Sunday, June 26, 2011

Adulthood -- Elderhood

I watched a You Tube video of a TED talk by Dr. [Bill, I think{} Thompson on the Time Goes By blog -- see my right hand sidebar -- I don't know how to put a video on here. The link but you can click this, I think. Or go to Times Goes By -- two days ago.

Dr. Thompson is a geriatrician, one of only 6,000 in the USA in a country with 30 million people over 65. Have you ever seen a geriatrician? I never have. But they're the M.D.s who know that older people have age-related problems and what can be done about them besides writing a knee-jerk prescription.

Dr Thompson analyzes the effect of the boomer generation which, says he, invented "adulthood" after they had been through youthful rebellion and turned the country on its ear during the '60s and '70s. Then they discovered family and responsibility and major consumerism, computers, the stock market and that they didn't want to get old, so they spawned "success aging" gurus by the hundred to espouse "successful aging" -- in other words, pretending you aren't aging. So the invented botox and knee replacement, egg white omelets and SUVs. But, say Dr. Thompson, they can invent all they can think of they can't invent a way to actually stop getting older every birthday. It's almost inevitable that some of them, perhaps a vocal, book writing, activist group, will discover elderhood. That, yes, getting older can lead to a smidgeon of wisdom, perhaps some insights, perhaps some contentment.

For my part, I think I've survived adulthood pretty well: I did the expected, i.e., married, had kids, was very active in my community, divorced, moved to a different city, had a career, traveled to many parts of the world, wrote a book and researched for another, was frugal enough to have a saving account and IRA, and retired.

Now I"m ready and even eager for elderhood. I'm sharing some of my experience both in writing and teaching, I'm enjoying artistic pursuits, taking advantage of a beautiful locale, making new friends, enjoying a growing family and have been both lucky [thanks to my parents' genes] and sensible enough to remain healthy. I have an understanding of several religions and philosophies and frequently feel content. I remember Gloria Steinam's statement at fifty and I'd tweak it to say, "This, I think, is what elderhood looks like." Glad I'm here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog

What a journey! I drove along a two lane highway beneath a canopy of great green trees, in a gray threatening-rain afternoon, and went into the Screening Room at the Cape Cod Art Museum -- basement level, a long narrow room, dimly lit, soon entirely filled with people -- all very cave-like. And then watched Werner Herzog and his small crew enter a cave used by early man 32,000 years ago -- and sealed by an avalanche for most of the past 20,000 years -- where the oldest known human artwork reveals the animals that lived in a corridor of forest at the foot of the enormous glaciation of Europe. In that cold climate man co-existed with enormous cave bears, lions, bisons, horses, lions, various antelope -- not only other homo sapiens but Neanderthals as well.

On the walls were outline drawings done with breath taking skill. On the floor are [often covered by thousands of years of crystalization, bones off those animals -- but no human bones. But on the walls the hand prints of a human being, a distinctive individual with a twisted pinkie finger. And on the floor along with cave bear prints, a foot print of a child about 8 years old, beside a wolf's footprint. The mind tries to imagine humans making those drawing by torch light, tries to imagine that person putting his hand print on the walls, that child perhaps with the wolf perhaps walking there hundreds or thousand of years before or after that wolf. One tries to imagine 32,000 years -- most of Europe under ice, as was all of Canada, and the upper 1/3rd of the United States.
Herzog has always been a fascinating film maker, a man with a mind that asks questions, an imagination that challenges movie goers. At the end, after much information from paleontologists an other scientists, he shows us a strange environment that is not very far away from the cave area where the hot water of nuclear power plants is used to steam heat a tropical enclosed environment [for what purpose is not stated] into which not only palms and many kind of tropical tree has been added but alligators, which have increased from a few to hundreds, many of them albino. It is a very weird ending as he talks about evolution. His plan is to leave the audience asking questions. And I certainly will be pondering for a long time. I have a new stock of images in my mind to mull and use as touchstones for a lot of contemplations.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rainy evening, Reading

