598 posts categorized "Journal"

Living Large in Old Age

“What's new?” asked an old friend in an email filling me in on his latest adventures.

I was stumped, unable to think of anything new (which is probably good news for someone with cancer but not what my friend meant). I would need to think about it for awhile and in doing so, I made a list of what it is I actually do during a given week or so.

And no, I'm not going to copy out that list here. On its face, it's boring but after spending some time thinking about it, I changed my mind. Let me explain.

Among what generally passes for public thinking about life in old age are such platitudes as, “It's not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years.”

Yeah, yeah. People designated as old-age experts say things like that. They also write things like this from the U.S. National Institutes of Health website:

”Quality of life (QOL) is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as 'individuals' perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards, and concerns.'”

Whatever that means. Plus, there is always some version of the five things (or eight or 10 or any other number) people should do to make an elder's life better:

Monitor and treat depression
Remind seniors that they are useful and needed
Encourage physical activity
Encourage mental activity
Keep them connected

Did you notice that all five are things someone is supposed to do to improve the lives of old people who, it is implied, cannot can't work this out on their own.

That is so for some elders but most of us can and there is little information to be found about old people who are not deemed deficient in one or more of the categories on that five-point list.

This happens because even among agencies and organizations whose goal is to help elders, too often there is an attitude of “If you've seen one old person, you've seen them all.”

Puh-leeze. One size does not fit all.

Nevertheless, old people are seen mostly as homogeneous, particularly when care-giving and government policy are being considered, and that filters out to everyone else.

Add to that how we become when we get old: most of us walk more slowly, we don't stay out late at night much, some of us nap more frequently and we all look the same to younger people. Just like high school – it's all about appearance.

Because of my newly diagnosed COPD, I don't do stairs anymore, I don't walk as fast or as far as I once did. I doubt I'll ever get on an airplane again. I won't drive on highways these days and I don't much like driving to new places. I don't recall last time I had dinner with friends. I can't stay awake that late so I do lunch dates instead.

And if that's all younger people know about an old person, it's a good description of a small, gray, little life. But wait.

With a book of contemporaneous maps and a marvelous book about the street (Broadway: A History of New York City in Thirteen Miles), I “walked” the entire length of world-famous Broadway from its beginnings in 1624 to the present day.

How's that for an exciting trip. I'm sure from the outside I looked like any old woman reading a book – well, in this case, two books. From the inside, I was thrilled to “see” the shops as they closed down and moved a few blocks north each time the center of Broadway gravity relocated farther uptown, and to recall which buildings are still there, buildings I have walked past or been in.

I'm currently watching a Netflix drama series about the 1970s beginnings of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), now renamed the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), as in the Criminal Minds TV series.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas, well fleshed out, about what commonalities serial killers sometimes share and if you have any wit about you, you will glean some important information about people who are not serial killers - like you and me, for example.

I regularly spend at least an hour, often stretching to two or three hours at a time, talking on the phone with friends who live far away. I can wish I were in-person with them but circumstances of life change possibilities so I do the best I can – which works out fine.

These chats are deeply nourishing to me – an old (and one new) friend's voice in my ear; news of mutual friends; in one case, an ongoing discussion on the nature of Manhattan and how it has been changing; not to mention what we have learned from books we've been reading; movies; the nature of life in general, growing old in particular. And so on.

And, of course, I write this blog. I work on it every day, for hours.

In one way, TimeGoesBy is like a journal - I can flip through past posts and see what I was thinking in the past. But in a much larger sense it is a community. There is an amazing group of smart, interesting, funny and thoughtful people who comment here.

Readers say they learn from me, but they are teachers too. I learn at least as much as they do, and many blog posts grow out of ideas readers have written in the comments. Through readers who comment, I expand my vision to the whole world.

Is this a “small, gray, little life?” I sure don't think so.

I'm doing at least as much as I did before I got old. It's just that more of it takes place in my mind, and from the outside maybe it doesn't look like much.

But I think my life is bright and shiny, full of light and color and with all that, I'm livin' large.

How about you?




18 Years Ago Today Since 9/11

EDITORIAL NOTE: When important days – birthdays, certain holidays, change of seasons, anniversaries – come 'round, I pay closer attention to these than I might have in the past because, given my cancer diagnosis, I might not be here for the next one.

Eighteen years ago today, terrorists attacked the United States killing nearly 3,000 people. We call it just “9/11” nowadays – everyone knows what that means - and it looms large for me still.

Below is the blog post I wrote for the fifth anniversary of the attacks. I've edited it lightly for clarity and some embarrassing writing choices but no facts or thoughts or opinions are changed.

It's a good deal longer than I usually publish but – well, that's how it is.

* * *

FROM THE ARCHIVES - 11 September 2006:

In the late 1950s, there was an excellent television drama titled The Naked City set, of course, in New York. The show's tagline was, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them." And so it is today on Time Goes By, one small story among millions:

In the late summer of 2001, I was 60 years old, unemployed since the overnight demise, 13 months earlier, of the dotcom where I had been vice president of editorial and interactive.

The stack of printouts and folders on my desk had reached a height of two inches – more than a year’s worth of email and snailmail job applications, cover letters, lists of potential employment contacts, headhunters, notes of telephone conversations, rejection letters, follow-up schedules and spreadsheets tracking it all.

As everyone in the world would soon know, the morning of 11 September dawned gloriously cool, bright and sunny - a good day, if you were not working, to go to the park, stroll the city streets or bicycle down the urban path toward the World Trade Center. But not for me.

The wolf had been scratching at my door for many weeks and on top of that stack of job search detritus was a list of contacts I intended to call as soon as offices opened.

By shortly after 8AM, I had been at my desk for a couple of hours working on a design for what would, before long, become my first blog (not this one). I only half listened to CBS News Radio88 in the background, the usual litany of national and local politics, deliberate and accidental death, and celebrity stories to fill in the blanks between commercials.

