"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Just Asking a Question

     I was sitting in bed the other night reading Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, the 1999 Booker-prize-winning novel about a South African "communications" professor who leads a life that's pretty empty of meaning ... and pays a heavy price for it. There must have been something Coetzee wrote that triggered my curiosity.

     Whatever it was, it made me look up from my book, turn to B and ask, "So tell me what you think. If we went to sleep tonight and woke up 50 years from now, would we find that the country is better off than it is now, or worse off?

     She thought for a moment, then said ...

     Well, what do you think? Will all our problems be solved, or will we have a lot of the same problems, plus a bunch of new ones?

     B is not a cynic; she has a relatively sunny personality; she is not a negative thinker. But it didn't take her long to answer: "Worse off."

     I didn't say anything. I just went back to reading my book, and then fell asleep. But her response disturbed me. I admit I do not go around from day to day thinking deep thoughts, or worrying about the future. But I guess I just assume that we will solve the issues around global warming, energy and the environment. I believe that 50 years from now ISIS will be a history trivia question, that most people will be living longer and better lives. Am I being naive?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Seasons Greetings

    We are spending Christmas with B's family in Pennsylvania. We're staying at a bed & breakfast that is decorated wonderfully for the holidays.


     Our three days will be filled with eating, catching up, eating, exchanging presents, eating, listening to B's brother-in-law sing in a concert . . . and more eating.

     May your holiday bring you happiness, peace and togetherness.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Christmas Miracle

     As I reported in Weekend in New England, I lost my camera last week when we stopped off at a Christmas tree farm to cut our own tree. At some point while I was crawling around on the ground, first inspecting and then cutting a tree, my camera must have fallen out of the pocket of my coat.

     I discovered it was missing when we stopped for a cup of hot cider. I rummaged through all my pockets. B checked her pockets, just in case I somehow gave it to her for safekeeping. We trudged back up the hill and searched through the trees, brushed over the ground, peered along the path. All to no avail.

     It was a long shot anyway. You couldn't expect to find your camera that you dropped "somewhere" up on a hill crowded with Christmas trees and a couple of hundred would-be lumberjacks. Yes, I left my name and number at the office, just in case, but I knew it was nothing but a desperate move.

Then ...
     Unfortunately, this is nothing new to me. In the summer of 2014 I lost another camera while we were vacationing on Cape Cod. But that time I was lucky. A few weeks later, as I reported in Look What I Found! I brought our car in for a wash, and the guys found the camera . . . somewhere amidst the cracks and crevices of the car.

     And so to the "Christmas miracle." The day before yesterday our telephone rang. (Yes, we still have a land line.) It was a woman from the Christmas tree farm. Someone had turned in a camera. Was it mine?

     "A Canon Powershot?" I asked.

     "Yes, that's right."

And now
     "The last photos on the camera would be of some of your Christmas trees."

     "You've got it," the woman replied. "I can't mail it to you, but you can come by and pick it up anytime. We're open every day."

     And so yesterday B and I drove up to the Christmas tree farm, picked up my camera, drank another cup of cider, and stopped at the mall on the way home. We were in a very generous mood and so we bought lots of presents. (Besides, this year at least, everything is on sale.) We wanted to pass on our good fortune to our loved ones.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I am NOT Bald!

     We have a running controversy in our household. For some strange reason, B has developed this crazy theory -- based on false assumptions, unsubstantiated observations and non-peer-reviewed research -- that I am getting bald.

     I mean, it's just so obvious that she's wrong. I look in the mirror and what do I see? Hair! And if I look in the mirror, quickly, right after I get out of the shower and it's still wet, the hair doesn't even look all that gray. In fact, it looks pretty dark.

     Okay, after my hair gets dry, I'll admit, it's pretty gray. Even white. It's hard to tell. So let's just call it . . . silver.

     But there's still plenty of it, at least when I look at it from the front.

     There is one thing that puzzles me though. My forehead is bigger than it used to be. I figure it must be an optical illusion.

     When I went to the dermatologist last week, I noticed a brochure about frown marks. The cover of the brochure showed three women, one with mild frown marks, another with moderate frown marks, and still another with severe frown marks. Well, as soon as I saw that I had to inspect myself in the mirror. And I noticed, I don't have any frown marks at all! Instead, I have horizontal lines going across my face, right above my eyebrows. Which, obviously, make my forehead look higher than it did before.

     Nevertheless, B still insists that I'm going bald. And aside from the fact that she's obviously wrong -- delusional I would say -- what really bothers me about the situation is that she seems to derive some pleasure from her perception that I'm losing my hair.