The window is streaked with raindrops. I'm not complaining. We've had a few wonderful first-of-summer days and now I suspect one can almost watch the grass regaining its green and growing taller as it soaks up the rain. I love the late lightness in the sky now that we've hit the solstice -- I know it's minisculely a shorter day than it was two days ago, but that won't be noticeable until the end of July. The lovely weather we've had has given me a nice sense of contentment. Good walks, today another lovely drive on Rte. 6A to the movie theatre in Dennis to see a replay of the Met's Don Pasquale, a silly opera with magnificent songs and singing by a cast of only four: bass, baritone, tenor and soprano. The stage director went a little overboard with the comedy schicts. But it was clear the singers were having a lot of fun pulling out the stops and acting over the top. It was also clearly a special tribute to conductor James Levine who had returned after a serious illness and who was having a wonderful time with the music. Lots of good feelings. I've also been awash in good feelings of a more serious sort reading Mark Helprin's book of short stories called The Pacific. The wonderful thing about this collection of 16 stories is, firstly, that the protagonists -- and there's quite a range of them -- are essentially good people. They have serious problems, they deal with them in a variety of ways, some ineptly, some just doing the best they can, one by working miracles. These stories are obviously written by a mature writer who has been many places, who knows many things, who is long past mining his childhood for his stories, who is not caught up in "today" but uses places and themes that are larger and deeper.

I've had the book on my to-read shelves for some time. Rather often when I finish one book and go to the shelves to choose the next I do so in an almost blank state of mind. Everything on those two bookcase -- the top three shelves of each -- was chosen because it interested me for one reason or another. If I begin a book and find it dull or disappointing I can always put it aside. Sometimes, as with the Hiss book I read a few days ago, it surprises me and may be harder than I expected. And then there are unexpected very satisfying surprises like Helprin's book. I have a treasure of surprises on those shelves, most bought at thrift shops, library sales, or on impulse as a two-fer at a book store. Some have been there a long time, some are as new as last week. The shelves never actually get emptier.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Borges, Shakespeare and God

I've been reading a book called The World is Made of Stories by David R. Ley. He is defining the world in Buddhist terms but with many, many quotes, many of which are very wonderful, especially to the mind of a serious reader and writer and lover of book. The following is a wonderful quote from Jorge Luis Borges about Shakespeare.

There was no one like him: behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic, and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: "I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself." The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: "Neither am I anyone; I had dreamt the world as you dreamt your work. my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one."

I can add nothing, that is beautifully written and leaves one thinking both about Shakespeare, and as the author intended, about all the world's story telling.

And addendum of no importance and off the subject but I just want to say: I learned, yesterday, how to put air i the car's tires! You see an old dog does learn new tricks.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Madama Butterfly

The Metropolitan Opera is milking their HD video simulcasts for all their worth and I say, Hurray! They not only show a true simulcast as the opera is being performed, they allow the theatres to show the video the next day and now they are doing a "summer season" of repeats. I'm not sure if this is consistent across the country [or even the world] but here a six-opera "season" has just begun with a different opera each Wednesday afternoon for the next six weeks. They cost less than the original showings which is nice. Obviously, with a 1:00 p.m. time they are geared to retirees, and, in the case of Cape Cod possible vacationers on days when weather keeps them off the beach.

Yesterday's audience was sizable. I had not seen the Madama Butterfly in the fall of '09 but read of the innovative production. It's not a favorite opera of mine. I cannot think of it without thinking of the first production I ever saw, way back when I was a new bride traveling in Europe on the cheap but had reached Vienna where we could stay with a brother-in-law and thus our tight budget allowed opera tickets. Butterfly was played by an Italian soprano as wide as she was tall and Pinkerton was a husky German tenor. I have seen two or three other productions since but quite a while ago -- in fact, before the subtitle era.