Then the breaking-news alert sounded. I remember groaning; it would be just another fender bender or commuter traffic snarl breathlessly reported as though it were the start of World War III.

But instead, the news reader said something about an airplane and the World Trade Center. I dashed to the bedroom to turn on the television and saw to my horror that perhaps it was, this time, World War III.

It’s the little things in life that can turn me into a crazed harridan. When the big things happen, I am calm and rational, running potential next steps through my mind and then taking action, if any is needed. My lifelong broadcast career training kicked in; I needed to get to the office right away to help cover the story. But I had no office to go to. So, I phoned a journalist friend who was recently retired from full-time work.

“It’s like the Empire State Building years ago,” he said.“Some pilot lost his way.”

“No way,” said I. For three years, I had worked in an office on 11th Avenue overlooking the Hudson where I had watched planes large and small move up and down the river all day. I knew that 1: no planes are allowed to fly over Manhattan and 2: pilots are taught to ditch, when something goes wrong, in water and there is plenty of that around Manhattan.

“It’s a terrorist attack,” I told my friend (which we all know now came horribly true).

As soon as we hung up, the phone rang - my upstairs neighbor. His wife took their two boys to school in Brooklyn each day by subway and then returned home. She was late, he said. He just knew she had stopped to shop, as was her habit a couple of times a week, at a clothing store across the street from the World Trade Center. He knew she didn’t have a cell phone with her and he was terrified.

My Greenwich Village apartment was half a block from the intersection of Sixth Avenue, a major north/south artery, and Houston Street. For 20 years, it had been my private ritual, as I left home each morning, to check north for a view of the Empire State Building and then south to check the twin towers of the World Trade Center. If they were there then all was right, I liked to believe, with my world.

A second, less uplifting ritual – mental exercise, really - that began following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, was my now-and-then attempt to calculate, should a Trade Center building fall over northward, whether the top of it would crash into my townhouse.

My conclusion had been that it didn’t matter. Even if it didn’t reach as far as my block, the concussion would probably kill me. You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life. But my mind wandered back to it from time to time.

On that morning five years ago, my upstairs neighbor and I sat watching television near his phone waiting, hoping, silently praying to all the gods the world has ever worshiped to let us hear from his wife. We took turns joining neighbors at the corner of Sixth and Houston, staring south to the fire and smoke and, before long, the collapse of the buildings.

Within an hour or so, my neighbor’s wife telephoned from a friend’s house in SoHo and soon, sitting on our stoop together, we saw her, covered in soot, walking toward us. Later, she told us her story:

Yes, she had been shopping at that store and was just entering the stairs to the subway in the lower concourse of the World Trade Center when there was a tremendous noise above. It shook the entire building, she said. Debris was raining down as she and everyone raced out and away, not looking back. She hadn’t known what had happened until she reached her friend’s house.

I heard many more stories that day. I spent much of it sitting on my stoop and as thousands of survivors walked north on Sixth Avenue toward their homes, some turned into my street.

The first time, I was surprised when a stranger in a dusty business suit, carrying a briefcase plopped himself down beside me and wept on my shoulder as he told me his story. When he had collected himself enough to head home, another stopped, and another, sometimes two and three at a time. We wept together for the dead, for ourselves and for our city.

That evening, the journalist friend I had spoken with in the morning came by and we walked Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat dinner. Hardly any restaurants were open and those that were, were crammed with people, most of them strangers to one another just wanting to be with other people. We joined them and then wandered over to Washington Square Park where thousands of others had gathered too.

The next morning, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood, but by then, sadly, it wasn’t necessary – too few injured survivors - and I was turned away.

Home-made posters with photos of the missing were posted on many buildings in the neighborhood. Spontaneous memorials with American flags, candles, flowers, prayer cards and notes had appeared on street corners.

The authorities shut down traffic except for emergency vehicles below 14th Street for the next four days, and we used the winding Greenwich Village streets as the cowpaths they once were, ignoring street lights and crosswalks, walking where whim took us.

During those days, knots of people – sometimes neighbors, sometimes strangers – gathered here and there. The first question, carefully worded, was always, “Is everyone you know okay?” Sometimes they were; sometimes they weren’t. Often we just stood together silently for awhile, stunned still by the events of that terrible day.

Three weeks later, at last, I was offered a job and a week after that, I was on a plane to Florida for a conference. Planes approaching New York travel up the Hudson River and then turn right toward LaGuardia Airport. On my return from Florida, I deliberately chose a window seat on the Manhattan side of the plane because although I had seen the aerial photos of Ground Zero, I wanted to see it "for real".

The size of the devastation was shocking. I'd had no idea that so much of downtown was gone. A big, ugly, open sore on the city, much larger than any photo or video had conveyed.

The first anniversary of 9/11 hit me as hard as the first anniversary of the deaths of loved ones I’ve buried. I mourned for the dead, for the kind of world we had come to live in now, and for the damage done to my city.

It disturbs me that from the day of the attack – and still – when I have stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, I can’t remember which buildings the World Trade Center towered above. It feels as though my lack of attention all those years to their exact location in the sky is a betrayal.

I am sorry for that.




About the Next Generation and the Next and the Next and

While chatting on the phone with a friend recently, we noted that we often have no idea, these days, who people named in headlines are - especially young movie and music stars along with, in my case, sports stars. Some examples:

How Lizzo Does That

Trump again attacks ‘Will & Grace’ actress Debra Messing

Kaitlynn Carter Celebrates Her Birthday

Lizzo? Debra Messing? Kaitlynn Carter? I don't know who these people are and although Debra Messing's name is vaguely familiar, I'm unfamiliar with her work or what she looks like.

We are born into whatever cultural zeitgeist predominates in the place we are born. We identify with the famous, the infamous and celebrities of our early childhood. As teenagers, we were eager to embrace writers, performers, musicians and other public people who were coming to be the shared touchstones of our generation.

For people our age now – that is, elders - we don't quite know what to make of a young person who has never heard of, for example, Frank Sinatra. Even if you were not a fan, he was such a force in our youth that what do you mean you've never heard of Sinatra seems a logical question.

