man of our dreams and moved to the suburbs. The words “career”and “woman” were not mentioned in the same sentence and the only “professions” open to women, usually “spinsters” who could not find a husband, were nurse, teacher and secretary.

Then something happened on our way to fulfilling our destinies as brood mares. Everyone believes they remember what happened in 1963: John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But there was another event that year, at first overshadowed by the death of the president, that would at a slower pace have a much greater effect on western culture. Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.

Pick up that book today and you will groan. The writing is so dense it reads like cement and I have trouble imagining now how I got through it. But I did, along with millions of other women, and it changed not just our individual lives - it changed, in time, everything.

A couple of years ago, I ran into a snippy little 20-something just down from Cambridge with a shiny, new Harvard MBA making $150K as a Wall Street analyst. She told me that feminism is not relevant to her generation because they have evolved beyond the self-consciousness of labels.

Oh puh-leeze. Who does she think made it possible for her to go to Harvard, an all-male school when I was her age. Who does she think made it possible for her to become an analyst, an all-male enclave not so long ago. And who does she think made it possible for her to get a mortgage or any other kind of credit without a male co-signer?

Who did all that? We did, the women of the 1970s who got together in thousands of small consciousness raising sessions all over the U.S. to study Betty Friedan’s thesis and figure out how to put it to work in the real world. It was so radical then that many could not tell their husbands what we were doing at those meetings. Men made the decisions then. Men ruled the household then. Men even told wives how to vote then. And if your husband didn’t want you to read a certain book and have certain kinds of women friends, you didn’t.

So soon we forget.

Some of us were brave enough to risk the inevitable scorn of men and the media to burn our bras in that infamous symbolic gesture of demanding our freedom from domestic slavery. And others like me who were too chicken to risk that scorn and its consequences, cheered from the sidelines. For any of you too young to know or too old to remember, up until The Feminine Mystique took strong enough hold to make real change, women were forced into girdles and restrictive brassieres. It was not ladylike to jiggle in public.

Two years after the publication of Friedan’s manifesto, equal pay for men and women became law. Nevertheless, U.S. women today are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar men earn which is why it is a serious failing for young women to reject feminism. Although women’s strides toward full citizenship with men are numerous, we still have work to do and equal pay is only one item on the list.

While displeased with the attitude of today's young women, I am envious too of their unquestioning acceptance of their entitlement which, of course, is as it should be. Progress made in one generation should be the stepping stone of the next to improve life further. But those of us of the Interim generation, most of whom fought fiercely for our hard-won rights, will go to our graves with each of our feet in a different world. You could think of those worlds as BF and AF: Before Friedan and After Friedan.

It seems you cannot escape your cultural era. By methods I am at a loss to remember or explain, I learned the lesson well that I was expected to marry the man who would bring home the bacon I would cook for him while maintaining his household and raising his children. If those male pronouns surprise you, that is, in the 1950s, how things were said.

When Ms. Friedan’s book came along it was for me, as for millions of women, a revelation so right, so fitting, so obvious in its justice that there could be no appeal.

Women of the Interim generation were enthusiastic feminists, but old habits die hard. I have lived an independent life, but my first inclination is still, always, to serve the man. If I cooked at my home for the most recent one in my life, I never asked him to clean up the dishes. When he left his coat on the back of a chair, I hung it up. I made the coffee in the morning and brought it to him in bed if he was not up yet sometimes with freshly squeezed orange juice. I took on the responsibility of waking him when he had an appointment, and I let him read whichever newspaper section he wanted first, even if I wanted it.

I knew what I was doing and I was furious with myself. I wanted to blame him for being a man and making me do these things. But even though he made no effort to correct these minor inequities nor, as far as I could tell, even noticed they might be out of place, it wasn’t him. It was me. I have my own mortgage, I pay my own bills. I decide where to take holiday trips, and whether to take out a home equity line of credit just in case.

But I am still a member of the Interim generation - one foot in BF and the other in AF.

My Mom's Blog

EDITOR'S NOTE: If it's Tuesday, it must mean 80-year old Donald Murray's column is out in the Boston Globe, and today he is writing about the oddities of aging. It's a lesson we can all benefit from about being who you are at any age.

The tagline on My Mom’s Blog is “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and she will be 79 years old later this month. Millie Garfield is billed as the Internet’s oldest blogger and what I like best about My Mom’s Blog is that while Millie covers a wide variety of topics – from movies to Mah Jongg to politics to dieting and even a little marriage counseling - she also tells us what it’s like to be her age.

Just last Sunday she let Nescafe have a piece of her mind about their anti-old folks packaging:

“The customer service person told me that I had to put the container on the counter and with two thumbs press down and then open the lid! How do they expect a 78-year-old lady who has poor eyesight and arthritis to do that!”

Go get ‘em, Millie.

She’s got nearly eight decades of experience and a lifetime of stories to tell. Not long ago, Millie noticed it was time to renew a car sticker:

“Fortunately there was no line so I decided to take care of it then and there. The only problem was the station only takes cash and I did not have $29.00 in my wallet BUT I have a lifesaver in the trunk of my car.
“Let me explain. My husband Aaron, who has been gone now for 10 years, always kept a spare $20.00 bill in the trunk of the car and I have continued to do the same. It has helped me many times.
“Thank you, Aaron.”

There is a strong sense from Millie's blog that she and Aaron had a long and happy marriage. Perhaps one reason is a bit of advice Millie quotes from Donald Murray's Boston Globe column:

“There's a lot of talk advocating communication in marriage among those generations pounding along behind us,” writes Millie. “When they catch up, they'll look back and realize the secret of a long marriage lies in what has not been said.”

