December 2, 2014

Seven Days of Thanksgiving

The holiday season is upon us and the countdown to Black Friday has begun. In a retail world fueled by panic, greed and imitation, one twenty-four hour day isn't enough and Black Friday begins on Thursday. I'm sick of it already and think that the hoopla of the holiday sales extravaganza kicks an important national holiday to the curb before the turkey carcass is cold. Once again, we let the marketplace manipulate us. We rush to be ahead of everyone, to get a thrill from a "bargain" that we probably don't need, and somehow "win." Some shoppers don't buy anything; they just want the excitement of the throng and the chase for something, anything. Along the way, the meaning of yet another cultural marker fades. Would it help if we changed the name of the Last Thursday in November to Thanks-Giving? Nope. It would never catch on because who takes time to be thankful for much these days? "I want mine, yours and theirs and I want it now!!" Don't get trampled or run over out there in the busy world, Babies. 

Saturday: The crisp morning temperature hovers in the low forties under a clear sky; branches tremble in the light wind. In the bare Yellow Poplar, Sweet Gum and Long leaf pine branches, Grasshopper Sparrows, Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers, Grackles and Wrens hop here and there to feed. Light bounces off the tree trunks and the remaining leaves display remnants of golds and coppers. After nibbling on pine bores and other insects, the birds drink from the little stream that feeds into the lake. When the leaves fell during the last heavy wind cycle, a tiny waterfall became visible deep in the trees and exposed a new element of the lake. The first day I saw the water rushing down the short span, a Great Blue Heron waded up the stream. 

I am grateful that beauty exists even in the midst of decay; I can see it and appreciate how it all works in the larger scheme of things. Unlike the shoppers who try to fill up their emptiness with material things, natural things work just fine for me.   

Sunday: Today at the FoM, rain, wind and darkness create an atmosphere of isolation. Friends from across my whole lifetime who remained or returned to share my journey are special treasures. Their gifts of friendship are as varied as the raindrops that obscure my view of the mountain and the lake today. They offer love, caring, humor, fun and connection to a bigger world and different times. They're all authentic and add texture to my life -- and I am grateful.  

I am also grateful that I do not know the man who has camped in an expensive tent outside a Best Buy for two weeks to be first in line for Black Friday. 

Monday: The temps at FoM today were very warm after a very cold and wet weekend. Today, I am grateful that when I went to a new location, I didn't get lost and even came home via a different route. 

Tuesday: Today, I am grateful for friends who take the time to stay in touch all the time -- not just at holidays. Oh, and that it isn't snowing here at the FoM. 

Wednesday: Today, I am grateful that four dear people called me to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving! and again that it's not snowing here at FoM.

Thursday: Thanksgiving Day here at the FoM and all over the USA is a time for making and recalling traditions. Thanksgiving isn't just the beginning of the holidays or mad holiday shopping. Americans celebrate the day with a holiday meal -- whatever the norm for their own ethnic culture may be or with the mainstream meal, turkey and accompanying delights. The intent of this holiday was to offer thanks for all the good things of life we enjoy as Americans. Part of that is a great meal and family. 

My house smells like turkey that I just took out of the oven. Turkey and salmon are favorites. The smell of the roasted bird evokes many memories -- all different and all somehow related to this holiday. I am grateful for wholesome and nutritious food -- yes, turkey in particular. My list of ideas, things and people I am grateful for is long and meaningful to me. This holiday is full of traditional memories that I cherish and recalls a rite of passage for me to adulthood.

In the early 1950s, we listened to the Detroit Lions on the radio after dinner when they played their annual Thanksgiving Day football game. Macy's held their annual Santa Parade but television sets were mostly in the big cities and not every one's living room. I didn't know anyone who had a TV then. One or two of the larger department stores in the city near my town had a Santa and a Toy Land. Those opened the day after Thanksgiving then too. 

When I was a child, my favorite aunt and uncle and my young cousins had moved far away from the mountains to Connecticut. One Thanksgiving, they traveled all night and into Thanksgiving Day to get to my grandmother's. We had a great family Thanksgiving that year -- the men were home from war and jobs and food were plentiful. We didn't have everything but we had turkey with other things I didn't like -- sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts for example. I didn't like pumpkin pie then nor do I now. But the turkey was great. That Thanksgiving a huge blizzard moved ashore from the Atlantic, crossed the mountains and paralyzed the whole area with snow and ice. My memory is vivid and I wish pictures could be shared with you. 

That winter I learned how bittersweet temporary homecomings could be when my aunt and uncle left to make the long and perilous trip back to Connecticut. I can still see my tow-headed cousin's face in the iced-framed window of that Chevy as they drove away. Her little brother was still a babe in arms and sat on his mother's lap. It took two days to get back to Connecticut and as soon as the spring thaw came, they moved back to the mountains. I watched my cousins grow up and we stayed close. 

Several years ago, my uncle and my female cousin joined those beloved relatives who are no longer alive. Alzheimer's Disease has captured my aunt and my youngest cousin juggles his full plate of life's complications. Sadly, the memories of those we loved and lost to the randomness of the universe have to be enough on holidays now. And, memories, sad or happy, weave themselves into the tapestry of life we are grateful for having. Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday:  The Thanksgiving when I was sixteen, my mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Unlike this year, the weather was warm for November and I opened the back door in the kitchen. After a dry summer and fall, small brush fires had simmered on the nearby mountain and an eerie smokiness seemed to return some days. A quince bush grew right by the back steps and it kept its green leaves and little rock-like quinces right past Halloween. That was the year I learned how to make an edible holiday dinner. Like many things to come in my life, I didn't know I couldn't do that, so I did. 

When I agreed that sure, I could make the dinner, I was clueless about how to do that. Somehow, a little turkey was in the refrigerator, along with Pillsbury Crescent rolls, fresh green beans in a brown paper bag and a can of jellied cranberry sauce. After a phone discussion with my mother about 'turkey things,' I began preparations about 9:30 or so. I recall washing out the inside of the turkey under the faucet! and pulling out the giblets. Thick coarse pinfeathers had to be removed with pliers back then. My step dad was patient and reminded me of things that needed doing and he removed the pinfeathers. 

The turkey cooked, browned and I didn't drop it when I opened the oven to baste it. In a few hours, the house smelled wonderful. I cleaned the green beans and cooked them in a pressure cooker with two slices of chopped bacon and a bit of water. When the turkey came out, the rolls went in and while they cooked, I set the table, discovered how to open both ends of the cranberry can to release the sauce and sweetened the iced tea. I can guarantee that I did not make a stock, gravy, stuffing or potatoes. We may have had canned sweet potatoes but my hands stirred no gravy and I had never heard of a roux back then. My family ate our little meal and then went to see our mother who came home the next week. 

So what's the big deal about this? Cooking that dinner was a rite of passage for me. Somehow, it affirmed a confidence that I only hoped I possessed and I had something to build on the rest of the year. In the next few years before I left home, I cooked many, many meals and became an accomplished home cook. Across my life, I've cooked holiday dinners for large groups and tiny ones. When large groups gathered around my table, I christened the meal: The Feast of the Beast.

Sharing food with family and friends is central to holidays and other fun times. Food is important across our culture as a way to share in the process of be-ing. I began my cooking experiences as a "pinch of this and that" cook, became a semi-homemade type of cook, and gradually turned to more complicated dishes of all kinds. I did learn how to make several kinds of roux! 

Cooking and feeding people is a way of nurturing more than their appetites if we do it right. Cooking for other people was always my favorite time in the kitchen and the part I remain most grateful for -- I don't do that much now but will any chance I have. As we get older, our stamina for cooking big meals lessens but our desire to nurture burns just as brightly. 

November 24, 2014

Gypsy Myths

Last week in a retail store, I saw four individuals who rubber-banded my thinking back to childhood. The younger, heavier man in sandals and bright orange knee socks with plaid shorts snagged my attention. The weather that day was cold and most people wore sweaters or jackets. The other man had on a zipped jacket and a bright plaid cap; his neck had a long tattoo. His smile was of the Cheshire cat variety and his hands were in his pockets. Two women completed the crew but one was the central figure and wore a leotard with layers of gossamer scarves of different colors and lengths around her waist. All four wore excessive and large jewelry and moved through the store in a wedge, elbows out, without respect for any one's boundaries. I saw them as a gestalt: many different parts in one integrated picture. And for one split second, I almost held my breath like a five-year-old facing dangerous ... Gypsies!! 

Each of us carry myths our families told us. These myths may have a kernel of truth or be blatant lies; both kinds can be buried deep in our psyche. Myths were stories told over and over to children with hopes that the stories would make everything fine for everyone. Or at least for the day. Over time and with repetition, the stories took on a life of their own and intense meaning. Children often overhear adult conversations and arguments and integrate them as truth. 
  • Good people know that a man like you is no good. 
  • Women in our family are submissive to men so they will stay. 
  • You're just like your dumb Aunt Jean.
  • Women in our family are privileged. 
  • We don't associate with those people.
  • We never talk about the family to outsiders. 
  • We came from royalty and don't take help from anyone. 
  • Santa is everywhere and watches your every move. 
And so it goes. Many children of my generation learned malignant, toxic myths, took them into adulthood and screwed up their own lives and those around them. Psychologists and psychiatrists enjoy profitable practices unraveling the messes these myths made. Today's parents join with the media and feed a toxic blend of princess/ superhero myths to keep children happy and compliant. Do six-year-olds need smart phones or laptop computers with fairy glitter on the case? How adults who grow up with this mythic blend of unreality will develop remains a future mystery. 

Familial myths may stay hidden for years like an IED until something triggers a neural connection: we are suddenly five years old again and hearing an adult voice telling us the myth. When I was a child, many myths came my way, most are funny now and few survived into my adulthood. I was a skeptical child and the phrase that got me into the most trouble with adults was the infamous, "Why is that?" Grownups came up with big myths simply to shut me up.

One big myth was that gypsies stole children, especially those who questioned what they were told. Said Gypsies roamed the countryside stealing chickens, laundry from clotheslines and naughty children which they sold like the chickens. Once a summer or so, bands of Gypsies looking for odd jobs did come along in rattletrap trucks with rusty trailers attached. Gypsies were real and their appearance now and again was enough to scare me into acceptable behavior like a dog on an irregular feeding schedule. If my behavior and questions were too bothersome, the adults threatened to give me to the Gypsies and not wait for them to steal me. Hard times indeed. 

As I crossed the parking lot a bit later that afternoon,  the Gypsies rolled past me in a new black car with arms holding cigarettes out all four open windows -- no funny smells were welcome in the new car, obviously. The car had an antenna for On Star. I somehow never thought of Gypsies needing directions. Funny what we survive and what survives in us.

October 31, 2014

Free Falling

Fall changed the world around me. Because I remain hopelessly naive about some things, I expected the leaves to turn red and gold and orange on my mountain. They did not. No dazzling display under a porcelain blue sky. No crinkling under light breezes. Now and again, one single leaf caught a draft, floated briefly, then fell by the lake. Colors were hard to find until this week when half-hearted hues in surrender-mode fell quickly. Tonight is Halloween, tomorrow is All Saints' Day and Daylight Savings Time ends. The calendar mood is heavy like the weather. 

Weather forecasters predict 40 mph wind gusts and rain possibly changing to snow flurries before morning with real snow in higher elevations. Rain arrived a few hours ago in sheets of cold. Seriously? Babies, I'm not in Florida anymore -- that's like Midwestern weather. 

Halloween has never been high on my holiday list. Life is scary enough without intentionally frightening people. When I was a young child, living in the mountains, Halloween vandalism was a sport. Older teens and young adults delighted in setting little nasty fires with foul animal droppings on porches and overturning outhouses, occupied ones were a bonus. Blocking roads, especially with fire? They loved it. Blocking a railroad track or crossing. Yee Ha.

As a newly registered voter in my new state, I made a point of early voting today. The line was out the door and a young, rosy-cheeked county deputy kept the peace. The weather was brisk and people were friendly. Along the state highway on the way to the polling place, a tall homeless man pushed a shopping cart overloaded with white plastic bags. He fretted with the unstable bags as they shifted from his brisk pace. His long beard and layers of clothing seemed to foreshadow the harsher weather and shorter days to come. Did he know about voting? About Daylight Savings Time? I'm sure he knows it's Halloween in our commercialized life of merchandise. Where is he tonight in all this cold wind and rain? He headed north away from the city, into less populated rougher terrain, into the storm, vulnerable and outside of community. 
Later at the grocery store, a man wore a surgical mask as he shopped and warily watched those about him. He too is vulnerable and outside of community. Life is scary for each of us in our own way. 

The Fall season initiates indications of winter here at FoM and the rain and snow make a mess. The rain beats on my windows. The CSX train heading north and the Fed Ex plane to Nashville remain right on time tonight. Tomorrow, beef stew will simmer and fill my house with comforting smells, I will continue to work on the new book and remember to set my clocks back. You will stay warm, cozy and especially, Inside, won't you, Babies? 

October 20, 2014

Fishing Lessons

Today, National Geographic's TV Channel ran episodes and the finale of "Wicked Tuna: North and South." Commercial fishermen with small boats and sparse crew venture into the Atlantic off the Outer Banks of North Carolina hunting Bluefin Tuna. Many times, I thought of Hemingway and his serious fight against the Big Fish. These men are passionate, raw, rugged, authentic and fascinating to watch and hear in all types of weather and struggles for their survival and livelihood. Robert Bly's "The Sea" captures the essence of these fishermen and their lives. They respect the fish and refer to them as "her" or, later when the very limited Bluefin fishing season draws shorter, tellingly as "him." Many times sharks steal their bait and other times the huge Bluefin slip the hook or break the line and escape. 

Several years ago, I wrote a series of  fables for grownups and included The Existential Fish. I found so much truth in that little piece that it inspired a novel which is in progress. [I listened to my editor and it has a different name.] I took the fables off the blog some time ago for inclusion into a non fiction book that I decided not to write. However, the fables are still valid and invite me to address many meanings in them. The fable of The Existential Fish follows. 

"This is a fish story, an existentialist fish story but still a fish story.
Once upon a time, a noble fish, who loved being a fish, swam with vigor and passion and explored the great seas of the world. In very deep water, he discovered an elegant, plump worm and bit into the worm with delight. Of course, the worm was not food but a lure, a bait, with a concealed barbed hook. The hook dug deep into the soft flesh in the fish’s mouth when he pulled against its sharp edges. He struggled with the same degree of passion he brought to everything else. The more the fish struggled, the deeper the hook set. He thrashed and twisted but the hook held him. The fish grew weary in his struggle with the deep-set hook. The pain was intense and the fish felt his passion for life waning. After a brave fight, the fish stopped struggling. Over time, he embraced the futility of his plight and the hook dug no deeper into his flesh. He found swimming toward the line made it less taut. The hook did not hurt so much. As the line fell looser, the fish saw the line dangled from a tiny boat anchored in the water. The fish swam back and forth over the anchor until it cut the line. The hook remained in his mouth, but eventually, new growth enclosed the hook and made a deep scar in the tender part of his gullet. Every time he ate, his food had to pass over the scar and the hook. The hook remained part of him for all of his days. He still felt pain but he was free. We are all the fish."

Some time ago, a friend and I talked of old times and shared stories of people passing through our lives. She reminded me that "We teach people how to treat us." I had forgotten that little truth that I learned long ago. Sometimes in the hustle and push of life, we need to relearn a truth. Even as we get older or perhaps because we get older, the truth is still fresh and needs to be heard. I think that continuing to seek and share truth is something older people need to do. Our integrity depends on it. Truth isn't just the facts or the verbs of the matter but the meaning of it too. The Bluefin Tuna and the fishermen teach each other this every time they meet, don't they?  

October 15, 2014

Bureaucrat Boogie

Relocation to a different state includes a long, long list of "personal" changes and driver's license and car registration are just two of these. I was lucky to be born in the USA, to live in many states and to secure a driver's license where I lived. Here at the FoM, documentation requirements to acquire a driver's license turned out to be surreal. 

Day one: One must have a local driver's license before one may register a car and get a tag. This fact isn't listed on the web site. I finally found the tag office and discovered this information. So ..... I boogied off to the DMV next.  

Still day one: Business hours posted on the DMV site were incorrect so when I showed up during posted business hours? They were closed for the day.  

Day two, trip one: I re-appeared at the DMV with all my required documents: valid out of state driver's license; original birth certificate; social security card with my complete legal name; two (that's two!) different utility bills mailed to my new address. I was turned away because I had no single document that declared "a what/when legal change" of my birth certificate name. 

