959 posts categorized "Culture"

Old People, Fraud and the 2020 Census

Not long ago, I mentioned here that although more young people (age 20 to 29) are victims of fraud, older people (50 and older) lose larger amounts of money to fraud, according to an AARP survey.

Now, it seems, the upcoming U.S. Census will be a big opportunity for fraudsters.

The survey, titled The Impostors: Stealing Money, Damaging Lives, focused in part on government imposters who pretend to be from the Census Bureau, Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service or other agency types of scams.

According to the AARP survey, 77 percent of U.S. adults are not familiar with Census scams which, of course, would make them more vulnerable to one. The upcoming Census – as with any public event – is expected to “substantially” raise the number of scams.

First, here is the official Census schedule – what you can expect and when:

March 12 – 20
Households begin received a snailmail notification from the Census Bureau with instructions on how to respond to the 2020 Census via snailmail, telephone or online.

March 30 – April 1
During these three days, the Census Bureau will count homeless people.

April 1
This is Census Day, observed nationwide, by which date every home in the U.S. will have received their Census form. When you respond, tell the Census Bureau where you live on April 1.

The Month of April
Census takers will begin visiting college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers, and others who live among large groups of people.

May – July
Census takers will visit homes that haven't responded to the 2020 Census to help make sure everyone is counted.

Now take a look at this short video on five ways to avoid Census scams:

Here are some warning signs that someone is a scammer:

You get an unsolicited email purporting to be from the Census Bureau. For household surveys and the decennial Census, the agency almost always makes contact by snailmail.

A supposed census agent asks you for money or financial data, such as the number of and amount in your bank account.

A supposed census taker threatens you with arrest. Taking part in the Census is required by law, and you can be fined for not doing so, but you can’t be imprisoned.

Here are other important do's and don'ts.

DO check the URL of any supposed Census website. Make sure it has a census.gov domain and is encrypted — look for https:// or a lock symbol in the browser window.

DO NOT give your Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, or bank or credit card numbers to someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau. Genuine Census representatives will not ask for this information.

DO NOT reply, click links or open attachments in a suspicious census email. Forward the message to ois.fraud.reporting@census.gov.

DO NOT trust caller ID — scammers can use “spoofing” tools to make it appear they’re calling from a real Census Bureau number. Call the National Processing Center at 800-523-3205, 800-642-0469 or 800-877-8339 (TDD/TTY) to verify that a phone survey is legitimate.

If you keep all this mind you should be safe from scams and scammers. Here are links to further information:

The U.S. Census 2020 Website

AARP Census Scams

Key Findings from the AARP Survey

Have you or someone you know been scammed? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

Successful Aging

DONATION WEEK IS DONE – aren't you glad about that – and I thank each and every one of you for your generous support.

Quite a few of you included nice messages with your donations and I had intended to answer each one. But there are just too many and not enough time. I hope you understand.

Thank you all, you are the best.

* * *

The phrase in that headline always sets my teeth on edge. As popular as it is in newspaper, magazine and online headers, and particularly as a book title (I stopped counting at Amazon when I got to 24), it always makes me wonder this: Successful as opposed to what? Unsuccessful aging? Failed aging?

A percentage of old and retired people live in poverty. Is that failed aging? A lot of old people refuse to acknowledge they are getting old. Does that fall on the success or the failure side of aging? And who sets the criteria?

I'm not even sure it's possible for anyone to fail at aging.

This is not new material to me but it came 'round again when a friend and TGB reader who uses the name doctafil to comment here emailed a link to the Montreal Gazette review of yet another book titled, Successful Aging.

The author, 62-year-old Daniel J. Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, musician and neuroscientist (hence the subtitle, “A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives”) believes current popular writing on old age has not kept up with the science:

“'Part of the societal narrative that I want to push back on,” he told the Gazette, “is that we tend to think of life as comprising these developmental stages — prenatal, infancy, toddlerhood, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and so on, and that after some point — 65, 70, whatever — it’s just decline,' Levitin said. 'And that’s not borne out by the research.

“'(Old age) is a distinct developmental stage,' he continues, 'and as with any other, there are pluses and minuses. So I wanted to write about what science had to say about the course of aging and what happens in the brain, from the womb right up to old age.'”

[STOP RIGHT HERE FOR A MOMENT: I'm not going to tell you what that science is because the review skips that part and I haven't read the book. If that seems unfair to you, I would agree. But the title and review became such a mental “ear worm” (as when you get a tune stuck in your head) that I decided to riff on it and see what happens.]

What the review does give us is a list of the usual suspects about how to grow old such as choose carefully where you live and be sure to get enough sleep:

”Older people tend to get less sleep,” says Levitin, “but they need eight or nine hours just like the rest of us. Many cases of Alzheimer’s are misdiagnosed cases of sleep deprivation.”

I didn't know that about Alzheimer's and sleep. However, a quick trip around the internet tells me that research shows lack of sleep MAY lead to dementia but it is a long way from being proved.

Not surprisingly, Levitin says that too much time online isn't good for a person's well-being and face-to-face conversation is important to help avoid loneliness, a problem for people who are more inclined to introspection and solitude than some others.

“You can’t just will yourself out of that,” Levitin says. “But for many adults, after a certain age neurochemical shifts cause them to be more outgoing.”

That may be true for some but Levitin makes a welcome point that I've not run across much from other writers on successful aging:

“...I would add a distinction that I maybe didn’t make enough of in the book — that loneliness and solitude are not the same. Some people enjoy solitude and don’t feel lonely; other people are lonely in a crowded room.

“Loneliness is the killer, not solitude.”

