I FORGOT TO REMEMBER

I missed a meeting.  There, I said it.  And not only did I miss the meeting by putting it on my calendar on the wrong day, but several weeks earlier, I had gotten an e-mail about that same meeting and misread the date then. Makes you wonder.  Wonder what? Ten years ago I would have wondered why I subconsciously didn’t want to attend the meeting; nowadays, I wonder if I am losing it. 

No, that is not quite it.  What I wonder is if other people wonder if I am losing it. (The people whose meeting I missed, for example, or my friend whom I mention it to, who goes, “Hmmmmm” and raises her eyebrows). I know I’m okay.  I know that I still carry things — appointments, future plans, whole pages I will one day write — in my head all the time.

But the occurrence brings to mind the common worry most of us who are in our third third of life have: are we getting forgetful?  Is a missed appointment just a missed appointment, or is it the beginning of the end?  A sign?

Someone goes to a party on the wrong day.  Uh oh.

Someone goes to the doctor’s appointment on the right day but the wrong time.

Someone forgets she promised to call before three.

Someone has gotten into the habit of saying, “Did I know this?  Did you tell me this?” after every tidbit of gossip.

Someone leaves the keys in the ignition and locks herself out of the car.

Someone leaves the oven on.

Someone leaves the oven on?  Isn’t this an official “warning sign”?

If it happens once, and you are young  you don’t immediately suspect a failing memory.  You figure It is a bad day, and you move on.  But when you are older, you can’t quite let it go.  Are people looking askance?  Or is it you, looking askance at yourself?

And by the way, if you remember that I wrote about forgetfulness in this blog before,    don’t judge me.  I didn’t forget;  I’m thinking about it in another way.  I think this kind of second guessing takes a toll on your confidence. Being afraid you are going to forget can make you forget.  Being afraid you are going crazy can make you crazy.  You lose sleep worrying that you won’t wake up in time, or you’ll sail right past the right day, as I did, at the beginning of this blog.

So you double up on the calendars.  You put a small one in your purse, and  hang big ones all over the house.  Maybe you try winding ribbons around your wrist to help you remember things, or make big signs, or program your computer to remind you when bills are due or someone’s birthday is coming up, or your plane leaves for France.  (I have a friend who once missed a transatlantic flight.)

But because you forget to duplicate the same date on all the calendars, you invariably check the wrong one to determine what you’ve got on for that day, and end up starting a good book and missing your doctor’s appointment after all.  Or, you remember the ribbon on your wrist but not why you put it there, and the big sign which you had put up on the door of the office with scotch tape had lost its adhesive and slipped down and slid under the door until months after the event you were reminding yourself about was over, and now you cannot remember whether you remembered to go or not.  You think you did.

And if you are young, none of this means you are losing it, it simply means you are forgetful.  When you can’t retain a name, it is because you are “bad at names.”  If you are a woman, people may call you “ditsy.”  If you are a man, they say you are too busy, or “in another world.”

But when you are an older person, you and the rest of us worry about you losing it.

Most of the time, that’s not the case.  When you do things you have been doing all your life, there is no cause for alarm.  When you do something once or twice, it is not a pattern and it is not a sign.  It just is.

And when you become really forgetful, well, maybe you won’t remember that you are.  Won’t that be nice?

 

 

 

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STORY OF A STONE

If you live by stories, then everything is something and nothing can ever be nothing.  Even a simple stone will have a story.  And if the story is sturdy and alive, it can have several meanings, as it goes along.

Start with a stone, one of six or seven, carried in a chamois bag by a jeweler, second cousin of my soon- to-be mother-in-law.  The cousin came one Wednesday night and shook the stones gently out of their bag onto a little velvet pad he had brought. They all sparkled.  He turned them this way and that with the end of a pen, as I recall, and pointed out the merits of each, their flaws and their relative values and sizes.  I couldn’t tell one from the other, but we all selected the one he said was the best, biggest, most perfect diamond.  When it appeared, four weeks later, in a Tiffany wishbone setting, guarded on each side by a tapered baguette, it seemed to me that we had chosen the best stone.  It was expensive (though a bargain, we were assured, because of the family connection) and I flashed it appropriately, as engaged girls did in those days.