In my case, Sinatra was of my mother's generation but young enough that his celebrity continued a long time into my adulthood. So for a younger person today, say 20 years old, Sinatra is two generations removed from her world.

Have you heard of any important people from your grandparents' youth? I didn't think so.

A week or two ago, TGB reader, Tom Delmore, sent an excerpt from a 1993 book by Frederick Buechner who, Wikipedia tells us, is an American writer, novelist, poet, autobiographer, essayist, preacher, and theologian. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of more than 30 books.

The book today is Whistling in the Dark – A Doubter's Dictionary. For easier reading onscreen, I have re-paragraphed the excerpt that Tom sent.

I think it explains in a lovely and loving way why we so often prefer the company of people our own age and why it is necessary for the young to gradually supplant older generations as the movers and shakers in culture, the arts, business, politics, etc.

”When you hit sixty or so, you start having a new feeling about your own generation. Like you they can remember the Trilon and Perisphere, Lum and Abner, ancient Civil War veterans riding in open cars at the rear of Memorial Day parades, the Lindbergh kidnapping, cigarettes in flat fifties which nobody believed then could do any more to you than cut your wind.

“Like you they know about blackouts, Bond Rallies, A-stickers, Kilroy was Here. They remember where they were when the news came through that FDR was dead of a stroke in Warm Springs, and they could join you in singing "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" and "The Last Time I Saw Paris." They wept at Spencer Tracy with his legs bitten off in Captains Courageous.

“As time goes by, you start picking them out in crowds. There aren't as many of them around as there used to be. More likely than not, you don't say anything, and neither do they, but something seems to pass between you anyhow.

“They have come from the same beginning. They have seen the same sights along the way. They are bound for the same end and will get there about the same time you do.

“There are some who by the looks of them you wouldn't invite home for dinner on a bet, but they are your compagnons de voyage even so. You wish them well.

“It is sad to think that it has taken you so many years to reach so obvious a conclusion.”

I don't know about half of Buechner's references in this piece. The film, Captains Courageous, was released in 1937, four years before I was born. Without a great deal of research, I cannot know how it was reviewed, if it was a success and how people talked about it as I can know with most movies of my generation.

And what in the world are A-stickers, flat fifties, the Trilon and Perisphere, along with a couple of others?

Undoubtedly these holes in my knowledge have to do with the fact that Frederick Buechner has 15 years on me, nearly a generation, so our cultural touchstones don't match up.

But his observation that we are often more comfortable with our compagnons de voyage, our age mates, answers a question or two about growing old for me.




THINKING OUT LOUD: My End-of-Life Job

Not too long after a dire diagnosis such as my cancer, an unwelcome fact appears in one's mind (or, at least, in mine): “Oh, you mean I'm mortal after all?”

Once it appears, there is no denying it, no going back to that blissful state where all your life you kind of vaguely believed death would always be somewhere down the road.

Of course I knew that wasn't true, but when reality is too complex or too painful, humans are good at fooling themselves. I am not immune.

It has been awhile, certainly more than a year now, since this stark reality began plopping itself down next to me several times a day, poking me in the ribs to remind me that I need to prepare, to make peace, to be ready when the time comes.

Sometimes I pay attention, performing a mental check see how I'm feeling in regard to shuffling off this mortal coil. I've already done some fairly major preparation such as a magic mushroom (psilocybin) session last December (which you can read about in Part 1 and Part 2).

That “trip” was every bit as useful to me in reducing my dread as responsible researchers at major medical and academic institutions have been reporting for the past 10 years or so. And it continues.

Having been given this fairly lengthy reprieve from death – more than a year now - I have made it my job to get ready to die. I don't want to leave being terrified.

On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if giving one's death any attention at all is worth the effort. Like it or not, we are each going to die whatever we feel or think about it.

Nevertheless, it is in my nature to watch myself, to pay attention to what's going on in my mind when I'm not directing it, as now while writing a blog post.

I have discovered that without naming it or dwelling on it much, I seem to have believed for a long time that when people are nearing death, they lose interest in the world around them. I don't know if that's true or not but it doesn't matter because somewhere years ago I came to believe it.

And nowadays, when I have stopped doing certain things either because they are too physically taxing or, more likely so far, take up more time than I am willing to allot them anymore, I start to wonder if death is closing in.

When that happens, my mind takes off to my personal fantasy land telling me that if I instead keep doing those things, I will forestall the grim reaper.

What horseshit. Apparently, for some of us, there is no end to our ability to deny the inevitable even when medical science has been clear about what is next.

But maybe that's laying it on too thick. Not counting psilocybin, the best thing I've done for myself is to start meditating again. I had done so off and on for most of my life but even as I appreciated its effect, it was still more off than on.

Today, I think of it as, simply, my daily quiet time. A few minutes to be still and just notice what's going on around and within me.

When thoughts of death creep in, they occasionally feel as natural as the breathing to which I am paying close attention. I'm working on increasing the frequency of those feelings but there is no pushing that kind of thing further than it's ready for.

For now, I am trusting this “quiet time” will help me build on the good that the magic mushrooms did and lead me to welcome the wide river and drifting into the sea, as Bertram Russell describes the end of life. (See Wednesday's post.)

It's my job, or rather, the job I have assigned myself to make this time of my life and particularly its end as peaceful as I can manage.




Living While Dying

What I have always liked are the surprises in life, the unexpected events that seem to occur to remind me that I don't control everything, and this surely is the biggest ever for me.

There has always been a lot of loose activity going on in the ether that impinges on my plans. Some of it is pleasurable, but a large amount gums up the works.

Knowing perfectly well that some people die hard deaths didn't stop me from assuming I would be as disgustingly healthy up to the end as I had always been – that is, until I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Ruminating on my own demise now and then in those many pre-cancer years, I never got further than something like, “I lived and then I died”, anticipating no remarkable lead-up to death.