Day two, trip two: This time I took all the above documents plus several proof of marriage documents that showed my maiden name and who, what, why, how and where the new name originated. Still, a supervisor! had to be called to review my documents, administer an eye test, collect the fee and grant a temporary license. Copies of all my documents were made and kept for their use. My old license got shredded. 

Day two, trip three: With my temp license, old car registration, a fat fee, huge Ca-Ching!! tax payment, proof of insurance (which didn't count as proof of anything at the DMV) and original car title, I finally got my new state tag which is only good for a few months until my next birthday when we can do that all again -- by mail. 

I guess in the scheme of relocation requirements this isn't so unreasonable, or is it?

On July 31, 2014 one of my favorite papers, The Wall Street Journal, ran an outside column story on page A2 (a page location with some serious clout in newspaper real estate), "Immigrants Rush to Get Licenses to Drive." The long story reported, "Eleven states and Washington, D.C., have laws permitting undocumented immigrants to get ... driver's licenses or permit (s)...." So that means no Green Card, no passport, nada comprende?

Seriously? I generally don't get involved in political matters in the blog but -- people show up in those states, with no documentation of who they are, where they were born or lived previously, without proof of address or utility services, neither a social security card nor a birth certificate, no documentation of legal name much less name changes, write down some name and drive away in one trip, legally? 

Does this mean that those states require no identification or verification of anything? Hmmm. How many "Puddin' Tanes" or "Mary-Mary Quite Contrarys" are driving around the country? Oh, those are fairy tale names, aren't they? 

What is the point of all the documentation in one state while right next door, none is required? What does anything mean anymore? Others with no documentation enjoy the same freedom I must justify, testify, qualify and codify to have -- where's the equality in that brand of freedom? Just what's the point -- if freedom is free for undocumented people, what freedoms distinguish citizenship these days? The driver's licenses are equally valid in all the states and the District of Columbia. Hmm. Voom, Voom!

September 21, 2014

Uncharted: Myths and Realities of Being Older--Welcome to Senior Life, 2014

This series about senior living examines some myths and realities of being an older American. Huge assumptions exist about older adults and the marketplace spoon-feeds these misconceptions to the public in a round robin of marketing. Many don't want to be identified as grandparents and prefer a more hip and catchy title.The reality of being older is that most seniors aren't your "grandpa/grandma stereotype any more" and if that's your perception, then you need to get out among real people. 

Today, my house at the FoM smells like blueberry crumb muffins. Tart and sweet and -- is "warm" ever a smell? If you were here, Babies, we would share muffins and peach tea and talk about life and forms of it that we seniors must pass by/through/around until we don't anymore. 

During my year in a senior community, I respected my neighbors' privacy and didn't include daily life in the blog, but they knew I was a writer. During that year, besides my usual creative writing and poetry classes, I designed and taught a large class in the Ethics of Aging at OLLI. My neighbors, my students and my community included people from all over the world. Human proclivities being what they are across the age spectrum, I learned volumes about getting/being older in America. The scope of this blog series has been extended to "universal experience." Welcome to 2014 Senior Living. 


Seniors and the Marketplace

Americans, the media and the world in general worship youth and in the most materialistic way: "Look twenty years younger with this ____. Call or go online now and see how our ________ (cream, gadget, device, oil, injection, procedure, food derivative, plumbing product, supplement, CD, DVD, appliance) revitalizes your ______ (face, lips, neck, rear, golf swing, wardrobe, hair, skin, sex life, kitchen skills, cars.)" Oh, the list is long, insidiously deceptive and limited time offers. 

Are seniors a viable market for all these "recapture youth" products? They have the funds to be a force in the marketplace and their ranks grow every day when Boomers retire. Many buy into the notion of fashion as their identity. All ages may have a difficult time accepting that bodies age while our perceptions and awareness may not keep up. This rests at the bottom of many conflicts between generations. Meanwhile, the marketplace continues to market to both. 

There is a certain segment of the senior population who are forever 15 or 20 in their perception and self-awareness. They got stuck at that "certain age." [This notion may explain much behavior as we explore different areas.] They may shop on home shopping channels and continuously for "sales." Not all seniors who shop this way are 'stuck' but some are. Many seniors prefer to shop only when necessary for things they need. People can use only so much "stuff." Most seniors are downsizing and simplifying their lives. However, seniors with few constructive or creative outlets may shop for entertainment as a hedge against boredom. Did that sixty-something man just whiz by in a new Sapphire Blue Lexus sports convertible?

Some who buy into the Marketplace of Forever Young give a different reason than staying young: they are trying to relate to their great-grandchildren by dressing, behaving and following celebrities as though they share the same age and interests. That senior knows the lyrics to the latest pop music, the latest pop-culture reality star and takes that smart phone even to the bathroom. This phenomenon occurs in both older men and women. In this upside down relationship, both generations lose. 

A certain segment of the population have health issues that interfere with their decisions and interactions with the marketplace. They fall victim to the bottom feeders who prey on them at every opportunity. Oh, those people didn't go away but became more sophisticated with their schemes. Telemarketers, sweepstakes, pigeon drop, home improvement and Internet "make easy money at home" scams are alive and well. They may contact seniors at any time and neither fear nor respect No Call lists or rules. Sharks swarm when they smell fresh bait. 

Another group of unlikely shoppers are ladies of a certain age (over 50 and up to 94--seriously) who copy trends: miniskirts are unbecoming on these ladies, for example, with deep red lipstick, straw-colored, big-hair and long deep-red, gelled nails and toes. Fishnet tights disappearing into strappy gold sandals neither flatter those ancient legs nor make the miniskirt okay. "The Big Barbie Look" may have 'killed' in her youth but now? Not so much. 

Many senior women wear all their jewelry all the time like an older version of "Freda Got Rocks." They're afraid of losing it, having their children take it or that a thief will steal it. Some wear their jewelry all the time because they decide if not now, when? When they were younger, their jewelry may have reflected their cultural status that was part of their identity. 

And, identity is at the root of the marketing, shopping and seemingly aberrant behaviors seniors may display. To a person, no matter how old one becomes, a tiny part of our personality remains young. It laughs, cries and wants closeness with other humans; it wants to belong. This part of be-ing appeared early as impulse and in most of us, it is the last part to recede. That tiny spark that gives voice to impulse is sometimes the only connection to earlier times that a senior may have left. 

Seniors are complicated beings and their be-ing is complex. There is a tendency to whitewash, to discount, to homogenize senior life and to group them under one umbrella as "the elderly." Whenever society does this to any group of people, the result is demoralizing and pejorative. The marketplace sees "the elderly" as a demographic with triple dollar signs instead of faces. Yes, seniors can make wrong decisions about purchases in an attempt to recapture some vestige of youth. When they look in the mirror at a face that doesn't match the one in their spirit, the seduction of youth is hard to evade. 


Celebs Demand a Cure for Aging!

Aging in itself is not a disease. Many young (and older) professionals and people with high media profiles declare that aging needs "a cure" like Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. Diabetes, neurological impairments, cancers, viruses and bacterial diseases don't exclude the young. Shouldn't the world's finite research funds and efforts go to real diseases with a definite clinical pathology? Headline: Research closes in on cure for aging. Really? How will that go down, exactly? 

As we get older, joints are not as nimble, vital organs have wear or trauma and we may not move with as much speed as our younger selves, but these circumstances are not specifically "disease." Many younger researchers insist that a cure for aging can be found with enough public, government, foundation funded grants (hmm) and public awareness. The newest version of a cure: Botox. Men and women (I could name names) subject themselves to the danger of medical-grade venom in an effort to erase lines temporarily in their faces and other body parts (!?). The injections paralyze nerves and healthy cells become perfect -- 
never changing -- before they die off and the process must be repeated. Are we back to the Marketplace again? What's for sale here?

So far this year, friends and their families (my Peeps) have encountered the trauma of losing family members, lymphoma, kidney disease, multiple myeloma, head trauma, cataract surgery, viruses, strep, staph, shattered bones, lung infections, melanoma, Legionnaire's Disease, COPD, heart valve concerns, aneurysms, angioplasty, prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer and bone cancer. Whew -- and I'm certain I left some out. When I throw in my knee reconstruction and ongoing battle with Crohn's Disease, this list seems overwhelming -- but not one of these diseases or impairments is a direct result of aging. My friends are people of all ages and illness is not confined to seniors. 

Society has a tendency to replace a senior's identity with whatever illness is active in their body -- so, "Melinda" becomes "that lady with an aneurysm" or "George is that man with prostate cancer" (and we certainly can't talk about that!).  Seniors often have a harder time than younger people with similar illnesses because their family and medicos may only focus on the disease and the senior has little voice in the matter. When this happens, the real identity, the real person recedes. I have heard many women declare, "I am not my cancer." This response is healthy on so many levels.  

If the upcoming good minds stay obsessed with aging as a disease, how will they understand the value of life experience? Some seniors never accept the natural cycle of life and the dynamic duo of dread and denial shields them. A ninety-year old with a broken bone who refuses pain medication because she must be tough hugely reduces her chance of recovery when she can't get out of bed for physical therapy -- Denial at its most damaging. Most of us who have survived to senior status have learned to meet life's challenges with a grain of integrity and the faintest suggestion of dignity. While this is not impossible, it's not an easy task. 

Although only other seniors seem to understand the dynamics of being older, seniors can mature like fine wine or even a rich vinegar, or not. Collectors invest in wine, olive oils, balsamic vinegars, vintage cars and books, antiques of all types, old paintings, but how much value, how much respect do seniors rate in the community, among their families and society in general? 

Not as much as you think. 


Wobbling Gyroscopes

Years ago, Flip Wilson, gifted, hilarious and ahead of his time, portrayed an irreverent reverend who said, (I'm paraphrasing here) that Change in the service makes him nervous. Change comes in many forms: monetary, location, family status, personal status, health status--just to name a few. Change can be planned or not; it unsettles everything either way. Across the board, change makes seniors nervous. Change wobbles our internal gyroscopes and most of us work at keeping our lives balanced. Some do this more constructively than others do. 

Here at FoM, my 23rd residence as an adult, month two sneaked in. A manuscript, a basket for its edited/printed pages, large appointment and address books, computer, printer with required wiring and maps -- lots of maps -- cover my desk. I still don't have my internal map in place. One-way streets, unanticipated street-name changes at angular intersections, road construction, and winding roads that suddenly open onto a broad valley community or quickly wind through deep woods all challenge my navigation skills. I've been lost and frustrated but haven't quit yet. I always have plan or two. I finally got a county map -- not as easy as you might think -- from a vendor in another state and a GPS that doesn't acknowledge road construction. I am now armed with the county map, a metro map, the GPS, Google Earth photos, Google directions and maps. Babies, I'm only lacking one of those pith helmets, khaki tropical gear and binoculars around my neck to be a total cliché. Hilarious in any location. 

It’s never funny when we hear of a senior who has fallen. "Emma" fell and broke her hip but the truth may be that Emma's hip broke and she fell. Falls are difficult for older people to endure and recovery may be slow. Seniors are not always mindful or careful with their physical movements. Some climb ladders, up on chairs and stubbornly refuse to admit any vulnerability. 

"I am fine and I'm not too old to do_____. Get out of my way." 

Some seniors move too quickly, get up from a chair or out of bed with undue haste or insist that they "will take a bath when I please." Many times Rescue must get them out of the tub, transport them when they've slipped in the tub, fallen off the ladder or simply stepped off the curb and fallen face-first. Mindfulness is not a natural factor in seniors; it must be learned and integrated into all that we do. Many older people think on some level that pride is their last refuge and refuse to slow down or to accept any change in their habits. The frequency of senior distress has become a joke: "I've fallen and I can't get up." and an industry has popped up to offer communication monitoring for emergencies. Another change for older people to overcome is being alone and immobile. 

A less well-known way seniors cope with change is with immoderate drinking. Life brings surprises and disappointments and hey, a little wine before dinner, with dinner, after dinner, or any time sounds like a good idea to many. How about a hard lemonade with lunch, too? This may sound far-fetched to many of you who have different visions of Gramps or Gran. For those of us immersed in that population group, it's common. Many restaurants in an area with a large population of retirees begin Happy Hour at 11 a.m. Mix in a few prescriptions and voila, a retiree with intensified vulnerability to falls and to poor judgment. When people drink excessively, different behaviors emerge and it's not always pretty. Bones, friendships and decorum may be damaged. 

When I started this series, I cautioned that we would get into some sensitive areas and dealing with change is one of those. The day to day life of seniors is not always rosy and pink. The myth is that older folks are wise, without a care in the world and happy to be out of the rat race or whatever occupied their lives over time. Nothing could be farther from reality in many instances. Life for seniors in 2014 is not the 1950s. 

Mostly, seniors find little hilarity in their struggles with change. A real danger with change is being unbalanced -- physically or psychologically. Many seniors respond to change with depression, anger or big personality swings. Being hospitalized for depression is increasingly common among older people. Isolation, illness and loss are common changes seniors may face. The emotional world of seniors is a different post, and if you are a senior with a wonderful life, enjoy! Many seniors have lives with joy and meaning and your section in this series will come later. 

I hear the 10:40 train whistle and the Fed Ex cargo plane climbs into the night sky right on schedule. Life around the Mountain never sleeps. 


Here’s to all the Mean Girls

Newcomers who move into a population of seniors or become involved in organized senior activities may be surprised by who else shows up. I was. Oh, I'm not an innocent: I've worked in, volunteered in, lived in, served in and left behind many settings where politics flourished, thrived and ran wild. Few men I've met over my lifetime, although a few bullies come close, approach the petty behavior of Mean Girls. Rewind to cliques and Mean Girls who grew taller, better dressed and older, but Babies, they didn't grow up. And, they take us seniors back to the seventh grade. I wasn't a casualty but always a camera-like observer: click, click. 

A few weeks ago, I read a forty-something's account of seventh-grade terrors with real anguish, still. Twenty years after my own gauntlet-run through junior high, my seventh grade students modeled the same vicious, hormone-driven, girl-zilla behaviors. Cliques ruled and for an insecure girl to be "included" into that exclusivity: "We're cool, we're in and you're not," becoming a Mean Girl was a small price to pay. The taunts, insults and exclusion they served up made the seventh grade more traumatic than any school-related changes. 

As we grew older, most of us forgot the small and spiteful behaviors that tarnished seventh grade. But for people who find themselves in a population of older folks, seventh grade may quickly return where and when we least expect it. Perhaps, "Mindy" or "Angela" may be pleasant and friendly at first meeting. She's full of compliments, shares details of her life and exhibits impeccable manners. However, the next time your path crosses Mindy or Angela's, her clique of women who insulate each other from you, the world and reality may materialize. The outsider has hit the impenetrable wall of the Mean Girls. 

Mean Girls appraise other women's attire, jewelry, appearance, marital status, behavior, attitudes, food choices, hair color -- everything and anything they see -- and make no pretense that their assessment is binding. They close ranks, protect each other and make it plain that they rule the turf, the meeting, the protocol, the event, the organization, the house, the room, the roof and every one's opinion. Men are exempt from their pettiness. Other women who may be useful to the Mean Girls are also tolerated in the short run.

One of the most difficult parts of getting older is the many losses seniors rack up as facets of our lives change; we must reboot, regroup and rebuild. We may be adrift or storm-tossed and just when we see friendly faces and hope for a life preserver? One may come our way but it's not attached to anything. 

Mean Girls will:
  • Occupy a table or a row in a crowded area with empty seats and turn others away without hesitation.  
  • Run her electric wheelchair into anyone without regard.  
  • Back her scooter over nearby feet while she juggles a cigarette in one hand and her oxygen cord entangles the other one. 
  • Sneer and laugh when anyone else is having a bad day. 
  • Will take the last of anything with no hesitation or apology. 
  • Gossip, snicker and point at anyone they choose.
  • Will insult anyone to their face without compunction. 
  • Will tell anyone that they don't belong around them.
  • Will treat anyone whose job brings any level of comfort to the Mean Girls -- drivers, wait staff, hair stylists, managers, social workers, receptionists, any medical personnel, caregivers, organizational employees of any rank, et al -- as menial sub humans if they don't provide Mean Girls preferential treatment. 
  • Will never miss an opportunity to perceive a slight or to register the smallest grievance.  
  • Must be the center of attention. 
  • And, one of my favorites: Are masterful at the art of freezing out anyone they may dislike for any reason. See slights above. 
When I began this series, I intended to tell the little known side of senior life. Those who still have a spouse or reside with other relatives may only encounter this type of behavior in the community, if at all. But when seniors live in close proximity, family connections aren't there to buffer personalities and differences. This installment in particular has given me pause and I thought long and hard about not posting it. Many seniors may find that senior communities, senior activities and senior organizations are not warm and fuzzy places. 

So here I am in another new area, with another new beginning and with another new life to build. Volunteering waits on my horizon, organizations I may join remain undiscovered and new ventures I may create will pop up. 

Will I encounter Mean Girls again? Of course. The antidote for Mean Girls hasn't changed since the seventh grade: Keep be-ing, keep a healthy distance, keep smiling, keep moving into the sunlight and most importantly, let your life speak for you. 

Click, click. 

Sex and the Senior

Once upon a time in the seventh grade (yes, we're back there), boys and girls were curious about each other and raging hormones were in play. Fast forward through marriages, children, careers, divorces, illnesses, losses and aging, et al. The hormones no longer rage, but some women and many more men entertain illusions, harbor delusions and jump to conclusions in the area of interpersonal relations just like junior high kids. Pharmacology has stepped up to replace those adolescent hormones and seniors are the main target market. When all those elements meld, Babies, it's not a pretty thing. The toxic mix becomes about the senior holding on to delusions of youth and/or promoting a personal agenda. The cliché of being neither a nurse nor a purse has validity and older folks of either gender can be targeted. Life as a senior in 2014 isn't the one Boomers' grandparents lived. 

Younger people like to believe that folks over sixty, or horrors! seventy and older, are beyond sex and its complexities. They operate on the myth of re-virgin-ing: their older relatives just couldn't be sexual beings -- and oh, good grief, not now! It's the Goldilocks phenomenon: sexuality is limited to people their own age, whatever that may be, and that's "not too young, not too old, but just right." People under fifty have this view of relatives and older people in general: Gram has returned to maidenhood and Gramps sits in contented contemplation of the good life he enjoyed. Really? Well, not so much. 

Truth be told about seniors and sex? If a couple has enjoyed a long or a short marriage, they retain or entertain an intimacy, a closeness that holds precise meaning for their generation. One spouse may be clingy and dependent on the other in later life. Illness and the realization of time's fleet feet may contribute to that duo. When a spouse is not emotionally mature, jealousy may lurk in the corner and flare up like those seventh grade insecurities, again. Domestic violence is uncommon but not an uncharted course. Declining cognitive abilities and jealousy make poor companions. 

New friendships between a couple and a single are strictly off limits. The clear message here? If you're an older single man or woman, stick to your own kind. Ridicule, harassment and blatant dismissal may be in store for singles who try to break this taboo. An insecure eighty-five-year-old woman jealously defending territory that isn't in jeopardy suffers despair that cannot be quelled. Occasionally, couples dress in matching clothes just like junior high "going-steadys." Because the ratio of women to men is high, segregation by marital status is the norm. "The widow's table" is common at senior gatherings. Single men are more welcome around couples than single women. New widows often turn to those single men for comfort and attention and because some women like to take care of a man. They make no apologies for it.

Haven't seen an older lifelong-womanizer in action? They're obnoxious (like seventh graders) and deluded. This is The Alpha Honey Bee who wishes to pollinate as many flowers as he can. In general, these men maintain that women yearn for their attention and welcome it. The AHB has been a cheater all his life and why stop now? The AHB flies into the middle of wherever seniors gather, doesn't take no for an answer without vehement rejection and hovers as long as he has an audience. The AHB often mistakes a friendly hello and a pleasant smile for an invitation. Online dating sites for seniors are numerous and popular, especially with married men! Is it a coincidence that the highest rate of divorce by age group is now among people over sixty?  

On the other side, older women who stalk men (like seventh grade girls with a cell phone) are not rare anymore. Women are comfortable initiating assignations and men are receptive. These women channel Mae West and have no issues with inviting a man to their place, taking him home for the evening and breakfast. Everyone knows the score up front. Senior women often present themselves as the age they can re-create and aim to date younger men. Many women can't keep their hands off a man -- they fix his collar, stroke his face, touch his arm and compliment him incessantly. Other women aren't so subtle. The resistant male recipient of those attentions can only seek refuge within a group where he feels safe. 

Many senior women enjoy inveterate flirting whether they're married or single. Some men like that too and as long as everyone understands the playbill, no one gets hurt. 
Like their junior high school counterparts, seniors can participate in public displays of affection and embarrass themselves. Seriously. Add a bit of vino and kapow! Love, or something that passes for it, is in the air. Their children protest and usually prevail but not always. Sometimes it really is love.  

Besides the myth that older people are asexual, too many older folks think that he/she is the only exception to the myth. This is not a myth but a sobering and dangerous fact of life: STDs are prevalent among seniors, especially men. CDC statistics for 2012 show that almost 700 per 100,000 people over 65 were infected with STDs. Those don't proliferate through the Internet. 

I think that the hardest part of aging for seniors is knowing which behavioral bridges to burn and which ones to keep. Those who haven't made peace with their mortality no longer build new bridges but seem stuck in a behavioral cloverleaf pattern. They struggle with declining health while their inner person still feels young. They become willing to risk ridicule to have someone to love and to love them, just like seventh graders. What can be more human than that?


Circle Closings

The sky today at FoM brings thick spiraling clouds and oppressive humidity that demands its due. Storms rattled the night but are quiet now. Poplar and sweet gum leaves twitter without real movement and yield no breeze. Young and old line up around the pool deck like herring drying dockside and hope to refresh their fading summer tan with filtered sun. To paraphrase Willie's little phrase: Vanity thy name is a great tan. 

Older people are not immune to this fallacy and many sun worshipers who make it to senior status find out way more than they wish to know about the varied types of skin cancer. A tan should rightly be called A Toast. 
And how much toast did you get today? Oh, your toast is so becoming; it makes you look younger. Unfortunately, vanity often triumphs. Florida's bright sunlight contributes to an alarming amount of skin cancer. Natives and long time residents do not want a tan -- you know them by their pale apparitions and long sleeves. 

Here at FoM and in the River City by the Sea, 'toasting' in the sun hasn't lost its appeal to women or to men seniors. In February, a neighbor toasted herself everyday as she always had. In April, melanoma appeared in spite of her big floppy hat and by June, she was gone. This phenomenon happens over and over again with seniors. I happened to hear the neighbors talk of this once vibrant and endearing lady while they sunned themselves. Ironic. Sixty-, even ninety-somethings seeking that bronze veneer of their youth: a healthy glow?

When I moved to the retirement community in 2013, an infant chameleon somehow backpacked on my move. I wrote about him in the blog but never found him again. When I moved to FoM, the movers carried out my office bookcases and revealed the little chameleon, a crispy critter. These little creatures often hide and meet their end that way. So many times we think our choices are wise but the laws of the universe win out. Seniors can be like the very young and think their choices don't mean much on any given day. Like with the young, seniors' choices can become patterns and habits that acquire a life of their own. 

I must rely on Willie again to end this post: 

"All the world's a stage, /And all the men and women merely players/  

They have their exits and their entrances...." 

Writers and readers often question whether life imitates art or is it the other way around? Some seniors act out their life like a play while others let life open before them in a free fall of freedom.  


Uptown Seniors

Sunday at FoM began cloudy, turned tropical with hard, blowing rain from the NE then the SW and now, clear sunny skies. As I write this, thunder curls around the mountain. 

Today, I'll examine a more common myth about seniors -- that we are finished, boring, washed up, old, decrepit, kaput, ridiculous, have nothing left, and expect younger generations to care for us in our dotage. Many even see us a drain on resources of all kinds. I don't know about you Babies, but I don't count myself in that group and neither do older people who are special to  me.   

Exceptions among my senior friends on any given day include:
  • Writing students aged sixty through early nineties whose projects include literary fiction, nonfiction, self-help books, poetry, historical fiction, children's books, short stories, general fiction and humor. Many have published since we worked together in late 2013. Others have expanded into blogging. 
  • Volunteers at local hospitals or international programs who do that quietly after a long career in medicine or accounting or teaching and may serve well into their eighties at their own expense. 
  • Guardian ad litems who volunteer tirelessly in thankless and difficult circumstances without any assured success.
  • Speakers who are successful and active Toastmasters. 
  • One special volunteer uses Toastmaster skills to speak about Hospice to organizations and groups.
  • Volunteers who teach English as a Second Language. 
  • Volunteers who teach other seniors yoga, or Tai Chi, or a hundred other classes.
  • Stephen Ministers who walk with others in spiritual crisis.
  • Several who remain employed as counselors. 
  • Volunteers in Senior Centers or at OLLIs around the country. 
  • Volunteers in Scouting as administrators or with their grandchildren.
  • Volunteers in animal shelters or animal rescue programs.
  • Volunteers on crisis management teams.
  • Volunteers with Meals on Wheels.
  • Volunteers in the arts as performers or administrative support.
  • Grandparents who strive to give structure, time and caring to grandchildren and other relatives. 
  • Neighbors who help other neighbors and friends with transportation, fresh garden veggies, homemade meals, emotional support and serve others in so many quiet ways. 
  • A talented lady who discovered that she can paint and one of her paintings hangs over my desk. She called it "Being." 
  • Many who take classes at OLLIs around the country year round. 
  • Teaching scuba diving.
  • Leading special interest groups for other seniors.         
  • Volunteers who do the thousand little jobs that must be done to make bigger projects work. 
  • Mentoring new high school sports referees.
  • Hiking the Appalachians and the Colorado Rockies. 
These remarkable people aren't out of a book or a movie or fabricated. I don't name them to protect their privacy but they are irreplaceable people in my life. Given this broad spectrum of interests and activities (I'm sure I've forgotten some), what could they have in common? 

Each one of them has integrity, purpose, curiosity and serious intention to make their little corner of the world better in quiet, unique ways. None of them think the world is about them but I do. I think the people I've written about here leave their footprints everywhere they go. 

When we were little kids, didn't we all want to grow up and be someone special? When people buy into the myths about being older, they don't know of people like these who are rare and not likely to be equaled by the next generation.  

For the past five years, instead of college students of all ages, seniors of all descriptions surrounded me in different settings and situations and I learned and learned. In my own life, married and single people of both genders are long time friends, my "Peeps." Most seniors function as complicated, private be-ings who integrate mature life adjustments and that's not a myth. 

Seniors are just like any other ages -- they like to laugh, to dance, to celebrate and to be valued. If they become stereotypes, they don't know it. I haven't given away any secrets that were shared with me although there were many. My immersion in senior life was educational and poignant and I came away with a new perspective. 

I know that the subject matter of this series may seem harsh, too realistic and not for the faint of heart. I get that. My intention is to dispel some of the inaccurate assumptions and attitudes about seniors. Real life is messy. In spite of what their children and society in general may think, seniors have multi-dimensional personalities, make good and bad choices and many have a "I'll do (say or think) as I damn well please now--I am old." attitude. A resounding "I don't have to be nice now," said with resolve, may become their go-to comment. I did and do hear that over and over. The good, bad and the ugly showed up here, and sometimes, was disturbing or unpleasant. Eventually, I hope a more complex view of senior living emerged. You'd think I'd sold out if I didn't tell the whole truth, wouldn't you, Babies?