This was a revelation first of all because the subtitles showed me that the book/lyrics was very modern. Consul Sharpless tries vainly to stop Pinkerton's free and easy girl-in-every-port ways. Secondly, the leads were wonderful singers but the soprano was definitely neither Japanese nor 15 years old. She was a good actress which, with the music, made the suspension of disbelief possible. Pinkerton was a bit too old and definitely reminded me of some of the well known men currently in the news for their sexual exploitation of women.

The production used several spectacular innovations, including a puppet for the child. Three people in black handled the appealing puppet. They were always visible but the wonder of theatre's magic is that we in the audience see and know the artifice and enjoy the creativity of it. I was so caught up in the story, music and Butterfly's acting that I cried through the end of Act II and much of Act III.

There is considerable discussion among opera critics and lovers about whether these video-ed productions will bring new audiences and whether it's detrimental to opera stars to be expected to act and look the part. Anatomy is important for the operatic voice and for the ability to project those wonderful voices into a huge auditorium. My own feeling, as someone who came to opera entirely through radio broadcasts, is that the more I see these videos, the more I love the grand operas and smile at but tend to dismiss the ligther confections like many Rossini operas. I understand all the concern about younger audiences but many arts continue to exist for the few -- poetry hasn't died nor have Shakespeare and Chekov, string quartets remain -- the House of Windsor an the Dalai Lama remain. Hurray!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Basic Incompetence

This is an embarrassing admission: I like to feel competent in the frequent tasks of every day life, things like cooking, laundry, house keeping, handing money, caring for myself, etc. My excuse for a gross incompetence is that for about 25 years of my midlife I lived in New York City and did not own a car. No, I'm not like a fair number of New Yorkers who can't drive. I'm a Midwesterner who learned to drive at age 15 in a recently harvested hayfield with my mother beside me and no trees or traffic to cause accidents -- the fence posts were far away. I love driving.

BUT I never learned to pump gas. I have done it once or twice when I really had to -- with tutoring my helpful gentlemen who did not sneer at a woman's incompetence. I'm vey happy that the two nearby gas stations that I frequent pump the gas for their customers. That brings me to today's problem. The left front tire seems a bit low and I think it needs air. I also don't know how to put air in tires. One of the two gas stations has an outdoor set up where you can get air -- also you can use a vacuum to clean inside your car [they have drive-thru car wash as well]. What I have done in the past, and what I will do in a couple of hours is fill up with gas and then say to the guy as he gives me the charge slip is look both knowing and helpless and say that I think it needs air and I need help because I don't know how to do it. And he'll look a bit put upon but tell me to drive around to the air hose.

I'll give him the two quarters needed to activate the air machine and he'll do the job and probably look at all the other tires as well. And then I'll thank him very sincerely and give him a dollar tip. And I'll drive away personally embarrassed having paid $1.50 for a small quantity of air. All the while the transaction takes place I will feel that I am really a very competent person choosing to hide under the disguise of a white haired lady who has possibly lost the husband who used to do such things and should be treated with compassionate courtesy. I keep thinking I'll learn how to do the air myself ... maybe I will, Rachel says she'll teach me. Well, I've also been taught to pump gas but I'm glad I don't have to do it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Reading a difficult book

At last an explanation for why time seems to drag for children and rush for we seniors. I am reading In Motion by Tony Hiss ... slowly because his pace is slow. I'm not quite sure what he's trying to explain, but now and then he tells me things I didn't know or gives me a new way to think about some big questions. One is time.