To repeat myself from a week ago, “Man plans and god laughs.” You can't say in the case of this particular unexpected event, cancer, that it doesn't gum up my personal works.

The joint and body pains from a medication that didn't work out is one of those. Three weeks or so since ending that medication, the pains are receding in small, daily increments, but it is so slow I wonder if it will entirely go away.

As interesting as life has been these past two years, and continues to be, this is not one of the better surprises of my life nor is the COPD that the medication was meant to help control.

Backing up a couple of years, after the Whipple surgery from which it took months to recover, I watched myself create a smaller life, shrinking it down closer to essentials without many frills.

I wanted more time alone, too, and tried to arrange my social life to accommodate that. I was winding down my earthly existence, concentrating on only what was most important to me in the time left.

Then, early this year, my oncologist told me that the chemotherapy had shrunk my tumors by half or so and that he expected me to be around “for quite a while yet,” he said.

Soon after, I noticed that I was gradually expanding my life again. A few more social engagements, purchasing some books I had thought I wouldn't have time for and I even bought a sweater I liked – the first new clothing since the cancer diagnosis.

Before the latest diagnosis of COPD and the body/joint pains, I liked to tell myself (and others who would listen) that I was so free of symptoms that if I didn't know better, I would think I don't have cancer.

I suspect now that will never be so again. Even though, if you don't count the body pains and shortness of breath, I feel reasonably good, from now on I will be living while dying.

That was true before but I was not so out in the open and honest with myself about it as now, and maybe that's why I have been searching out smart thinkers, philosophers and others who have written well about growing old and getting closer to death.

Last week, that brought me back to 20th century, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and his essay written when he was about 80 titled, “How to Grow Old.”

It is very short – just three pages – and here are his points that are salient to me. Well, this week. We'll see how that changes or not.

”Psychologically there are two dangers to be guarded against in old age. One of these is undue absorption in the past. It does not do to live in memories, in regrets for the good old days...

“The other thing to be avoided is clinging to youth in the hope of sucking up vigour from its vitality.”

These have not been issues for me but it is still good to be reminded. More interesting is this, about facing the fear of death:

”The best way to overcome it – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.

“An individual human existence should be like a river – small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls.

“Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged with the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Although this cancer/COPD event was a surprise to me, I think if given a choice, I would prefer the situation I'm in, knowing death is coming relatively soon but with time to appreciate and make good use of the new and different perspective it gives me.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the first of what will probably be more such ruminations on my predicament. Like today, they might be triggered by something I've read or what someone tells me. Other times it might be random thoughts without any conclusions. Perhaps we can call it, simply, thinking out loud.]




Happy 94 Years, Millie Garfield

Actually, Millie's birthday is Sunday so we're a little bit early but when someone is in their tenth decade, several days of celebration do not seem excessive to me. So...

HBMSingleFlower

In recent years, Millie has spent less time with her blog, called My Mom's Blog presumably because her son, Steve, helped put it together, and then Millie was up and running on the internet in 2003, a year before I was.

We met soon after I started Time Goes By which means we've known one another for about 15 years. For several of those years, Millie produced an ongoing video series for her blog called “I Can't Open It” - something a lot of us have problems with and which became an internet classic.

Here is one of them. Her son Steve is the videographer:

These days you'll more frequently find Millie on Facebook. Here she is having a beer with Steve and his wife Carol last week at Riverwalk.

MillieAtRiverWalk

Here's another photo from Millie's Facebook page with Steve and his wife, Carol. Have you noticed that this family eats a lot?

MillieSteveCarol

As we have done for many years on Millie's birthday, we add up our years. So if you take Millie's 94 and my 78, we get 172. Add yours to this total or the last total in the comments.

Yes, it will probably get all mixed up and not exactly right but that's the fun of a party – just giggle and move on.

Meanwhile, let's all sing Happy Birthday to Millie and her amazing 94 years. I love you, Millie.




Day Trippin' to Multnomah Falls

When I was a kid growing up in Portland, Oregon, a regular day trip was a drive to Multnomah Falls. Except for a lovely stone lodge with a good restaurant featuring local food, fish and wine it's almost as pristine it has been for thousands of years.

The Falls are about an hour's drive east from Portland and on Thursday last week, my new family – son Tom, his wife Kathy, their son Henry, Kathy's father Hank and I made the excursion that both Hank and I recall doing during our childhoods in Portland.

If you're new to this blog, you might not know that my son and I met via a DNA testing website about a year and a half ago. If you're interested, the story of how that came about is here.

No trip to Multnomah Falls is complete without a first stop in the Columbia River Gorge area at the Vista house.

Here is a short video (meant for bike riders but shows off the area nicely) which gives you a good idea of the woodsy area and Vista House high above the Columbia River with Washington state on the other side.

The Vista House has been on that promontory since 1918 and you can read about it here.

This is one of our photos, taken by Hank, outside the Vista House – me, Tom, Kathy and Henry. Hank's operating the camera phone.

TomKathyHenryMe

Before we get to Multnomah Falls, a recent history: In the late summer of 2017, the Eagle Creek forest fire threatened Multnomah Falls. Luckily, it escaped damage but not the scenic “old highway” that winds through a forest and had been closed for repairs after the fire. It reopened only a couple of months ago.

So we were happy to be able to visit again – Hank's and my separate memories of many family trips to Multnomah Falls when we were growing up guaranteed some nostalgia was involved for the two of us old folks.

Here are Kathy and Henry with part of the Falls behind them:

KathyHenryWaterfall

And here are Kathy, Henry and Hank in front of the Falls.

KathyHenryHankFalls

It was difficult for me to walk that day due to the pain problems I've been having so I didn't get as close to the falls as I like to, but the rest of the family did and I enjoyed them seeing it for the first time.

Then we had lunch at the lodge before heading home. It had been a beautiful, sunny day and it was lovely to spend it with my family.

Here's a short video Paras Suri made of Multnomah Falls early in the morning before visitors had arrived. It's the best video I've seen of it.

