Est Bonum Vitae

Valentine’s Day

I have always thought that Valentine’s Day was the worst sort of holiday. For one thing, many people do not have a Valentine. For another, lots of people forget to do something for their Valentine. So I’m not sure that, on the whole, Valentine’s Day is much of a celebration for most of us, and it is awful for some of us. But, nonetheless, I still buy the card and the candy and stick it out on the counter on the 14th, wondering if I took it too seriously or not seriously enough.

I’ve never understood why we celebrate it. The Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Kwanzaa complex seems difficult enough without adding another Hallmark holiday, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. But at least everyone has had a mother and a father at some point, unlike the Valentine’s Day situation. So even if you hate your parents, you can appreciate that you are here because of them.

The 4th of July is a great holiday because you don’t have to clean the house, cook dinner, or buy presents. Labor Day and Memorial Day are at least days off, even if we don’t have fireworks and they don’t demand cooking. New Year’s Eve generally sucks, for some reason. It never feels jubilant. Chinese New Year comes at a better time of year when we have all recovered from the big holidays. Also, like Valentine’s Day, it is a red-themed holiday. So, I say, let’s skip New Year’s Eve next year and go for the New Year in February, just when the days get noticeably longer but before Daylight SavingsTime.

The Chinese also use red for funerals as well as the New Year. So, flowers you buy on Chinese New Year can do double duty for Valentine’s Day was especially difficult for a close friend of mine who lost her husband this week, and my mind, naturally, went to how to create a loving death for someone you care about. In earlier blog posts on, I have suggested that a good death has to do with the chance to tell people how much you love them, to forgive them whatever trespasses you still hold onto, ask forgiveness for your own trespasses, and to connect to those you should have forgiven a while ago.

My friend’s husband hadn’t eaten or taken any water in eight days when he died, even though Google assured me people couldn’t live for more than 4 or 5 days without water. The record belongs to another friend, Debbie’s grandmother, who lived for ten days without food and water before she died. Bill could no longer read or write, care for his needs, or get out of bed. But he could listen. So, I built him a playlist on Spotify and sent it to Katrina. It was a good, long listen to some of his favorite bands from the 70s and 80s. He was listening to it and holding Katrina’s hand when he died.

If you are lucky enough to be given time with a dying friend, what can you do that might help? What could you say? Do your best to remind that person of what you know of their life. What good times did you have together? What challenges did that person overcome? What were the accomplishments they achieved? What were the things you saw together? What were your plans? If you have photographs, bring them. If you have the time to put a few songs on a thumb drive, do that. If you know of a book or poem your friend loved, read it aloud, or sit quietly and try to “be” with the person, not thinking about what you need to do next but noticing the feelings that come up and acknowledging them to yourself and your friend.

The Buddhists believe that a person enters the Bardo after death, where they will make the decisions that determine the focus of their next incarnation. That’s why it’s important to remember your own life when you are dying. After all, living can teach you a lot about life, and you want to take that with you when you go. On the other hand, Christians believe that we “slumber” until Judgment Day, when how we lived our lives will be judged for all eternity. That’s a long time, so you should have your defense prepared!

Knowing that a friend has died is a difficult moment for all of us. As I made the playlist, I had a good cry about losing Bill. Pushing 80 pretty hard now; I know this is just the first in a long line of funerals. I’m lucky enough to love many people and be loved in return. Someone once said, “When you love, you can smell the roses at your own funeral.” Loving is risky. Loving many people is riskier yet because there are more losses to suffer. As Tennyson put it, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” That says it all, I think.

Not long ago, I read that one-half of a cohort (people all born at the same time, say, 1944) die between the ages of 76 and 82. Of course, most people I know are middle-class, relatively healthy people who are likely to beat the odds, but none of us can count on that. The people I know who are a few years older tell me they spend all their time going to funerals. Someday that will happen to us all if we live long enough, so it’s good to take a moment to think about how that will play out, maybe even think now and then of our own obsequies (fancy word supplied by my editor on this one, Daniel).

Choosing to have someone die at home can be a great way to start a good death. Having someone there who can work with the palliative care person to make sure the person who is dying is conscious and willing when friends and family come to visit seems essential. Reliving the life you had together, reflecting on both the good times and the challenges, playing the music that served as the score to your life together, and re-reading the books you enjoyed are all can contribute to a good death.

Valentine’s Day can remind us of all the love we have had, still have, and will find in the future. It can remind us that love is the answer, even if it’s not a romantic time in our own lives. Some love transcends romance. Some love transcends life itself: love of family, love of country, love of God. There are loves for which we are often willing to lay down our lives. So, every day, let’s celebrate every kind of love, even if it isn’t Valentine’s Day, for without love, there is nothing much to celebrate.

Cons and Pros of Aging

A popular study going around in various magazines and newspapers suggests that people who buy into the negative stereotypes of aging are more likely to experience more of the woes of aging. In the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics this year, a review article points out that, over the last decade or so, researchers have shown this effect repeatedly over a variety of social environments. Readers are cautioned to reject those stereotypes and focus on the positive aspects of aging. All right, then. Let’s see if that is possible.

On the other hand, my daughter, Alexis, has complained that I never told her anything about aging. Should I tell her or let her think she is the only person in the world with an “overactive bladder?”

“Nobody talks about it,” she said when she had to head to the ladies’ room for the third time in two hours.

Well, yes. There is that. But honestly, nobody wants to talk about it because many things that happen when you age are pretty gross. But, Alexis, this is for you.

Things begin to leak, that is for sure. This is mainly because muscles get flabby. So, it would be best if you exercised; therefore: Kegels. I paid good money (or at least my insurance company did) for training in this exercise. The training was awkward and slightly embarrassing, but I had some success with it. Alexis knows about Kegels because of the internet, not me. The idea that aging is gross seems to stem from these kinds of physical changes, and they come in worse forms, like fecal incontinence. Whoa!

In addition to leaking, things also dry out, another immutable fact. You can and must treat every part of your body, from your hair to the bottom of your feet, including most orifices, with some kind of lotion, gel, oil, or combination thereof. There are drops for your eyes, saline sprays for your nose, mouthwash for dry mouth, water-based gel for your private parts, and every possible kind of moisturizer for the rest of your skin. Much of this ends up in sewer drains. According to Samantha Bee, a popular news show host, all this grease and cream constitutes an environmental crisis for our old sewer lines.