     Now, like I said, I am not losing any hair. But just suppose I was -- I know it happens to some men. Why would that make her smile? Why would that make her laugh? I just don't get it. She thinks it's funny when we go outdoors in the summer, and she insists on rubbing suntan lotion over the top of my head. I mean, why is she doing that? It makes my hair all greasy. And, what? Does she think my hair is going to get sunburned?

     It's true that the sun can bleach your hair. I guess that's the real reason why my hair is turning lighter in color. Which means . . . I'm not going gray, I'm just sun-bleached.

     Anyway, in a recent post I described how I have gone to the doctor way too many times this year. And, now I'm beginning to think it's because doctors don't know what they're doing. As I said, I recently went to the dermatologist, for a growth on my back which he took care of, no problem. But then, toward the end of the session, he was standing behind me when he gently pulled my head back, saying he wanted to check my scalp while he was at it.

     What, is this guy some kind of phrenologist? I wondered. Feeling my head to see if I'm a criminal, or to diagnose some mental malfunction because I have a bump here or a dent there? I shifted my eyes up, trying to see what he was doing. "What do you need to look at my head for?" I challenged.

     "Not to worry," he said. "I'm just checking your bald spot."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Searching for Santa

     I don't know how many of you still believe in Santa Claus. I know I do. And it seems like a lot of baby boomers are . . . well, at least they're open to the possibility that he really exists.

     Why else would I be looking out my window as a I sit here and see a statue of Santa Claus standing in my neighbor's lawn across the street? My other neighbor, three houses down, also has a figure of Santa on the front lawn, along with his companion Mrs. Claus. I can't say where in the Scriptures it says that Santa Claus is married. But knowing what I know about men and women, I honestly don't think Santa Claus could have come up with the idea of Christmas all by himself.

     With that in mind, I have greetings to you from a baby boomer in the Arctic Circle. Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting doesn't explicitly say that she is searching for Santa Claus as she continues her sea journey along the Norwegian coast. But she does report that one unexpected addition to her itinerary included the opportunity to experience Norwegian socialized medicine. She describes the medical interlude and life aboard ship in Traveling Inside the Arctic Circle. And then, if you want to find out about how they treat border crossings in the north country, try her latest at I Can See Russia from My Bus Window!
     P. S. If anyone is looking for a Christmas gift for "the hub," perhaps we've got a hint here: a new pair of socks.

     Blogger Linda Myers of Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting also has Christmas on her mind. Is she sending a letter to Santa? No, not exactly. Instead she writes her Holiday Letter from Tucson, in which she reflects on family, gardening, playgrounds and traveling. I don't know about you, but all those things would rate high on my Christmas list. 

      Meanwhile, blogger Laura Lee Carter sometimes thinks that Americans are the worst at doing nothing. We feel guilty if we're not producing something at all times. So she takes a lesson from the Italians in The Sweetness of Doing Nothing involving happiness, peace on earth, simplicity in our lives, and the joy of children singing  Her inner quietude might make us all yearn for the rural life amid the snowbound high country of Colorado.

     Rita Robison of the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide offers no less than four posts focused on Christmas, warning us of hazards that consumers should look out for during the holidays and offering tips on gift cards and free shipping. And while I do not know what the consumer journalist is doing right now, today, I'm betting she's made a trip to the North Pole to test out the safety ratings of all of Santa's gifts and toys.

     Another baby boomer setting off on a journey is Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365, who clearly believes in Santa Claus and his folksy wisdom. How else could she do a post called 8 Smart Life Lessons from Santa?

     I'm not exactly sure where she's headed -- if you were searching for Santa, would you tell anyone exactly where you were going? -- but while she is gone she has invited a few of her friends to submit guest posts on her blog. This week there happens to be a very perspicacious post called "How to Age Gracefully" which, I hear, comes from a handsome young man who recently revealed that he lost his camera and has a wider than usual, but perfectly suitable bile duct. 

     Am I talking about Santa? Hmmm, you'll just have to sleigh over to SmartLiving365 to find out.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Am I a Hypochondriac?

     I went to the doctor yesterday. Everything is fine. I'm a perfectly healthy person for my age. So, I wondered, why is it that I've been going to the doctor so much lately? Am I a hypochondriac? Or is this just what happens when you get older?

     Because, even though there's "nothing wrong with me," I've been to the doctor ten times this year.

     My first visit was in May, for my annual skin check. I have a history of cancer in my family, and I've also had several pre-cancerous growths removed from my skin over the years, so the dermatologist wants to see me once a year. In May he checked me out, burned off (do they burn it off, or freeze it off?) one little growth from my head. Nothing to worry about, he assured me.