It meant everything to me then:  it was a way to tell the world that I was “spoken for” by a husband- to- be who was traditional enough to know the importance of an engagement ring and substantial enough to provide one (even though he went into hock, which I didn’t know but if I had probably would not have cared at that point, it being still his money, not ours).

For years, the ring hardly ever left my hand.  I washed my hands with it.  I slept with it.  I cooked with it and washed dishes afterward without even thinking about it.  Once in a while, when I mixed up a meatloaf with my hands, say, I would slip it off my finger for that brief time, into a pocket, but then put it back on again. Occasionally I moved it from my right ring finger to my left to sit up against my wedding band, stacking chronologically, engagement ring first, then band.  I never thought about it; it was just there, on my finger, all the time. Hardly important. Just there.

Then it disappeared and it was everything again (though mostly because of the lost monetary value it represented.)  I searched every pocket.   For a long time I felt sure it would turn up, and once in a while, say at the end of one season or another, as I was putting away winter clothes and bringing out spring ones, I would feel sudden and momentary hope as I plunged my hand into a promising pocket.   I think it was this repeated hope and its withering that turned my feeling for the lost ring into love.  Like an -ex suddenly appreciating the marriage once the divorce begins.  I constantly rubbed my ring finger, feeling for the ring that wasn’t there.

Then I forgot about it.

Four years later, as I was coming out of a reading from my new book (wearing a silk jacket I hardly ever wore), I put my hand into the pocket and there it was.   Imagine the joy!   Maybe the book gods had rewarded me for finishing the book?  I definitely felt a little kismet involvement there, and to show my ring some appreciation, I took it to a jeweler for a good cleaning.   It sparkled in its wishbone setting.  Two weeks later, digging my hand into a freezer case at Cosco, I somehow shook the stone loose — had all the gunk the cleaning took away acted as glue? –and did not discover it until I got home.  I went back, searched the freezer case, retraced my steps, but the stone was gone.  The ring was still there, but toothless.

In the intervening years, I replaced the diamond with a pale green gemstone which I hated so much I never wore the ring.  I considered having the platinum ring and baguettes re-modeled into something I could wear around my neck but M argued me out of it so it sat in my jewel box like a recrimination.

M wanted to replace the diamond.  Of course, we didn’t: buying diamonds when there are mortgages and weddings to finance seemed foolish.

Eventually, I replaced the stone with a CZ (they used to call it a zircon), a fake. I didn’t care.  I just wanted to wear my beloved ring  again.  And sometimes when I put it on, I forget it’s a fake at all.

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WHAT’S THAT SAYING ABOUT ABOUT OLD SOLDIERS?

“Learning new things keeps you young,” may be an older person’s insight, but it is a young feeling.  New shoes, a fresh haircut, reading about job opportunities I’ll never take are things that keep me young.  But more than all of those is going to school, whether I am teaching or attending.

The last time I taught undergraduates was a great workout for both body and mind.  The campus, full of hills and steps to climb, worked the legs.  The rest of me was engaged by my students in so many ways.

They came into my 2:40 class all stocked up with sweet and salty snacks and containers of coffee, and Snapple and soda and water, as if class were a double feature. They sometimes had startling appearances, with tattoos and green hair and creatively odd get-ups. I loved the way they defied the weather.  As soon as the temperature snuck up past, say, 30 degrees, campus would be dotted with kids dressed for spring.  I’d be there, shivering, bundled up to my ears in down coat and boots, and someone would come bouncing into class in shorts, and just a sweatshirt for outerwear.  Cool. Young.  Impatient.  Hopeful.

While they learned, I learned. Finding ways to get their attention and break into their cultural context was a bitch, because what they knew was so different from what I knew;  at times we could have been speaking two different languages. They thought James Baldwin, the great writer of the fifties was actor Alec Baldwin’s younger brother. Many of them had never heard of Kafka, or Chekhov. (oh, my god, not even my beloved CHEKHOV??) Of course, to be fair, I had never heard Justin Bieber sing and I didn’t even know who Flo Rida or Macklemore were, or  why so many of their generation were interested in vampire love. Undead?  Partially dead? If I get the definition of metaphor nailed down, then I can ask if this is a metaphor for life as we know it.

Despite this cultural gap, the students were fun to be with, agreeable and sharp, and we had some satisfying (and  leveling) meetings of the mind. (For all their resistance to library research, there was my suspicion of Google and Wiki.)When I gave up teaching undergrads, it was not because of the students, it was because I didn’t want to grade papers or people anymore.

Now I teach older students in non-credit courses, like Lifelong Learning and Life Spring, and my older students present different challenges and pleasures.  First of all, I get to hang out with a group of bright and interesting folks from my generation, so we share a general fund of knowledge. (This also means I have to be on my toes because my students are already well-educated, many of them former teachers themselves.)  It also means I can dig deeper when I prepare a subject, which gives me the chance to learn something, too.

Last year I sat on the other side of the desk for the first time in more than fifty years, when I took a poetry class taught by a former colleague, now somewhere in her nineties and still at it. What a pro. The depth and breadth of her knowledge were part of it, but more than that, she had a seemingly endless sense of wonder and pleasure at a line or a word or a certain poem, and it was infectious.  And she seemed eager to hear what we, her students, thought, and appreciative of what we had to say.

That kind of generosity can only come with confidence and experience,  and it brought back memories of my early days , because as every new teacher knows, at the beginning we are often holding tight to the knowledge we are being paid to impart, and letting the class in can be a scary thing.  What if they ask me  something I don’t have an answer to?  What if someone says the one big thingI am basing my lesson on before I get a chance to land it?  What if someone challenges me?

I guess the biggest challenge was to wait out silence in the classroom, because there is nothing more frightening than an unresponsive class of students. It can feel hostile.  (Sometimes it is; mostly it isn’t.)  But once I learned to admit I didn’t know the answer to everything, and to love the disrupters because they always brought the classroom alive, and to lean into silence as if it were a big fluffy pillow rather than an abyss, it was fun fun fun.

And then it was time to retire. But I didn’t, quite. And I’m finishing out another short semester (like a short stack at iHop – tasty and just enough at my age) and looking forward to next year.  Old soldiers and old teachers – not done yet.

 

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BREAKING NEWS

What is “breaking news” and why do we need it?

First of all to the “breaking” part: the old definition of it no longer applies. Once upon a time a deep-voiced announcer would cut into whatever we were listening to on the radio or watching on tv and, serious and concise, say his piece and then return us to our “regularly scheduled programming.”  Now, information is immediately available on so many media that it breaks like the tide – rhythmic and regular and constant.

Then I wonder about the nature of the news.  What do we need to know and what simply scratches an itch for dish?  And does the regularization of gossip in our lives somehow curdle the milk of human kindness in us?  Do we have to know about a famous singer’s drug overdose?  Or the other one’s nervous breakdown? Or the private struggle of a family on opposite sides of an end-of-life decision, as their loved one lies in a coma?

After a gunman in a campus shooting uses up his ammunition and kills himself, and is identified as the lone gunman, and the dead and wounded are counted, the story is pretty much told.  But that doesn’t stop it from folding and unfolding in the media depending on how slow the news days are.  In one of those cases it went on for a whole week, obsessively, repetitively, continually, until there was nothing left to say, except to ask one of those questions we have all gasped at at one time or another, of a recently bereaved family member:  “How did you feel when you realized your son/daughter/mother/father/wife/husband was dead?” At which point I decided that unless someone came back from the dead, the breaking news had broken, and I was moving on.

One week it is a shock jock with a nasty mouth.  And then it is the breakup of a Hollywood couple (pick a pair, there’s a whole deck of them) and the oh-so-holy tsk-tsking about how hard it must be on their kids to have it played out in the public (said by the reporters who are making it public).  How is this news? And what ever happened to mind your own business?