There is a Wikipedia page for Multnomah Falls and more practical information here.




Small Pleasures Again

Every year or two, I write a post about the small pleasures in life. Maybe it's a good exercise in gratitude for me.

Mostly, the pleasures haven't changed much during the 15 years I've been producing this blog but with adjustments now for cancer, new ones come along and old ones are enhanced in their pleasure.

My number one small pleasure remains at the top of the list - a hot shower beating down on my back. I could stand there for hours, I think, except that after awhile I feel guilty about wasting water.

Many old people have stools to sit on while they shower and grab bars should be automatic tools in everyone's bathroom. But the bars are not always in the right place, and how many can you have.

So I've added a new procedure to my showers now that I'm not as sure on my feet as I once was: I make certain that my hand or elbow is always touching the wall. That's all it takes to keep me balanced – that, and not shutting my eyes.

Safety is important but it's that hot water streaming over me that I look forward to every day.

The murder of crows who frequently hang out in the parking lot of my apartment area. They squawk and yell and caw and I don't know if they're arguing with one another or screaming at me when I walk by, but they always give me a laugh.

Ice cream. For a couple of months, I've been off chemotherapy that disallowed cold food and drink, and I've been indulging myself any time I want.

In case you think cancer and/or chemo have no up side, I've learned from the nursing staff that they both use up energy and calories faster than healthy bodies. So it doesn't matter how much ice cream I eat; it keeps my weight up.

While we're talking about food, popcorn, in bed while watching a good movie. I like my popcorn with warmed maple syrup poured over it.

Speaking of movies, watching my all-time, favorite movie again: The Third Man. (With popcorn, of course.)

The mornings when I can get out of bed without pain. It's been going on for more than a month, it occurs arbitrarily and the doctors are working to find a cause. Meanwhile, I don't know, when I wake, if it will hurt to get up. When it doesn't – Hurray for the day!

The joy of reading a book you can't put down. It never gets old.

Driving on an old road where the trees have spread out and sunlight is filtered through the leaves. It's beautiful and for me, it is also calming. It makes me feel for a short while that everything is right with the world (when these days we know perfectly well it is not).

Sipping a nice wine over the remnants of dinner with friends while solving all the problems of the world.

I appreciate these and other small pleasures even more than in the past and maybe that is true for other elders. Cancer has limited my energy and stamina, I tire more easily and sometimes I hurt. But all these pleasures and others, too, remain.

What are your small pleasures?




The Alex and Ronni Show and Some New Old Photos

Here is the most recent Alex and Ronni Show.

In the video above, Alex and I recall a midnight supper with counterculture satirist Paul Krassner who died last week. Not long after that meal, a friend from Alex's and my time in Houston in the mid-1960s came to visit us in New York City.

Karen Hirschfeld Hendley's parents became good friends and in 1970, and she – a teenager by then - flew to New York to visit us for awhile. Just last week, she tracked down these photos of me she took during her time in the Big Apple.

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Ronni1970B680w

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My god, to me now, I look impossibly young, although I was 29 that year. It's fun to have these photos after 49 years. Yes, I'm smoking a cigarette in the first photo and that's Shabbas the cat in the third photo.)




Holiday Edition: Whatever Happened to Wrinkled Spinach?

Here we are again at one of those three-day, holiday weekends – Memorial Day in this case – also known as the unofficial beginning of summer. Personally, I don't want to rush spring out the door three weeks before its time but no one asked me and the world continues to turn on its axis taking no account of my preferences.

This is the first time in several years I've remembered today's holiday. Retirement does that to you: without an external force such as an employer to organize your days or having others at home who depend on you, it feels like just another Monday.

That may change if Trump pardons some convicted war criminals as he has suggested he will do today. If he does, I doubt I'll forget Memorial Day again in my lifetime. Rather than the stately remembrance of U.S. fallen soldiers that the holiday has been all my life, it will become something less, something shameful.

Speaking of my lifetime, it's getting to be long-ish, 78 years at last birthday count. Any of you following my cancer updates know that the chemo I've been infused with every two weeks since January is doing its job, reducing the size of the cancer nodules and slowing their growth. No one can tell me how long this will work. Friday will be two years since I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer so I've already lived a year longer than statistics predict.

Being told you have a disease that will kill you in the not too distant future certainly is a wake-up call. For me, the largest question was how to spend the time that remains. With – happily – no bucket list, a large disinclination to get on an airplane ever again and plenty to hold my attention at home, I decided to keep doing what I do. Which sounds boring to a lot of people.

It is not. I produce this blog which involves some amount of work every day. Hang out with friends (as long as it doesn't involve an airplane to do so.) Read books. Listen to music. Watch movies. And the one that nags without let-up or any help from me: what does it all mean?

In recent days, that last one has been insistent and I will undoubtedly die before I figure it out.

One of my stock texts for this endeavor is Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman. I have mentioned the book before in these pages and dipped into its pleasures many times since it was published in 2010

Today, I had to give up trying to find at least one of the two copies I own which tells you something about my late-life filing capabilities. Here is blurb for the book that does a better job than I can of explaining its contents:

”In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people’s dreams. Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.”

My personal favorite sets the premise that we can choose whatever we want to be in our next life. Sounds good, right? Except – important disclaimer: Eagleman uses the example of a horse: when you have made your choice and as your body is transitioning into a horse, there is a point at which the brain becomes enough less human and more horse that it can no longer understand or reverse the change-over. You're stuck being a horse indefinitely.

That one makes me laugh every time – it is much like some life events that don't work out the way we planned – usually without such dire consequences as the horse story, but not always.

I have an afterlife idea of my own.

Almost every day now, I sense that I am no longer of this world. I have no idea who the top music stars are and there is, I suspect, not a single current song I could identify.

Most nights, I have no idea who the guests are on late night talk shows nor on Saturday Night Live.

Why do about three-quarters of all movies (and many TV shows, too) involve half-humanoid killing machines who use a lot fire and high-powered explosives to cause uncounted, horrific death, but no dialogue?