Paul Janet, a French philosopher was apparently the first person to write down this idea about time [in 1877]: we measure passing years against the stockpile of our own birthdays. For a ten year old a year is a great accomplishment, a whole 1/10th of his life. But at age 50 a year is only 2% of our stockpile of years. Thus, throughout our years we apply a yardstick that keeps changing and becomes meaningless. At 70 a year is such a small thing, and the next year will be smaller. ... Certainly it feels that way to me. I have found myself thinking, say on a Sunday evening, "Good heavens, another week is past." It seems the merest instant. Winter and spring have come and gone this year and now summer begins. I intend to enjoying it as much as I can, but I leap ahead in my imagination and know it will whiz away. The only "defense" [which isn't exactly what I mean] against the feeling of loss that suggests is the very awareness of its fast fleetingness.

That brings me to another bit Hiss writes about the knowledge we all have, but which many choose to suppress fiercely, that we have only a limited lifespan. He tells of Uwais el-Qarni, a Yemeni thinker living approximately at the time of Mohammad. When asked how he felt he said he felt like a man who wakes up in the morning and doesn't know if he will be alive in the evening. His questioner remarked, "but that is true for all people," Uwais answered, "Yes, but how many of them feel it?" This was quoted not to say that feeling it is good or bad, but that some of us have a stronger awareness than others and therefore live as if we are tuned to a different pitch. Obviously this is not a new thought. I often think those of us who have that awareness are the poets and musicians and artists of the world. That is only a feeling, I won't claim it's a fact. But I think we more often stop to smell the roses and look at the stars -- and another fact Hiss writes is that 80% of the people now living in the world [in highly populated centers] actually cannot see the Milky Way at night because the sky is polluted with both gases and with light.

I think having come across these bits of information and insight before reaching the actual middle of a book that is often difficult and sometimes boring makes a very good case for reading difficult and boring books.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thinking Back and Forward

A vintage photo -- not the one I said in my last post I would scan in. I am having no luck with the scanner on my printer. But I wanted a backward look. I don't have the specific date but it's likely this picture was taken on my second birthday since my younger brother was born in February and that seems right for the baby's size. It's obviously a warm day and a chair has been carried outside for the photo of my mother and her children. This may be my favorite of the few vintage photos I have, expect perhaps for one when I was a very small infant and four generations were pictured -- all of us first daughters, as it turned out.

Does being a first daughter matter if there is only a brother and no second daughter? Maybe not. The novelist in me thinks there could be a story about generations of first daughters.

A celebratory dinner was last night with all the grandchildren present and the great-grandson as well. Since the two grandsons are not living at home anymore that is an unusual occurrence. The weather has decided to celebrate with me, pushing the 80 degree mark today with plentiful sun and a nice breeze -- exactly the kind of day I like best.

I'm reading Tony Hiss's book In Motion which is about what he calls "Deep Travel". Not long ago I read Winifred Galligher's Rapt, which is about paying attention. Both are talking about being focused. They use familiar psychology terms but they could easily talk also in Buddhist terms about "being present." Both books support an idea I've been trying to write about: reading books that demand attention and time -- like big serious novels in contrast to short stories or the dreadful new genre of flash fiction.
I've written maybe ten pieces that can be called flash fiction, if it's defined as fewer than 1000 words. This is a mental exercise with not much more depth than doing a Times Sunday crossword puzzle. The creation of a situation and a couple of characters is almost a sneeze. That does not mean there is much depth to such pieces -- in fact, just the opposite. The only depth possible comes from carefully chosen adjectives and actions. Reading such fiction is a waste of time and writing it is also, I think, but maybe less of a waste as creative mental exercises are better than passive entertainment.

Both Hiss and Gallagher emphasize the pleasure and importance of deep involvement in what one is doing. This is not possible when "multitasking." Although Gallagher uses the word "rapt", most of her book is about something less totally involving than being in a state of rapture. As I troll my memory, in general, and when writing whatever stories I write, I find I've often been in the state Hiss calls "deep travel" which is why, on days like this, when I am thinking back over many years, I feel they have been very rich in experience. I have not "killed" a lot of time. I've been present in my life enough to be astonished at all it's held so far.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of
is already written.
I am not done with
my changes."Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of
is already written.
I am not done with
my changes.