Ageism in general and in the workplace plays a role in Levitin's idea of successful aging:

“It’s a huge battle,” Levitin concurred. “Even within the neuroscience community it’s not talked about. When you think about all of the different isms or prejudices that face society, whether it’s sexism, racism, prejudice against LGBTQ people...all of these are far from solved, but at least they’re part of the national conversation. They’re on the table. Ageism is not.”

Most of this confirms my personal positions on these issues but it still doesn't explain what “successful aging” is which no one seems to have adequately defined.

Again, I am not critiquing the book – I haven't read it. But you would think I'd have gained a sense of what people who spend a lot of time writing an entire book mean by successful aging. And I don't.

That's what irritates me and undoubtedly caused my mental ear worm. If successful aging is going to be a “thing” for old people, as it has appeared to be for 15 or 20 years, it would be a good idea to know what the failure is that these writers want us to avoid.

Or is it just another way of saying saying, take good care of yourself?

Old folks get plenty of useful information about sleep, nutrition, loneliness, falls prevention, etc. from our physicians, AARP and dozens of other good resources. Until someone tells me how “successful aging“ books are different, I'm done with it (except I'm interested in what new things neuroscience has discovered about old brains).

What do you think?

Tender Love and Hair

This is day five of the 2020 TGB donation drive to help support the costs of maintaining Time Goes By. You can read the details on Monday's post.

It's lovely this week to see so many names that don't turn up in the comments as the donations arrive at Paypal – and the familiar names too.

But, whether you donate or not, nothing will change. TGB will always remain advertising-free with never a membership fee or paid firewall. If you would like to help support the work that goes on here, click the button below. If not, which is perfectly fine, scroll down for today's Valentine's Day post.

* * *

Remember when I was bald last year? I had lost my hair to chemo therapy and after I got over the shock, I rather liked having no hair. It saved a lot of time and effort and when it started growing back in, I shaved it a couple of times.

But eventually, I let it grow in and it had become a crazy mess so last Monday I had my first haircut in many months. I feel a whole lot better which is what a haircut should do for us. Keep that in mind.

I was early arriving at the salon so I settled down to peruse a hair industry trade magazine, Beauty Launchpad, where I found this lovely story suitable for Valentine's Day.

Joey Lane had become a certified nursing assistant during high school but moved on to become a hair dresser at a salon in the small town of Brunswick, Georgia where, he says, that high school nursing assistant training stuck with him.

After five years working in the salon, Joey

”...made the decision to combine my two passions...There are so many people who are underrepresented and forgotten about during what can be the scariest time in their lives, so I decided to do something about it.

“I felt the need to reach out to my local hospice facility, the Hospice of the Golden Isles, and that’s how Tender Love & Hair was born.”

Volunteering at local long-term care homes and hospice, Joey has found ways to adapt his hair dressing skills to a different clientele:

”One of the most genius kit items for me at hospice is no-rinse shampoo caps. I warm them up in the microwave, put them on the patient’s head, massage the cap and they’re good to go!

“Another go-to is my mini flat iron. It enables me to create that signature 'bump' on shorter hairstyles while minimizing the risk of burns for patients who may suddenly move during styling.”

But for Joey it's more than helping to keep patients' hair looking good.

”By far, the best part about what I do is interacting with the patients,” he says. “I hear their stories, and we become friends. Being able to bring them any bit of happiness, no matter how small, is a privilege and an honor.”

With his organization, Tender Love and Hair, Joey urges other hair dressers to volunteer their time too. He says it's easy to

”...reach out to your local hospice facility to inquire about volunteering, or donate to existing programs that help serve this population. You may go into a hospice facility expecting to change lives, but you’ll probably realize that you’ll be the one whose life is changed for the better.”

Joey's life has certainly changed as he is delving even deeper into his first passion, studying now for an RN degree. I don't have any doubt he'll be a terrific nurse.

Isn't that an excellent Valentine's Day story? There is more at the Beauty Launchpad website.



Maya Angelou – On Aging

In the five or six years before I started this blog 15 years ago, when I was doing my early research into aging, there were hardly any books about the subject. The few that existed were mostly academic tomes, popular instructions on how to appear younger and collections of jokes about how awful getting old is.

That changed at just about the exact moment the oldest baby boomer turned 65 in 2011. I don't mean the books necessarily got better. Only that the passage of those earliest boomers into elderhood begot a tsunami of books on ageing.

From that point forward, anyone who lived to be 60 or more, with or without discernible English language skills, wrote a book about growing old. (Near illiterates were, apparently, as ticked off about incessant disparagement of growing old as I was/am.)

No one writes about other ages of life while they are living them. Teenagers don't. Nor do young adults. And the only person I know who wrote about middle age was my late friend, Eda LeShan. It is titled The Wonderful Crisis of Middle Age, a book Eda approached from her professional perspective of family counselor.

Books about ageing – good, bad and mostly indifferent – now pour forth annually, so many that I no longer bother with them unless I can discern their relative value before reading.

I know. I miss some good ones but what's an old girl to do – there is only so much time.

Sometimes years later I catch up with a book I ignored when it was first published (I'll be telling you about one of those soon). Other times, I turn to shorter pieces which, depending on the writer, can be as knowing and wise as book-length thoughts occasionally are.

An important one came to mind over the past week or so.

It has been more than five years now since author, editor, college professor, truth-teller Maya Angelou died in 2014. Undoubtedly, I don't need to tell you how wise a woman she was and she found her way to writing about age now and then.

Her slim 2009 volume, Letter to My Daughter, is packed with her charm, insight and warmth including this:

"I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old.

“We carry accumulation of years in our bodies, and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are innocent and shy as magnolias."

Isn't that splendid: “our real selves, the children inside, are innocent and shy as magnolias."

She also said this:

”The most important thing I can tell you about aging is this: If you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it. Even if you're wrinkled.”

She sure did get a lot of good use out of magnolias.

Maya Angelou wrote an entire poem about being old and snippets from it have been bubbling up in my mind frequently enough that I had to track it down.

I posted it here when Ms. Angelou died and since there is nothing I can say about this extraordinary, inspiration of a woman that others have said well, here is the poem again, On Aging.

When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself.

Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me!
Hold! Stop your sympathy!
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I’ll do without it!

When my bones are stiff and aching,
And my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don’t bring me no rocking chair.

When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy
And every goodbye ain’t gone.

I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.

Merry Christmas, Everyone

And now for what has become a Time Goes By tradition, the eighth annual playback of Penelope Keith's marvelous reading – as Miss Cynthia Bracegirdle – of And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Tree: A Cautionary Tale for Christmas Showing That it is Better to Give than to Receive.

It was originally broadcast on the BBC (Radio 4) on 25 December 1977 – and is wickedly funny. From Soundcloud.

British Christmas Adverts – Part 2

(Part 1 is here.)

Following on from a week ago, today we have Part 2 of the 2019 British Christmas Adverts survey. It's not all of them, but a whole lot. Some are just okay and some are spectacularly good. All enjoyable.

In the videos below, the top line, in bold caps, is the title of the video. The second line is the name of the sponsor. Enjoy.


In our online shopping era, people need to be reminded about their local stores. There are 13 real-life shopkeepers in this advert including a bookseller, greengrocer, antique dealer and café owner.


To quote the YouTube page:

”150 years ago Sainsbury’s opened their first store and Christmas changed forever. Coincidence? Almost certainly - ho ho ho.”


Jack and Tilly spread Christmas magic around their town.


Witness the Flying Tra-peas, a guest appearance from bad guy Russell Sprout and of course, the star of the show - #KevinTheCarrot.


Many of the Christmas adverts are expensive extravaganzas. This low-budget video is just as heartwarming.


This is the company's first Christmas advert.


From the YouTube page.

”Very's Christmas advert tells the story of a community that comes together to give Sidney, a lonely man, a Christmas that he’ll never forget.”


This year, eBay promised no holiday promotions until November.

TK Maxx

The goal, they say, is to break the monotony of gifting.

That's it – all the British Christmas adverts I have. Oh, except for this one that I posted on it's own about three weeks ago. It's my favorite of the year – maybe the best reunion ever – and worth a second viewing. Or third. Or fourth.


Merry Christmas, everyone.

British Christmas Adverts – Part 1

In November and December each year, some of Great Britain's oldest and most well-known retail establishments spend gobs of money on Christmas commercials that can warm your heart, make you laugh and even, sometimes, force an unexpected tear or two from your eye.

In past holiday seasons, I have sometimes posted one of the adverts that caught my eye but this year I did a survey of all that are out there. Whew! A lot. Some are fantastic. Others are only so-so. But it's been fun checking them out.

There are so many that I'll share these with you in two batches – today and next Monday. This is not every British Christmas advert but it's a large enough number for me. In the videos below, the top line, in bold caps, is the title of the video. The second line is the name of the sponsor. Enjoy.

Hafod Hardware

Just to prove that you don't need to be a big, rich corporation to make a terrific holiday advert, here is one from the hardware store in the small town of Rhayader, Wales, population 2,000.

The little boy is Arthur Lewis Jones, age 2.

John Lewis and Partners and Waitrose and Partners

About a little girl and her friendship with an excitable young dragon who almost derails festivities with his fire-breathing excitement.

Parody of the Edgar/John Lewis video

I know – some people think we should leave politics out of the season but this is worth it. Some guy named Joe with a YouTube channel fashioned this video from the John Lewis dragon vid above.


Also titled All Mariah Carey Wants This Christmas, this is what happens behind the scenes when Mariah Carey and a Christmas elf discover the last bag of Walkers Pigs in Blankets.


A Tesco delivery driver takes an unexpected detour through time, embarking upon 100 years of Delivering Christmas in one magical night. Loaded with a van full of ‘food from the future,’ he might just make a few historic deliveries along the way.

Iceland Foods

Iceland Foods teamed up with the Disney film Frozen 2 for this advert. Three words: Perfect Christmas Dinner.

THE BOOK OF DREAMS (Extended Version)

Argos renames the catalogue ‘The Book of Dreams’ as a dad’s childhood dreams are awoken when he sees the drumkit his daughter has circled.

Disneyland Paris

How Disneyland in Paris came to be.

M & S Food

It's M&S Christmas Food – that's what they tell us. The M&S Food Christmas Market – where good food and festive fun collide to create a magical Christmas experience.

Sure Petcare

Once upon a time, in a happy, comfortable home, the Bell Family were preparing for Christmas. On Christmas Day, Mrs Bell left the house before dawn to go to her job as a nurse. Though she was sad to leave on such a special day, she knew that even in her absence she would still feel connected to her pets.

Part 2 of British Christmas Adverts is here.

The Limits of Longevity

”An American biotech company has launched clinical trials in Colombia to test a new therapy designed to reverse the aging process, and in turn, treat age-related diseases...” reports Live Science.

Here's the catch: it will cost you US$1 million to participate and you will need to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, where the trial is being conducted.

According to reports, the new treatment focuses on lengthening telomeres, structures found at the tips of chromosomes that become shorter after each cell division until they either stop dividing or perish.

The theory is that if telomeres are repaired, ageing will reverse. I can't prove this but I'm pretty sure the pertinent literature is littered with failed experiments based on that telomere theory – I certainly have read of several such studies over the years.

Announcements of new longevity treatments have been dropping into my inbox a couple of times a month for as long as I've been writing this blog (15 years), never to be heard from again. But this is the first time I know of that researchers are charging people money to participate in the clinical trial.

What intrigues me with every announcement of a possible longevity treatment is the unspoken assumption that lengthening human life beyond the ancient four-score-and-seven is always a good thing.

But is it really?

Let's play with that idea today. Something like how would life change without death looming or, at least, if an average life span extended to – oh, let's say 200 or 250 years.

My practical side always kicks in first: if people lived that long, where would we put everyone? We have already overpopulated our planet, perhaps beyond our ability to save ourselves. There are people in Hong Kong right now who make their homes in cubicles not much larger than a coffin.

Would ageing continue as it is now with our bodies slowly losing vitality as now or would good health necessarily need to be built in to treatment for increased longevity? (And does that put a monkey wrench in even the idea of life extension?)

If the trial mentioned above were successful, what would reversing the ageing process look like? Would a person treated for extended longevity look younger and younger by the day? How far back would people's ages reverse?

No one yet has come up with any way to extend human life. In fact, in the United States, life expectancy has been dropping in the past three years. So since this is fantasy today so go as wild as you like with predictions.

And let's not forget the cultural questions.

If life stretched out in front of us for two, three or more times the current life expectancy, would we still fall in love, have children, form families? Or would that become less important? Or...

How would work and its meaning change?

If you were the age you are now and knew that barring accident, you would have another 150 or more years, how would that affect your daily life? Your goals?

Does death give life meaning that it would not have if we could double or triple humans' current life span? How so?

Don't take this too seriously – have some fun with it today. Or, if you've got an extra million dollars lying around and you're thinking you might spend it in that clinical trial, let us know and be sure to send us updates from Cartagena.

Among Generations

It has been longer than it feels like to me since President Donald Trump announced he is pulling the United States out of the Paris Agreement on climate change – 1 June 2017 – proving yet again that he is dumber than I thought he was.

He followed through on that threat (yes, it is an actual threat to the survival of planet Earth) on Monday by sending paperwork to the United Nations that begins the year-long process of U.S. withdrawal from the Agreement.


As reported in the Washington Post, on Tuesday while speaking about the dire need for a stricter climate change policy, 25-year-old member of the New Zealand Parliament, Chlöe Swarbrick, reacted to a jeer about her youth with an insolent aside, “OK boomer,” before smoothly continuing her speech.

It comes so quickly at :16 seconds into this video that you can barely hear it:

Just this week, I've run into that epithet about a dozen times. As befits someone even older than the boomer generation, I am apparently way behind the curve on the slang term. In fact, as Molly Roberts writes in the Washington Post,

“OK, boomer” was fun and funny, so we said it about a million times on Twitter in the space of one day, and now it has become unfunny and lame.”

Before that happened, a conservative radio personality, Bob Lonsberry who at age 60 is a member of the Gen X generation, denounced the word “boomer” as “the n-word of ageism.”

A bit over the top, don't you think, and it misses the point but I still wondered what “OK, boomer” means. The WaPo's Molly Roberts tells us that young people use the phrase to mock their elders:

”The all-purpose reply is designed to disarm oldish people who dispense condescension dressed up as wisdom,” she writes.

“Your mom tells you that your peers’ phones are rotting their brains, and that they should spend some time outside mowing the lawn. 'OK, boomer.' “Your grandpa tells you that kids these days have lost all sense of civility because they yelled at Ellen DeGeneres for going to a football game with George W. Bush. 'OK, boomer.'

“Some random grump in your replies on Twitter tells you Greta Thunberg should go to school back in Sweden instead of gallivanting across the 50 states spreading the green gospel. 'OK, boomer.'”

To put a button on the definition, Ms. Roberts further tells us that that young people use the slogan

”...because they’re inheriting a collapsing climate, an unequal economy and endless battles overseas that they didn’t start. They’re saying a lot with very little, and by saying very little they end up saying even more.

“'OK, boomer' sends the message that the grown-ups have screwed up so totally, and are veering so speedily into irrelevance, that convincing them of anything is a waste of keyboard characters.”

So what they are saying, it seems, is that some young adults can be just as thick-headed and intolerant as some old people. (Thick-headedness is not a generation-specific trait.)

While I was tracking all this down, I recalled a video that's been around the internet in one form or another for a long time. I'm sure I must have posted before but it's relevant in a different way now:

Once again it is a matter of people - generations in this case - talking past one another when in reality they have everything in common on the subject of saving the planet. Old folks have a lifetime of experience and the young ones have the energy and stamina to do what is necessary.

Although “OK, Boomer” is clever and it may be effective (among the young people who understand its meaning) in raising awareness, it is also divisive at a time when we all need one another as never before in the history of Planet Earth.

The Alex and Ronni Show Plus Fear of Phone Conversations

In the summer of 2018, Brigid Delaney, writing in The Guardian complained that talking with a friend on the telephone was a “time suck” - too tedious to be bothered with.

Instead, we should all be using WhatsApp or texting, she says. When her phone rings,

”I feel such a wave of animus and fear that I am unsettled for the rest of the day. Usually I don’t answer it.”

Amimus? Fear? A couple of weeks ago, a different Guardian writer, Melanie Tait, at first confesses to a similar response:

”There are lots of things to panic about with a phone call,” she writes, “chief among them being: what if we run out of things to say, and there’s, God forbid, silence?