Why does most clothing for women have no sleeves? Or pockets?

Why do online publications supply weekly lists of the the top 75 best books to read “this month”? Lazy movie reviewers do the same, 100 best movies. Don't they know too many choices is no choice? I wouldn't read a list of anything that long – it has no meaning. And why does Netflix give me a list of new releases for this month at the end of the month?

There is more but it's all in the same vein. I am not comfortable in our world anymore. I don't feel like I belong here. Maybe it's something in the water. Just the other day, TGB reader Lynn Lawrence, referring her enjoyment of antique china tea cups and embroidered table cloths, had the spirit to say it out loud in the comments:

”I know, I know, it sounds like I'm pining for the good old days. Well, I am.”

So I think I've got an afterlife for people like Lynn and me: we return to this world at a point in our previous life when we were most comfortable with the culture. No embarrassment. No shame. No feeling we don't belong. Just a place where we are welcome as we are.

The sense of belonging that I miss is just one small corner of the discomforts that seem to be piling up. Some have zero importance to life in general even if I feel the loss. Don't laugh, spinach is one: It used to be wrinkled, had a much stronger spinach-y taste than the new flat kind and you had to be sure to rinse off all the sand it had grown in before using.

God help me, it is with such as this that I squander my time.




TGB Takes a Vacation

It's a busy week around here. Three (count them, 3) days at the medical center, CT scan, chemotherapy, a variety of doctor and nurse visits and – the great good news – Autumn is arriving to visit for a few days.

You remember Autumn, don't you. When I was still hung over from the Whipple surgery in June 2017, she reported developments so you wouldn't think I had died on the table. Those reports are here, here, here and here.

With all that, I think this is a good time for a little break from blogging. But TGB won't be entirely dark. There will be a shortened version of Interesting Stuff on Saturday and don't skip Sunday. Thanks to Peter Tibbles, we're having an online party that day.

I'm off on Monday and Tuesday (well, Tuesday is a Reader Story) and I'll be back on Wednesday the 10th of April. Meanwhile, the usual email and Facebook postings will appear on days when there is something new.

Come to think of it, you too probably need a break from my daily chatter.

See you in a week.




Two Realities of Growing Old

For as long as this blog has been here, I have kept a notebook of thoughts and ideas for future stories. It is a godsend to have when my mind goes blank or, in today's case, when I'm just plain tired, feeling slow and stupid – as from last Thursday's all-day chemo session.

But you don't need to be a cancer patient to be tired. It comes quite naturally with old age and in that notebook, I found a couple of relevant reports from long-time TGB readers that I think most of us can relate to.

SLEEP
Salinda Dahl talked about the common old-age difficulty with sleep:

”Over the past year, sleep has become very elusive,” she wrote, “and despite good advice from herbalists and docs, meditation, lots of exercise, no screens before bed, ETC, the situation persists.

“For now a coping strategy is to take a nap each day, whenever possible. Not only is my capability to function impaired by the tiredness, it's also more difficult to keep a positive attitude. Would love to hear how others deal with this.”

Me too, Salinda, that elusive search for sleep. For more than a decade, unrelated to my cancer, I hardly ever slept more than three or four hours. I tried all the recommended pills, potions and practices to no avail. Each worked for a few weeks, then stopped.

What finally changed is that about six or eight months ago, I remembered that I live in a state where cannabis is legal so I tried that. Wow! A full night's sleep – seven or eight hours. Consistently, night after night.

But before long, that stopped working too. I asked one of the cannabis dispensary “bud masters” who told me that most sleep aids wear off in time and I should rotate different kinds – an edible, a tincture, etc. One of my physicians agreed and now I am happily sleeping through the night most of the time.

What works for one person does not necessarily work for others. In my case now, I am grateful to have found a solution. I had almost forgotten what a good night's sleep feels like.

WANING ENERGY AND STAMINA
On the same post as Salinda's comment, Jim Fisher left this note about how his enjoyment of volunteer work in nearby natural areas has raised a new age-related concern:

”As this work has branched out and expanded I have found that being in my 70s also means that I just don’t have the energy and stamina to do everything I want and I worry that I may not live long enough to achieve everything I care about.

“It’s a new, nagging feeling, and one I try to dismiss. But it reoccurs when my hip and back ache or I get too tired to endure City council meetings that drone on for hours, etc.

“I want my youthful body and energy back I guess. Thank goodness and thank you that I know I have a place to share my feelings and know I am not alone.”

Part of having achieved old age, I think, is a growing sadness as our personal end time looms. Of course none of us will finish everything we would want (but you knew that, Jim) and Jim's concern is nothing less than the nature of the human condition that philosophers and thinkers have been seeking answers to for millennia.

For me, it has become easier to live with, easier to think about, since my psilocybin session in December. That doesn't mean I have any answers to the ultimate dilemma of life or even the decline of the energy and stamina we once took for granted.

But I thought I'd throw it out here for us to discuss. I'm eager to hear your thoughts.




Dropping Things in Old Age (Again)

EDITORIAL NOTE: One of those things they don't tell you is how everything you do when you get old takes longer and/or tires you more than when you were younger. It's been a busy week and I find myself sitting here without a story for today and no time to write one.

But that gives me a chance to repeat the all-time most popular blog post on TGB. When it was first published, it was titled
Have You Been Dropping More Things as You Get Older?

People have been leaving new comments all through the three years since it was first posted and it comes up sometimes in comments on other blog posts. So, here is the original. See what you think.

* * *

It is hard to be sure but it seems to be so for me. And it is really annoying.

For example, one day last week, I dropped a spoon on the kitchen floor. I picked it up, rinsed it off and as I reached for the towel, I dropped in again. Damn.

A day or two before that, I had dropped the shampoo bottle in the shower – a new, full one that barely missed my toes. Later that day, I dropped the two-quart, plastic box where I store the cat's dry food, scattering it all over the kitchen. Damn again.