     A few weeks later, I experienced my episode of floaters, which I recounted in my post A Sign of Aging. I went to the ophthalmologist who checked my eyes. Floaters are normal, he said, but he was worried about a torn retina, so he told me to come back in a month. When I went back to him, he again peered into my eyes and said they looked good. But he was just a little worried about the flashes I was still seeing, so he had me schedule another appointment. Finally, on my third visit in September, he gave me the all clear. That was three visits to the eye doctor. And he didn't do anything except check me out. So, really, it turned out I didn't need to go to him at all.

     But even before I was finished with my floaters, one day I was startled to find a purple bulge on my arm. That got me scared, so I hurried over to our walk-in clinic. As I described in Don't Overdo the Pills, the doctor told me it was a burst blood vessel. Had I injured my arm? No. Had I been taking aspirin or Advil? Yes, I had. I'd been taking too much. So he told me to cut back on the aspirin. And, sure enough, that solved the problem.

     So that's five visits to the doctor, and the year was only half over.

     In August I started getting a little pain in my stomach. It was just a mild discomfort. But it wouldn't go away. So eventually, in October, I went to to see my primary care physician. He thought it was likely a muscle strain or something like that. He did some blood work. My blood was fine. But given my history, he wanted to make sure a tumor wasn't hiding in there somewhere. So he sent me for an ultrasound.

     The radiologist said I had gallstones. I didn't understand that, because the gallbladder is on your right side. My pain was on the left side. But when my primary care physician called me back he told me to make an appointment with the surgeon, for an assessment.

     So I went to the surgeon. She told me that she couldn't find my gallbladder. Some people don't have one, she explained, or mine could be shriveled up. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that my bile duct was too thick. It's supposed to be six millimeters wide. Mine was ten. That could mean a gallstone was blocking the duct. Or it could mean that a pre-cancerous polyp was blocking the duct. Or . . . it could be normal, since some people have a wide bile duct, especially if they don't have a gallbladder.

     She recommended I get an endoscopy. That's a procedure like a colonoscopy, except instead of looking at the lower digestive tract, the doctor goes through the mouth to see the upper digestive tract.

     So, next, I went for an assessment with the gastroenterologist, who agreed I should have an endoscopy. Then I went back again for the procedure.

     Is that what I did yesterday? Nope. I had the endoscopy on Dec. 1. That was my ninth doctor visit. The gastroenterologist couldn't find a gallbladder either. But he said my bile duct was fine. No polyp. He prescribed an over-the-counter anti-acid, in case I have acid reflux. But it seems that what I really have is . . . a muscle strain.

     A few days before I went for the endoscopy, B noticed a growth on my back. Now, she thinks I am a hypochondriac. But what did she say? You should get that checked out, she told me.

     So yesterday I went back to the dermatologist. He burned off -- or froze off -- the growth. It's nothing to worry about, he said. Some people have a predisposition for these things. I might get more of them as I get older. They are not pre-cancerous; but if they bother me I should come in and he'll take them off.

     That was my tenth visit. So . . . three weeks to go in 2015. I hope I can make it without an 11th. But please tell me, I'm not a hypochondriac, am I?


Monday, December 7, 2015

Weekend in New England

     B and I traveled up to Marblehead, Mass. to visit her brother and family this past weekend. They were singing in a Christmas concert with a community choral group, and on Saturday night we attended the performance in a beautiful old Congregational church.

     We spent the rest of the weekend taking in the sights of this historic town, located on a rocky peninsula on the North Shore about 20 miles from Boston. Marblehead was founded in 1629 -- remember, the Pilgrims only landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 -- and boasts many twisting, narrow streets and old historic buildings.

     We strolled through the King Hooper Mansion, home of the Marblehead Arts Association. Greenfield Hooper, a candlemaker, built the house in 1728. His son became a shipping merchant who was dubbed "King" Hooper by the local population for his wealth and benevolence (back when being a "king" was a good thing.)

     I took photos of the Hooper Mansion and some of the artwork inside, as well as a few other colonial buildings hugging the harbor. Unfortunately, those photos are not available.

     We also walked over to the Jeremiah Lee Mansion where we admired the many gingerbread houses cooked up for the Gingerbread Festival. There were ribbons in the children's and adult categories, as well as amateur and professional categories. I took several pictures, including one of the Best in Show which was an elaborate gingerbread-and-candy version of a Christmas village. Again, I'm sorry, I can't show you the photos.

     Jeremiah Lee was another wealthy merchant and shipowner who built his Georgian-style mansion in 1768. My sister-in-law was telling me it was the China trade that made Marblehead an important coastal town, and briefly turned nearby Salem into the largest city in the United States (where 20 people were executed for witchcraft in 1692). She maintained that the Marblehead merchants made their money importing goods from China. And maybe that's true. But I'm guessing a number of them were profiting from the slave trade.

     We also went to a craft fair at Abbott Hall, the historic town hall (sorry, no photos), and we took in a children's Christmas concert at Old Town Hall, built in 1727. The kids were cute as anything, all dressed up in their Christmas garb. But again, no pictures.

     So where are the photos?

     Well . . . on the way home on Sunday we stopped at a farm in Connecticut where you can cut your own Christmas tree. I brought my camera along to capture the scenery. We cut our tree, brought it down to the parking lot, and stopped for a cup of hot cider. And that was when I stuck my hand in my pocket and found it was empty. I searched all through my pockets. Nothing. I had lost my camera.

     I hate that. Don't you?

     Yes, we retraced our route and looked all around. I left my name and phone number in case someone finds it. But I don't hold out much hope.

     So here's a rather unexciting picture of the Christmas tree we cut and brought home, taken with my phone. We'll decorate it sometime later in the week. Meanwhile, now I know what to put on my Christmas list!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Remember Him?

     He was born in Pittsburgh in August 1928. He did not have an easy childhood. His parents had immigrated from Ukraine -- his father in 1914 and his mother following later in 1921 -- and his father worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The family lived in a rowhouse in a working class section of the city.

     As a child he apparently contracted scarlet fever, which caused his skin to be blotchy for the rest of his life. He subsequently suffered a bout of Sydenham's chorea, also known as St. Vitus Dance, a disease that causes involuntary movements in the arms and legs. He had to stay home for extended periods of time, and while sitting there alone, he drew pictures and designs, and he listened to the radio and collected pictures of movie stars.

The Pittsburgh museum
     It's no surprise, then, that he was an outcast at school. And after his father died, when he was 13, he developed a strong bond with his mother -- he lived with her on and off, even as an adult after he became rich and famous.

     He graduated from high school in 1945 and went to Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie Mellon University) where he studied commercial art and was art director of the student magazine.

     After college he headed to New York, where he began a career as a designer for advertising and magazines. He was recognized for his whimsical ink drawings of shoes, and then he began designing promotional materials and album covers for various recording companies. He experimented in a number of different media, including printmaking techniques and silkscreens, often intentionally leaving mistakes or stray marks in his final works.

     He began to exhibit his paintings in galleries in New York and then Los Angeles. The artwork focused on everyday items and even commercial products, including Coke bottles, dollar bills, and also more controversial items such as electric chairs, mushroom-shaped clouds and police dogs. Then he went on to do portraits of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.

     Are you beginning to sense who this fellow was?

     In the early 1960s he founded his studio called The Factory, where he gathered together a loose group of avant-garde artists, including sculptors, filmmakers, actors, as well as writers like Truman Capote and Allen Ginsberg and musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. The Factory also attracted assorted counterculture eccentrics, and became known as a place where people experimented with mind-altering drugs.

     He helped found and briefly managed a rock group called The Velvet Underground. He made a number of experimental films, including Kiss, a 50-minute silent movie showing nothing but people kissing. Sleep was a six hour film showing a friend of his sleeping, and Eat focused on another friend consuming a mushroom for 45 minutes. He also made a few slightly more mainstream movies such as a take on a Batman film and an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, as well as several more sexually explicit films including homoerotic films that played in New York porn theaters.

     Yet his most famous and prolific work came in painting, as he developed a reputation as the Pope of Pop. We're all familiar with his rendering of a Campbell's soup can, for example, and a banana, as well as his flowers, cats and ice-cream cones. He also did many self-portraits as well as memorable paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Mao Zedong, Queen Elizabeth.

A PBS documentary on Warhol
     Andy Warhol was controversial from beginning to end; yet he remained a practicing Catholic and went to church for most of his life. In 1968, a radical feminist who favored doing away with all men shot Warhol at The Factory. Warhol was severely wounded and underwent emergency open-heart surgery. He suffered after-effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

     After the shooting, security at The Factory was tightened and some said The Factory '60s were over. But Warhol kept on working, painting pictures, making movies, and starting the magazine Interview which featured long conversations with celebrities, musicians and artists.

     Warhol received his share of criticism from both traditional art critics as well as those who thought he was too commercial, too focused on celebrity ... and made too much money. But his legacy today is secure, as his works are displayed in top museums including the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and other venues around the world. He is also remembered for his famous 15-minutes-of-fame pronouncement: "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

     Warhol died in 1987 of cardiac arrhythmia after gallbladder surgery. He was 58 years old. Today he is remembered not only for his artwork, but also in books and movies -- including the "revelation" in Men in Black 3 that he was an undercover MIB agent. In 2002 the U.S. Postal Service comemmorated a stamp in his honor. And today the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh is the largest museum in the world devoted to a single artist.