Her plea for sewer awareness is so moving that I’m trying to cut my use of shampoo and conditioner in half, not to mention my super-hydrating body wash. Using a leave-in-conditioner is better so that your hair soaks it up over time. I guess. Some of this stuff I’m making up (known in the scientific world as theorizing).

A great many things thin out too. The one that seems to cause the most distress is thinning hair. At least half of my female friends are going through this and find it quite upsetting. As far as I can see, there isn’t any good cure for it. Minoxidil is recommended, doesn’t seem to help much. Most current solutions make your hair longer—but that can precipitate a terrible comb-over. Do not comb your hair over, no matter what. Trust me on this.

Also, your bones thin out, and your muscles weaken, but you can slow this down by exercising. It is also true that exercise can keep your mind humming along, your mood uplifted, and every organ in your body nourished by the blood flowing rapidly through your heart and reaching the farthest cells in your feet and making your brain happy.

Everybody knows this about exercise; most people have difficulty exercising consistently. But you HAVE to do it if you want to live a long, healthy life. My advice is to think about something other than whether you WANT to exercise. That’s irrelevant. Or, as the Nike logo advises, “Just do it.”

Some things wear out. You lose the fat in the bottom of your feet; generally, your feet get to be a mess. Since your skin is no longer as thick and supple, all kinds of tiny bugs attack your extremities: athlete’s foot is the most common, but nail fungus is rife in older people along with other types of fungi, one of which I have all the time, causing the skin on my feet to peel. You may suffer hearing loss, and your sight gets a lot worse.

Sex gets tricky as well. It would be best if you had all kinds of lubricant (both his and hers), Viagra, or Cialis, which means it’s tough to be spontaneous. You have to wait an hour, at least, for the drugs to kick in.

All of this is not to mention the cognitive issues like not being able to find the word or the name you are looking for and not remembering what you are supposed to be doing, whether that is a calendar event or what you went to the garage to find. Passing through any door increases this cluelessness, and there are three doors between me and the garage at my house.

As for the pros, there are a few. First, you have been yourself for a long time, so you probably feel you know yourself by now. In my twenties, like many women my age, I had no idea that I was heading for a lifetime career in academia. I wanted to teach a little bit, part-time at most, certainly not a tenure-track position. By 27, I was a single mom with a tenure track job at Cal State LA. And I was ambitious. Who knew? Not me. To this day, I have a hard time thinking of myself as ambitious, maybe because girls aren’t encouraged to be ambitious.

By the age of 60 or 70, you should possess some degree of wisdom by the age of 60 or 70. The research shows that you can resolve the dilemmas of younger people better than they can. This doesn’t matter much since younger people seldom follow advice, but it is good to know. It is also likely that you will feel able to see problems as “lessons to be learned” more often than catastrophes, as you did when you were young.

Overall, I’m not sure the pros outweigh the cons, though, for some reason, I have no desire to live any of it over again. Women in the 70s worry less; that alone is worth the ride. As for accepting negative stereotypes of aging, not sure that is easy. You have to overlook or overcome negative changes and find a way to love being 70 or 80. I don’t love it. At the same time, I don’t want to be young again. I want to feel younger, but I don’t want to give up what I have learned about myself in the past 50 years.

So, while I’m not happy about being so old, I have to say a good understanding of the problems of aging and a life lived mostly without regrets is a big help in building a balanced picture of what it means to be an old man or an old woman and to remain satisfied with where you are in life, even if you are a hundred years old.

If you hire a bus or a taxi on a Greek island, you will likely ride uphill(since on an island, most things are uphill) along a narrow road that drops precipitously to the Mediterranean or a sea of village rooftops. It helps to close your eyes and pray that the man behind the wheel has a wife he adores and three beautiful children at home.

We just finished a sailing trip on the Aegean Sea. Larry’s whole family was along: 2 sisters, one stepbrother and his wife, four nephews, two with wives and one with a baby, one niece and her husband (who both speak Greek, thank God), plus Larry and me. When you tell people that you are going to sail the Aegean Sea, they say things like, “That sounds amazing.” But I gotta tell you that it ain’t all skittles and beer.

First, you must figure out how to pack as few clothes as possible in as few bags, including all critical electronics, attendant chargers, and snorkeling equipment, and don’t forget your prescriptions. I did. Just one of them, but I was miserable without it. It helps with the neuropathy in my feet caused by the chemo. Fortunately, most pharmacists in Greece can prescribe, so I just walked in, told her what I needed, and got it! After that, I wondered what else I could have obtained.

The problem of laundry also comes up because you are gone long enough, and it is hot enough that you need to wash it in the sink and hang it on the safety line at the back of the boat, where it dries in a New York minute, thanks to a northerly wind that is hot and dry. It is 86 degrees late at night, as I write you, and air conditioning requires electricity, for which we have to burn fuel priced at $10 a gallon. The same thing goes for the internet.

The division of labor on the chartered catamaran was pretty archaic. The men raise and lower sails, tie the boat up to the dock, steer, and generally do the heavy lifting. The women shop, cook, wash dishes, and clean. I couldn’t decide whether to resent it or not because it is true that I don’t know anything about sailing.

There are thousands of islands in the Aegean, the vast majority unoccupied, some just rocks, surrounded by dark teal and peacock blue waters. Each one we visited boasted some ancient ruins, usually a castle or monastery. On one, we saw a cave, just down a donkey path from the requisite monastery, where, they claimed, St. John drafted the book of Revelations in the New Testament. We took a public bus to the monastery, then walked down to the cave, conveniently located at a stop called Apocalypse. The driver informed us that the last bus left at 8:15 pm.

Nothing much opens in Greece before 4 pm, and dinner is served from 9 pm until well after midnight. Greeks live at night, perhaps because the temperature in the summer is usually over 90 degrees. It was 97 on our first day in Athens, where we walked on the sunny side of the street until I nearly passed out, and we realized that the Greeks were all on the other side.