This segment of Stanley Kunitz's poem "The Layers" has been on the sidebar of this blog ever since I started it. I know some readers have actually not noticed or read it. I think of it very often. Kunitz wrote the poem at age 78, I believe, and lived to 101 -- twenty plus years of further transformations. And his poetry did change.
Just how do we "live in the layers, not on the litter"? Partly it's that hackneyed idea "don't sweat the small stuff." Live in awareness of all one's experienced and try to have the good sense to know what's important and what's just litter. Don't waste precious time, and all time is precious. Another local poem asked, "what will you do with your one wild and precious life?" [Mary Oliver] I think of that often too. Poetry exists to become part of our thoughts, to give us signposts.

I had reason to look at a picture taken of myself slightly over 70 years ago. I'll add it here if I can figure out how to scan it tomorrow. That child was wincing into the sun and standing rather sturdily, feet firmly planted apart and her little hands in fists. Not comfortable at that moment. She was standing on the porch of the house she was born in, a house with a narrow front porch. The boards were warped and the porch only about three feet deep. A remnant of snow was nearby, I suspect it was spring rather than fall]. I don't believe there are portents in early photographs. Too many factors enter into what comes next, school, all the things to be learned including reading and writing, piano lessons, and the lessons of being with others. All that depends on circumstance. And then comes all the rest of life, changes, one after another. All exciting, although some were scary, confusing, misdirected, ignorant. In seventy years so much, more than many other people experience -- happily, luckily, intentionally, serendipitously, The child is somewhere in the woman but now a tiny bit. The world became so much wider than that narrow, warped porch, the sunshine has been bright, always with a touch of snow nearby. More changes are yet to come.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Three Years

I started writing this blog three years ago so today is an anniversary. Once again, as then, I've been ruminating on women and age. Last night I saw a magnificent Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, and recall her line, "Lady [?} has been thirty-five ever since she turned forty." Wilde is so witty it's almost impossible to keep up with him in the play. Before I go on about age I must say it was an HD delayed live performance from NYC's Roundabout Theatre. Brian Bedford both directed and acted Lady Bracknell. I don't believe anyone could play the role better. Every tiniest expression was in service of the kind of impossible woman she is. The cameras stayed on him so the movie audience saw more than most in the le audience could. Wonderful!

I have read that most women think of themselves as they were -- at least in physical appearance -- at 35. Yes, I do. I can't do all the yoga assanas I did then, and I weight more and, of course, my hair is 99% white. But in my inner vision I'm 35 and hope not to grow any older. Today with all the Baby Boomers marching into their 60s, I am a proud to say, No, I'm not a boomer. I'm in the generation that's leading the way for them. Many of us are still going strong and barely slowing down. Those of us lucky enough to have chosen our parents well [good genetics] and who had the sense to take care of ourselves both mentally and physically, I believe, are the standard bearers for the boomers -- that herd thundering along behind us. That's enough pondering for today. I've decided to update the 12 or so year-old photo that's on this blog -- at least here today, maybe in a few days on the sidebar. Letting go of certain kinds of vanity must be done in slow bites -- like eating home made ice cream [does anyone remember that?] slowly so you don't get a shooting pain in your head just above your eyes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer around the corner!

The wild beach roses, white and red, are blooming. It's warm enough to walk barefooted on the sand and to take a chair to the beach and read for a while. Summer is really starting. In yards the rhododendruns are huge and brilliant and the azaleas are shorter but even more brilliant. Grass is lush and birds are busy singing for their mates. Hurray.

Last weekend the tourists began to return. The merchants are happy. The roads are jammed, making a left turn in an exercise in patience and daring -- you just have to brave it sometimes and hope they'll let you go. When I first came here I wondered why my daughter gave me very specific directions how to drive certain places -- she had plotted how to avoid left turns. A good lesson. But sometimes it's unavoidable. Summer does have it's downsides ... but not many.