Not long ago, I dropped a nine-inch butcher knife – that one could have been disastrous – but on another day I was lucky to be standing on a carpet when I dropped my mobile phone so it didn't break.

None of these occurrences is important individually and probably not even in their proximity to one another. But they made me wonder if dropping stuff is a “thing” with old people. So I took to the internet.

There is a lot of unsourced and untrustworthy health information online and that is always dangerous for “low information viewers,” as it were. The first I found was a large number of forums where people with no expertise were freely offering their uninformed opinions.

In answer to inquiries about dropping things, many instantly went to fear-mongering: Based on nothing at all, they advised people to see a doctor right away because it could be an early symptom of MS, ALS, Huntington's disease and more.

That's nuts. Those were anonymous forums, for god's sake. I hope no one takes them seriously.

Digging deeper at more reputable websites, I found that sometimes dropping things can be among the symptoms of serious disease but only one symptom, a minor one among dozens of others anyone would notice long before worrying about dropping something.

Checking further, I found that dropping things is not a big enough issue with growing old to warrant much notice.

In fact, a webpage of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for training elder home staff is the only direct mention of elders dropping things I found.

”The sense of touch changes,” they report. “In older adults the sense of touch may decrease as skin loses sensitivity. Pressure, pain, cold and heat do not feel the same as they used to feel. Decreases in touch sensitivity may cause residents to drop things.”

That reference to skin losing sensitivity reminded me that a few years ago, I discovered through personal experience that old people often cannot be fingerprinted, particulalry with electronic scanners, because their fingerprints are worn off.

When I wrote about that here three years ago, I quoted Scientific American magazine:

”...the elasticity of skin decreases with age, so a lot of senior citizens have prints that are difficult to capture. The ridges get thicker; the height between the top of the ridge and the bottom of the furrow gets narrow, so there's less prominence. So if there's any pressure at all [on the scanner], the print just tends to smear.”

That would certainly affect sense of touch and the ability to know if you are holding things tightly enough. A report from Oregon State University [pdf] concurs with Pennsylvania report supplying a bit more medical information:

”With aging, sensations may be reduced or changed. These changes can occur because of decreased blood flow to the nerve endings or to the spinal cord or brain. The spinal cord transmits nerve signals and the brain interprets these signals.

“Health problems, such as a lack of certain nutrients, can also cause sensation changes. Brain surgery, problems in the brain, confusion, and nerve damage from injury or chronic diseases such as diabetes can also result in sensation changes.”

I finally found the most pertinent answer to my question at The New York Times. Noting that fine touch may decrease in old age,

“Many studies have shown that with aging, you may have reduced or changed sensations of pain, vibration, cold, heat, pressure, and touch. It is hard to tell whether these changes are related to aging itself or to the disorders that occur more often in the elderly...”

This Times information is quoted from A.D.A.M., a private source of medical information for health professionals and other paid subscribers.

So what I have deduced from two or three hours on the internet is that barring injury or disease or, perhaps, waning strength that affects one's ability to grip strongly, maybe elders do drop things more frequently.

Maybe a diminishing sense of touch in general means that we cannot effortlessly perceive the appropriate strength of our grasp as automatically as when we were younger. At least, that's what I choose to believe for myself until someone enlightens me further.

Following on that, for the past few days I have been making a conscious effort to be sure I am holding whatever is in my hand tightly enough that it will not slip.

I want that to become second nature because the knife I mentioned was a close call and I certainly don't want to drop a cup of hot coffee on my foot or the cat.

Does any of this ring a bell for you?




Afterlife

On last week's post about Mary Oliver's poem, When Death Comes, my friend Darlene Costner, who is 93, left this comment:

”The more I ponder death and read what others think, the less I know how I feel. I was so sure that there is no afterlife, much as I wish I would be continuing on another planet or in another form here on earth.

“Now I am experiencing confusion about what to believe. None of us will know what happens until it happens; that much I know. I only know that I DO want to go gently into the good night. I agree with the last stanza of the poem.”

My psilocyben (magic mushroom) session, which took place five weeks ago now, continues to provoke new feelings and thoughts or, if not entirely new, has opened my mind to a re-examination of beliefs that, like Darlene, I assumed I had settled long ago.

Including afterlife.

I can give you all kinds of reasons to explain why I believe there is no such thing but that has not, over a lifetime, prevented me from enjoying speculation about what an afterlife might be. If there were one, of course.

One example: what if this, what we are living now, is the afterlife? What a (horrible) joke that would be.

In recent years, my favorite examination of afterlife possibilities is a 10-year-old book I've written about before, Sum, by neuroscientist, David Eagleman, subtitled Forty Tales From the Afterlives.

The description from the cover of a recent paperback edition explains its enormous charm and extraordinary creativity:

”In one afterlife, you may find that God is the size of a microbe and unaware of your existence. In another version, you work as a background character in other people's dreams.

“Or you may find that God is a married couple, or that the universe is running backward, or that you are forced to live out your afterlife with annoying versions of who you could have been.”

As many reviewers of this worldwide best-selling and award-winning book have noted, the book is “teeming, writhing with imagination.”

And so it is. I don't believe a word of the book; I don't believe in an afterlife. But it is still a delight to read and ponder.

During and after my magic mushroom session, I came to see that death is something like the other side of life; they are equal parts of the continuum, inseparable, each impossible without the other.

As inadequate as that and my previous attempts to describe the magnitude of the experience and related realizations are, one of the things I came away with is an important change: that I don't need to believe in an afterlife to entertain the idea of an afterlife. Both can exist simultaneously.

When I say that now, it seems so obvious that it shouldn't need stating. But there you are – sometimes it takes a lifetime to learn the simplest things.

Now it's your turn to take on the afterlife.




Happy New Year 2019

Happy-New-Year-Copy

Wow. What a year 2018 has been for me – pretty much all drama, no routine. Here's the list, bare facts only – mostly:

January:
Six months after Whipple surgery in June 2017, I am declared cancer-free

Discovered my son via DNA testing service

April:
Internal bleed that drained massive amounts of blood from my body. It took five physicians three weeks to figure out a fix. It worked.