The big interpersonal event of the trip, however, was that Larry got Covid! Seriously? He is one of the most careful people ever to don a mask and was convinced he could beat it. Unfortunately, company policy dictated that he leave the boat immediately after testing positive, which meant he had to catch a ferry to Athens in the middle of the night and couldn’t complete the trip with us. I tested negative, so I could stay.

I found him a room not far from where we would stay when we reached Athens, and he slept for two days. When the boat ride was over, he joined us for a car ride to Davros, a city in the north of the country that features an ancient amphitheater. They used the theatre that night to put on a modern satire of a play about Medea (originally written by Euripides). There were subtitles on a giant screen, and the chorus consisted of dancers dressed in silly costumes singing, jumping around, and staring at the actors who loudly declaimed their lines. It was hysterical.

Earlier in the day, we stopped at the tomb of Agamemnon. At the entrance were two  “Cyclopean” statues of lions carved from stone that stood several stories high. Inside, stacked stones rose four stories to a domed ceiling. Stacked stones mean there was also no mortar of any kind. We were appropriately mystified by how they could have accomplished these gravity-defying feats. Ezio, the niece’s husband, who was an architect, spent his time scanning the inside in 3D on his phone. This process mystified me almost as much as the building of the tomb.

The big interpersonal event of the trip was that Larry got Covid! Seriously? He is one of the most careful people to don a mask and was convinced that he could beat it from the beginning of the siege. The skipper told us that company policy required that he leave the boat immediately after testing positive, which meant he had to catch a ferry to Athens in the middle of the night and couldn’t complete the trip with us.

I found him a room not far from where we would land when we reached Athens, and he slept for two days. Then, when the boat ride was over, he joined us for a car ride to Davros, a city in the north of the country that features an ancient amphitheater where they put on a modern satire of a play about Medea (originally written by Euripides). There were English subtitles on a huge screen, and the chorus consisted of dancers dressed in silly costumes singing, jumping around, and staring at the actors who loudly declaimed their lines. It was hysterical.

We spent the night in a little town called Napflio, where we had to spend considerable time figuring out how to get down a hill to our hotel. We were on our own since the group had to split up to find accommodations. There was no road to the entrance to the hotel, so the GPS was useless. Finally, we saw a path that required us to get our luggage down the hill to a ramp that led to the place. After midnight, we rang the bell, and a very short man who spoke no English answered and led us to our room. We never saw anyone else. In the morning, we just left the key on the chest in the entryway.

The next day, we reconnoitered with the group and took off for the beach, where we knew there was a sunken city to snorkel. We commandeered a long table at a restaurant on the beach and spent the afternoon swimming, eating, and drinking. It was exactly like I had hoped it would be all along. There was actual sand (many of the beaches on the Med are rocky), and the water was warm. The ruins were only about 20 yards from the beach and not much to write home about (though I am doing that), but the air was luscious, and the food was excellent.

The food everywhere in Greece is excellent, and every corner boasts a stand selling coffee, a pizza place, and a Greek restaurant. In Athens, our favorite place was the “Bread Basket,” where dozens of glass cases displayed every imaginable breakfast pastry, cake, pie, and sandwich, along with a coffee menu more complex than Starbucks. Greek salads were topped with three or 4-inch square blocks of feta. There was moussaka, fried everything, and all kinds of meat from beef and pork to goat and lamb. If you don’t like meat and cheese, I would not recommend spending much time in Greek eateries.

And, of course, there was shopping—lots of it. We bought medallions to ward off the evil eye, hammered copper and silver jewelry, handmade children’s clothes, the lightest cotton and linen shirts, and Turkish towels (made in Greece). There were shops full of souvenirs, furniture, glassware, toys, tablecloths and table runners, crafts of every kind, handmade shoes, and leather goods. Shopping was our last stop in Athens before we boarded a plane for home, loaded with presents and souvenirs.

Before we left, our flight was canceled, leaving us trying to make new arrangements by hanging on hold for four hours, waiting for the airline to answer. Unfortunately, our homebound flight was also canceled, and our luggage was left in Athens when we boarded the plane for LAX. Air Canada took three days to get it to us in Santa Barbara (our friends assure us that this is the order of the day in international travel).

If you’ve never sailed, it’s a wonderful way to travel. I recommend it. Our boat was a 42-foot catamaran with four nice-sized staterooms, each with its own bath, though we shared a shower with one of the other cabins. There was a large outside sitting room. Inside was a nice kitchen with a big table we used for eating and playing games. In front of the boat, they strung a net between the pontoons where you could lie and watch the water whisk by. You can sit on the roof at night and watch the stars.

And if you go to Patmos, the monastery opens at 4 pm, and you must catch the bus out of Apocalypse by 8:15.

Hearing is good!

Chemo probably accelerated my hearing loss over the last seven years, but I ended up with a prescription for hearing aids four years ago. I was 74, but this is not especially early for hearing aids and people who have never had chemo often need them at 70+. I bought them. I had a pair in my possession for three years, but I never wore them. I hated them.

They made the inside of my ears itch and amplified background noise as much as they amplified any one’s voice. You had to fiddle with an app to make voices audible in different situations. These aids had batteries that had to be changed every week. I only wore them if I absolutely had to, like in public meetings, when I’m in the back of the room, and a white woman is giving a talk by whispering into a mike, or when I am at a dinner table with more than six people.

I couldn’t wear them in the gym, or jogging, or climbing because they fell out. I couldn’t hook them up to the TV or the phone because they didn’t have Bluetooth. They came in one color called flesh tone, a sort of pinkish gray that is possessed by no actual human being, and you had to put them in a special dryer at night because they retained moisture. The dryer cost another 100 dollars or so. Furthermore, you had to actually had to change the batteries more than once a week, whether they ran out or not, because you didn’t want them to die in the middle of a conversation.

If it weren’t for the sheer inconvenience and itchiness, the stigma attached to them would turn you of all by itself. Hearing aids symbolize old age, deteriorating senses, and declining abilities. There is, however, a secret upside to these phenomena, like there is to having cataracts (I had that surgery too). I know it’s important to hear things people say and to see clearly, but I also was okay before I had the cataracts removed, walking around in a less bright, less intense, less noisy world. I sometimes miss that slight golden haze cast over the world by cataracts and the softer, gentler soundscape produced by mild to moderate hearing loss.

When I was a kid, my hearing was so acute, it drove me crazy, especially in the dorms at college. I didn’t get much sleep until I discovered ear plugs. They were one of the great discoveries of my young adulthood. One of the best things about the new hearing aids is that you can turn them down, if the world gets too noisy.

I was not too worried about how terrible hearing aid were when I got my first pair. I knew the Baby Boomers where coming. I was born 1 year before the first Baby Boomers. I am, therefore, not a Baby Boomer. As a result, if I need something that isn’t available yet, I can be fairly sure that it will soon arrive. Baby Boomers are not only the largest group in the population, but they are also the richest. When I was in my 20s, hatchbacks came along in time for my days as a young mother. When my kids were born, we bought a house just as prices began to more than double every 10 years. By the time I was 45, scientists had discovered retinol—a facelift in a jar. Baby Boomers are an economic inspiration. So, for the past three years now, I have been expecting better hearing aids to arrive.

I remember being appalled by hearing aids when I was a child. They were bulging and ugly and seem to be worn entirely by old men with huge, hairy ears who inhabited the smoking cars on trains. That’s right, trains. I’m old enough to have taken the train from L.A. to Chicago because flying was too expensive. You had to go through the “Club Car” to get to the dining room. The Club Car was where you could smoke. Thus, my impression of hearing aids. Right after you start wearing hearing aids, you get a cane. Next, you need a walker, then a wheelchair. It is the top of the hill on the slippery slope toward the grave.

Today, however, half of the people in the world walk around with earphones on their heads or earbuds sticking out of their ears. Apple wireless earbuds are more ridiculous looking than my hearing aids, which are lightyears different from the ones my mother struggled with. Those magnified the background noise to the point where she jumped out of her skin whenever a bagger flipped a paper bag open in the supermarket. She said it sounded like a gunshot.

Algorhythms allow the new hearing aids to adjust automatically to various levels of background noise without any fiddling with an app. There is an app if you need it, but the app used to be the only way you could adjust for background noise. Now, the aids do that. Even more amazing, they stop tinnitus completely (as far as I can tell).

I feel safer with them on. I walk on city streets a lot, and it helps to hear a skate boarder a block away or the whirr of an electric bike. There are so many diverse kinds of vehicles on the road—electric skateboards and scooters, electric bikes and carts, wheelchairs, in line skaters. You need every kind of information you can get.

I was surprised to discover that a modern hearing aid is a tiny mike that is inserted into the ear canal. I never realized it was a mike, and once you know that, lots of irritating things make sense. For example, the wind sounds so much louder when it hits those mics head-on. You need to wear a hoodie outside to cover the mics when it’s windy. But it’s lovely to hear the birds again.

I mentioned one of the most helpful features already: They can be turned down. There are eight volume settings above normal, so you can turn things up beyond what normal people can hear. There also eight settings below normal, so you can tune things down or even out. This is an excellent feature when the people next door has a party and you want to work, when someone’s on the phone in the next room, or watching football on TV. You can even turn them off on one side if you get a table next to the kitchen in a restaurant.

Technology is making aging a lot easier. I can tell my Alexa to remind me to water the plants or add chlorine to the hot tub. I can use it to create a shopping list as I go along. I just yell “Echo, add string beans to the shopping list,” and it’s done. We changed Alexa’s name to Echo because our daughter is named Alexis and it keep asking us what we wanted every time her name came up. My watch reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing and notifies me when I have a message or a phone call. There is almost nothing my phone doesn’t know. Not just directions, but when Neanderthals roamed the earth or the best time to visit the DMV.

Here are some things I am currently predicting (based on my own needs and those of my friends). Soon, they will find a cure for baldness, a way to treat arthritis, a new pain killer that won’t give you ulcers, and, of course, my dream machine: a robot that follows me around with my glasses, my phone, and my drink. Eventually, this guy will be able to get me out of bed, help me dress, give me a bath and sing me to sleep. Then, there is the coming metaverse in virtual reality so I can “see” my friends, climb Mount Kilimanjaro in my pajamas, and roam the supermarket shelves from my armchair. Who could ask for anything more?

Several years ago, I spat into a bottle and sent it off to the National Geographic database of DNA samples. They sent back an analysis of the genetic history of the X chromosome I inherited from my mother (and she from hers, etc.). The project adopted the scientific position that Homo Sapiens first appeared in Africa. The analysis traces the journey of that X chromosome, let’s call mine Ruby, after she left Africa and where she traveled on her way to England, where her ancestors landed 500 years ago. Nat’l Geo doesn’t do that. I had to go to for that.

According to Nat’l Geo, Ruby left Africa in one of the first waves that survived the exodus from Africa. That makes sense to me. My people have been farmers and merchants forever, not warriors or explorers. We head out once a path has been hacked in the bush. We don’t go first, but we don’t lag behind either. This is so apropos of my own leadership style. I prefer to be the Associate Chair or Associate Dean, the Vice President, the right-hand person. I don’t want to be in front, but I don’t want to be left out either.

Back to Ruby. She probably came up through Egypt and settled down on the Nile for a few generations. Egypt has always been a part of my dreams and stories. For years, I have had dreams that included an ancient building in Eqypt that looked a lot like the drawings I have seen of the library at Alexandria.

My idea of heaven has always been that library, since the first time I heard about it. Cleopatra and Julius Caesar where both educated at that library and all the wisdom of the ancient world was shelved in papyrus scrolls. In heaven, you will be able to find out all the answers to all your questions in one of those scrolls (in heaven, they probably have video by now). Of course, Ruby probably didn’t see the library as she migrated across Egypt more than 50,000 years ago. But dreams don’t always make much linear sense.

In any event, Ruby leaves Egypt, tens of thousands of years ago, and crosses the Sinai Peninsula to Iraq, better known to 6th graders as Mesopotamia. She was most probably farming, which may explain why I have no trouble digesting bread and dairy. (If your ancestors ate it for tens of thousands of years, you probably have the enzymes to break it down). I’m sure one day we will be offered diets based on our DNA.