Millie’s son, Steve Garfield, is one of the more ubiquitous bloggers around the Web who is recently an early adopter of video blogging. Is it six Websites he’s got, or did I count seven? Steve set up his mom’s blog for her in October 2003 and before long, he didn’t need to do the posting for her any longer.

“Yesterday attended an Internet Class,” she reports. “I know a little and want to know a lot more. Well, what I learned yesterday was the background of the very young substitute teacher. She did not ask us where we were coming from, what we knew, what we were interested in learning. She did not know the answers to some of our questions and could not get the screen positioned so that we could see what she was doing!”

Stop by My Mom’s Blog. Millie’s doing just fine without a badly taught Internet class.

Aging Memories

EDITOR'S NOTE: Part 1 of A Mother's Final Best Lesson has been posted in the Transitions section of, a fairly new non-profit organization "dedicated to empowering, educating and fostering mentoring relationships among midlife women." I would like to thank its founder, Jane Glenn Haas, who is also a columnist for the Orange County Register, and urge you to visit the womansage Website.

category_bug_journal2.gif I've been trying to write this entry for weeks, but every time I try, I forget what I wanted to say...bada boom.

After about age 50, “they” tell us, memory becomes an issue. It is fraught with fear because Alzheimer’s disease gets a lot of publicity so every time reading glasses are misplaced, worries sneak in about whether this is the beginning of the end of one's mind.

That’s no small concern. Although some studies show that one-third of people in their mid-eighties will develop Alzheimer’s, most minor memory lapses are not Alzheimer’s. As Linda Hurst, writing in the Toronto Star explains:

“It’s called ‘benign senescent forgetfulfulness’ or AAMI, age-associated memory impairment, and it is not, like Alzheimer’s, a disease that kills brain cells. It’s merely a consequence of aging. It happens in varying degrees, to everyone.”

      - Toronto Star, 31 July 2004

Forget the fancy names - they’re too hard to remember and anyway, the important question is, does it really affect everyone? Do we know that?

“The 10-year UC School of Medicine study of almost 6,000 seniors, age 70 and older, found that 70 percent had no significant loss of mental skills over that time. Those who lost mental ability had cardiovascular disease, diabetes or a gene associated with Alzheimer's disease.”

      -, 9 July 1999

“When we are stressed and upset we naturally become more forgetful because we become more distracted. However as we start to get older we tend to blame this forgetfulness on age. The truth is that we do not actually lose our short term memory until the 8th or 9th decade of life, the 80's to 90's. Long term memory remains relatively intact throughout our life and does not begin to show signs of loss until even later in our lives.”

      -, 2002

So it appears that we do not know if every older person is affected by memory loss. Perhaps it’s a myth perpetrated by a culture that wants to sideline older people from the mainstream. If society as a whole buys into the notion that old folks and memory loss go together, it makes ageism and age discrimination and bad jokes about old folks’ inability to keep up easier to justify.

I can’t remember when I didn’t have a poor memory, but when you’re young and forget where you put the keys, no one thinks your mind is heading south. At any age, don’t you hate it when you go into the kitchen and can’t remember why? When you walk to the corner deli thinking you can manage three items without a list and can only recall two – until you get home and have already taken off your shoes?

A smart young woman just out of graduate school with a shiny new degree in history asked me once, Which came first, Ronni, the Civil War or World War I?

No matter what the so-called experts tell us, it has never been only older folks who have memory lapses. Because we expect old people, from decades of insulting cultural references, to have poor memories, no one that I can find has compared the frequency of younger folks's forgetfulness with older folks'.

Lynda Hurst, in that Toronto Star piece, reports that a memory pill – "memory Viagra" - is on the way in a decade or so and in her due diligence, has collected a usual suspects list of supposed ethical considerations:

“If your memory is unimpaired, the drug may make you remember inappropriately.”
“People who want a magic pill are idiots.”
“It would also benefit society because it would increase people’s productivity in later life.”
“It would be like steroids and athletes. You couldn’t stop it without constant policing.”

Limited Phase II testing of one memory drug is still a year off with a Phase III, human testing, date not yet set, so memory Viagra is still a long way off. Long enough and untried enough that there is simply not enough information for any of those statements to make sense. I'm withholding my judgment until we have some usable data about the drug.

In the meantime, how about we replace age discrimination and bad jokes with a little help for all of us of every age?

Being memory-impaired since childhood, I started young devising numerous ways to avoid the irritation and outright foul temper misplaced items and forgotten errands can set off in me.

There has been a hook near the front door for so long that I don't remember hanging up keys when I come in, but I always do. Scissors go back to their appointed place when I’m done. It’s second nature now; I don’t even think about it. I gave up a cleaning lady years ago because she stored kitchen equipment in new places every week and I could never find the granny fork or the pot lid I was looking for.

On the other hand, I’m 63 and still haven’t decided where to keep rubber bands so when I see one on the floor, I leave it there until I need it. Oddly, I never have trouble recalling where the last one I saw is.

I have always kept running lists and sometimes I wonder if my memory wouldn’t be better if I gave it more practice by not keeping lists. But then I’d go to the store and forget half the things I need and because doing anything twice unnecessarily makes me irritable, it is an experiment that will not happen in my lifetime.

Besides, there is a special quality to lists beyond their purpose as reminders. Anyone who is not a list maker cannot know the sublime pleasure of checking off finished items. Maybe my memory is fine and I just like that check-off ritual too much.

Now if I could only find today's list...