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

Sunday, December 27, 2020

A Time to Hope

      "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of wisdom, it was an age of foolishness, it was an epoch of belief, it was an epoch of incredulity . . . "

     So begins Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities. And I'd guess most of us agree that these lines are as relevant to our own world today as they were to 18th-century France and England.

     The Dickens outlook no doubt applies to politics, class, economics, race. It also applies to this year's holidays. For me, it was the worst of times, because I spent Christmas alone. Yet it was also the best of times because, through Zoom, I was able to meet up with far-flung family members from New York to Arizona, from Wisconsin to Florida -- people who otherwise I rarely get to see.

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul, certainly agrees that this has been a different kind of holiday, one that's not very merry or bright. In her post I Carry Your Heart she offers support for those who have suffered losses, and she reminds us that we "carry the love we feel for others all our days."

     Rita Robison, consumer journalist, warns us to Watch Out for Scammers who are looking to steal pandemic stimulus checks -- assuming Congress and the president finally do agree on the amount. She offers information on how to safeguard your payment, along with a website where you can report suspicious behavior.

     Holidays tend to evoke misty memories of childhood celebrations. This Christmas, Meryl Baer of Beach Boomer Bulletin recalls traveling with her sisters and parents to spend a Christmas day of yore with her aunt and uncle in New York City. But if you think it's all gauzy nostalgia, think again. Instead, Baer reveals the shouting, taunting, giggling and scolding that went on in A Manhattan Christmas of the 1960s.

     Jennifer at Unfold and Begin acknowledges that 2020 has been a long and difficult year. Many of us have been playing hooky from our healthy lifestyles, workout routines and other goals that were on track until last March. So Jennifer plans to start a new regimen to heal mind and body and invites us to join her at Let's Ease into 2021.

She shows us how it's done
     Rebecca Olkowski turns to a book called On with the Butter for an inspirational guide to living a more active, joyful life. The title comes from an Icelandic phrase about spreading more joy in our lives. She offers a brief excerpt, some motivating quotes, and a link to the book's amazon page.

     As a follow-up, Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365 has selected a list of Best Blogs & Websites for Positive Aging -- some two dozen websites that share thoughts that "engage, inspire and encourage us as we age and/or retire."

     Finally, Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles turns to her 85-year-old mom for a role model. When people meet her mother they often exclaim, "I can't believe her age!" And while Laurie believes her mother's sturdy Irish genes play a part in her good health, she also credits her mother's lifestyle for helping her stay fit, strong and ... yes, young. So check out 8 Vital Lessons from My Mother to meet the lady who "shows us how it's done."

Sunday, December 20, 2020

What's Your Favorite Restaurant?

      Our local news website just came out with a list of favorite restaurants in our town. The timing of this "favorites" list seems odd to me, since by and large people aren't going to restaurants anymore.

     A lot of people enjoyed dining outdoors throughout spring, summer and fall. Around here, indoor dining was banned for a while, then restricted to 50% capacity. Now indoor dining is banned again, through Jan. 4, since Pennsylvania is currently reporting the highest number of Covid deaths since the pandemic began (although somehow, some restaurants are still open).

     During the summer months outdoor dining thrived. Our town council closed a couple of downtown streets on weekend nights, and tables were set out along the sidewalk, people strolling up and down the street. Some intrepid diners were seen outside as recently as last week, bundled in coats and huddled under gas-fired heaters.

     When was the last time you went to a restaurant? B and I have been cautious. We have not been to a restaurant since . . . well, I can't remember exactly. We got home from South Carolina at the beginning of March just as the pandemic began. I remember I went to my last table tennis session on Mon. March 9. We had out last Senior Learning class on Fri. March 13.

     What I don't remember is whether we went to a restaurant after we came home. Probably not, since we were already getting scared, and we'd probably had our fill of restaurant meals during our February vacation. So I'm guessing our last restaurant was the seafood place on the South Carolina beach at the end of February.

     Since then our favorite restaurant meal has been take-out. We've done Chinese a couple of times. We went to a chicken place once. But our go-to is pizza. Once a week. Our favorite is mushrooms, onions and peppers.