Next, Ruby moves on from Mesopotamia, traversing the northern side of the Mediterranean Sea, settling down this time in the South of France, where she had sex with Neanderthals more than 40,000 years ago, which is when they went extinct. Or maybe she had sex with them in Mesopotamia, since Neanderthals also inhabited Iraq. I know this because I have more Neanderthal in my genes than most people. Huh! Ruby must have been happy in France. I live in Santa Barbara now, which is just about as close to the South of France as you can get in the United States. It’s that Mediterranean light and (maybe) the memory of that Neanderthal guy.

Her journey ends in England, sometime in the first century A.D. I have two “past lives” memories that haunt me. The first is of being run through the heart by the lance of a French soldier during the invasion of Britain by France (1066 AD). Nonetheless, Ruby stays in England until the 17th century. In 1697, she arrives in New Hampshire onboard a ship that, strangely enough, also contains the ancestors of my husband, Larry. We know this because Larry’s brother did a thorough history of their family through From there, I know her story. She lived on an apple farm where she stayed until my mother was born, ending three hundred years of dirt poor farming. Yay, Mom! She ran off the farm to Texas where she was married at 16.

I have a second memory of what might be a past life. It’s the 18th century in someplace like Boston. In this one, I’m an old woman, hunched over and walking with the aid of a stick. I am standing in front of a large house surrounded by a wrought iron fence. I can see a woman sitting in the window, behind a writing desk. There is a man by my side, a friend who is a dwarf. I tell him  I wish I could be that woman, and here I am, sitting behind a window, writing at a desk.

Ruby’s journey continues In 1939, when my mother landed in L.A., following her father who was in prison in San Quentin for conducting fraudulent sales across state lines–more about that another time. Ruby’s been in California ever since, as far West as you can get without ending up in the East. Ruby’s journey to America explains a lot to me about myself.

If you were following the men north from Africa, what was your job? No doubt there was much hunting and gathering along the way. There must also have been a need to keep the fire and guard the tribe while the men were away or getting some sleep. In another short story I wrote (before I spit for Nat Geo), an old woman tends a fire while the others sleep. She belongs to a family that lives in a cave. It is Winter Solstice and she is weary of the rituals the tribe performs to bring back the sun. She knows it will come with or without ceremony and wishes the others would leave off the crying and dancing.

In this life, my mother, myself, my daughters, and granddaughters are night owls. If it weren’t for the moral turpitude associated with getting up late, I would prefer to go to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning and rise around 10. I must have had a shift stoking the fire when everyone else was asleep.

If the drive to move on continues, my granddaughters will be in the third or fourth wave to land on Mars. Not the first mind you; we are not crazy. They will have the night shift, watching the oxygen levels and tending solar panels. They will marry their fourth cousins (Larry is probably my fourth cousin) and, if there are Martians, they will probably have sex with them.

Of course, all of this is fanciful, but our stories are really all we have and now I have a long one that explains some of my peculiarities and cost me only $100. Unfortunately, the Natgeo project shut down in 2019 and I no longer have my access to my report. Therefore, this is a double fantasy, the story of Ruby from Nat Geo and my memory of the report. No wonder it explains a lot.

Yet Another Year

Sitting in my front room feeling blue on the Winter Solstice, I hit the stem of my watch, thereby evoking the calendar app. The watch face then read “No upcoming events,” throwing me into a nasty mood. Last Christmas was bad enough. No friends could come over, no parties could be had, but we knew it was going to be like that. So, we got out the lemonade machine and threw lemons down its throat. But this Christmas, we didn’t see it coming.

We took our kids and grandkids to the Bahamas for a week, December 5-12. I was so happy to be able to do it. I have always wanted to be the one who introduced my grandchildren to snorkeling. It is the only sport I have ever enjoyed. I constantly surprised myself because I can float around for hours watching the fish go about their lives. And the kids all loved it too. One of the great treats on the trip was helping the kids write in their journals. They all agreed to do them because one of them had to, for school. Lucas is only 4, so he dictated his to me as I sat on his bed.

We ate lots of lobster we bought from the local fishermen. We spent hours collecting shells on the beach. We saw the underground caves and the botanical gardens. We played games and waded out forever in the shallow, turquoise shoals, bending over to watch the hermit crabs carry their stolen houses around on their backs. It was dreamy.

The way home was another matter. We parted ways with the rest of the family in Miami, taking an earlier flight home after staying an extra night due to the resolute stupidity of American Airlines. My son’s family all came down with Covid. They believe they were exposed in the security line at the airport, which was a hot mess. The TSA was short-handed, so the lines were 30 minutes or more. As a function of that we may end up doing Christmas morning on New Year’s Day.

But it wasn’t just that. It is also that everything I was looking forward to is cancelled–all the way through New Year’s Eve and beyond, including a conference I was really hoping to attend in January. Christmas is going to be worse than last year because we thought we were over the stupid Covid, and now it’s back, more contagious than ever. It totally sucks.

I try to keep my chin up. I tell other people that this is all part of the natural evolution of pandemics, both recent and historical. A new virus or bacterial invention comes on the scene, all ninja and lethal, according to Bill Gates. As the pandemic lengthens, the virus gets more contagious, but less lethal. It makes sense that the mutation that survives is one that doesn’t kill the host. Duh.

It’s not a great evolutionary move to kill off your host (take note human race). So, the mutations that spread easily become the most dominant, but only to the extent that they don’t kill too many people. Therefore, at the end of a pandemic, the world is left with a chronic but non-lethal invader, like the flu. Or, like chicken pox which pops up again as Shingles when you are old. Bill predicts that the pandemic will actually be over by April.

I am trying to turn myself around here. Come on, I say to myself. I have the prettiest tree I’ve had in years. California is getting rain all week. YAY! I’m finally reaching the endgame in the book I’m editing for Oxford. I’ve been working on it for two years and, with any luck at all, it will be done by March (fingers crossed).

Let us all pray, meditate, dance, sing, and light candles for Bill to be right. I am really sick and tired of people being on ventilators and dying. Also, it is the shortest day of the year, and I am tired of that too. I’m grumpy and miserable and want to stay in bed. I was ready to sing and dance and make merry. Now, we just have to slouch with our masks on, toward New Year’s Eve.