Sometimes the pretext for reporting this “news” is that it will open a useful debate about whatever subject that “news” item addresses regarding our human needs, or foibles, or errors, but in truth, it is too often an excuse for smug moralizing at the expense of whomever is in the spotlight at the moment. (I remember once when a public figure fought for his life due to a traffic accident, the media went on about whether or not he should pay a fine for not wearing a seat belt.)

More and more, what is reported in media seems to have less and less relevance to my life – to our lives?  Can I include you? – and I have decided to follow a friend’s example and go on a “diet” from the news.  The only thing she tunes into now is the House & Garden channel.  She won’t even watch Project Runway!for fear the suspense will disturb her new calm.

I am tapering off. I read very little about politics, these days.  I don’t really have to know the details of every insult politician A trades with politician B.  I skip  “news” features that are not new at all, but re-cycled advice of some kind, from celebrities who are usually half my age.  Next, I have eliminated all “news” about someone else’s health.  If it doesn’t concern my own private, personal sinuses (or the sinuses of my loved ones) I shall consider it a “don’t need to know” item, so when I see a reporter standing outside a hospital building to report the sickness of someone famous, I’ll bypass it.  I am ready to move into phase two: No personal improvement “news” — the secrets of good and bad foods lie at the end of my tongue and the taste centers of my brain, and there they will stay, no matter what the latest government study reveals about carbs or wine or coffee.  Ditto “news” on how to flex my muscle groups.

Moving into high gear, I will cold turkey all celebrity traffic stops, arrests, slip of the tongue mistakes and even humanitarian junkets.

If I do that without getting sucked back in by the red BREAKING NEWS banner,  I estimate that I will have retrieved enough time in six months to write a book and sail around the world, and if I did the former while doing the latter…would it be newsworthy?  Only to me.

 

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COMPANY

My across-the-road neighbor and I both just bought new mattresses for our guest bedrooms. A garden variety coincidence, yes.  But it brought to mind the fact that spring in the northeast is the beginning of “guest season,” especially here in the beautiful mid-Hudson valley.  No more worries about snow-travel; the draw of the mountains and river;  ramped up local event schedules,  and public occasions like Easter and the Fourth of July.   So I expect family and friends will be coming soon, and how I love it!

My earliest memory of “company”goes back to childhood when, for a brief time, my maternal grandfather occupied my parents’ bedroom, while they slept in a small alcove off the kitchen of our Bronx apartment.  Besides moving my parents to the room off the kitchen, all sorts of special arrangements were in place.  We had to tiptoe and whisper because grandpa was always trying to sleep.  I had to close my bedroom door if I wanted to listen to the Victrola, and I was sent next door when aunt Gertie, who was a nurse, came.

Grandpa went straight from our house to the cemetery. No one spelled it out, but I knew that his stay was so he had a safe and quiet place to fade out and die.  We were hospice.  And though the temporary arrangements may have been confining, I remember feeling it was important, an honor having him there, and I was proud he had chosen to do his dying with us.

No one else “stayed over” until I was in high school, and then, since I went to Music & Art, which was in Manhattan and drew kids from all over the five boroughs, there were plenty of late night study sleep-overs; the twin bed (which had once been my older, married sister’s) was occupied by a parade of friends. So I experienced all the joys and intimacies of living together and none of the drudgeries of everyday life.

My own kids went to local schools, so there was little need for sleep-overs, and not much room for them in our Queens apartment. (Except for a close call one Passover when a mischievous spring snowstorm crept up and barricaded us in, but by the time the meal was over, the snow had melted, and our company went home after all, and –relieved and disappointed — I put away all the blankets and pillows.)

Then, we moved to the country and we have made up for lost time.  With extra bedrooms, there is no reason for guests to go home.  Sometimes we twist arms to make them stay!  We have houseguests all the time, and no one has overstayed a welcome yet.  Having the extra room is logistical for holiday travelers, and also just when we’re in the mood for fun, or someone needs to talk, or there’s a big turkey in the freezer or something’s doing in town.   One friend made up a sign, P’s Room, which she put up when she arrived.  Another friend, happily, comes often enough so that I let her know when we bought a new comforter for “her” room.