     So according to the website survey the favorite local eatery is an Italian restaurant -- not our pizza place located behind the 7-Eleven, but an expensive Italian restaurant in town. A brew pub came in second. Third was a downtown bistro with excellent food that happens to be B's favorite restaurant.

     Fourth position was taken by another Italian place -- not as fancy as the other restaurant, but one that offers live music two or three times a week. And fifth most popular? The local diner.

     My favorite didn't make the list. It's a plain old American restaurant. The food is decent, nothing special, but it has a fantastic outdoor patio with a view of the street where we like to lounge in the summer and watch the world go by.

     I guess I'm not much of a connoisseur. To me the ambience is more important than the food. Except for Japanese. I like sushi, but I don't want cheap sushi, so there's only one Japanese restaurant I'll go to. Otherwise, I want decent food. But it doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. 

     I'm waxing nostalgic about restaurants because I miss them so much. Maybe that's the method behind the local website's madness -- why they did this survey now. We miss our restaurants, and look forward to a new thriving restaurant scene come spring.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Surprises in Retirement

     B said to me the other day:  "Now I finally know what retired people mean when they say every day seems the same. I can't even tell when it's the weekend anymore!"

     She went on to explain that before Covid, we had some structure to our lives. I played table tennis on Mondays and Wednesdays, did my tutoring on Thursdays. She led her therapy group on Thursday nights and went to church on Sundays.

     But now we have nothing on a regularly scheduled basis. We do Zoom meetings, but they are catch-as-catch-can. We will see friends for an outdoor get-together, but again, not on a regular basis. The only constant we have right now is watching the Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday. And we're not even football fans! We only do it because it's an appointment we can hang onto.

     I remember, when we first retired, we wondered how we would spend our days. We knew there'd be some tension between enjoying all the time in the world and finally be in charge of our own lives -- and the responsibility for creating some structure and meaning in our lives. Would we find new activities, new friends -- and new meaning beyond work and children?

     We were surprised how easy it was to fill our time. So easy that we wondered how we managed to to hold down a job. The search for structure and meaning has been more challenging. But we were getting there until . . . 

     . . . the biggest surprise of all:  Covid-19. People talk about how Covid-19 is exacerbating the trend toward digitalizing our lives. We don't go to stores anymore, we shop online. We don't have dinner at other people's homes, we talk on Zoom.

     I think Covid has also forced us into a more traditional retirement. Today, we're not getting out, not traveling, not getting a post-retirement job, not doing as much as we thought we would. So we have time to make breakfast every morning, sit around and drink coffee and read a book or troll the internet. Dinner is now a daily event, when it used to be something we often rushed through on the way to a meeting or event.

     Has Covid changed your life? Do you think the changes will continue after the Coronavirus has disappeared?

     One thing I've loved about retirement is that my stress levels have gone down. Way down. As a result I lost about 15 pounds. But now the stress is building again. I'm not sure why. Maybe the feelings of confinement, maybe the anxiety of waiting for this thing to finally end. 

     So I find myself snacking in the afternoons. I try to take a walk, but I'm not as consistent as I should be. A schedule is what got me to exercise regularly. So since this all began in March I have gained back a few pounds.

     One thing I have not done -- but should -- is try to develop a new skill. Several friends have discovered the joy of cooking, now that they have time on their hands. One friend of mine has taken up painting -- and you know, he's not half bad! -- while a couple I know is starting to learn Italian -- in preparation for a trip to Italy they intend to make as soon as this is all over.

     In some ways retirement has actually prepared us for the Covid lockdown. We don't have to worry about work or a paycheck -- and that is an incredible blessing in this world. Also, I've become more comfortable with my own company, and in retirement B and I have already figured out how to spend more time together.

     Finally, I'm really surprised at how long this pandemic has lasted. Remember March? We thought it would go away by summer! But now I wonder -- what surprises await us next year? Will Covid linger longer than we think? Will we keep up our new activities, or go back to the old normal?

     I always thought retirement was a time for quiet reflection, for comfortable days and serene sunsets. Who would'a thunk it would be so full of surprises?

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Alone Again, Naturally

      Yesterday, December 7th, was the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It used to be more present in our minds, command more attention. But a lot of time has gone by. I remember in high school a surprise quiz was called a Jap quiz. Can't say that anymore.

     Today is the 40th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon outside the Dakota in New York City. He was only 40 years old. It's hard to believe that the amount of time elapsed between John Lennon's death and today is the same time span as his entire life -- and is actually longer than the time between Pearl Harbor and Lennon's death -- not the advent of The Beatles, but the end of The Beatles.

     As I'm writing this, I'm listening to a recording on Youtube of The Beatles' rooftop concert, with "Get Back and "Don't Let me Down." This was the last appearance of The Beatles, in 1969, over half a century ago. Now George Harrison is also dead (of cancer at age 58 on November 29, 2001, my son's 16th birthday.)

     Paul McCartney, age 78, has five kids and is on his third wife (but fourth partner counting Jane Aster his girlfriend and muse for the crucial years of 1963 - 68.) and he still tours and performs, sometimes with 80-year-old Ringo Starr who also tours as Ringo Starr and His All Star Band.

    What's your favorite Beatles song?

     I find myself in a reflective mood these days, so I'm thinking of She's Leaving Home or Across the Universe. I eventually get sad when my wife is away and I'm living all alone. I think too much about the past. About growing up in my New York suburb, going to high school and college. then going to work in New York City before eventually taking a job with a magazine back in the suburbs.

     I have mixed feelings about it all. Who among us didn't have a first love in high school that subsequently crashed to the ground? Who among us graduated from college with the record and the confidence to change the world? Who can't have mixed feelings about a career that was largely satisfying, reasonably well-paid, but also contained its share of defeats and downright humiliations?

     So I'm finding find myself wallowing in nostalgia, which is what too often happens when I am alone, with nothing else to focus the mind.

     I think about my two kids, growing up in the 1990s, and all the fulfilling moments, and how great it all was. But then I realize: it's all over! And everything since then, since the early 2000s, seems to have gone by so fast.

     The problem seems worse on weekends when all other activities shut down. No Zoom meetings with my senior learning center. No contact with the students I'm tutoring. There isn't even a stock market to watch, to pass the small bits of time, and the weather channel seems to repeat about every 15 minutes.

     I did finish reading Louise Penny's latest book All the Devils Are Here, which brings Inspector Gamache and his family to Paris for a case about corporate greed and intrigue. It's a good page turner, although I thought the ending flew off the handle a little bit. 

      I've also been watching Dawson's Creek, which I had never seen before. My son told me a while back that it is much better than The OC -- more real, more genuine, more gritty with its seting in Cape Cod not Southern California. The show debuted in 1998, when my daughter was in 10th grade and my son in 7th grade, in those last innocent days before cellphones, before the internet took over our lives. 

     Those Dawson Creek episodes reflect high-school life in the 1990s, but could for all intents and purposes echo high-school life from the 1960s. The teenage romance, the parents getting divorced, a death in the family, rebellion against arbitrary school authority. Maybe these are themes still relevant to coming-of-age stories. But for me it all seems nostalgic, and gets me thinking about my own past during all those hours when I'm alone, with no on to talk to, not much to do.

      B and I have been trying to Zoom together almost every night. We catch up on what the grandkids are doing. She's been spending afternoons playing with a three-year-old, and occasionally babysitting for a 22-month old. B is relishing the role of grandmother-in-residence, but she's already getting tired. "I've only been here a week," she told me last night, "and I'm feeling like I've stayed long enough, that it's getting to be time to head home." She paused. "What made me think it was a good idea to come here for a month?!?"

      Meanwhile, she sent me an email with a link to a local outfit that delivers Christmas trees. But I've decided I don't want a tree. I already have greenery and the lights on the mantel, and the outdoors lights over the garage. That's enough. I'm afraid a tree would emphasize how alone I am at Christmas, and remind me of all the Christmases past, with the kids, the costumes, the groaning dining room tables.

     I did talk with my daughter by Facebook. My granddaughter at 10 months is now officially crawling. She would power crawl from one end of the living room to the other to get her hands on my daughter's iPhone. I suggested putting the phone around a corner. Could she locate a phone if it was out-of-sight?