Nonetheless, I wish you a wonderful holiday and a much better New Year than the last one.



p.s. My daughter, Alexis, just called and she has it now. So does her daughter, Emmy. Christmas is off again!

Summer Solstice

June 20th and 21st are the longest days of the year and one is nearly over at this hour. It is 11 p.m. on the eve of the Solstice. Amazon Prime Day starts at 12 a.m.—an hour from now. I’m ready to usher in the Solstice and the Amazon Prime Day sale, but also pondering what the summer will look like in the new normal.

The Santa Barbara Solstice parade, the craziest event in the Santa Barbara City calendar, is virtual again this year.  The Solstice Parade is the craziest even of the year and I can’t imagine it being virtual. Half-naked people in whatever costume they dream up march alongside kids in wagons, dogs, horses, go-carts. It just doesn’t seem right to do it at all if it is to be virtual. The pandemic has taught us the limits of virtuality.

There were lots of other good lessons too. For example, we do not all have to rush anywhere at the same time every day on overburdened roadways that rend our nerve endings and belch Co2 into the atmosphere. We might be able to meet carbon targets sooner if we all just reconsidered that alone. Some of us will want to have office space away from home, of course, but for many, once the kids are back in school full-time and then onto after school activities, it won’t be so hard place to work.

Since I have worked at one university or another most of my life, I have rarely had to drive to work more than 3 days a week, so I have always done a lot of my work from home.  My kids were accustomed to a mom who works at home, piles of books on the desk, head bent over yellow pages of lined paper, or a typewriter, or a computer. Not to say that we didn’t have tangles, but there are also tangles at work when you are there all the time and the people at work seem to have something against me yelling “Stop it,” at the top of my lungs with no further explanation, like I would with my kids.

It was nice with all those cars off the roads to hear birds and bees. Nice to know nature can recover if we give it a minute. It was okay to be locked down for a while. At first, it felt strangely calm and sweet. We found lots of things to do. We cleaned out the garage. Larry cobbled together some standing flower beds and built a potting shed. I discovered great joy in the silence of gardening. You can experience a certain kind of connection with growing things that live for decades, even centuries, like trees, or even those that last for just a day or two, like daffodils.

We took lots more walks than usual to keep from losing it entirely while the gym was closed. We met our neighbors. Not just the ones who lived on our block, but also those who live along a loop that we take together with our dog. We left avocados from our tree for the woman who lives in a trailer parked in the front yard of her brother’s deteriorating house and saw two babies learn to walk and run in their front yard.

We watched the seasons change. You might not think we have seasons here in Santa Barbara, but we do: Rainy season (a couple of weeks in January and February if we are lucky), Spring (March and April), foggy season (May and June), Summer (August and September) and fire season (October through whenever the rain starts again). We don’t have winter. In fact, the schedule at Fielding offers three terms: Spring, Summer, and Fall.

Not that I’d want to do the lockdown again. It’s so good to see people’s faces, to eat inside a restaurant when it is cold, to wander through a museum with my grandchildren. It’s wonderful to work out at the gym without a face mask or use the bathroom at the Starbuck’s. In today’s Independent (the local newspaper), I read that Santa Barbara Fiesta will be in person this year, from the Mercado to the three-day marathon presentation of Flamenco dancing at the Mission and the Courthouse Garden.

Last week, we went to a movie! Think of that. There were only 20 people or so in the theatre and there is nothing like watching the spectacle such as “In the Heights,” on the big screen, not to mention consuming an entire large box of popcorn and considering a refill.

The county fair is back with lots of gut-wrenching rides and stuffed animals that only cost you $50 to win at the shooting gallery. Last week, Earl Warren fairgrounds also hosted the first horse show in maybe a year and a half. Last month, I took an airplane to Seattle, and it went pretty well. What got to me was not the packed plane or the mask requirement, I was ready for that. It was the constant sound of loudspeakers, even in the bathroom or the restaurant. This is not a new phenomenon, of course, but it makes me realize you can get used to anything.

So, life is alive with possibilities again. We are booked for a trip to Egypt in the fall and the Bahamas in the winter. I’m trying to create a new set of presentations and take my show on the road in the fall, helping people figure out how to die with wisdom. Hospice is planning for in person meetings and volunteer services in August. How nice it will be to see everyone again!

Still, in all, it seems good to remember some of the things we learned: A house is not a showcase. It’s for living in and it’s okay to leave stuff around; you don’t have to pick up every 5 minutes. You don’t need to go out to lunch. You can make a sandwich at home and even exercise in the living room. You don’t have to run around to every store in town to find a widget. Amazon has widgets in every color and size—at least 45 to choose from and they can get it to you in two days. Most movies don’t require a big screen. It makes sense to hold most meeting on Zoom. There are lots of ways to get extra time out of the day if you give up on keeping everything in order. This is good to know at 77 when extra time seems a premium.

I wish you all the best of summer. I hope you get to a concert, see a movie, take a trip on a plane or a boat or have a party with your friends. I wish you a fine firework display. There is so much to remember from the last year and a half and so much to look forward to right this minute. Love to you all,


Party items

For nearly three weeks now, I have been trying to figure out why 77 is so much harder for me than 76. Somehow, 76 seemed livelier, as in 76 trombones or the spirit of 76 or Union 76, a place with clean restrooms when I was a kid and my mother had packed us off on another one of her road trips where she drove all night on the first leg.

I stand in front of the of the mirror. I don’t look 77 to myself, whatever 77 looks like. I spent a lot of time, money, and effort to make that happen. I am even okay with my body image for the first time in my life.  I’m still having trouble with my feet because of the neuropathy and my stomach is a problem, but they have been problems all my life. This isn’t even the worst they have ever been.

My kids are okay; my grandchildren are all gorgeous and gifted as well. Larry is his usual fine self, charging along on his mission to bring peace, justice, and the American Way to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

It’s just that three years from now I will be 80. In 13 years (the current age of my oldest grandchild), I will be 90. 80! 90! Are you kidding me? What if I live to be 100? That is an insane idea. More importantly, what do I do for the next 10 years—just in case they are my last? I don’t know that I can ever sit still even if it means a walker or a person service robot named Andy, after St. Anthony, the one who helps you find things. Half the steps I take in a day involve finding my glasses, my drink, or my phone, which a robot should be able to accomplish. I should also be able to ride on him when I need too.

My main concern about being 90 though, is not so much physical as it is the fact that things are changing so fast, I fear I will no longer be able to understand anything at all, from commercials on TV (some of which I already do not understand) to cyberwars in virtual reality. In his book, Ray Kurzweil talks about the moment computers can think faster and better than humans. He calls it the “wall” and says that change will happen so fast we will no longer be able to predict what will happen. That may have happened all ready as far as I can see.

How does streaming work? Or, for that matter, how does TV work? I sort of understood radio and phones, but TV? What is up with blue tooth and microwaves? How can Alexa turn my lights off and on? How does a 777 get off the ground? People have even tried to explain these things to me without success. So, I guess engineering is out as a hobby.

Assuming I have another ten years when I can do what I want (which is a big assumption), what would that be? Anything that involves memorization is clearly out—no acting, I guess. Writing is in, but it is so hard some days it can’t be considered fun. I will write, of course, but I can’t sit and type all day long. Maybe I’ll take up painting again. I like that it attracts my complete attention, but it is a mess and messes give Larry apoplexy.

We will travel of course. Larry’s mad for Namibia. He’s up for a cruise of the Mekong River. He’s ready to trek in Nepal again. I’m more about seeing New York or Paris again—maybe Japan if Larry decided to climb Mt. Fuji. I’m more of a museum person than a trekker.

I could redouble my efforts to become an Instagram star. You never know when death is going to start trending. Unfortunately, you have to think about worthy topics to discuss on a regular basis, write down what you think, make huge cue cards, then look like you are not reading them. You have to catch full frontal light in the morning, after spending an hour on makeup and wardrobe so you look good in morning light. It’s a process, but then, I am 77 and have time for process.

Life is, after all, a process and I am a process within it, a wheel within a wheel. I remember at 45 first being terrified by the turning of the wheel. I imagined the Universe to be rolling through empty space, creating time, even though there is no such thing as time outside human existence. I cried out to the midnight sky, “Stop it! Stop moving; stop expanding; give me a moment to breathe.” But it didn’t. We are stuck here in the ever-grinding cogs of the universe.

Still, time can fly or drag. Painting makes it fly. Making Instagram clips takes forever. So, maybe Instagram is the answer after all. It makes the wheels appear to turn slowly. Furthermore, it is a decent justification for fancy makeup and new clothes. Then, I’ll paint in the afternoon to speed it all up again. Perhaps, this will give me the illusion of control.

Of course, it’s possible that what with Kurzweil’s wall coming, there is no sense in planning anything and I just need to take it as it comes, making what meaning I can of it and using virtual reality for that trek in Nepal.


January 15, 2021

I got my shot today. It was such a simple, easy fix to a year of misery. I won’t be protected yet for six weeks. I had the Moderna vaccine in the parking lot of the Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital at 11:15. It was an interesting journey. On Thursday, Hospice notified me that all Hospice workers were going to be vaccinated and sent me a link to a reservation porthole. Before the pandemic, many of us sat with people who were dying and had no one. It’s a program called “No One Dies Alone.” We could take some of the emotional burden again.

I felt a burst of wonderment and joy. Wow! How lovely to have that work recognized as important. Also, how lucky I am to benefit from the work of so many selfless people. What a relief it will give my family as I help to care for my grandkids. I don’t want them to ever think they gave me Covid as they start back to school. Jeeezzz. On the very same day, my friend, Daneen, was vaccinated in Seattle as a mental healthcare worker. She has three little kids and she is ecstatic.

All of this relief is, of course, followed by a panic attack the night before the shot. I consider the wisdom of injecting virus DNA into my body. And that’s just the first shot. The second shot is stronger and challenges your system to create antibodies. Lots of people get sick. I didn’t get sick today. My muscles are achy, but I also worked out today, so that could be the issue. I worked for a while this afternoon and then took to my bed, but walked the dog this evening.

I received this manna from heaven at the Goleta Valley Community Hospital parking lot, neatly directed into one of 6 lanes where they grabbed our paperwork (already done). I think you get sidelined if you need paperwork. Next, they sent us forward to the double-check counter where they ask you who you are, etc. again and the shot is then administered. It hurts less than the flu shot. It’s over just-like-that. Whamo. You are in line to be saved. You have to come back in a month, of course; but you have taken the first step toward “how it used to be.”

They motion you to move forward and wait for 15 minutes in front of the vaccination station. A monitor comes by and marks the moment of your vaccination your window with chalk. You can leave in 15 minutes. Later, another monitor comes by and wipes off your window, waving you out of the parking lot. One of the monitors is a doctor. We talk about what a relief it is. I tell him it is the best thing that has happened to me this year, and I do mean the whole year from March 2020 on.

Then, it sets in how weird it is. How can such a simple, easy procedure return us to the world somewhat like we used to know it? Half an hour in a parking lot and you are on the road to recovery from the awful dread that has hung over us for the last 10 months. Waiting for my fifteen minutes to expire, I watch the sun glance off the coastal range north of Santa Barbara. Palms sway in a warm wind. It is 80 in Santa Barbara. We are praying for rain, as usual when January is dry. There is no rainbow, no band, not even a few balloons. It is a regular day, despite the (how many billion dollar?) Miracle of the Parking lot.

Despite all of that rumination, I want you to know that after about an hour when I felt achy and overly warm, I am fine tonight. I rubbed “Arnica” into the vaccination site and took two Tylenol as Daneen directed, and it is the first time that I have felt like writing since Thanksgiving. I tried over and over without success. I realized this week that the reason I have had such a hard time has to do with how I develop my thoughts: in conversation with my friends. Not the Zoom kind or a phone call.

I sit down with a friend and a cup of coffee and talk about what struck me as interesting or funny, or sad. I try to explain my feelings or thoughts or wild ideas. I love brainstorming. I love questions and observations. I love other people’s reactions. One of the most fun questions ever was my friend, Patrice’s sly question: “Why would I want to develop anyway? It sounds like a lot of work.” We talked about it for years. It inspired many conversations.  So, I guess what I want to say most of all is how much I appreciate you peeking in on me now and then. I feel graced by your presence in my life and always so happy to hear from you.

Happy New Year indeed. Don’t turn down the chance to get vaccinated! We owe it to each other.

p.s. It is now the 19th. I have felt quite tired off and on over the past four days as my system starts to crank out those anti-bodies. My arm was sore for two or three days. My ears plugged up a couple of times (one of the symptoms of mild cases) and I have sometimes felt like I was feverish, but it lasted only a few minutes. I have also been achy, a small price to pay.

The Queen of Denial

Queen in royal dress and luxuriant collar

I find that the older I get — and I’m getting pretty old — the more I see the benefits of denial. I don’t know what Freud would make of this, but the first time I began to appreciate denial benefits was when I was diagnosed with cancer nearly seven years ago. For one year we moved back from the Santa Barbara house into the duplex we owned in Seattle, so that I could undergo treatment at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. We really needed to move away — and not only to be close to my preferred treatment center, but also to avoid the grandkids. I love them like crazy, but they truly are kinda germy, and chemo is really hard on your white cells.

In this second-storey apartment we had huge picture windows, the kind where when the trees were bare we had a distant view of Seattle Center and on the Fourth of July we could watch the fireworks without leaving the house. One night, right around midnight, I was standing in front of those second-storey windows when — suddenly — I wanted my mother.

My mother?

You have to understand that my mother was one of the least comforting people on the planet. There were good reasons for that, but no reason I should find myself wanting my mother. Whenever I’d let her see I was in distress, she’d say this sort of thing:

“There’s nothing wrong with you. Snap out of it.”

And you’d snap out of it.

Of course, the problem would still be there.

I’ve since come to think that the ability to repress certain thoughts is a life-saving gift, but probably only since I started having emotions — right around the time I was 40. At that point I was a single mother of two, meanwhile helping take care of my dying father. My ex-boyfriend had tried to commit suicide that year (previous to becoming my ex, be it noted) and I was remodeling a house for re-sale. And amid all that, I had an epiphany:

I realized that when my mother said “Snap out of it,” she really meant “Snap into it.” The it being denial.

And I began to cultivate the habit.

Later, when I finally got the money together for a good therapist, I discovered my emotions. (I felt endlessly irritated by emotions to begin with, but have managed to come to terms with them a bit by now.)

Still, the ability to block thoughts that carry feelings on their backs has stayed with me. Sometimes it just makes very little sense to worry about Something Bad happening to you when there is no way to know how, when, or even if it will happen — or (if it has just happened to you) to worry about the possibility that it will ever happen again.

Denial has its place, especially in the pursuit of “graceful aging.” It even works on pain. You have to acknowledge the pain first, so that you can learn what can (and cannot) be done to alleviate it, but then you move on. The pain is still there, but now your mind is focused elsewhere. It helps. Research shows that, for example, playing video games helps people cope with pain. Hypnotism can be helpful too. It focusses your mind elsewhere.

As I climb past seventy-five, I am reminded of a famous article:

Why I hope to die at 75

I don’t find myself hoping that, but I do know that I hadn’t properly realized how challenging this whole aging thing can be. There are certainly a lot of physical changes, about many of which you feel you probably should consult a doctor. There are lumps and blotches and spots, knobs and pokey places you just did not have before seventy. There are all sorts of weird outcomes of sagging skin and organs (like your epiglottis gets so lazy that you can’t talk when you eat without coughing).  Everything requires a cream or an oil or a lotion. In the morning, you are stiff. In the evening, you are creaky.

Still, on the whole, I feel strong and healthy most of the time. Friends my age seem pretty good too, at the moment anyhow. Eighty looks like a whole new set of challenges, but I don’t know about them personally … yet.

(My friend, Sandy, is eighty.)

(She says it is unimaginable.)

There are some things you can do, or have done. Certain procedures, injections, physical therapies. Knee surgeries seem pretty successful. I love my new hip. Cortisone shots are handy if you can tolerate them. (Please note:  You must not take aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium every day for months. That’s how I got ulcers.) My back surgery worked, but lots of people I know did not get the results that they were all but promised.

It takes six weeks to recover from anything. Twelve to recover from Bad Things. And if there are complications, it can take a year.

(Here is a tip about recovery: As soon as it is humanly possible, get up and walk.)

Denial also comes in handy when the world seems to be falling apart. I have always found housework a decent antidote for anxiety. There are always places in a house you can count on for dirt. The tops of window frames, the baseboards, behind the dresser, or you can just start mindlessly washing windows. Once I was part of a crew of friends fighting a wildfire in Burbank that was threatening one of their houses. The men were using hoses on the roof and cutting back brush, then coming into the kitchen with their dirty boots to help the women carry out the stuff and load it into someone’s car. I spent the entire day mopping the floor, over and over again, between stints of packing.

I need Windex to get through an argument with Larry. You can’t get all that mad when you’re under a sink scrubbing the inside of the cabinet. It focuses your attention elsewhere  — on not whacking your head against the drain pipe, for instance. The thing about cleaning is, it doesn’t take much real concentration. You can find a place between feeling and working, and then just hang out there as long as required. It’s also impossible for the other person to stay really mad at you when your head is under the sink and your rear end is sticking up.

Of course, denial is an unconscious refusal to deal with reality. I’m really talking here about a more conscious refusal. I wasn’t sure exactly what to call it until I saw this month’s AARP article on “Life Lessons from the Queen.” As Elizabeth II observed (according to AARP), “I find that I can often put things out of my mind which are disagreeable.” AARP referred to this as a “purposeful repression,” an ability to dial down negative mind chatter. “The trouble with gloom,” the Queen opines, “is that it feeds upon itself.” This article ends with research showing that the world’s happiest people are over 80.

It used to be that women over 70 were the happiest. Perhaps because we live longer now, the bar has been raised, which is okay so long as I get to make it to 95. I figure after a lifetime of worry (school, career, children, divorces, starting over, and then grandchildren), a minimum of fifteen years as one of the world’s happiest people would be only fair.