But Ms. Tait has now discovered the joys of phone chats and her goal is to explain their attraction and benefits to the likes of Ms. Delaney which apparently means most of the younger generation. Discussing a friend who calls her in the evening, Ms. Tait writes,

”We’ll spend a lot of these conversations trying to make each other laugh, but I’ve also noticed we’re both able to share a little more in this telephonic friendship than we do in real life (our real-life friendship also being a very robust one).

“The lack of eye contact means some questions are easier to ask and some things are easier to reveal.

“It’s like being transported back to high school in the 90s, where you’d be at school all day, and at night, extension chord dragged into the pantry while the rest of the house slept.

“Phone D&Ms (“deep and meaningfuls”) were one of the great emotional releases in pre-mobile teen life, a chance to talk away the existential drama of the school day.”

Of course, people of our age have always known that and personally, it's how I keep my far-flung friends close – with long, sometimes two or three hours at a time, phone conversations where we solve all the problems of the world together. Until next time.

Tait winds up her essay as a thoroughly convinced convert:

”Tonight, headphones in, a phone call or two means I’ll discover something new about someone I care about, laugh at least three times, reveal something I wouldn’t tell anyone else and maybe even discover a new Liza Minnelli impersonator I’d never heard of.”

* * *

My former husband, Alex Bennett, and I had our biweekly Skype chat yesterday. I think we spent way too much time on my health predicament, but he doesn't agree.

Celebrating Día de Muertos

”...Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is such an important occasion. It holds that dying and living are not opposites but rather two parts of one process, with just a breath in between.

“Through this lens, death isn’t an antagonist, a horrifying thing we must look away from. Death is festooned with flowers, candles and brightly colored papel picado because Día de Muertos wants us to look squarely at the way things end.

“It wants us to accept it, laugh at it and revere it. The only thing it asks us to not do is ignore it.

“I’ve come to understand that this holiday isn’t about romanticizing the past or about wishing we could bring those who’ve died back to life. Día de Muertos instead asks us to consider that we exist in conversation with the people who came before us and the people who will come after us.

“It says the border between life and death — and every border we encounter in between — is porous. It asserts the joyful fluidity of being alive.”

To repeat: “With just a breath in between.”

In this lovely and eloquent essay in the Washington Post last week, John Paul Brammer walks us through how he and his family, thoroughly assimilated into American culture since his grandparents emigrated from Mexico, came to understand and celebrate Día de Muertos.

If you've been hanging around this blog during the past two-and-a-half years, you know we sometimes talk about death and dying. Ever since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I have been working to make my own death acceptable to me or, at least, to find ways to reduce the paralyzing fear that rattled me every time I thought about dying from this terrible disease.

One way took place last Christmas. With the help of an experienced guide, I spent five or six hours under the influence of “magic mushrooms” or psilocybin. Like most others before me, I have never found words to adequately express what transpired that afternoon but it did change me.

The closest I can manage to explain is that I came to see that life and death were two sides of the same door. Not such a dramatic transition after all and it is not far off, is it, from Brammer's “two parts of one process, with just a breath in between?”

(You can read about my “trip” in two parts here and here.)

From the time of my childhood until recently, hardly anyone talked about death or even referenced it much beyond religion-specific rituals. Apparently that is no longer so.

In our weekly Sunday phone visit, my friend Autumn told me that her six-year-old daughter, Catherine, had learned about Día de Muertos this year in her Spanish-language class.

She told her mother all about how it is celebrated by building an alter and decorating it with flowers and photographs of beloved relatives who have died along with, as Brammer explains too, “sugar skulls and marigolds and offerings of food.”

And so Catherine built a Día de Muertos alter at home to honor her grandfather. Here is a photo of Catherine at her alter.


Maybe the holiday will become as important to Catherine as it has become for John Paul Brammer who writes,

”I still look forward to every October, when the bakeries fill with pan de muerto and sugar skulls. I look forward to the first days of November, when the wall between life and death comes tumbling down, and we, no matter who we are or how far away we’ve traveled, find our way home.”

You can read Brammer's entire essay at the Washington Post. If you do not subscribe to this newspaper or have used up your monthly number of free articles, let me know via the “Contact” link at the top of this page.

At Eternity's Gate

In the time since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than two-and-a-half years ago, an appeal of the writings by very old people and of those near death has grown within me.

On the weekend, I came across one that I want to share with you. It is from a book published last year in the United Kingdom titled, Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

An excerpt from the book turned up last Saturday in a weekly newsletter titled Air Mail from former, long-time editor of Vanity Fair magazine, Graydon Carter.


Briefly, this is a hastily-scribbled letter from Czech prisoner Vilma Grünwald to her husband, Kurt, as she and one of their two sons are selected by Joseph Mengele for instant extermination at Auschwitz on 11 July 1944.

The letter is almost unbearably poignant and I urge you to read the full background at Air Mail. Here is the text of the letter:

"You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin.

“I am completely calm. You—my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal—if not completely—then—at least partially.

“Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you—stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.”

“Into eternity, Vilma.”

The original letter was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by Vilma's and Kurt's son who, like his father, survived.

M*A*S*H in Old Age

You may think a 40-odd-year-old TV show has nothing to do with growing old. I would have said that too until I took a new look at M*A*S*H, as a 78-year-old. Let me explain.

Before I settle down to sleep, I have now and then been watching a rerun of the 1970's sitcom M*A*S*H. They're short, 30 minutes, just the right length to take me out of the concerns of my day before falling off into limbo until morning.

The show had been a favorite when it was first broadcast way back when (1972-1983) and it is no less so now. It's great fun watching Hawkeye, BJ, Hot Lips, Klinger, Radar, Frank Burns, Trapper and all the rest of the cast again. Not to mention some of the best writing in the history of television.

Until this new viewing, I had not realized how much I identified – and still do - with Hawkeye.

The show specialized in my kind of gallows humor, and I don't get tired of Hawkeye's and Klinger's efforts to escape the horrors of a war neither of them believe in while tending to the often gruesome medical needs of the wounded and dying young soldiers.

The reason I'm writing about a TV show that's nearly half a century old is that it struck me a week or two ago that there is not much daylight between Hawkeye and me. Klinger too.

We each find ourselves in an impossible predicament over which we have little control and is likely to kill us at any time. North Korean bombs in the case of Hawkeye; a nasty disease in mine.

Of course, anyone's instinct is to get out of the way as fast as possible but both of us are trapped having to make the best of that predicament. Hawkeye resorts to women, pranks, mordant jokes, his beloved martinis conjured from homemade gin in the tent he shares with BJ along with a strong sense of decency and compassion.

My defenses include never pretending that my disease won't kill me, doing my best to follow my doctors' instructions, keeping myself honest about the cancer by writing about it here, some mordant jokes along with a strong sense of moral outrage aimed at the current U.S. administration.

What struck me a few nights ago after watching a M*A*S*H episode is that the sitcom is an excellent course in coping with dread in the face of Hawkeye's and my individual predicaments.

It is easy with a diagnosis of terminal cancer to feel despair, wishing even that the wait for the end be over soon. But after watching M*A*S*H, which I do two or three times a week, I feel empowered to persevere, that there are people I love I want to spend more time with, books to read and this blog where you, dear readers, allow me to hold forth on whatever crazy ideas I have.

No matter how discouraged Hawkeye and his M*A*S*H cohorts become, they rely on each other to keep going in frightening circumstances and do you think the writers and actors imagined that even 50 years later, they could inspire me to do the same in my own predicament.

Or, maybe you already know this and I am just a very slow learner.

As I was winding up writing this, I checked the web to see if anyone else had ever found such inspiration in the show. Lo, on exactly this day one year ago, Howard Fishman, writing in The New Yorker (how did I, a lifelong subscriber, miss it), was a year ahead of me.

The piece is titled, “What M*A*S*H Taught Us” and Fishman concludes:
“In 1968, the notion that our true enemy could be the callousness, hypocrisy, and small-minded ignorance of our own leaders was fashionable. Fifty years later, it’s become evergreen.”

Let's end with a fine monologue from Hawkeye, a eulogy when a nurse is killed by a landmine following a date with him, that is more explicit about the show's goals beyond exquisitely rendered entertainment.

The Heroism of Elders

I didn't plan it this way but today's post has turned out to be the natural continuance of all this week's previous posts, my two and the Reader Story on Tuesday.

As I of write here, the few news stories about elders, a large number are about those, even 80 and older, who climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, run marathons and otherwise outdo even much younger people at physical challenges.

These super-achieving old people are always portrayed as heroic, as the ideal, and that the rest of us should be out there biking the brutal Tour de France or its equivalent.

The result is, of course, a not-so-subtle pressure for all elders to keep doing, keep achieving and push, push, push ourselves to be like 30- and 40-somethings until we're dead.

What those reporters, young 'uns themselves, don't know is that the old people they are interviewing are the aberration. A large majority of us are quite happy to stick closer to home and take our exercise, and our lives in general, in lighter form.

What important today is that In many cases it is not just a preference, it is all we are capable of. On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, noting that “energy in an arc, and it bends over a lifetime toward depletion”, wrote

”I’m 54 now, and aging is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the greatest blessing that I’ve ever been given: I’m not just still around, but I also savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside.

“The hell of aging is limits. But that’s the heaven of it, too. Sometimes to have the parameters of your life shrink is to be unburdened of too many decisions and of indecision itself...” *

All true and it may be the first time I know of that a reporter wasn't giving us the usual “but...” about running at least a half marathon or starting a new business from scratch.

Those limits Bruni mentions? Whether a result of illness or “just” old age, they are impediments even to everyday, ordinary tasks as my most recent mystery malady has made clear.

Without going into detail, it is mostly joint and body pains that come and go and move around my body. An over-the-counter pain killer makes them mostly tolerable but leaves some everyday activities difficult to do.

I can't reach the microwave without a sharp pain in my arm. Getting in and out of bed produces shots of pain from neck to knees. Sometimes my hands hurt so much I can't hold the toothbrush. You get the idea and compared to some I know, I'm doing well.

Yet as difficult as it can be, most old people keep going. Maybe slower, maybe not getting out and about as frequently as they once did and taking more rest breaks but as much as possible, they are doing the things that need getting done along with the pleasures, old and new, they can accommodate.

As Frank Bruni understands, they can “...savor the wisdom of greater perspective and the freedom of letting many of the demands I once made of myself fall by the wayside.”

Yes. Old people know a lot about how unimportant are the things that once seemed crucial. And even as physical demands become more difficult, that “perspective” of which Bruni speaks comes into great play in old age, just when we need it most.

How lucky for us.

It is the patience, creativity and persistence of old people, largely without complaint, that allow them/us to adapt to the one thing that is constant in everyone's life: change. There is just more of it coming at us faster when we are old.

For all that, to me it is not the elder mountain climbers who are heroes to be held up as paragons of old age. It is the majority of old people, the millions who take the lemons life gives us and make the best lemonade we can in our individual circumstance.

They are the ones who deserve our hero worship and hurray to all of us.

* The Frank Bruni quotations are from his weekly, email newsletter which is not yet available online.

What Elders Really Want, and The Alex and Ronni Show

Every day, my email box fills with half a dozen, often more, newsletters urging me to do, do, do. (AARP and Next Avenue are particularly prolific at this.)

Walk 10,000 steps, they tell me, volunteer, get a part-time job, take a class, declutter my home and much more depending on what a new book or media star is recommending this week.

One important thing about these messages: I can't prove it of course, but I believe they are written by younger adults (let's call them pre-elders for now) who haven't a clue yet what old age is like.

This idea has been rolling around in my head for awhile now. I had intended to write about it but TGB reader Ann Burack-Weiss beat me to it in a TGB Reader Story that I published on Tuesday titled My Comfort Zone.

”You’d think they’d let up by the time you reach your 80s,” writes Ann. “That all you need do to keep yourself going is to keep yourself going. But no; everything you hear or read pushes you toward new horizons...

“Old folks are repeatedly told to heed the siren call of the untried that, from the beginning of time, has lured humans from their caves into the sun of enhanced existence...”

After giving a bunch of good reasons to reject this kind of thinking about elders, Ann concludes:

”So I’ll stay right here. Comforted by the familiar, buoyed by memories. Relaxing? Lolling? No, wallowing – that’s the word I’m looking for, wallowing, in my comfort zone.”

The comments on Ann's post, with only one demur as I write this on Tuesday, join me in enthusiastically supporting her point of view.

These days, I like being home. One trip per day out the door is about all I can tolerate now – to the grocery store, lunch with a friend, and in my particular case, doctor visits. I love it when friends come to my home for a visit. Home is my comfort zone and I “wallow” in the days I don't need to go somewhere – no matter what the pre-elders think I should be doing.

If you missed Ann's story yesterday, check it out.

* * *

On The Alex and Ronni Show this week we covered a bunch of topics that are in the news this week. Alex emailed to say the picture freezes at some point but the audio is okay, then the video comes back. Sorry. As he says, "I'm getting to hate all technology."

“What was the Best Time of Your Life?”

During an interview a few weeks ago, a reporter asked me, “What was the best time of your life?” You would think it should be easy to come up with a few stand-out eras or events but I failed. Blank. Empty. Not even a hint or two.

Since then, I've spent some private time with that question and of course, the first problem is the question itself: how to define “best”?

Does it mean healthiest? Happiest? Most successful? I don't know.

A little, light research around the web turned up a lot of pages addressing the question and among them are advocates for every age of life. The majority of respondents, however, said they were 20-something, drifting up to 40 here and there, but they all gave a similar answer: childhood, teen years, college and 20s were, in their eyes, the best times of their lives.

Explanations for that choice were also similar, variations on this:

”Independence without bearing responsibility or burden. You have no family, your parents don't require your obligation yet, and you are physically and financially free to do whatever the hell you want.”

Does that – a period of no responsibility – really represent the best of life? Not for me. I have no recollection of not being responsible for at least myself, and for others as needed or wanted through the years. As far as I can figure it, responsibility to a variety of people and entities is part of what life is.

It's clear then that “best” means different things to different people but for now, let's go with what I am guessing was the reporter's intent: the time or times in life that stand out above others in a positive way.

I've had a lot of good times – from being blessed with smart, interesting friends to fascinating jobs. During the decade I was a producer for The Barbara Walters Specials, I traveled the U.S. and the world on someone else's dime visiting places I would never have gotten to on my own.

There was another bunch of years as part of the team that created and then ran one of the first two news websites (cbsnews.com) at the start of the internet era. Now, as for the past 15 years, I've used what I learned in all those earlier years to turn out this blog.

For someone whose enthusiasms are all over the map, I couldn't have asked for better kinds of employment - although I am dangerously close to admitting that during my life, “best” has meant “entertaining” and I'm not sure that's a good thing. But it's too late to bother with now; time is running short.

After all that explanation, my answer is, “now, right now” - as it would have been during each of the eras (and others) I've described – is the best.

Best is not necessarily synonymous with happy and sometimes, when terrible things happened, I was miserable. But the overall arc of my adult life is that each year or era was the best as it was happening.

That may sound disingenuous from a woman living with pancreatic cancer but I've always been a realist: take what life throws you way and if you can't fix it, do the best you can with it.

And so it is now. I'm trying.

What was the best time of your life?

The Fourth of July 2019 and The Alex and Ronni Show

In addition to tomorrow, I'm taking an extra day (today) off from the blog.

Even though the president of the United States has hijacked our country's traditional celebration in Washington, D.C. and replaced it with a campaign rally, including a VIP section at the Lincoln Memorial where only his friends and family are allowed, you and I can still celebrate in our own ways.

Usually I post fireworks on this holiday. But it occurred to me that given the kind of man we have in the White House and the many assaults/insults he has visited on our laws, institutions and ideals, perhaps it would be good to have a reminder of one of our founding documents which this holiday was created to celebrate.

It's a short video, just four minutes, and it couldn't be more timely. Listen to this women who has spent 20 years teaching the Declaration of Independence, explain the “self-evident truths” sentence in that document. The YouTube page explains further:

”Few Americans are aware of the fact that the first printing of the Declaration of Independence contained a copy error. As a result, many subsequent republications of the text display the typo.

“In a new video filmed at the 2018 Aspen Ideas Festival in June [2018], Danielle Allen, a political theorist and professor at Harvard University, explains why this seemingly innocuous oversight can have grave consequences.