October:
Tests reveal that cancer has returned in one lung and peritoneum. There is no treatment, I am terminal. A chemo therapy might delay advancement of the cancers. It fails.

November:
New but much stronger chemo begins that is known, like the first one, to slow the advancement of cancer. We'll see how it goes.

December:
After a period of speaking regularly on the telephone, my son – Tom Wark, his wife Kathy and their four-year old, Henry George, visit for a day. We all fall in love with one another.

And through all this drama, I have been blessed with the best group of readers on the known internet. You are there every last day with love, support, smart observations and funny stories. I love you all.

[This post will stay up for the holiday tomorrow and the usual Tuesday Reader Story will appear on Wednesday.]

Now, tell us your about your 2018.




Twas the Day After Christmas

Just checking in. I'm home from my little trip and getting settled in again.

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday, however you celebrate (or not), that there were plenty of friends and family to enjoy and lots of seasonal food to savor. This is not the time of year to worry about calories.

Soon, we'll be back on the good ship This End Up here at Time Goes By, moving into the brand new year.




Merry Christmas 2018

Greetings a day early because I will be away for the next few days and offline. There will be a Reader Story tomorrow but I'm taking off the rest of the week.

It's been an amazing year for me navigating my way through this cancer stuff. Your support and love and care and concern mean everything to me and there are not words to thank you all for being here day in and day out.

And meeting the son I gave up for adoption 56 years ago, getting to know him and his family has been a magnificent surprise out of nowhere I could never have anticipated. The happiest event that has happened to me – perhaps ever.

And now for what has become a Time Goes By tradition, the seventh 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.

Penelope Keith - And Yet Another Partridge in a Pear Tree

Whatever you celebrate this time of year, Ronni and Crabby Old Lady thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the fine community you create and sustain here all year every year and we wish you a big, fat, bright red

Happy-holiday680



Christmas Eve Eve Eve

Did I get that headline right – three days before Christmas Day?

Maybe, maybe not. I'm really here to let you know that I'm taking some extra time off while the world gets ready for the big end-of-year holiday. And, I'll be away for a couple of days next week, but I'll tell you about that on Monday.

Meanwhile, all is as usual coming up: Interesting Stuff, Elder Music, Reader Story.

Feel free to talk among yourselves in the comments.




My Son, My Family

Take a look at this photograph – shot at my home on Saturday evening:

TomKathyHenry20181208E

Nearly 56 years ago when I was 21 years old, I gave birth to a boy whom I arranged to have adopted. On Saturday, I met Tom, his wife Kathy and their four-year-old son, Henry, in person for the first time.

[For readers just now catching up with this story, the background is here.]

They arrived at noon bearing food and gifts and we spent the next seven hours eating, drinking good wine (well, not Henry) and talking. Talking and talking and talking.

We told stories about ourselves and our families, we hugged a lot, we laughed, we grinned ourselves silly, with Henry's little boy voice tinkling in the background (he's a very well-behaved kid).

Henry brought me a gift he had made himself – this beautiful cup I'm using now for coffee as I write this post on Sunday morning, and will use every morning from now on as I answer email and read the news. Here it is among some of the detritus on my desk:

HenrysCup

In ways I cannot explain, I feel like I have always known these people, that they have always been a part of my life. We settled right in as soon as they arrived. Of course, there are thousands of details about their lives I don't know, but I know the essence of their being.

By the end of our day, they had made me feel part of their family and I hope they felt the same in return. But none of these words come anywhere close to the love I feel with them. And comfort with them.

When they left in the evening, I was happy and sad, too, sad that they don't live down the street or across the road from me. But they will be back. We made plans for that.

I have been teary in the best possible way since Saturday evening. How did I get so lucky that this happened. Just in time.

Look at these wonderful people, my son and my daughter-in-law.

KathyTom20181208B680




Dying, Death and Spiritual Questions

A reader named Elizabeth Kurata left a comment with these questions last week:

”I don't think I've read anything about this subject on your blog - your own spiritual beliefs, about what happens after death, in your opinion, or at the moment of death.

“Do you believe in heaven & hell? Do you believe they are places? Do you believe in a Soul? What about Consciousness? What do you think happens after death?”

Well, Elizabeth, I am pretty sure you've found a topic I have not, in 15 years at this blog, written about. One reason, the biggest reason is that I don't think there is anything at all more private and personal in life.

Also, it is undoubtedly too difficult a subject to carry on in this arm's-length kind of written forum where direct response to one another is difficult.

Also, in the realm of spirituality and religion, people believe what they believe and often hold so fiercely to those beliefs that there is nowhere to go with a discussion.

People are free to believe whatever they want and we in the United States should know that better than some other places. It is a large part of how we became a country.

Me? I am nominally Jewish but don't do anything about it except light yartzeit and Hannukah candles. I've always suspected that I just like candles.

But what is important about yartzeit is all that day, every time I see the flame, I think about that loved one, keeping them alive in my heart year after year after year, never letting go. I think it is a beautiful ritual for anyone, Jewish or not.

Mostly, in regard to the questions inherent in religion, spirituality, souls, the great hereafter, and all that goes with it – I am agnostic. I have no beliefs in those areas. Does individual consciousness survive death? I suspect not but who am I to say.

Although I generally have no religious beliefs, I do believe that the ancient sacred texts of religions are mostly good blueprints for how to live a good life. And the language of some can be breathtakingly beautiful – the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer are two that are worth reading again and again even if you are atheist, agnostic or of another religion. Plus you might learn something about living.

What I do believe is that most of us, most of the time, with or without belief in a higher power, live by our better instincts that are innate. Except on days when I don't believe that.

I have no idea what happens after death. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. But what I do know is what astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us in a statement that makes me weep with awe and joy: “We are all stardust.”

Take a listen to him: