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Sandwich Generation

Depending on which statistics you read, either 10 million or 20 million families are raising children and caring for an aging parent or two. The catchy name for this group – sandwich generation – has already morphed into “generation sand” and “sandgen.”

It is always defined negatively as being a burden and a struggle, “caught between competing demands on your time.”

“...a constant series of no-win choices like: 'Do I go to my kid’s ballgame, or do I go and make sure Dad eats his dinner?'”
The New York Times, 11 August 2008
“Most feel stretched thin at best and are often left wondering how they can help alleviate the growing burden of caring for their parents.”
Senior Journal, 2 March 2009
“Many of these couples face major stress in their finances, emotions, and relationships.” Marriage (no date)

There is an unmistakable poor-me quality to the sandwich generation. It would be nice if parents got old without needing help or at least had the grace to wait until the children are grown before succumbing to ailments of age. But events rarely move that conveniently.

Aside from the people wanting to "alleviate the growing burden of caring for their parents," whom I'd like to smack, I fail to see the problem. The kid won't be warped if you miss a ballgame now and then. Unless you sleep through life, stress is normal - stuff happens.

There was a time when multi-generational households were the norm. Half my friends, when I was growing up, had a grandparent or two living with them. Some were healthy and a few grandmothers ran the house while mothers worked. Others were sick and the kids were as much caregivers as the adults in the family. It wasn't uncommon for friends to tell me they couldn't go bike riding today because they had to stay with gramps while mom went shopping.

Of course, I was not privy to the strains on the families of my friends, but I knew those kids and I knew their parents and I hung out in their homes as they did in mine. They wore their cares lightly in those days, making the best of what life dealt them. Maybe it makes a difference that these parents of my friends were people who, like my parents, grew up during the Great Depression. Whatever the burdens, the post-War years were better.

I'm not saying it's easy to fold an older generation into one's family life whether caring for parents at home or dealing with their needs in assisted living or nursing communities. But in the period of my lifetime, we seem to have lost (if the public discussion of the sandwich generation is not just hype), the idea that families share the exigencies of life of which caring for one another when needed, at every age, is one.

The whining of the sandwich generation has so annoyed me when I run across it that I've given it a good deal of thought. It could be that, left to their own devices, families caring for aging parents would be fine with their circumstance. Instead (not unexpectedly in our over-analyzed era), an industry has grown up that repeatedly warns of the turmoil multi-generational families are experiencing which they cannot survive without professional help.

One way to make money is to invent an otherwise non-existent problem, give it a name everyone can remember and then cash in. There is now a good-sized service sector specializing in the sandwich generation - support groups, instant experts, psychologists, care managers and financial advisers prowling talk shows, holding conferences and seminars, writing magazine and newspaper stories.

Books invariably follow and Amazon has a range of them from Stuck in the Middle to Soul Food for the Sandwich Generation: Meditation Morsels for Caregivers. Can a reality TV show be far behind?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Carol Gardner tells us about dreaming of gray hair in Dome Light is On.]

Talking About Death

While I was setting up my new laptop over the weekend, wisewebwoman, who blogs at The Other Side of Sixty, left a nice note on my 2004 series about caring for my mother during the last months of her life in 1992.

It was then, and remains, the most profound experience of my life. I hadn't read the series in a couple of years so I spent time yesterday doing that, which accounts for the sudden soberness of today's post after three days of light-hearted golden oldies.

Death, no matter how many facelifts and Botox injections, comes to each of us. It is the central dilemma of human existence which, with variations determined by personal philosophy, religious belief and disposition, haunts most of us from the moment we are old enough to understand its finality.

In modern-day America, we avoid talking about that inevitability – at least, publicly – by ignoring it. Among the many methods for this are exalting youth as the gold standard of life; consigning our aged to retirement ghettos or, if ailing, to nursing institutions instead of home; and by sanitizing death.

People hardly ever die; they pass on. We've even given up on funeral directors (a mid-20th century euphemism for mortician or undertaker) who now call themselves grief counselors, as though the main character of the event is not the dead person.

We impose distance, too, when preparing wills, living wills and burial arrangements. There is so much paper full of legal language, you might as well be preparing a business contract and not for your own death.

As a result, there are few places and circumstances where we are allowed to speak openly about the stark reality of dying which, in my case, comes to mind more strongly in the years since I turned 60 or so, and it would be useful to hear how other people think about it. But try bringing it up with friends: What you will get is, “Oh, that's too morbid. Did you see Dancing with the Stars last night?”

And then they think you're weird; you can watch their faces change as they mentally withdraw from you.

Even when we get old and closer to the end of our lives, we are often cavalier about it. “I'm not afraid to die,” many say, “I'm afraid of a lingering death.” That's probably true - if you live long enough, you see some people suffer terribly as they die – but is that all there is to say?

Oblivion is what most of us fear. The loss of our individual self-awareness. It is hard (impossible?) to believe we just stop being which, I suppose, is what religions that offer an afterlife are for. That doesn't work for me. Although I am well beyond agnostic, I avoid labeling myself atheist because my lack of belief in a god (and afterlife) is different from rejection of it and also doesn't require railing against religion as in recent, popular books.

The comfort some naturalist sorts say they get from knowing they will return to the earth from whence we sprang bothers me because it doesn't account for having lived. During occasional dark nights of the soul, I wonder what the hell it's all for - all this experience and information I've gathered, collated and tried to understand during my many decades, along with that of everyone else's - if it disappears when we die.

Here is what I hang on to:

About ten years ago, talking with my friend Sandy as we walked down Bleecker Street in New York City, I gestured widely with my arms to make a point and took a step backward. Instead of pavement, there was the emptiness of an entrance to a store cellar - a large, square hole in the sidewalk. As I fell backward, I managed to brace myself against the building with one arm and could see below that it was a deep cellar with many, steep concrete steps. I would surely die as my body crashed to the floor.

Sandy caught my other arm and tried to pull, but she was wearing new, smooth-soled sandals that kept slipping so that she could get no purchase on the ground. My arm against the building was slipping too and in a span of no more than ten seconds, I went from blind, paralyzing fear (oh, shit, I'm going to die right now) to perfect calm and acceptance (it's okay, I can do this).

Then I deliberately let go of the wall to fall to my death.

But a miracle happened. (I don't believe a god is necessary for miracles.) Two strong hands caught me in the middle of my back and gently lowered me, unharmed except for a scraped elbow, to safety and continuing life.

What comes to mind now, when I ponder death, is the memory of that perfect calm and acceptance and I am counting on it to return when next I need it.

That doesn't mean I don't think there isn't a lot to say about death and dying, and I wish we talked about it more.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain'd and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

- The final lines of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claire Jean writes of Netti who is Yesterday's News - Not!]

An Interruption at Time Goes By – Day 3

category_bug_journal2.gif This is the third and final day of the TGB Interruption. Actually, the interruption is finished - for me, although not you. I'm back to my normal schedule today, but I'm writing this late on Sunday afternoon when I still wasn't.

So you're stuck with one more golden oldie. This was one of the most fun to write in all the time I've been blogging. It's not even embellished for effect. It is what really happened one day in September 2007. (The link at the end of this story does not lead it a golden oldie; it is a new posting at The Elder Storytelling Place.)

This tale of Ollie the cat begins in mid-2006, when he and his housemate, Ronni, moved from Greenwich Village to a new home in Portland, Maine.

The Maine apartment is much bigger than their New York City home – specifically, much longer with lots of room for a young cat to gallop from one end to the other (when he is not snoozing).


For an entire year, Ollie the cat lived inside this house and took pleasure, when windows were open, in ka-ka-ka-ing at the birds and squirrels who hang out on the electric lines in front of the house.


During that first year, Ronni did not allow Ollie on the deck because cats are known to get distracted while stalking birds and bees and butterflies. Who knows, he might forget himself and take a flying leap to the ground from the second-floor.


It was a distraction when Ronni, on a beautiful day, took lunch or dinner among her flowers and plants or read a book lying on the chaise longue, purchased just for that purpose, while Ollie screamed through the screen door demanding to join her. But Ronni has lived with cats all her life and knows their wandering ways. So Ollie was deprived of the one thing he wanted most – to be outdoors.


It wasn’t easy keeping Ollie in the house. Cats are born experts at whisking between human feet when they want to be somewhere they are not allowed. Especially when Ronni was carrying dirty clothes through the kitchen door and back hall to the laundry room or was hauling the big watering can to the deck, Ollie sometimes escaped, but not for long. Ronni is practiced at catching errant cats.


Still, it was annoying to Ronni to keep constant watch on Ollie when doors were opened and closed and she did feel sorry for the little fellow who desperately wanted to frolic in the fresh air and take in the heady aromas that only cats and dogs can smell. And so, when the snows had melted and spring arrived, Ronni relented.


At first, she stayed with Ollie when he played on the deck so she would be there to grab him if his interest in a bug took him too close to the edge. But humans – or, at least, Ronni – are more easily bored with bug stalking than cats and in time, Ollie was allowed on the deck alone.

In fact, when Ollie altered their morning routine by yelling to have the kitchen door opened before breakfast and even, sometimes, before sunrise, Ronni left all the doors open on good weather days so Ollie could come and go at his whim. And all was well - or close enough, if you don’t count regurgitated dead bugs on the rug.


When it wasn’t raining, Ollie spent most of his summer days on the deck chasing bugs or snoozing on his favorite outdoor chair. It was his habit to check in with Ronni at her desk a couple of times in the afternoon or, on hot, humid days, to loll around indoors stretched out on the cool porcelain of the bathtub. And on a few occasions, he slept overnight on the chaise. Ronni tried that once herself and understood the attraction on a cool summer night.


Ollie likes his evening meal at about 5:30PM, no exceptions, and if Ronni hasn’t filled his bowl by then, he tracks her down and taps her on the arm in a certain way that means, “Hey, it’s dinner time. You don’t expect me to eat those leftover crumbs from breakfast, do you?”

Several days ago, Ronni looked up from her laptop and realized it was an hour past Ollie’s dinner time. He had not reminded her and she had not seen him since early afternoon. Where could he be? She checked the deck. No Ollie.


Ronni called his name from the kitchen - he usually comes – but no Ollie. She checked behind the sofa…


No Ollie. She checked his cupboard hidey-hole…


No Ollie. She checked the guest room closet…


Still no Ollie. She looked under the bed. There were some lost cat toys, but…


…no cat. She hadn’t done laundry that day, but just in case, she checked the washer and dryer.


They were empty - of a cat, anyway. She checked behind Ollie’s favorite deck chair where gardening equipment is kept.


No Ollie. The cat was gone, gone, gone. How could that be? wondered Ronni. Then it struck her in all its horror - perhaps Ollie had fallen off the deck. You see, there is a six-inch lip of flooring beyond the fence of the deck. Ronni could never watch when Ollie patrolled out there.


Heart pounding, Ronni grabbed a flashlight – dusk was settling in – and ran downstairs to the small back yard. She looked behind every bush and flower and weed. With great relief, Ronni found no dead or injured cat. She looked up at her deck – it was a long way down.


Back upstairs and again on the deck, Ronni pondered this mystery of the disappearing cat and softly called his name. Was that a meow she heard? She called again. Yes, yes, it WAS a meow. But where was it coming from? The adjoining laundry room? No cat there.

Ronni called to Ollie again from the deck. There was no doubt this time; it was Ollie’s voice – coming from the yard.

Ronni raced downstairs to find Ollie peering out from under some plants behind the birdbath.


Even after several hours on the loose, Ollie wasn’t ready to come home and he nearly evaded Ronni's grasp. But cats forget sometimes that humans are bigger and stronger than they are.

He yowled as Ronni caught him by the tail, but what’s a little pain, thought Ronni, compared to being squashed beneath a car’s tire or torn apart by the rumscullion cats who prowl the yard at night. Nevertheless, he fought her all the way upstairs.

How did Ollie get to the yard? Did he fall by accident and just happen not to hurt himself? Did he forget where he was and leap after a bug? Or did he carefully calculate the distance and deliberately jump to the ground from the second floor?

We will never know. But two mornings after Ollie’s escape, Ronni woke to a dream image of him sailing off the deck with all the magnificent grace of feline gazelle.

And that is the tale of how Ollie the cat lost his outdoor deck privileges. Ronni is certain she lost a few weeks off the end of her life due to stress and fear.

When she recovered, she was angry with Ollie. So angry, in fact, she is publishing this formerly secret, inelegant photo of him in the chair where he will undoubtedly spend more time now that his outdoor privileges have been revoked.


[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, liloldme tells the true story of a Sentimental Goodbye.]

An Interruption at TGB – Day 2

category_bug_journal2.gif An explanation for this blog interruption can be found in yesterday's post.

First, I may need to take back my statement yesterday that the Eee pc is too hard to work on full time. Out of frustration with two-finger typing, I've gotten pretty good at touch-typing on it. Although I doubt I'll ever match the speed I have on a full-size keyboard, with some practice it's not so difficult. (For anyone who cares, the trick seems to be an extra light touch.)

Today's golden oldie dates from mid-2006, during my final days in New York City as I finished preparing to move to Maine. Actually, Crabby Old Lady wrote it. I hadn't read the story since it was published and found myself laughing out loud this time. I like Crabby a lot when she's in full-tilt, righteous boogie against the establishment.

I want to make clear before you read this that the title notwithstanding, I miss New York City and particularly my Greenwich Village neighborhood around Bedford Street every day. I'm not miserable in my new life, but New York will always feel like my real home.

However, on that particular day toward the end May 2006, maybe it was serendipity that a petty bureaucrat, in his mean-spirited officiousness, eased my overwhelming sadness at being forced to leave.

If Crabby Old Lady had any doubts left about her decision to leave New York City (not that she had a choice), they are gone.

Friday is the night on which recycling can be placed at the curb on Crabby’s block for pickup the following morning. The rules are complex. Paper in its own transparent bag; plastic, glass and metal go together in another. Certain kinds of plastic are not recyclable although which ones and how to tell the difference among them has long been a secret of the New York Sanitation Department.

Milk and juice cartons, which appear to Crabby to be plastic-coated paper, are included with the plastic, glass and metal, but not deli containers which contain no paper. Other trash is bagged together and cardboard boxes are to be broken down and tied or taped together. No one is ever certain they’ve done it all correctly and there are hefty fines for getting it wrong.

While packing all last week and ridding herself of old items she no longer needs, Crabby carefully separated her trash into their proper bags – or so she thought – and stacked them in a corner to await Friday evening. There were many bags, 15 or 20 of them, in addition to a small sofa, a couple of small tables, unmatched dinner plates she no longer wants and other assorted trash plus regular kitchen garbage.

Come Saturday morning, Crabby was off early to purchase various cleaning supplies, bathroom tissue, extra cat food and other necessities she’ll want immediately upon arrival in Maine (thank you Tabor of One Day at a Time for the reminder). She overbought in general, and how was Crabby to know how much laundry soap weighs – she’s dropped off her washing at the local laundromat for nearly 40 years.

As she trudged up her block lugging what felt as heavy and unwieldy as three nine-year-old boys, she spied a sanitation cop writing a ticket for some of the recycling bags still at the curb. At first, Crabby tried to be jokey about it: “Aw, come on,” she said with a grin. “Gimme a break. These are my last three days here. Can't you let it slide just once for old times' sake?”

The officer didn’t look up, didn’t smile. Intent on his grubby, little task, he kept writing in his book pad as he officiously informed Crabby that she had “broken the law. You can’t mix ceramic plates with glass and plastic".

“How was I to know that,” said Crabby. “I never threw out dishes before.”

“It’s the law,” said the nasty twit as he thrust the ticket toward her. Crabby, whose hands were obviously full of shopping bags, ignored it as she stalked off toward her door. “You are required to take the ticket,” he called after her.

Full-bore New York street attitude kicked in as Crabby stuck her key in the lock. “Stuff it where the sun don’t shine,” she spit at him over her shoulder and slammed the door behind her.

For a literal lifetime – since she was a little girl in Portland, Oregon - Crabby Old Lady has carried on a love affair with New York City. Moving here in 1969, was a long-time dream come true. Through all the inconveniences, expense, five home robberies and one mugging, her affection for the city never faltered. And now, an odious, little garbage Nazi has ruined Crabby's final days in her beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood.

Thanks, New York City, for such a pleasant send-off. Goodbye and good riddance.

An Interruption at TGB - Day 1

category_bug_journal2.gif You know, there are not only days you shouldn't get out of bed; sometimes there are whole weeks. This has been one of them. Being sick (I'm recovered now and thank you all for the get well wishes), a foot of snow from which to dig out my car while I was sick and then a mechanical computer malfunction so expensive to fix that it was smarter to buy a new laptop.

Which I have done. I had forgotten in the intervening years since the last purchase how much there is to do to get a new machine into usable shape:

  • configuring internet access, wireless network and router, etc.

  • downloading and installing security software

  • waiting interminably for Windows updates to install

  • downloading browsers, email program, financial software, other necessary programs

  • installing said programs and software

  • transferring data from the old computer needed for those programs to function the way I want

  • eventually transferring all document and image files

  • redoing about half of the above when glitches arise or I screw up

I'm nowhere near finished which is why there is no Elder News today and will be no Elder Music tomorrow and who knows what Monday will bring. I've been functioning on my Eee pc which is not ideal. I love it for the mobility around the house and away from home when I am willing to do two-finger typing. But for full-time, all-day use – it's too hard to work this way.

So now that you've indulged my public whine-and-whimper, here's a golden oldie you might like. There will be another on Sunday and maybe on Monday. New posts at The Elder Storytelling Place may also be delayed next week.

Some people think I’m Shirley MacLaine. Well, not lately, but there was a time – a period of several years in the 1980s and 1990s - when I was regularly approached for autographs and no amount of denial on my part would convince people – mostly tourists - that I wasn’t Ms. MacLaine.

It happened frequently enough that I’d sometimes stare at myself in the bathroom mirror, turning my head this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of what others saw. Maybe it was something similar in the set of our jaws or the shape of our eyes. Or a mannerism I am unaware of. I couldn’t be sure, but a lot of other people had no doubt.

There is a certain kind of woman they seem to breed only in Queens, New York. They dress in bright, bold colors – all worn together in the same outfit - and they have that accent (think Fran Drescher in The Nanny). You can see – and definitely hear – them coming for ten city blocks. Invariably, they are brash, loud, smart as whips and devastatingly funny.

I had a friend like that in the mid-1990s. Carol and I worked together in midtown Manhattan and on one cold, winter day, we avoided the nasty weather by making our way underground through the labyrinth of shops below Rockefeller Center toward a favorite restaurant.

Wading through knots of noontime tourists consulting their maps as we turned a corner, I saw a woman eying me in a way I had come to know well; I was about to be accosted for an autograph.

Sure enough. With her friends in tow, she rushed over, grabbed my arm and gushed: “I am your biggest fan ever. I’ve seen every movie you ever made. You…”

I interrupted. “I know you think I’m Shirley MacLaine, but I’m not.”

“Don’t you try to fool me, Shirley,” said the woman wagging her finger. “I’m your biggest fan and I know Shirley MacLaine when I see her.”

Now a crowd was gathering as the name Shirley MacLaine was passed from one to another and people dug in their bags and pockets for paper and pen.

“Please, ma’am,” I said. “You’re mistaken. I’m not Shirley MacLaine. I just happen to look a little like her. But I’m not her…”

The woman, quite firm about it, continued to insist that I was Shirley MacLaine and nothing I said could dissuade her.

As I tried to resist taking her notepad and pen for the autograph she wanted, Carol elbowed me and in her loudest, Queens whine said, “Oh, Shirley, just sign the autograph. We’re going to be late.”

Of course, Carol was right - a perfect solution I'd been too thick to think up for myself. I signed Shirley MacLaine's name, leaving the woman happy in her belief that she had met a movie star while visiting New York City and freeing Carol and me to get on with our lunch.

From that day forward, taking my cue from Carol of Queens’ sharp elbow and sharper wit, I signed autographs as graciously as I could when asked (until I apparently stopped looking like Ms. MacLaine a few years later) and hoped, should she ever find out, that she wouldn’t mind.

Conflicting Medical Advice

category_bug_journal2.gif Here is my belief about the health of our bodies: given reasonably good care – eating well and some moderate amount of exercise – a body should toot along without too many interruptions until time to depart this world.

Of course, I know that’s nonsense. Otherwise healthy people get all kinds of horrible diseases, conditions and illnesses every day. But I still think it should be that way and although I’m moderately interested in health discoveries from medical researchers, there are so many contradictions contained in them that it seems counterproductive to pay undue attention. I’m sure there must be a study somewhere that proves carrots will kill us.

So, I read the announcements with a degree of interest and then go on my way generally unheeding of their advice.

However, we are all different and a few days ago, I received an email from TGB reader, Linda Sandler, who wrote:

“This morning’s newspaper brought news of medical research that caused me to be both frustrated and anxious (with the anxiety winning out). Namely, the new finding that one glass of wine a day is correlated with a significant increase of breast cancer in women…Of course, I’ll stop immediately, but I can’t seem to get the new facts out of my mind.”

Linda is referring to the Million Woman Study in Britain, the size and length of which – 1.28 million women aged 50 to 64 over about 12 years – is the largest ever to examine alcohol and cancer in women:

“...just one glass of chardonnay, a single beer or any other type of alcoholic drink per day increases the risk of a variety of cancers…

“Even among women who consumed as little as 10 grams of alcohol a day on average - the equivalent of about one drink - the risk for cancer of the breast, liver and rectum was elevated, the researchers found.”
- The Washington Post, 25 February 2009

It wasn’t so long ago we were told that red wine is good for us. And five days after the Million Woman Study was reported, WebMD published a story about the results of some other research showing that moderate wine drinking may help prevent a specific cancer:

“…findings from three newly published studies suggest that drinking wine in moderation may help protect against esophageal adenocarcinoma or a precancerous condition, Barrett's esophagus.”

You see the difficulty I have in giving much credence to differing health studies – there is no way to sort out what to do. It reminds me of the hysterical warnings about marijuana during the 1960s – that using it leads to hard drugs like heroin. I was amused when NORML (National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws) pointed out that all heroin users also drank milk as babies, but no one was advocating banning milk.

Nonetheless, I concede that my breezy attitude toward health (which will undoubtedly sink me in the end since everyone in my family dies of one or another kind of cancer) is not necessarily held by others and Linda Sandler’s anxiety is to be taken seriously. Here is what else she said in her note:

”I’m wondering how other elder women deal with this type of contradictory medical advice, or if this is my personal and private angst. It seems that as I get older I feel more and more vulnerable to the vagaries and randomness of major illness.”

I am curious too not only about how you deal with confusing medical information, but if you have greater or lesser concern about your health as you’ve gotten older. And not just women. I think men reading this would also have some useful things to say.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Alan Ginocchio has a rueful observation on Another Top 10 Senior Moment.]


EDITORIAL NOTE: Virginia DeBolt (bio) writes the bi-weekly Elder Geek column for Time Goes By in which she takes the mystery out of techie things all bloggers and internet users need to know to simplify computer use. She has written several books on technology and keeps two blogs herself, Web Teacher and First 50 Words.

Twitter bears a resemblance to instant messaging and email, but it is also quite different. They've begun talking about Twitter on the evening news, so I guess it's gone mainstream. Here's a little primer on what it's all about.

The Basic Facts
Twitter is a communication tool. You are restricted to only 140 characters per Tweet (messages are called Tweets). Anyone can read your tweets, which is very different from email and instant messaging.

There is a way to communicate one-on-one with Twitter, but most tweets are sent out to the whole world. Normally, however, you don't want to read Tweets from everyone in the whole world.

You select who you will read, or "follow" on Twitter. You follow people you know or who share your interests, or whose daily lives matter to you. To follow someone, you find them on Twitter. To find me on Twitter, go to and click the button that says "Follow." Every person who signs up with Twitter has a URL like mine, where you can see who they are and decide whether to follow them. Ronni is

Twitter can be used in a browser, or on your phone, or using small applications that you install on your desktop. Two popular desktop apps are Tweetdeck and Twhirl. This image is a half-size version of what I see on my desktop using Twhirl.


You can ignore Twitter or watch it, using browser, phone or desktop application. If someone sends a message they want you to see, that's called an "at" message. If you start a tweet with @vdebolt, I'll get alerted that you are talking to me. I'm under no obligation to reply. Everyone on Twitter can see this message. You can tweet someone with a "direct" message. If you start a tweet with d vdebolt, it will come directly to me and no one else will see it.

So, What's the Big Deal?
Essentially, Twitter is just another way to satisfy the human urge to communicate. To connect. To micro-blog. To keep up with a few good friends.

But Twitter has characteristics that make it different and useful in a number of ways. Sure, you can learn that you grandkid is home from school with a cold today, but you can go far beyond that. You can go to the world, the whole world.

One important fact I mentioned is that you can see anyone's Tweets. Normally, you don't. But sometimes something extraordinary happens or a large number of people are all sharing an event. When this comes up, a special tag called a hash tag is created. Anyone who Tweets about that topic includes the appropriate hash tag in their tweet and it can be searched for using the Twitter search or at

In recent memory, there was a hashtag used for all the Tweets about the plane that landed in the Hudson River. The news about the crash was on Twitter (along with photos) in seconds after the event, and throughout the rescue. Anyone who searched on the hashtag could follow what was happening. In situations like this, you can really see the value of being able to read everyone's tweets. Most of the time, you don't want to, but sometimes it becomes crucial.

I sometimes use and search for the Tweets using the hashtag #abq. I live in Albuquerque, and I like to see if anything is going on I want to know about. This is one way to find out.

Okay, so maybe you are not impressed with knowing things about Albuquerque. But what if it was about hurricane or a power outage in your town or a blizzard or a plane crash or a flyash spill up the river from your neighborhood? Would being able to search using hashtags make sense to you then?

You don't even have to be signed up with Twitter to follow things that are Tweeted with hashtags. Just go to and see what's popular or search for a hashtag you're interested in.

It's the Support
Many businesses are on Twitter. They have names like @Dell or @TheHomeDepot. You can send them messages and actually get a response and conduct a conversation about your concerns. I now have a very close relationship with the local Comcast guy who is @comcastscott on Twitter. (That's if you want to follow him.) He listens, he follows through, he makes sure I'm happy with Comcast.

No, It's the Tracking
You can watch Twitter for a mention of anything such as the name of a book you wrote, a topic you care about, a movie you are thinking about going to see and so forth. Browse the search results to read what others are saying about it. You don't need hashtags for this. Just search for a word or words. You might search for Slumdog Millionaire. Or like Scott, from Comcast, you might search for the word Comcast.

In fact, businesses who ignore what is being said about them on Twitter do so at their own peril these days. A fast, caring response to a complaint can ward off a firestorm.

Really, It's the Connection
Like blogging, Tweeting gives you connections. It gives you access to people you may never know in real life, but can enjoy greatly as internet friends. In my daily life I work at my computer, I may go visit a neighbor, my son and granddaughter may visit for dinner, I may go to Tai Chi class, maybe I have a book club meeting. How many people is that I see: 15? 20? How many people do you see a day in real life? But I can share a laugh, a bit of news, or an interesting photo or web link with people from everywhere through Twitter.

But Wait, There's More
I've written about Twitter in a number of other places. On BlogHer: The Audience is Tweeting and Twitter: Ad Infinitum. On Web Teacher: Twitter in Education.

If you'd like to watch Evan Williams, the creator of Twitter, talking about Twitter's growth and uses, here's a video: Talks Evan Williams: How Twitter's spectacular growth is being driven by unexpected uses.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenton “Sandy” Dickson has some important things to say about Hope.]

Post for a Sick Day

[EDITORIAL NOTE 1: Peter Tibbles of Melbourne has sent his photo for Where Elders Blog. You can see it here.]

category_bug_journal2.gif [EDITORIAL NOTE 2: Some kind of flu or bug or whatever hit me late Sunday with chills and a temperature. I doubt it will kill me, but I’ve been sleeping a lot for a couple of days, hence a prefab post today. My friend, John Brandt, who got it from someone else, sent this and you may well have seen it. I hadn’t and I have no idea if any of it is true, but if you love words and language, you’ll enjoy it anyway, as I have.]

THE 1500s
The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children bathed. Last of all the babies. By then, the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Houses had thatched roofs - thick straw piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying, it's raining cats and dogs.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, dirt poor.

The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway. Hence the invention of the threshold.

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top or, the upper crust.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme, peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.

Sometimes they could obtain pork which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, leading to lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.

England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins, take the bones to a bone-house and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive.

So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night. Hence, the graveyard shift to listen for the bell. And thus, someone could be saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calabria asks, Can I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life?


[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

Category_bug_reflections The 200th birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12 reminded me of one of the reasons my business, journalism, is failing us and itself. I call it “on-the-other-handism,” the stupid idea that there are two sides to every story. More often, there are many sides. And sometimes there is only one side. But because too many traditional reporters still worship the gods of objectivity and impartiality, they’re failing to tell the truth.

For example, there is no other side to the discovery by the 16th century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round as the Catholic Church held at time and for 300 years.

But the objective and entirely impartial journalist would write, “Mr. Copernicus, who is a Pole, contends that the earth revolves about the sun but the Pope, who is infallible in such matters, says that’s not true; the earth is the center of the universe. The Pontiff said of Copernicus, ‘It’s only a theory.’”

I believe this sort of journalism is at least one reason why, according to a Pew poll, 63 percent of Americans living in the 21st Century, reject Mr. Darwin’s idea that all life on this planet evolved over millions of years. I would guess that’s a greater percentage of such ignorance than in any other civilized country. Most of these Americans would say, along with the Pope, that it’s only a theory, because the impartial press has faithfully reported both sides and thus told us a lie.

When I worked in Detroit researching a story on extremism, I spoke with a leader of the secretive, right wing John Birch Society, who was going on about the anti-religious secularism he believed was at the heart of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “Relativism means there are no absolutes, like God, he said. “Relativity is only a theory.”

I replied, “But the bomb worked.” I wrote that and it helped ridicule the John Birch Society to death in Detroit.

(My friend Warren Kornberg, former editor of Mosaic, a scholarly journal published by the National Science Foundation, offers this: “A theory, in science is not just a hunch waiting to be proved; it’s the most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from a mass of evidence so convincing as to lead to no other synthesis.”)

I have no quarrel with those who choose to reject science for faith or who believe in a religious explanation for their place in the world. Most Americans believe in a literal heaven, which is their right. But as a reporter, I object when they seek to impose on me or my children what I know to be demonstrably untrue; our glorious Grand Canyon is not 4,000 years old and men did not live with dinosaurs, except on The Flintstones.

The point is that journalism, which has the tools of science and reason and investigation, is supposed to challenge ignorance, not perpetuate it. And its job is to question conventional wisdom before accepting it.

Too often, however, my colleagues have not done their job. And part of the reason is “on-the-other-handism.” I think it was New York Times economics columnist, Paul Krugman, in commenting on why the previous administration got away with so many lies that led to war, suggested that too many straight reporters felt compelled to give both sides, as in: “The administration says Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, but liberal critics say otherwise.” Or, “Scientists say the earth is round, but administration sources say they have evidence that it’s flat.”

Don’t laugh. Writing both or many sides of the story, when good reporting and your instincts tell you that one side is wrong, is what got us and keeps us into two wars. Theodore Roosevelt, who invented the term “muckrakers,” once suggested there is no middle ground between one side that says the grass is green and another that says it’s red.

But we continue to see this conventional journalism when Washington reporters give equal credibility to the arguments of Republicans who got into us into this mess, that government shouldn’t spend money in times of need, despite evidence to the contrary from most economists, including a couple of Nobel winners like Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

It’s as if reporters decide there’s no right side. (This fetish for on-the-other-handism translates to a fetish for applauding bipartisanship as a virtue and partisanship as an evil, as if one can always split the difference to find truth.)

But as Robert Fisk, the fine Middle East reporter for the UK Guardian writes, there’s more than bad journalism at stake when reporters “prefer impartiality over morality.” And it wasn’t always so, he said, recalling the coverage of World War II by reporters like Ed Murrow and Rebecca West. Was there another side at Nuremberg?

Fisk, who was in Lebanon when Israel invaded a sovereign nation to attack Hezbollah and destroyed much of Beirut, did not equally and impartially tell both sides of that story. His stories reflected the horror and immorality of the violence of war. Only when reporters began to tell us the reality of the Vietnam War did we begin to get out. Some day perhaps the world will be equally outraged, if American reporters summoned the courage to tell us what really happened in Gaza when Israel used horror weapons on children.

Today, a few of the best reporters, like Dana Priest of The Washington Post, and Seymour Hersh, of the New Yorker, have dug into how America has fought the so-called “war on terror” and uncovered such outrages as extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites and Abu Ghraib. If newspapers are failing, it’s partly because they telling both sides while a few reporters, bloggers and satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are finding ways to tell truth.

Recalling the writing of great war correspondents of the past, Fisk wrote, “These reporters were spurred, weren’t they, by the immorality of war. They cared. They were not frightened of damaging their ‘impartiality.’ I wonder if we still write like this.”

Not if we continue to report, as I heard just the other day on CBS’s Sunday Morning, that on the other hand, some say Darwin was wrong. My science journalist friend, Warren Kornberg, reminds me of Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, who says at last, “On the other hand…No! There is no other hand!”

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson explains how A Coincidence came about.]

On Economic Fairness

Crabby Old Lady swore off writing about politics after the November election. Her intense involvement with the campaign for many months bordered on addiction and she is happy to report that her recovery is going well. Her political interest now, she believes, falls into the normal range for a reasonably well-informed citizen.

However, she’s gotten all bothered over two items in particular: taxes and mortgages.

Although it is amusing to watch Republicans squealing like pigs now that President Obama’s campaign proposals are making their way toward realization, some misinformation needs correcting.

The GOP objection to the president’s proposed tax increases for top income brackets is the same old, same old: “You can’t do that. Those are the people who create jobs,” they screech in print and on television.

That, of course, is a disingenuous argument (otherwise known as a lie). Holding down the top tax rate is just “trickle-down economics” from the Reagan administration, sometimes called “supply-side economics” and it never worked.

Instead of investing their extra money in businesses, the rich people and corporations kept the money from their tax cuts for themselves all these years and did not create any jobs. In fact, they shipped as many as they could overseas to countries where they could pay workers substantially less than in the U.S. This also kept down salaries for the jobs that remained. Adjusting for inflation, the average American worker hasn’t had a raise in more than a decade.

While watching the Republican moneybags shriek at the proposition of actually paying their fair share, Crabby vaguely recalled that in her youth the top tax bracket was about 93 percent. A quick check of historical rates here proved that she wasn’t far off. From 1951 through 1963, through all of Crabby’s teen years and a bit beyond, the rate for highest earners was 91 percent. Beginning in 1964, it was lowered to about 70 to 75 percent.

The rate remained around 70 percent until Ronald Reagan was elected when the rate was dropped to 28 percent for awhile. George H.W. Bush raised it to 31 percent and Clinton increased it to 39 percent. Then George W. Bush got the rate down to 35 percent in 2003, where it has remained.

The rich have been making out like bandits for half a century on the backs of working stiffs. No one is asking them to pay 91 percent and a few more percentage points isn’t going to change the lives of the rich and famous much, but it will help a bit to offset needed spending.

As President Obama has mentioned and any thinking person knows on their own, we all need to make sacrifices now, and the rich cannot be exempt.

Now regarding mortgages that are higher these days than the value of the homes. It has become conventional wisdom, repeated by reporters and pundits in newspapers and on television news every day, that the federal government, i.e. taxpayers, should not be bailing out people, as President Obama proposes, who bought beyond their means.

Huh? Crabby could be wrong, but she is under the impression that these borrowers were not taking loans from the neighborhood shark. They went to banks which require many long forms to be filled out. They supplied copies of tax returns and W-4s and anything else loan officers asked for. The banks, presumably, read all this paper, checked employment and credit history, and ordered up appraisals of the purchases in question. It’s what banks do. Or should do and they did not.

If Joe Blow earns $50,000 a year and applies for a loan to buy a $1 million house, who is at fault when the bank approves the loan? Crabby could argue that Joe shouldn’t have been idiot enough to count on winning the lottery to make the balloon payment in 10 years. Even so, the banks approved the loans. So who is the idiot?

However, most people in mortgage trouble are not Joe Blow. They did not buy McMansions. And it is Crabby’s contention that it is the bankers who, in their greed, stupidly handed out loans that they knew could not possibly be paid in the long term.

As we all know now, doing so is what set off the collapse of the economy which has left responsible borrowers with homes they cannot afford to sell (even if there were any buyers) because the houses are worth less than the mortgages.

Bankers are still flying to congressional hearings in private jets. Crabby doesn’t want to hear any more “conventional wisdom” that responsible borrowers shouldn’t get some small amount of help.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran has a few words about the November election in A New Day – New Hopes.]

ELDER MUSIC: Railroad Songs

category_bug_eldermusic I come from a railroad family. My grandfather was a brakeman, my parents met when they both worked for the SP&S (Spokane, Portland and Seattle) Railroad in the late 1930s, which is where my great Aunt Edith also worked during the Depression and World War II.

Behind the house I lived in toward the end of the War, was a well-traveled railroad track - I suppose I lived, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. I don’t recall that the noise bothered me and I liked to watch the freight trains roll by several times a day. I was especially fascinated with the cowcatcher on the front of the engine – or maybe I just liked the word. Caboose was another favorite word then (I was about three or four) and it’s still fun to say. This is Red Foley with a terrific version of Freight Train Boogie. [1:38 minutes]

One of the music playlists I keep is train songs. There are hundreds of them in just about all styles of music and I’ve found I can organize them into subgroups. Today, the focus is on some of the early songs about the hardworking men who built the railroads 150 years ago and drove the hulking iron horses, sometimes to their deaths.

My dad taught me I’ve Been Working on the Railroad when I was a kid. The song appears to be a favorite of barbershop quartets, so here is a group called Tilt from 2006. [1:50 minutes]

Once upon a time passenger trains were given lovely romantic names. As a kid, I regularly rode one between Portland, Oregon and San Francisco called the Shasta Daylight. There were also, among others, the Denver Zephyr, the Meadowlark, the Owl and the Orange Blossom Special, a deluxe train that ran between New York and Miami from 1925 until 1953. Here’s Chet Atkins in a terrific, live performance. [3:52 minutes]

Some railroad songs are also story songs and one of the most famous is about poor, ol’ John Henry who "died with a hammer in his hand." This, from Bruce Springsteen in a live concert in England broadcast on the BBC, will wake you up on a lazy Sunday. [7:31 minutes]

I can’t very well showcase the fictional legend John Henry and leave out the real-life Casey Jones, a railroad engineer who died trying to prevent a wreck. There are dozens of versions of the lyric – apparently, just about every singer feels free to embellish. This one, by Johnny Cash, segues into part of The Wreck of the Old '97 and ends with a line or two of Railroad Man. [2:43 minutes]

Here is the entire Wreck of the Old ‘97 which happened in Danville, Virginia in 1903. This is Boxcar Willie and the video has some fascinating photos of old-time train wrecks, not necessarily Old '97. [2:29 minutes]

Many passenger trains have been named for one or more of the cities they traveled through: the Chicago Limited, the Kansas City Mule, the New Yorker, the Salt City Express, the Spirit of St. Louis and, of course, The City of New Orleans which ran between Chicago and the Big Easy for many years. A lot of singers do this song proud, but I like Willie Nelson’s a lot. [4:45 minutes]

There are many good versions of Rock Island Line. This is Lonnie Donegan from the 1950s. I don’t care much for the home-made video, but the music is good. There are those who believe the “pig iron” in the song is a reference to smuggling slaves to freedom. [2:27 minutes]