“Interpreting this sentence correctly, Allen argues, is crucial to understanding how the powers of government are organized—and, consequentially, how to be an effective civic agent.”

Happy July Fourth, everyone - and one more thing:

Here is latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show. I think we talked way too long about elder ailments but Alex doesn't agree.

If you would like to see Alex's entire two-hour show with other guests after me, you can do that at Facebook or Gabnet on Facebook or on YouTube.

27 Percent of Elder Americans are NOT Online

There was barely a world wide web at all when I got my first computer in the late 1980s. No banks, no stores, no YouTube, not even any advertising and the phrase “social media” was years from being invented.

But among the few offerings were photographs of the Moscow subway stations. I can't find that original website now (with images that took several minutes to load on the dial-up connection we all used back then) but if you've never seen how beautiful those stations are, take a look here.

Later, I got lucky in terms being prepared for our digital future. A friend had convinced CBS News to give her a couple of millions dollars to build a website for the 1996 presidential election and she hired me as managing editor.

None of us knew how to build a website yet and there were no other news websites to help us get started. The closest was that CNN was building their first website too and we freely stole ideas from each others' sites.

Meanwhile, over the next year, our engineers, coders, graphics artists and the rest of us, made mistakes but we learned from one another how websites work and we even launched on time. Successfully too.

That was almost 25 years years ago and the web has since become essential to our daily lives. Personally, I bank by mail, pay bills, get automatic reminders of when they are due. Between in-person visits, all my communication with doctors and nurses is via the internet. The pharmacy let's me know when prescriptions are due for refill.

A growing number of physical stores no longer take cash for purchases and whether we like it or not – we won't be able to stop it – banks, employers and many others are checking our online presence before doing business with or hiring us.

Plus, many people work from home which is not possible without the internet, and for all of us, there is hardly a question known to humankind the web cannot answer.

(Please don't take that as a challenge.)

My point is that even if we are not quite there yet, more and more personal and other important business is done only online and that trend will do nothing but grow leaving old people behind and in some cases, unable to get ordinary, daily business done.

Plus, only a couple of weeks ago did I realize I haven't received a yellow pages book in several years. How can anyone, without access to the internet, find a store or service they need without the web?

Recently, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of who is not online, using several criteria, including age.

”For instance, seniors are much more likely than younger adults to say they never go online,” reports Pew. “Although the share of non-internet users ages 65 and older has decreased by 7 percentage points since 2018, 27% still do not use the internet, compared with fewer than 10% of adults under the age of 65.”

I was amused to see that no one between the ages of 18-29 is not online which helps convince me of my contention that babies are now born clutching a tiny, little cell phone in one hand.


Those numbers tell us that more than one-quarter of old people in the U.S. have no access to what is fast becoming an essential tool – right up there with things like electricity, running water, transportation, etc.

I can think of reasons elders are not online. Some are too ill to use a computer. Others can't afford one. Old people are more likely to live in rural areas where internet reception is still sketchy.

If you've been online a long time, you may not recall how intimidating the web is to use when you know nothing about it. So many families live hundreds and even thousands miles apart these days that elder family members often have no one nearby to help them learn.

And just because we old people are old people, a whole bunch of us will tell you something like, “I've lived 75 years without the internet; I don't see any reason to change that.”

The local senior center holds regularly-scheduled, free computer classes as do some libraries around the country but we're not doing enough. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing age group is being left out the internet age and we should change that.

Creating Rites of Passage for Old Age

TGB reader Christi Fries sent a link to a Washington Post feature about how funerals are changing. Although there is discussion of green funerals and alternative burial choices, I've written about those at some length and will again at some point.

What I was most interested in is the information on how funeral rituals are changing.

”...end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized,” writes reporter Karen Heller, “golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less Ave Maria, more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the 'fun' in funerals.”

Heller continues:

”Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas, acquired liquor licenses to replace the traditional vat of industrial-strength coffee.

Katrina Spade of Recompose in Seattle, "considers herself part of the 'alternative death-care movement'”:

"Spade questions why death should be a one-event moment, rather than an opportunity to create an enduring tradition, a deathday, to honor the deceased: 'I want to force my family to choose a ritual that they do every year.'"

One interviewee wants her “'personal possessions...auctioned off,' the proceeds benefiting a children’s charity. Why can’t a memorial serve as a fundraiser?”

So: Put the fun in funerals, event planners, force my family.

Certainly everyone should celebrate their life passages and those of loved ones any way they want but the lengths many Americans go to deny and ignore the monumental nature of death and its sorrows appears to grow year by year.

At about the same time I received this WaPo story from Christi, I ran across a TED video from a man named Bob Stein. At age 71, he had been searching for a way to mark the passage into old age.

He settled on a ritual of giving away his stuff (he confesses to having 250 boxes of it collected through his lifetime!), wanting to make the observance “less about dying and more about opening a door to whatever comes next.”

Here is Stein's six-minute video:

As I wrote in these pages a few years ago,

”The big rituals of life – you know, religious, social, community, rites of passage, family, even some political events - serve to initiate, transform or reaffirm the philosophies and values by which we live.”

As years come and go, and the care and feeding of our culture passes to the next generations, old rituals may not apply comfortably anymore. I, as a member of the oldest generation, may feel a bit queasy at “putting the fun in funerals” and “end-of-life event planners” but that doesn't mean they are wrong for a different world than I have lived through.

None of this means that I haven't found need for a new ritual or two. Way back in 2006, I created a rite of passage for myself: signing up for Social Security. I turned what might otherwise have been a boring chore in a drab government office into a celebration of my official entry into old age. You can read it here.

What rituals do you observe?