Practically speaking, if it weren’t for company I might never tidy up, my sheets wouldn’t match, and I would probably not have replaced the set of dishes with all the chips. I wouldn’t have taken that day trip to Saratoga without the guest who wanted to go, or tried that new recipe I cut out of the Times last May, or gone to that new local restaurant I heard about.

I see where this is going.  I risk revealing my inner Pollyanna with all this sweet talk.  I suppose I could tart it up a little with some anecdote about a disastrous visitor, or say that thing about guests who stay too long being like stale fish? But sometimes a blog just goes where it wants to go.  And honestly, it is a blessing to be able to offer something as essential as shelter, and to know my house can be a port in a storm, literally – if the rain floods the roads, or a spring snow blows the trees across the path – as well as figuratively, when someone needs a place to rest, or to cry, or, like Grandpa, to die.

 

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IS THERE ANYTHING FUNNY ABOUT GETTING OLD? (part 2)

I have always been interested in the intersection between funny and sad.  I am always looking for something to laugh about at the funeral, so to speak, and probably one of those people other people say has a “dark” sense of humor.  Having found a chuckle or two in everyday misfortunes, I was pretty sure I would be able to find something funny about getting old. I’ve touched on this before in my blogs, yuck yucks about deafness, or aches and pains and no-sex. So, to continue:

         “What about shrinking?” M says.

         Shrinking?  Well, okay. We shrink as we age. So maybe thousands…er, hundreds…er, maybe tens of hopeful older people will finally pass the height restrictions to become jockeys?  Except now they are too arthritic to climb on a horse?  That’s funny, but not true.  (And as far as I know, having diabetes is true but still not funny, unless you include the commercial with the guy who mows his lawn, walks his dog and bounces through his office to show how low his A1C is.)

         There was something else funny, but I forgot.  Oh, yes, forgetfulness, again.   That never gets old, does it?  How we are always trying to remember the name of some nineteen forties actress, or the company that made Double Bubble gum or who Nixon’s running mate was or the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.   Wondering passes the time and takes our minds off our troubles and provides something to ask our friends when we meet, in case nothing else is going on in our lives.  And it occasionally drives us to distraction. So then, when it comes to us, it bursts forth, like a brain orgasm, and we are so happy that even if we are sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, we shout, “Hedy Lamarr! Fleer’s! Spiro Agnew! Enola Gay!”  like some deranged enumerators.   And why did we have to know?  To finish a sentence.  Only old people have the leisure time to worry over a sentence that begins, “The actress who was in HER HIGHNESS AND THE BELLBOY was…”

         Eh?  Eh?  Yes, deafness, mis-vision, those can be funny, sometimes.  Like when my husband’s old boss, whose wife yelled a lot, found new liberation once he got hearing aids, because listening to her became optional, based on whether he took his hearing aids out or left them in.

         What is NOT funny is old people jokes.

         I did an informal poll of old people jokes on the internet.  Forgetfulness and disabilities were the most popular.  Among disabilities, deafness led the pack, but there were also plenty of yucks about stiffness, blindness, baldness, dentures, toothlessness, constipation, and incontinence.  Sex (or the lack of it) was common, as were jokes about driving.  Also, a declining sense of style.  Old men in these jokes are always wearing white shoes and black socks.

          And what an unfunny lot they were. First of all, most of them are based on stereotypes which just are not true, like the ones that make old people out to be clueless. Face it, it’s only funny if it strikes a nerve, and if it isn’t true, it doesn’t strike anything.   And they are all the same five or six jokes repeated in a thousand different ways: “Mr. Green says to Mr. Jones” and “Two little old ladies are talking” and “Mrs. Brown tells Mrs. Gold” all turn out to have the same punchline. But most of all, they aren’t funny because they are being told ON old people instead of BY old people on themselves.

         What makes us laugh at something about aging is the sense of joining together against a common enemy (memory loss, stiff knees, whatever it is) and conquering it, if just for a moment, by laughing together.  It’s like any other in-joke – you have to be in the group to be entitled to laugh.

         When someone tells the story of how she left the house without her dentures and had to go all the way back, and on the way she saw a neighbor, and the lengths she went to to avoid talking, it can only be funny if she is telling it on herself.  If someone else tells it, it is bound to seem patronizing at best, mean spirited at worst.

   The things I find funny are only the things I know are profoundly, sadly true in my own life, and that is probably the case for most of us. Learning to laugh and keep on laughing as old age gets serious is one thing no one else but we can do ourselves.  Did I tell you the one about the writer who couldn’t come up with the words…?

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THE UNEXPECTED IS ALWAYS HAPPENING

Suddenness, the unexpected, the way life can change on a dime, has always been on my mind. You open the door on a sunny day and a runaway bus climbs your front steps and zap, you’re gone.  You are walking in the park, and an asteroid lands on your foot.  A sinkhole swallows your brother while he sleeps. Yes, I try to make it funny with unlikely examples, but, as we all know, the real thing is not funny at all.

We hear the real thing on BREAKING NEWS reports and, for the most part, manage to put it in the backs of our minds. Have you ever noticed how common it is, whenever survivors or relatives of victims of some awful event are interviewed, to hear:  “I’ve seen things like this on television, but I never thought something like this could happen to me!”  Because, no matter how many times we see sudden disasters, we somehow still believe that we are immune, and so we are perpetually surprised.  That is, until lately.  Because lately, we are having such a busy tragedy season in the world, that it is getting harder to preserve our innocence.  Life is an endless procession of school shootings, church bombings, factory explosions, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods and wildfires. And countless “smaller” disasters we hear on the six o’clock news reports every day. I wake up almost every morning to the news that there has been another hit and run in Brooklyn, another stabbing on the train.

And all of those events began on a routine day with a routine act for someone: lacing up sneakers and going for a run, packing a sandwich and juicebox and sending first graders off to school, deciding, as in so many previous hurricanes, to ride out the storm; a transit worker goes to work like he does every day, a boy and his friend take a boat out on a slightly choppy sea, a girl stands just a bit too close to the edge of the train platform.  And then: everything changes like that.

It is hard to think about, hard to hear. Sometimes we want to turn off the news, forget it, ignore it, especially when the news reports go on and on, as if the repetition can convince us to believe the unbelievable, that the terrible event, whatever it is, has really happened to the victims, and by implication, to us.  Sometimes we think by avoiding hearing about it, we protect ourselves.  Watch only happy news?  Read only happy articles?  (All right, some people will have stopped reading this one a paragraph ago.) But in truth, the unexpected happens to all of us, at one time or another.  Avoidance of this truth won’t help.  Avoidance of life, won’t either, though it is tempting to think no harm will come, if, like the famous French novelist, we stayed in our padded bedrooms, safely tucked into bed.   But, of course, we know better.

I know better.  And so I am drawn back to the central question I ask myself all the time: How do I learn to expect the unexpected and still get on with life?

Honestly, I don’t have an answer.  It’s trial and error with me.  I don’t turn off the tv, but I limit the loop — three repetitions and I’m out.  And I am mindful not to be self-indulgent.  Though I may shed a tear for the injured and unlucky, I try not to wallow in the feeling, but instead remind myself that this time it isn’t me and mine going through it, and in gratitude do what I can – send a check, send a blanket, send a thought.

A friend who is old enough to be wise says the way to stay ready is to keep all “the essentials” done. Live every day as if you’re not going to get another one. Forgive everyone everything. Don’t go to bed angry. Have another piece of cake.  This sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.

Except maybe to keep in mind this:  if suddenly unexpected, world-changingly horrible things can happen, then suddenly, unexpected world-changingly wonderful things can happen, too.  Lottery ticket, anyone?

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