I am doing a lot of journal writing these days.  In this world of relentless self -presentation, where we state our opinions, position ourselves, and pose for pictures in those positions, the idea of self-expression for an audience of none can seem a paltry return on your investment of thought.  Imagine. Only one hit – you.  But that’s what journal writing is about and I am recommending it as a way to improve your life and change the world.

When I was a child these things happened: my aunt’s sailor boyfriend sent me a hula skirt from Hawaii, and a week later my aunt took it back and told me not to speak his name; my grandfather died and my mother covered the mirrors with sheets;  one day I heard the word “Scarletina” and by nightfall I had the disease itself.  When my fever broke, my father brought me five sharp pencils and a marble notebook (you know the kind) with space for my name and class on the cardboard cover.  In it I put my address, phone number, height, weight, age, color of hair and any other quantifying bits of information I could think of, as well as the hula skirt, my aunt and her ex, the draped mirrors, the Scarletina.  My first journal.

When the ifs and ors of life won’t let me sleep, I drop them into my bedside journal and then, confident that it is all there, safe until tomorrow, I can close my eyes.  Or when I am in a bind and can’t see a way out, I brainstorm in my journal, corralling facts and detailing emotions.  Even the unthinkable, when written out, is not as bad as it is when it is floating around in my head. I often discover my solution written in my own words.  Did I mean that?  Did I actually say that?  Oh, I see! Literally.

Journal writing can teach about the workings of your own mind.  For instance, I have learned how consistent I am in my prejudices.  If I open a journal from 1981, I am likely to see myself complaining about the same things I complained about yesterday; my worries, updated to new circumstances, are the same.  It is maddening/comforting to see that I yam what I yam.

Not all journals are the same. They are always and only what you want and need them to be.  Memory book,  travel book, worry book, sleep book.   As a writer, I jot ideas and play with language.  When I travel, it is my substitute for snapping photos. I write in the morning after I walk the dog, and in the evening if the day’s events need to be decanted before they spill over into my sleep.  I write while the plane circles, in hospitals, and doctors’ offices; I write when the weird man on the bus breaks into song and I don’t know if it going to end up a comedy or a tragedy.  I write to remind myself to do things.

Why am I recommending journal writing to you, and why now?

Because the world is fraught with trouble, everywhere we look.  And while social media give the illusion that we are not bearing it alone, it comes at a price: the relentless sharing of every thought encourages a kind of group-think.  Consumed by belonging to one group or another, how many of us can say for sure what our private thoughts – unprovoked or suggested by something someone else said  –really are?  it’s as if we have gotten out of practice with being by ourselves.  Imagine writing in your journal, your private thoughts for an audience of none.   It can change your life, and maybe the world.


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It had been a tense morning.  My granddaughter (my only girl of four grands) away at college got sick and there was a brief feeling of crisis in the house until I heard that she was better.

The ambient stress when children or grandchildren are at some kind of risk dies hard, as you know if you have children or grandchildren, or for that matter any loved ones who are beyond your immediate ability to “make better.” The impulse to take care grows deeper, I think, in reverse order to your ability to be of help.

I was just calming down when the phone rang.   The voice on the other end was plaintive and sounded very young. “Grandma?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“It’s me,” he said. “Can I talk to you a minute?”

“Sure you can,” I said.

I knew immediately that the voice did not belong to any of my grandsons.

“What’s up, honey?”  I said.

He let out a shaky breath and said, “Grandma, I have to tell you something, but I want you to promise you will keep this between the two of us for now until I am ready.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” I said. ”What’s up?”

“Grandma, I was driving with someone and he might have been speeding a little…”
I’ll spare you the rest of the details but you might not be surprised to hear that my fake grandson was in trouble, pursued and pulled over by a cop, and found to be in possession of a bag of marijuana which he had never seen before…

”…and it must have been a BIG bag, grandma,” he said, “Because the police officer took us to the station house  and I’m here now…”  Deep, ragged breath, more  incipient tears.  Damn. This guy was good.

But I was better.  “Jeffrey,” I said, giving him a fake name to go with his fake identity, my voice deep with  concerned grandmotherliness.

“Yes,” he said, immediately falling in line.

Then I acted impatient, to put a little more drama into the situation.

“Cut to the chase, honey,” I said.  As if “Jeffrey” and I had a history.

“Grandma, I swear, I was drug tested and I came out clean, and I am going to testify against the other person and there won’t be anything on my permanent record. But the thing is, I need the bail money to get out of here.”

Bingo. There it was.

You may have heard about these scams, which take advantage of older people and their soft spots for their grandkids, which makes them vulnerable. I had previously almost fallen for it once before, when I made the mistake of saying one of my grandson’s names to the initial “Grandma?” (to which, of course, the scammer said “Yes”). But that time, luckily the voice sounded different from my grandson’s and when I said so, the scammer hung up.

This time I was going to play it out.

So, after he asked for the money I got tough with him.  I said, “What about the other $500 you owe me, Jeffrey?” (I was really getting into it.)

“I swear Grandma, I’m going to pay you back, as soon as I get out of here and I hate to ask you for help again but I have nowhere else to turn.”

Imagining a grandmother being taken in, I gave it  another turn of the screw.

“First put the policeman on the phone,” I said.

“But are you going to give me the money?” the scammer said.

“Jeffrey, you know grandma.  First I want you to put the policeman on the phone.”

There was a long wait, and then someone with a much deeper voice got on. He was brisk and tough sounding and very convincing.

“This is Officer Johnson, Badge #####” he said.  “Who am I talking to?”

“You can call me grandma,” I said.  “Where are you calling from?”

“The 23rdPrecinct,” he said.

“Where is that?”

“Downtown,” he said. (I looked it up later.  The 23rdis uptown, on 102ndStreet)  He asked me my name again.

“I told you, you can call me grandma,” I said.

At which point he hung up.

Sorry. I should have given the wrong name. I should have given Jeffrey’s grandmother a name.  I wanted to get them to lay out the whole scheme so I could see how it worked.  I know on good authority that they would have instructed me to send money to Jeffrey in the form of a store gift card, because those cannot be traced. I would have liked to find out how much they wanted, and what address they wanted me to send it to (I suppose a post office box).  And I would have liked to imagine them waiting for it to come.

That was fun and I got a little bit back scamming the scammers.  But it made me think not only how wary we all – old and young — have to be about our better instincts, because we may be taken in by a go-fund-me scheme, or a fake charity, or a telephone scammer. And also, when it is an older person it somehow seems as if the blame is shared. Older persons are gullible, people say, as if that explains how it happened, and makes the older person slightly complicit. But being caring and wanting to help has nothing to do with being older, or living alone, or any of the things that the conventional wisdom says about older persons who are victims of phone scams.   We may all look foolish for trying to help, if the request for help is a scam.  That’s equal opportunity sad.

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One of the things I love about the dead of winter is a time, somewhere between the new year and spring when the wind or cold or snow is so bad that I have to stay in, and I become hostage to my best worst instincts. Instead of doing all the productive things I should do, like cleaning out the linen closet, or de-cluttering my files, or finishing the afghan which is in its fifth year of construction, I give in to sloth. I lie in bed, un-showered, my false eyelashes unapplied, and watch  tv — Not even Netflix or Amazon — just a warm bath of Star Trek re-runs, and Monk marathons from morning ‘til night.

It occurred two weeks ago, and things got pretty intense, because  when I reached for the remote my hand kept being interrupted by a tray of rice krispie treats, and I never got to mute the commercials, as I usually do.  So this year, and just temporarily I became an unwitting expert on the good, the bad and the ugly of tv ads; I went close to the edge of crazy and maybe over, and had what I will call my commercial break:

  • I can quote verbatim the disclaimer at the end of the commercial we love to hate, which lists all the side effects from diarrhea to death that might accompany eczema relief.
  • I decoded the subliminal message behind that commercial where the famous actor acts famous against a backdrop of  dinner party, pool table and  car. (Sex, power, youth, cash).
  • I popped the top on a can of cola and got that carbonated feeling of kumbaya that cola brings on and now I’m a better person.
  • My next car will be a Subaru because it proves I love my family more than you love yours with your Chevys or Fords. Never mind the overprice. It’s a love surtax.
  • I understood incoherent commercials, like the one that wants me to buy a car because its driver avoided hitting a man who dropped papers in the street, or the insurance company spokesman in witness protection who dives off a bridge, cut to the logo.

But I knew I was in real trouble when I began to obsess over anthropomorphized ad creatures. It began with the talking taco shell (who sounded a little like my ex-therapist).  Then I fell for the orange bladder-shaped bladder with the big blue swoony eyes, who tagged along with his lady on her frequent visits to the john, holding her hand like an anxious kid (though I did not like his pushy cousin, the colon with boundary issues). I felt  sorry for the green mucus blob who gets banished from noses by the right spritz. In fact, I became so captivated by those little animated avatars, I  dreamed up some new ones.  I dreamed of Patty Pancreas, who was a forlorn, droopy, dried -up pancake of a pancreas, dragging herself through the desert until she finds an oasis of REBORN and gets reconstituted like a sponge in water.  Patty meets Lung John Silver, a breathless, deflated, grizzled old guy shaped like a lung with legs, gasping, trying to make it to the finish line of a race when someone on the sidelines hands him BRETH in a cup and he is his old, inflated self.

The little toe fungus family were there too, in my fevered state, doing ring(worm) around the rosie, but alas, they never made it to prime time because they were too cute and the focus group (me) cried at the thought that they would be blasted to smithereens by the antifungal medication. Same with the dancing flakes of dandruff.

I auditioned The Two Sinuses, who made funny sounds, and The Kidney Kid, whose agony was a little too graphic, and may have been the reason I came to my senses, decided to snap out of it, get out of bed, turn off the tv,  put on my false eyelashes and get on with the winter until it ends — as it will, as commercials do.  And maybe winter is a commercial for spring?

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By the time most of us have reached our sixties or seventies,  we have lived several lives.   We may be retired from our first lives, launched into lives of travel, recreation, study or second careers.  We may have been homeowners all our lives and have downsized to condos or apartments or senior living communities.  (Or, like me, having lived in an apartment all my life, have spread out to houses.)  We may have lived in other states, geographically and emotionally. We may once have been bicycle riders, or blondes, but are neither, anymore.  We may once have been poor or rich and are now the other.  And little by little, as old ties become untied, through change or loss or distance, the selves we once were known to be, are no longer known at all.  Fewer and fewer folks know that we were once PTA activists or picketed for certain causes, or that we hiked in Scotland for fifteen summers, until our knees gave out.

The connections we make in later life are in many ways important, but they are not the same as earlier ones.  The connections we make as children, with our siblings, for example: can anything be more comforting – and infuriating, I might add – than a sister or brother who says, “You’re strong, you’ll do it, I know you,” or “Calm down! You were always impatient, even as a baby.”?  The friends who knew our parents, or remember when we met our spouses, or how easily we could be made to get the giggles, become rarer, and when they are gone the things they know about us recede into the corners of fewer and fewer memories.  And without a mirror to reflect those earlier lives, we forget what they looked like.  That’s why I hold onto my high school ties so tightly and why a recent reconnection with grade school friends, co-remembering the name of the girl’s club we formed, our name and motto (The Darts.  We aim for your Hearts!) was such a delight.

Of course, there is something nice about being new people, too.  It can make us feel young to start out again, learn a new job, dig into a new discipline, act in new ways, be seen in new ways.

When my children were old enough, and I went to grad school, I remember how I loved being known only as a student.  To my fellow students I was not my kids’ mother or my husband’s wife, I was just me, judged solely on how I answered in class, how good I was on the committee devoted to the study of this or that.  I was thrilled that the rest of me was submerged and the tip of the iceberg that showed was the me I wanted to project.  Until, that is, the day both my kids came down with something, M was out of town, and I had to ditch the committee work to take care of the kids. No one even knew I had kids,  much less cared.  They thought I was irresponsible.  For all I knew, they thought I was lying, that it was a case of the cat eating my homework.  No one asked how my kids were feeling and I remember thinking, “They don’t even know me.”

The more lives we live, the more of us there is to know, and the fewer are the people who really know us.

Now I am with people who don’t know how many years I have been married and what I did before I did what I do now, what my accomplishments were in those other lives. Sometimes it is refreshing and sometimes it feels as if I am living a truncated existence.

A while ago a colleague revealed that in the off-hours, he wrote thousand page novels. Hearing this, another colleague revealed that once she had been a chemistry prof at a top tier college. Another time, a quiet neighbor expressed a sudden urgency to find a local band so he could play his horn! How little we really know about the people we think we know. And wouldn’t it be nice if the selves we accumulate stayed with us? (Except, of course, in the case of murderous or guilty secrets, of which I will say more at another time, perhaps.)

But I suppose because time really has to march on, we might as well try to remember that there is likely to be a secret self or two in everyone, and no one should be taken at face value.

What we think we know about people is often just the tip of the iceberg.


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I went looking for a CD in the cabinet where I keep them.  In the middle of the first drawer, I found the wooly insides of an oven mitt.  Now this may sound strange to you, but it was not, to me, since I had spent the best part of six months chasing an oven-mitt-eating mouse, from kitchen drawer to kitchen drawer…and now, five oven mitts later, he had obviously found his way into my CD cabinet drawer.

After the obligatory scream, I carefully closed the drawer and pulled out the one under it, and there, under an avalanche of peanuts – I had blamed M for finishing off the nut bowl the other night – was the mouse himself, dead.  Second scream, enter M.

The morning faded and lunchtime passed, while M disposed of the body, emptied the drawers, washed and dried them, and I, wearing gloves and a mask (Hanta virus precaution), sprayed disinfectant on every CD, and put them back into the drawers.

By late afternoon, though we were (relatively speaking) back to normal, I could not stop thinking about the way it worked out. It began to haunt me.  Poor little guy.  I imagined he thought he had found peanut heaven, when he saw that bowl sitting out there.  And then…what happened then? Had someone come in from the garage, sending him to find the first good hiding place he could find, into some hole in the back of the cabinet, meant for CD player wires and connectors?  And having discovered it, had he decided it was the perfect place to store his treasure?

How many peanuts can one mouse carry at a time? Was it five peanuts per trip? Had he made trip after trip, like a kid at the beach trying to dig to China with a teaspoon?  And then, when he finally made it, when he seemed to be doing so well, what happened then? Had he somehow packed himself in too tightly and could not work his way out? Did he eat himself into a little mouse stupor and die of excess?  Did he choke on a nut? They were salted – did he not have any water to wash them down?

And, because I am only human, I could not help looking, Aesop-like, for a moral in the story.  I remembered the great winter weight pack-on, when it was too cold to do anything but go to bed early, with a nice cup of cocoa (marshmallow on top) and some honey-grahams.  (Well, not “some.”  Let’s say “many, though not all.”)   So, could this be a cautionary tale about excess? Had he filled his belly until he was too fat to survive?   Or was this one of those “beware of windfall” stories, where getting what you want is your ruination?  Like those idiots who turn lottery wins inside out and manage to find disaster? Or maybe, as M suggested, the mouse had dental issues, and had literally bitten off more than he could chew?  Or, since I believe in the writing gods, did he appear as a manifestation of a good story, to remind me how crazily far a storyteller can take even the simplest of incidents?

On the whole, it is a disturbing tale, including suspense (had I eaten out of that bowl after he had his grubby little claws in it?), an existential question (what was mousie’s last thoughts?) and sadness, because it includes an untimely death.  But it is happy, too, because wow, what a story it turned out to be!

Final thoughts: I did not find the CD I was looking for.  I will never leave peanuts out on the table again.  I have installed a hook to hang oven mitts far beyond the reach of mice. Not profound, perhaps, but an ending, nonetheless.  The writing gods suggest this: “the final sentence just lays there, like a dead mouse.”




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When I was a girl, there might have been meteorologists at work somewhere, and even weathermen, but not in my house.  We didn’t have television yet, and the radio was for evening use, for listening to Jack Benny, or The Lux Radio Theater.  My parents got news from newspapers, all of which is not news to you, I am sure. 

My point is, once upon a time the only thing to alert us to the weather was the window.  This was what we did: we went to the window, looked out, and saw what was happening outside.  If it was raining, from sprinkle to downpour, we took an umbrella, wore an oilcloth raincoat and hat, and sometimes put on galoshes.  No one drove us to school if it rained hard. We walked.  No one imagined any danger in that, or that we would drown.  If puddles got so high water got into our galoshes or otherwise breached the protective coverings of coat and hat, we got dry by removing those items of clothing when we got home.  And no one gave us instructions on how to do this.  There were no alerts, no watches, no warnings, no bulletins.  If there was a snowstorm people did not have to be warned to stay home.  If it got bad we stayed home.  When it was cold, we bundled up and if our fingers felt numb we blew on them.  No one I knew ever got frostbite and I think probably, unless you grew up in Antarctica, you will confirm that you never knew anyone who got frostbite, either.  We stayed out until our faces were chapped and red, and gloves were wet and caked with snow, but then we went inside and someone gave us a cup of hot chocolate and even though our cheeks might stay chapped for a while, and our fingers might feel stiff, we all recovered.  And no one had to instruct us in how to do all this, or warn us what would happen if we didn’t.  We lined up our gloves on the radiators, and let them dry and if they were still a little damp when we put them on the next day, no one told us this was dangerous and would lead to a chill.  We weathered the weather just fine.  When it was windy, no one measured how windy.  My father would say, “It blew me right up the block,” or “It blew my hat off my head,” and that would serve as a metric of the wind. 

Now, I’m not saying it is not useful to have a seismological advance man to tell us when an earthquake is about to occur, or a tornado or tsunami predictor which gives people time to get to a safe place. But when it comes to ordinary weather, whether it is colder than usual or hotter than ever, I’m out of patience. And particularly, now that I’m officially a “senior citizen” I resent the constant bombardment of warnings and watchfulness that comes with the territory of living in weather.And all of it in such cautionary tones that it takes some of the joy and mystery out of simple day to day living. 

 Air quality. Heat index.  Humidity.  Cold. Wind Chill. Harmful sun rays.  Wet snow. Drifting snow.  Ice.  Did you know, ice could fall on your head?  Or you could slip on an icy path?   That the next sweet kiss of the sun on your face might be the beginning of carcinoma?  That the wind carries pollen and other stuff that is especially harmful to hard-breathing oldsters like me?   Close your windows, cover your face. 

The weather people, attractive and serious all,  are worried about each and every one of us. “Let me get you guys outside,” the handsome blond man says, his oily solicitousness reaching a pinnacle as the camera pans to the sunset or the sunrise.

How about this: Let’s all tune out of the weather report and tune into the weather. Walking in the cold sunshine for a few moments was delicious, despite the dire warnings.  Staying in was nice, too, these last few days, watching the snow fall, and the trees blow.  No poetics to offer here beyond that.  The internet is full enough of quotes, and like snowflakes, no one is like the other, but when they accumulate, they are all one, anyway.  Weather. 

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Down or Upsizing


We live in what is rapidly becoming a paperless world. Or so it is said. But a lot of us won’t give up our newspapers and print magazines. And even though we write letters online, and keep lists on line and calendar events online, paper still seems to proliferate. Maybe not only despite but because we can do so much without paper, we do more record keeping than ever before:  commemorating, listing, reminding ourselves.  We certainly immortalize far more in photos of everyday life with selfies and sunsets and ski slopes. All of it seems to be taking up no space, but I would bet that our lives on the record  exceed what  we generated in notes and letters by hand, and photos that had to be developed and framed. Nowadays we open a file for just about everything because it’s so easy, including a file with all the passwords and user names of all the other files.  And then, because we realize that the time will come when we will forget the passwords and usernames and be locked out of our own files; and because we have come to understand the complexity and unreliability of The Great Machine (which includes computer, tablet, laptop, smartphone), what do we do? We back up with a hard copy.  Paper.

So now we’re changing jobs. We’re moving.  We’re downsizing. Or we’re just sitting quietly, in the seventh decade of our lives wondering what in the name of Gutenberg we are going to do with the papers in the file cabinets, or the photos in our photo albums, and if  we are contemplating it in our eighth or ninth decade, what our offspring and heirs are going to do with all of it. So as soon as we can, we begin to…try to begin to get rid of the papers.  Shredding at home, on a rainy afternoon.  Slowly but steadily, we divest old bills, old car lease agreements.  Tax returns we saved way beyond the seven year requirement, asking ourselves why.  Why? Because we are collectors, and it seemed right to have a whole SET of income tax returns starting in 1982. If we’re writers, we’ve got drafts and manuscripts.  Musicians have lead sheets.  Painters have sketches.  We find a place that shreds by the pound.

Photos are not so easy. They say we pay in old age for the excesses of our youth, and if you count profligacy in picture taking, boy, am I paying. Summer at some beach. Winter in the snow. Australia, Orlando, San Francisco. The four of us smiling, the four of us serious.  Doubles of everything, because I used to check that little box on the Kodak envelope.  I don’t even know who is in half of them anymore.  There have been so many stops down the long corridor of time, it isn’t possible to remember all those people.   How many jobs back was that?  Which office party?  Which office, for that matter? Have you ever tried to throw a photo away? You feel guilty. The photos can’t be sent to the old folks pictured in them, since they are all dead, and the young people don’t want them, since they’ve gone digital.

But say you do.  Say you shred all that needs to be shredded, and somehow overcome your aversion to getting rid of old photos, too.

You are still left with the digital files – and suddenly you will see, as I have suddenly, that it isn’t quite the paper or photos you are getting rid of, it is the illusion that things get frozen in time and will matter forever.  Some things don’t.  Some things simply come to an end.

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