     The answer is: no. She lost interest when she couldn't see it. I guess that's a skill they learn later in life. When I told B about this later, she suggested my granddaughter had to play more hide-and-seek to develop the skill of retaining an image of something when it's not there any longer.

     Which is kind of what nostalgia is, isn't it?

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Plus ca Change ...

     "The toilet paper is just the same," I said, walking into the kitchen. "And so are the paper towels."

     "What?" B responded. 

     "In fact, the entire bathroom is just the same as when we were kids."

     "What are you talking about?"

     "And so is the kitchen," I continued as I looked around at the refrigerator, the stove, the dishwasher. "You see, everyone keeps complaining about the 'pace of change' -- that everything changes so quickly these days, that it's hard to keep up. But I don't think it's really true."

     She rolled her eyes. "Well, then, why don't you tell that to my iPad. I can host a Zoom meeting from my desktop, but I can't figure out how to do it from my iPad."

     "Okay," I acknowledged. "We have personal computers and smart phones and other ways to communicate at the drop of a hat . . . or at the swipe of a key. But otherwise, our lives work pretty much the same way as when we were kids. In fact, I'd argue that our grandparents experienced more change in their lifetimes than we have in ours."

     "Okay, I'm listening," she said. "Please explain." 

     I knew I had to jump at the chance, because B says she's listening about as often as she says that I am right! So what was I talking about?

     I'd been sitting in the living room, reading a book, and happened to lift my gaze over to the fireplace. We don't use the fireplace very often because we have central heat. An oil burner with baseboard hot water. Or . . . exactly the same kind of heat we had in our house when I was a kid, 50 years ago.

     So I began to wonder: how much has really changed? I live in a house that was built in 1963. I think the windows were replaced, and I know central air conditioning was installed at some point, because I can see the ducts in the back of the closets. But everything else about the house is the same as it was in 1963. So everything about our daily lives -- especially when we're mostly confined to our house during the pandemic -- is pretty much the same as it would have been in 1963.

     Except for the computer sitting on my desk, and the phone in my hand. Those are different, to be sure. Now I have the dubious pleasure of watching the cable channels that were not available in the 1960s, and the even more doubtful experience of checking in on Facebook or Twitter to view the latest rant by some political extremist . . . or see yet another picture of my cousin's grandchildren who are just the cutest kids on earth and I know that because she posts pictures of them three times a day.

     I can also watch a lot of movies and TV series through Amazon or Netflix, on demand. That's pretty cool. I can get reruns of Seinfeld, The Carol Burnett Show and even Gunsmoke on some of the cable channels. And I can watch 60 Minutes, a show which premiered in September 1968.

     But even when the pandemic lets up and I can go outside, how different will the world look? I'll get in my car to go to the grocery store. But I could drive a car in the 1960s, too. Sure, there are some improvements. There were no airbags, no backup cameras, no GPS, in the 1960s. But the basic experience is the same. The grocery store looks the same. The food is still the same -- they still sell broccoli!

     I'll be able to get on an airplane and fly to Charleston, SC, to see the grandkids. But I could get on an airplane in the 1960s, too. The flight is a little less expensive now (adjusted for inflation) and probably more crowded. But basically, it's the same experience.

     Compare this to the lives of our grandparents. When they were kids, there were no airplanes. There were no cars. They took a trolley, or rode a horse. Many of them had no electricity, and no central heat until they upgraded their homes as adults. They didn't have Social Security or Medicare. And they didn't live long enough to need them. 

     My grandparents were all born around 1885. Life expectancy in the U. S. at that time was about 41 years. By the time my parents were born life expectancy had gone up to 54. By the 1960s, it was 70 years. Since then it's gone up some more, but despite advances in medicine the increase has leveled off. It has shown less change, not more change. 

     And recent statistics show that the life expectancy for our grandchildren has not changed at all. For those born in 2010 the average life expectancy is 78.7. For my granddaughter, born in 2020, it is also 78.7.

     Anyway, I have to go now. I have to set the table for dinner. And light the candles. B likes candles. 

     Or . . . plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose