"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Saturday, October 30, 2021

For Women Only

      I recently attended a book festival where I heard author Maya Shanbhag Lang talk about her book and her life -- her pregnancy, her daughter, her mother and her mother's journey into Alzheimer's. The book is a memoir called What We Carry, and I recommend it to all women, especially women who are around our age.

     I usually don't recommend books. For one thing, most people aren't interested in books -- or at least not interested enough to read them. According to the Department of Education fewer than half of Americans adults are proficient at reading. A quarter of Americans admit to never reading a book. Many others say they read or listen to just one book a year. The average book reader gets through four books per year. But the average is skewed by a few avid readers -- mostly college-educated women -- who go through a few dozen per year.

     I guess I'm a pretty avid reader. But honestly, most of the books I pick up are not academic tomes or serious literature. I gravitate toward mysteries from people like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais . . . and yeah, I admit it, I have gone through Sue Grafton from A is for Alibi to Y is for Yesterday

     Sometimes I read history (like The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson), but my latest finds are George Pelecanos, who sets his stories in Washington, DC, and Stephen Mack Jones who prowls the streets of Detroit.

     So reading Maya Shanbhag Lang was a stretch for me. It's a memoir mostly about her mother, a doctor who immigrated from India.

     To be honest, I didn't much like the first half of the book. The author drones on, charging her father with abuse, complaining about her mother's neglect, moaning about her depression.

     But then her mother starts to develop Alzheimer's. About halfway through the book the mother moves in with Maya and her husband and young daughter. That's when Maya begins to unravel the myths and false stories of her mother's life, and gets to know the real person with all her strengths and frailties.

     Eventually Maya and her brother (who doesn't do much to help) decide to put their mother into an assisted-living facility. This changes things yet again. Maya finally accepts who her mother really is and begins to appreciate all her mother has done. Maya struggles to understand the idea of home, the reality of love, the tension between self care and caring for others. This new relationship also influences how Maya sees her own daughter and affects her emotional reaction to the demands of motherhood.

     Like I said, most men will probably not be interested in the complexities and emotional ups and downs of this mother/daughter relationship. But I think a lot of women will identify with her journey. If I'm wrong, in my next post about books I'll gun for mysteries which, by all evidence, are more closely handcuffed to my own guilty pleasures.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Starry Starry Night

      My sister was visiting New York City, so B and I went up to see her one day. We drove from Bucks County to Jersey City, NJ, then took the ferry across the Hudson river to Battery Park (thus avoiding the Holland Tunnel and the impossibilities of parking in Manhattan).

View of the Freedom Tower from the ferry

     We stopped by the Irish Hunger Memorial, the Mysterious Bookstore, and later went to dinner at the Tribeca Grill (Robert DeNiro's restaurant with great ambience, outside seating and decent-but-not-great food). But the main event of the day was a visit to an exhibition called Van Gogh Immersive Experience, now showing in New York as well as other major cities from Boston to Seattle. It is one of the panoramic shows that comprises the "immersive Van Gogh craze sweeping America."

A projection of Van Gogh's hayfield

     There are no actual original Van Gogh paintings in the exhibition. Instead, we get to "meet the artist like never before." To begin with, reproductions of his paintings hang like windows in several rooms, one after the other. 

Cafe terrace at night

     The displays offer a sampling of his hundreds of paintings. But the focus is on his major works: hayfields, flowers, peasants and towns in the south of France in the 1880s. 

Van Gogh's sunflowers

   And then there's the star of the show: The Starry Night. 

Close-up of Starry Night

   The experience culminates in a large auditorium-size room with a light-and-sound show that brings his paintings to life. Images are projected onto the walls. They fade and merge into one another. Trains move and blow off steam. Boats sail along the river. Petals float down off the trees.

Van Gogh self-portrait

     The show also brings Van Gogh to life as a person -- his early days as an art dealer, then discovering his talent, moving to Arles, descending into madness. Apparently, Van Gogh was somewhat color blind which explains in part his use of vibrant colors. He painted what he saw -- but his reality comes across to us as bold and bright and almost other-worldly. 

Self-portrait with bandaged ear

     He famously cut off part of his ear after a feud with his friend and fellow artist Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh eventually committed himself to a mental facility, as he alternated between periods of near-catatonic depression and manic periods of painting. 

The Freedom Tower, from the ferry ride home

   Van Gogh died a pauper in 1889 at the age of 37. He reportedly sold only one painting during his lifetime. But today the few paintings in private hands sell for tens of millions of dollars, while most of his work hangs in museums. And now we can see his tortured genius splashed across spacious arenas around the country, bringing his larger-than-life talent to the large screen.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

What Would You Do if You Were Rich?

     What would you do if suddenly you came into a lot of money -- like ten times the amount you now have? We asked this question at a Socrates Cafe session we attended (on Zoom of course). The question was seen as a way to get to the more fundamental issue: What do we want money for?

     (Socrates Cafe is a discussion group through our local retirement learning center. It's part of a larger movement encouraging people from different backgrounds to exchange views and perspectives based on their own experiences.)

     There were about 16 or 18 people on the call. The first person piped up: "My first reaction:  I would buy a bigger house." Then she paused. "But even as I'm saying it, I realize that might not be the right answer -- not because I want to be politically correct, but because maybe that's not what I really want." She paused, reflecting, "With a bigger house comes more work, more cleaning, more upkeep, more worry." Then she brightened. "Actually, maybe what I'd really want is a second home -- a house on the beach!"

     The second person to offer a response said, "I'd hire myself a personal assistant -- someone to handle all the annoying but necessary chores in my life from paying bills to making appointments, answering emails, cleaning the house, organizing the insurance, the medical bills. I'd really love to be free of all that hassle."

     So . . . what would YOU do with a whole lot of extra money?

     One guy raised his hand. He paused for a moment, then said: "I would do nothing." When met with surprised stares he explained, "I pretty much have everything I want right now. Besides, I'm in my 70s. I'm trying to get rid of stuff in my life, not acquire more things."

     One woman explained that her nephew suffers from learning problems and mental health issues. He graduated from high school, but he has trouble keeping a job and is prone to fits of paranoia. She knows he will never be able to fully take care of himself. If she had the money, she would set up some kind of trust for him, so she could rest assured that he'd never end up living on the street or in some terrible shelter.

     Another fellow is an immigrant from a Caribbean country. He came to America in 1970, got an engineering degree, had a successful career, was able to support his family -- and even send some money back to his immediate relatives. If he had more money, he said, he would set up a foundation to help feed, clothe and educate all the people he left behind.

     Another woman said she was less ambitious than that, admitting she didn't have any special cause she wanted to support. She'd give some of it to charity, of course, but what she really wanted to do was travel more. "If I had plenty of money," she said, "I'd go to Hawaii, I'd go to Asia, I'd take a river cruise in Europe ... and maybe the Galapagos. I'd love to see the Galapagos."

     If you think the idea of suddenly receiving a boatload of money is preposterous . . . not so fast! The government just announced that Social Security payments are going up a bracing 5.9% next year. And a group called The Senior Citizens League is campaigning for special $1,400 payments to Social Security recipients. So if you got a $1,400 bonus -- or presumably $2,800 if you're a couple -- are you traveling to Hawaii or sending it to disadvantaged people in the Caribbean?

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Do You Have a Hobby?

     When I think of a hobby I think of coin collecting or stamp collecting, sewing or knitting, model trains or woodworking. By that score I do not have a hobby.

     When I was a kid I collected coins. I started when a friend of my dad's gave me ten Indian head pennies for my birthday. I went on to get the coin books and fill them up as best I could. I bought some coins at the old Gimbels department store, and later signed up to receive proofs from the U. S. Treasury.

     Alas, during my high school years my interest in sports and girls surpassed my interest in coins. Today, my coin collection sits on the floor of my closet. My last acquisition was a roll of World War II steel pennies I bought at a fall festival about 15 years ago. Otherwise, I haven't looked at my coin collection in decades.

      All the retirement experts say we should have a hobby in retirement. A hobby can keep the mind active, provide hours of enjoyment, help with stress, even contribute to self-esteem and provide a sense of identity.

     My brother-in-law is a woodworker. He has a shop in the basement and has crafted many wooden toys for his grandchildren. Another brother-in-law is a gardener, with about two acres of corn, beans and other vegetables in his backyard. He and his wife give away loads of vegetables to friends and family (thank you, thank you!) and eat out of their freezer for much of the winter. 

     I have a few friends who have taken up art in retirement. One is painting. One is doing pottery. Another glasswork. So do you have a hobby? I guess we could consider blogging a hobby, couldn't we?

     My sister plays bridge twice a week. Is a card game like bridge considered a hobby? My other sister is trying to learn Italian. Is taking a class or learning a language a hobby? How about travel?

     Then there's golf. A lot of seniors play golf. Is that considered a hobby? Or fishing or sailing or tennis or any other sport? How about just . . . walking?

     I have one relative who's a movie buff. That might be considered a hobby. But I doubt scrolling through netflix or spending hours watching cable news qualifies as a bona fide hobby.

     What's the difference between just wasting time and a genuine hobby? I think the difference is that you DO something with a real hobby -- not just watch movies, but lead a class or join a cinema club. Not just read books, but take part in a book club or volunteer at the library.

     Studies show that time spent on hobbies can help lower blood pressure, improve our mood, keep things in perspective. They sometimes offer that much-desired state of "flow" -- when you're lost in an art project, a sport or other activity and achieve that feeling of being fully engaged, while worries fall away, self-consciousness disappears and time flies.

     Hobbies can also help us make friends, perhaps replacing some of those we lost when we left work or moved away from our old home. Hobbies also make us more interesting. We don't talk about work anymore. And eventually our friends get tired of hearing about our grandchildren and all their impressive accomplishments. But people are interested in what we're doing, especially if it seems important or even just a little bit offbeat.

     It's never too late to start a hobby. My friend actually produces pretty good paintings, even though he never picked up a paintbrush before he retired. My sister . . . well, she's hardly fluent in Italian. Not yet anyway. But her halting attempts at the language gave her the motivation to take a trip to Florence and Venice, before Covid. And now she's planning a post-Covid trip, this time to Rome and southern Italy.

     Buona fortuna e avere una pensione felice!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

End of Summer

     Many people our age, who no longer need to keep to a work or school schedule, have found that September is the best month to go on vacation. Don't you agree? Summer crowds are gone, but shops and restaurants remain open. The weather is still pleasantly warm -- no longer stifling hot, but not yet cold and blustery. And sometimes there's a surprise.

What is this ... a surprise?

   We just took a trip to one of our favorite places, Cape Cod, on the eastern end of Massachusetts.

The road down to the water

     We found an airbnb at a post-season price, near Nantucket Sound.

The shimmering sound

   We spent a few days walking on the beach, wading in the water, and enjoying the light September breezes.

Late summer beach

     The shoreline was mostly empty . . . 

A few stragglers

     Although a few late-season vacationers played on the abandoned-for-the-winter lifeguard stand.

Fog and mist

     One day we drove up to Nauset beach on the Atlantic Ocean.


   The waves came crashing out of the fog.

The fire is lit

     We hung around until dusk when -- surprise! -- the town of Orleans held its annual end-of-summer bonfire.

In full flame

          Now that's a fire!

Evening colors

   The last night we headed back down to our beach . . . 

The moon emerges

     and watched a full moon rise over Nantucket Sound.

End of day

     And now the day is done.