Monday, April 14, 2014

Feel the Pulse

Everyone in my family is a musician and performer and our son is no exception, so when we chose a neighborhood to move into years ago, we were careful to choose one with a school that had a performing arts program. We bought a house that would let Robin go to Cleveland High, a large inner city school with one of the three good music programs left intact in the city's public schools.

At the end of Robin's Junior year, we learned that the district was cutting the music program in half and replacing the full-time teacher with a half-time middle school teacher who had mostly taught band. In case you're wondering (and you may not be), music teachers are not interchangeable. Middle school kids are not high school kids, and teaching students to play a musical instrument is an entirely different skill set from teaching choral singing. As far as the community could tell, this meant that our wonderful music program was going down.

And this is a school where parents send their talented young musicians, because they believe that the arts is an important part of a culture and that their children should have a musical education and that the creation and enjoyment of music is as important to our quality of life as, say, learning calculus.

So far, kids at Cleveland are still receiving music instruction and having the opportunity to learn and perform in a nationally recognized music program, but it's because we were lucky enough to be assigned a teacher who is energetic, optimistic, smart, skilled beyond her credential and was willing to spend her first year at Cleveland working a 60 hour week for 20 hours of pay, while retraining herself by taking classes in choral literature, vocal production, and conducting, and because there were and continue to be many volunteers, parents of kids in the program, who put in close to another 40-50 hours each week to raise money, communicate with parents and kids, organize the choir retreat and tour, and keep up with the music library.  (That was three years ago, by the way, and the story has a happy ending -- our marvelous choir director is up to speed and is now being paid what she's worth, there are hundreds of kids in the choral program, and volunteers keep signing up, thank goodness.) 

I've been curious about why it seems to be okay with us, as a society, to treat music as a profession and as an academic offering in this shoddy way.   Would we put up with having to run an MBA program on volunteers and contributions?  We seem to believe that music itself is important.  Who among us could get along without hundreds of songs loaded onto our phone or iPod? But we still think of music classes as one of those peripheral things, easy to drop when the funding gets tough. We don't have to pay musicians. They should just make music for free. And it's true that most musicians will sing or play for free, because we just can't help it. But we need to pay the bills too.

There's more to say about this, and someday I'll write a post about the "sacralization of art" -- that is, imbuing the arts, and music in particular, with a mystique that is, for some of us, reality -- the reality that music touches our souls, and therefore doesn't fall into the category of something that has to be paid for, any more than you pay to go to church.

But just for those of you who want or need one more example about the power of music, here's a little story from a few years ago.

Robin was admitted into the hospital for a heart procedure. It was  his third one, so you'd think we would have gotten used to it, but you never entirely get used to the idea that a cardiologist is going to thread a catheter into your son's carotid artery and down to his heart, look around and maybe cauterize a troublesome electrical pathway in there. Robin was anxious, shall we say. It was 7:00 a.m. and his pulse rate was 100 beats per minute. And he was just lying there waiting for an IV.

Then his dad started singing a British pub song, "Country Life," and Robin joined in with some harmony. Then they sang a camp song about a sailing ship, "The Golden Vanity." Robin's pulse dropped to 72. They started to wheel him down to the operating room and Robin sang "We're Off to See the Wizard" all the way down the hall. Just before they took him in, Robin took my hand and said, "I'm okay, Mom. I'm not afraid any more."

They wheeled him into the room and the nurse, who had noticed that Robin had brought his ukelele with him, turned on the stereo with Izzy Kamakawiwo'ole singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Through the door, I could see Robin smile. Then they closed the double doors and his Dad and I went upstairs to wait.

Six hours later we talked to the surgeon. They had found two pathways that were creating odd heart rhythms, one right on the AV node. They were successful in ablating the pathways. We were able to go in and see him, once he was awake enough to pay attention, and could tell him that the procedure was successful and that he could enroll him in a driver's education program now.

And although I don't have any scientific reason for knowing this, I am sure that one reason why he did so well is because of singing harmony in a hospital room and listening to his favorite singer and having his ukelele with him, right beside his bed.

And I know why his parents did so well, too.
Music heals hearts.

Dreams Really Do Come True

Well, I have to say that it's a dream come true to be allowed...nay, air my opinions on a radio station.  If you're a follower of this space, you have an idea of just exactly how strongly I feel about that.  So, my dears, here's my second Carp, now published in its entirety on Portland Radio Project.

It's a Choice
Here in Sellwood, we’re getting a new groovy organic non-GMO food store, the Moreland Pantry.  My neighbors and I were all excited about this.  Then we learned that the owner had posted on her Facebook page that she believes homosexuality leads to pedophilia and bigamy.  Now, she would not refuse service to homosexuals, although she more

And while you're there, check out the Portland Radio Project, the brainchild of the friend of my youth, Rebecca Webb -- a very cool pastiche of radio, digital newspaper and social media.  Check it out in all its glory!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Seize the Day

Well, sports fans, since I'm going to hike the Dolomites when I'm 100 years old (and you wouldn't just do that once, right?) I realized I've got another forty years ahead of me, so that's another whole adult lifetime, starting now.  So I've decided to re-set my age to thirty.  Which is a little awkward, since my daughter is thirty, but hey.

So I had to come up with a new career.  Obviously, it’s gotta be writing!  Well, and a little music.  You know my new mission statement, “Saving the world through words, music, and not looking before you leap.”

 I just finished my first novel, Baltimore Daze.  Cool beans.  But even cooler is that I'm making a foray into being a Radio Personality.  You may catch my new weekly commentary, Carp O'Diem, at the Portland Radio Project.  It’s scheduled to air early in the week of April 7.  I even get groovy theme music.

Meanwhile, here's a bit of my first "Carp." To read the whole thing, click here.

"Have you heard about the “Hobby Lobby” case now before the Supreme Court?  Here’s the question:  If an aspect of health care violates an employer’s religious beliefs, should they be able to deny those aspects of health care to their employees?  Even if those employees don’t share those beliefs."    

Thanks for supporting me in my quest for Eternal Youth.  I’m off to scan the globe for my next Carp.  More later!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Play the Game

A friend of mine has been part of the Google Glass Explorer program for the past six months.  You know about Google Glass, right?  It’s “wearable tech,” in other words, a holographic smartphone screen that’s projected from a pair of glasses.

He was invited to be part of this beta program last year.  He’s one of the 8,000 people world-wide who were invited to spend $1,500 to wear Glass for a year, as Google explains it, “to help shape the future of Glass.”  That is, to help prepare the market – that’s us – to accept and want this product when it is released for public sale next year.

I met this man 25 years ago.  I hired him out of a temporary secretarial firm, where he had landed as he was trying to break into the professional world in my mid-size, West Coast city. I hired him because he was articulate, because he was willing to change himself to fit into a system until he could figure out how to change the system, because he was a cheerful problem solver who could get along with anybody, and because there was not one grammatical or punctuation error in his cover letter or resume. 

John is a funny, energetic guy who, upon learning that he’d been accepted into Stanford’s MBA program, did a back flip into my office, narrowly missing a display of antique tea cups.    And yes, as you would expect a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to be, he’s brilliant.  Not as much as some software designers I know who can’t talk to people with IQs less than 140.    His brilliance lies in his ability to think sideways, and he doesn’t see the boundaries and limitations that most of us accept as really there.

The other thing that is unusual about John, at least in my experience with techno-geeks, is that personal connections are important to him.   Even though we haven’t seen each other in a quarter of a century, he was happy to schedule two hours out of a busy day of changing the world to talk to his old boss.

And I trust him enough that I’m willing to entertain his point of view, even when it runs entirely counter to my most closely held opinions and beliefs.

I had asked to meet with him because I had just gone to a conference in Portland, Oregon where leaders in industry, education and regional governments were meeting to talk about how to solve the problems posed by global warming, and I’m interested in that.  I had signed up – as a spectator, not a participant – for a session on how to get the word out on global warming, so grass-roots groups (I guess Intel and the Trailblazers and the local governments in the Pacific Northwest counts as grass-roots) can help to get some traction on this world-wide problem.

As I listened, I was struck by a disconnect that nobody else seemed to notice.  One panel participant had said, “It’s a question of how to get the data out there.”  I thought about my computer screen and how, every time I go to Facebook or YouTube or Amazon, I’m slowed down by pop-up ads for Disneyland and Star Trek memorabilia and classes in Italian, and suggestions that I click on this article about sustainability or that article about education.  And I thought about how my very conservative aunt complains about getting pop-up ads for resorts in the Bahamas and suggestions that she click on this article about how 90% of the scientists in the world are involved in a hoax to make us all believe in global warming.  She sees a very different version of the world than I do.

When the facilitator asked if there were any questions, I got up and walked to the microphone.  There were probably 500 people in the ballroom, but I was an opera singer in a previous life so this didn’t bother me.  This was my question.

“Every time I use my computer, marketing algorithms make sure that I see things that reflect what I’m interested in and beliefs I already hold.  My aunt, also, is presented with information that reflects what she’s interested in and beliefs that she holds.  I’m a liberal who’s worried about global warming and thinks universal health care is a great idea.  She’s a Tea Partier who thinks global warming is a hoax and that poor people have brought their problems on themselves.  We see entirely different versions of the world.  Because of how the use of the Internet has evolved in the last few years, each of us now sees the contents of our brains amplified and reflected back to us, reinforcing what we already think and connecting us only to people who think the way we do.  It’s polarizing.  Until you solve this problem, it doesn’t matter if you get the data out there, because most people either won’t understand it, or believe it.  And worse, this fragmentation of information makes it impossible for us to have the rational, educated discourse that we need to solve global problems.  What’s being done about this?”

The room went absolutely silent.  The silence lasted for a few seconds.  Then the facilitator said, “That’s a good question.  Does anyone have an answer?”

More silence.  Finally the head of the Trailblazers said something about sports being an experience that could help people find some common ground.  An interesting idea that I hadn’t thought about, since I’m not a sports person, but not really the answer I was looking for.

So I had flown to Palo Alto, mostly to ask John this question, and incidentally to talk to him about Google Glass, since I’d recently learned that he had a pair.

His answer wasn’t comforting.  “Essentially, people pay attention to whatever media choices they want to.  It’s deeply ingrained.  It’s comes down to democracy, freedom of speech…and you know, no matter if we’re liberal or conservative, we’re going to go to a black and white answer to minimize the time we spend being uncertain.  We’re more comfortable with dualities.   The answer is fixing the education system.”  He looked at me wryly. He knows I’m a former educator.

“And good luck with that,” I said, equally wry.  The problem I see with this is, as big-brained primates, it takes at least twenty years to educate us enough to be functional adults, and another ten years or so to mature enough to make wise decisions.  Meanwhile, the technology that gives people the power to control what we think we know is changing monthly. 

Technology is literally changing the physical structure of our brains.  More than that, it is changing how we communicate, and what information we receive, and how we engage in the world – the “real” world, that is, as opposed to the “virtual” world. 

In his excellent book The Shallows:  What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr explains that technology rewires how we think.  He pointed out that autopsies on the bodies of London cabdrivers showed that the spatial part of their brains was bigger than most people’s.  They needed it to navigate London.  When you rely upon GPS to get everywhere, the part of the brain that learns directions and navigational skills is pruned – your brain doesn’t waste energy maintaining unneeded systems.  Socrates didn’t embrace the new technology of written language because he thought humans would lose the ability to store memories.  Well, he was right – cultures that rely upon oral tradition do have what we would interpret as unusual abilities to store memory.

Technology changes how we engage with our fellow humans, too.  My friend Marcia went to live in Shanghai, China, some years ago.  She comes back to visit once a year, and looks to me to interpret the changes she’s seen since her last visit.  Two years ago, as we sat over tea, she asked, “I see people staring into their palms all the time, at some glowing thing.”  She pantomimed thumbing a smartphone.  “What are they doing?”

“They’re communicating.  At least, that’s what they think they’re doing.  They’re texting.  Sending short bursts of conversations back and forth to their friends.”

“But I’m their friend.  And I’m sitting right there.”

Well, yeah…

Our relationship with the Internet is changing us, individually and as a society, profoundly, maybe too rapidly for us to be aware of the difference most of the time.

For instance.

A friend of mine is the IT guy for a health clinic.  Turns out Comcast changed their IP address suddenly, in the middle of the business day.  Poof!  This clinic suddenly lost its online presence. It took him a day to find out what had happened and to talk Comcast into changing the IP address back.  Until then, they were frantic.  As far as most people were concerned, the clinic didn’t exist until he got the web site back up.

Another example.  A startling number of airline pilots don’t do the right thing if the onboard computer navigation system crashes, because they are only used to controlling the plane for a few minutes per flight and they don’t have the built-in reflexes to do the right thing automatically anymore.

In ten years, the percentage of young people who had read at least one book in a year dropped from 53% to 43%.  That’s a lot of people losing the attention span necessary to follow a long or complex argument. And according to Google researchers, if a YouTube video is longer than 3.5 minutes, on average – it’s too long.  Most viewers don’t have the patience for anything longer.

Okay, geek disclosure.  I watch a lot of Star Trek, and I remember an episode called “The Game,” where everyone on the Enterprise wore a device that looked a lot like Google Glass.  It was a wearable video game that shot a beam of light into your eyes when you made a point, and directly stimulated the pleasure center of the brain.  Highly addictive, as you may expect.

Science fiction?  Not really.  Anyone who’s gotten hooked on on-line solitaire knows that you can lose two hours just hoping for a fireworks display.  My twenty-year-old son thinks this is absolutely pathetic.  But I notice that he plays Assassin’s Creed for hours on end.  Behaviorism works, people.  Reinforce that positive behavior!

Just remember how positive behavior is defined, and who defines it.  Because the people deciding what you’re going to see on your screen define positive behavior as “Buy my product,” or, “Believe what I want you to believe.”

And what happens when the system goes down?  Someone hacks into Facebook and Gmail and ADP, the system that controls our paychecks, or the GPS system, and all of a sudden you can’t talk or get your money or find where you’re going?  Remember the classic Star Trek episode where everyone was controlled by a computer?  “Llandru, guide us!”  I grew up in the sixties and I know what I’m talking about. 

And then I lived through the 1990s, when Wesley Crusher got hooked on Google Glass – sorry, playing the game on Star Trek Next Gen.

So there I was in California on a November afternoon to talk to John, wanting to do an expose on Google Glass and how it’s going to take down Western Civilization.  And even though he’s a big proponent of Glass, somehow I’ll talk him into helping me do it. 

I waited to meet him in a California-Mex restaurant on a subdued, elegant Palo Alto Street, Teslas and Priuses parked outside.  John walked in the door and I instantly knew it was him, not just because he was the only one on the restaurant wearing Glass.  It had been a quarter of a century since I’d seen him but I told myself that neither of us had changed that much.  John grinned at me.  We started to shake hands, but then hugged.  I led him to our table where guacamole and chips awaited.  He took off his Glass, put on his reading glasses (Google hasn’t rolled out the prescription model yet) to look at the menu and order, and then left his glasses on the table.  I took off my glasses, too.

“John, you just took off your glasses,” I said.

He shook his head.  “I don’t like to wear glasses when I’m talking to people.”

“Me too!” I said, surprised.  “I always take my glasses off.  I’d rather have you be a little blurry than see you through plastic.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “I’m making a big sacrifice to wear these as part of the program.  If I’m in an intense social situation, I don’t want it in the way.  It can be distracting.  I think it’s a little disrespectful to wear it, actually.”

We chatted, catching up, and gave the waiter our orders.  We discovered that he’s interested in the Singularity and that I’m a big Vernor Vinge fan.  Then I asked, “If you have to wear computer glasses at work, and you don’t like to wear glasses when you talk to people…how much do you really wear Glass?”

He looked thoughtful.  “Well, when I’m out and about.  I was excited to wear it traveling…people will come up and ask me questions.  It’s not for introverts at this stage.”

The waiter arrived with our drinks and burritos.  I checked my list of questions.  “Why did you want to be part of the Glass Explorer program?” I asked.

John laughed.  “I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.  I applied, but $1,500 seemed like a lot of money.  Then I thought, Oh!  Why am I even pausing?  I grew up on science fiction, and then realized that things didn’t move along as fast as I wanted them to.  Here I can buy into a magical, unique experience!  I’m not buying into Glass.  I’m getting to experience the future before everyone else does.”

“Tell me something.  What’s the point of Glass?”

He put down his marguerita.  “It’s just a smartphone that you don’t need to hold.”

Huh. That’s all it is.  That doesn’t seem so bad.  “How do you control it then?”

“It’s voice activated.  You can say, Glass, take a picture.  Or, Glass, show me where the Stanford campus is, and it’ll show me a map and directions. You can do Google searches and that’s awesome. Or you can set it up for a feed.  I figured out how to get my Twitter stuff piped to it, so now every few minutes a little bit of the world comes to me, and that’s a game changer.”

“Cool.”  That could come in really handy, I thought.  Except that…

I thought of the QWERTY keyboard.  Technology that was made intentionally clumsy, to slow us down.  Recently, our ability to miniaturize our devices has been limited, not by our technology, but by the size of our thumbs.  When you take that limitation away, you remove another barrier between yourself and the Internet and whoever is deciding what information you should see.  Would that always be a good thing? 

“So will we see Google Glass contacts in five years?”

He shook his head.  “No.  More like ten.  You see, this…” and he tapped the thick part of what we think of as the earpiece leading from the glasses to what hooks over the ears.  “…is the computer.  The battery fits behind the ear.  We won’t be able to make it that much smaller for awhile yet.”

And I thought, small enough to implant behind the skin behind your ear so it’s just hooked directly into your brain.  I didn’t ask how far away that technology is. 

And I thought about the Google ad for Glass.  Happy people on roller coasters, riding in hot air balloons, watching kids blow bubbles.  Only why would anybody do these real world things when it’s much more interesting to sit in front of a screen?

And now you don’t need the screen.  The computer that you must go to a desk to sit in front of became a lap-top, then a netbook, then a smartphone.  Now it’s attached to your face.

“I have to go in a couple of minutes,” he said.  “Do you have anything else you want to ask me?”

“No,” I said, getting out my wallet to pay the check.  “I really appreciate you giving me so much of your time.”

“This was great.  Let’s not wait another 25 years before we have lunch again, okay?”

“Deal.”  I started to put my wallet back into my purse.  

Then he tapped the Glass, which was still sitting there among a few shards of tortilla chips, almost hidden beside a bowl of browning guacamole.  “Don’t you want to try it on?”

I thought of Shakespeare’s wonderful quote from Hamlet.  “The devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape.”  I thought of Wesley playing the game.  I even think of the pilot of Sherlock, when the evil cab driver tries to get Benedict Cumberbatch to take the poison by saying, “You’ll do anything to keep from being bored.  Come on.  Play the game.”

I shook my head.  “That’s okay.”

“You mean you flew all the way down here to talk to me about Glass, and you’re not even going to try it on.”

Well, that would be stupid.  I picked up the Glass and put it on. I looked directly at John, who was smiling.  “I don’t see anything.”

“Look up and to the right.”

I looked up.   There, floating in space, was a little screen.  It informed me that the temperature in Palo Alto was 72 degrees and that the traffic on highway 101 was light.  There was a little picture of a beach behind that information.

I said, “Oh.  Wow.”

“I want one.”

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Preparing For the Future Is a Full-Time Job

            I was looking at my grandmother’s vanity the other day.  I use it for a make-up table, because we never did get the bathroom set up with good lighting and a countertop, and then I put a little rocking chair that I got at the dump for $5 in front of it because I meant to get a real little vanity chair but couldn’t find one.
            Next to the vanity is a big pink antique chair.  I don’t like the pink, and we were going to reupholster it, but Ed has resisted taking up upholstery as a hobby.  I would like him to learn upholstery and also auto mechanics, but he has steadfastly insisted on choosing his own hobbies.  Go figure.
            But the chair is looking better now, since my sister-in-law gave me a little lap quilt that has pink and black squares in it, and I hung that over the back of the chair.   Then I found a little pillow that has pink and black in it that says, “Too Much of A Good Thing is Simply Wonderful,” and then my mom gave me a big wooden red elephant to use as a side table, and now the whole corner looks pretty good, even if it is by accident, so when we do reupholster the chair the whole effect will be spoiled.
            And the vanity sits in front of the window because there’s a fake stained-glass window piece of plastic stuck to the window, which makes it so you can’t see into the neighbor’s bedroom, and I don’t like the plastic window covering so I put the vanity in front to hide it until I can peel it off or even replace the window.  But then I put the bed in that part of the attic because now that corner looks pretty cool.  So when I fix everything up the way I want it, I’ll have to put the bed back where it was, and I can’t really, because I have made a temporary walk-in closet with some IKEA cabinets and a laundry room clothes-hanger-upper-thingie where the bed used to be, until Ed can make a real walk-in closet.
            And this all makes me think of the Accademia Bridge in Venice, also known as “The temporary bridge.” You see, the old bridge fell down about 80 years ago, so they put up a temporary wooden one, and then it got a little rickety over the next 50 years, so they put up a second temporary one to look like the old temporary one, and now they want to replace it with a real stone bridge but there’s a lot of controversy about it because, you see, somehow the temporary one became a historical structure and now some people can’t bear the thought of changing it. Kind of like my bedroom.
            Anyway, this all has to do with preparing for the future.  You know that I used to always have a 20 year plan, until I noticed that I had to revise my plans really often, so the 20-year-plans became five-year-plans, and then those never worked out either.  Then I just came up with some general goals.  My general goals last year were:
  • Be a concert soprano again
  • Start up a jazz singing career
  • Become a writer
            Then I left the singing stuff by the door (forever!! Back of the hand to the forehead), except that last week I bumped into one of the leading chanteuses in Portland and it turned out, in a conversation over a vintage tie I was buying because it made me think of a book I was going to write, that we knew a lot of the same people and would I like to come to one of her salons and sing with some friends?  So then I started thinking about cabaret repertoire again.
            And then I almost got a job in educational software sales, and that made me start to think about working as a grant writer or a sales person or maybe a project manager, but then I signed up to write a novel in a month for the National Write a Novel in November marathon, and then a writing friend of mine asked for all my essays so she could show them to her publisher.  So by the end of November I will have written four books, if you count the children’s book and the fitness book.  And I have three more ready to start.
            This made me get serious about organizing my time.  So now I've decided that I will write from eight in the morning to noon, then spend the afternoons teaching voice or doing informational interviews or learning music.  That way, when the future gets here, I’ll be ready for it. 
            So maybe the vanity and the bathroom and the bedroom and the closet will have to stay the way they are, like the Accademia Bridge in Venice.  Because preparing for the future is a full-time job.  Even if you aren’t sure what the future’s going to be.  Go figure.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Wisdom Learned from Tom and Della

I can't believe I have never posted this before.  My parents are two of the wisest people I know.  Here is a compilation of their best bon mots for your own personal resource library.  If you nail it to the wall of the kitchen, you'll always have it available for handy reference.
Always look in the direction the car is moving.
If you clean up the kitchen as you go, it is clean when you are done cooking.

A slice of potato in the doughnut fryer cleans the fat, and you can eat the potato afterward.

Always carry a calculator and nail clippers in your pocket.

You can make a great fort out of a table, three chairs, two blankets and a sheet.

Iron the collar last.

Do not be afraid of butter when making a sauce.

Spend money on really good ingredients.

It is more important to spend time with friends than to sleep.

Spend money on ephemera, like trips to Europe.  It is worth getting a second job to have the money, too.

Play music loudly so everyone can hear and enjoy it.  You can do housework or just sit and listen.  It’s all right to insist that people stop and listen to the really good parts.

Reading is fun.  Poetry, history, recipes, short stories, novels, maps, science fiction, and comic books.

Opera is a good thing and it’s not just for stuffy rich people.

Magic is real, including ancient, arcane Egyptian practices, thiotimiline, and fairies.  How do you know elves don’t exist if you’ve never seen one?

You must eat pickled peaches at Thanksgiving.

It is worthwhile to spend three days making a special dish, like sauerbraten.

You can’t make enough potato pancakes or lefse.

Keep the water running when it’s below freezing outside.

Always keep your options open.

You don’t have to do something just because you’re good at it.

It is not hard to make homemade chocolate pudding.

Use the good dishes.

Cover the blueberry bushes with netting so you’ll get some blueberries.

Sing loudly.

It is always a good time to play the ukelele.

Grind the coffee beans the night before.

Lift from your knees.

Cooking is an end until itself.  It is recreational, social, and creates works of art.

It is important to spend chunks of time and money to gather friends for talk, food, and drink.  Do it often.

Be nicer to your spouse than anyone else you know.

Toothpaste will stop mosquito bites from itching.  Usually.

If you have hiccups, drinking a glass of water in a steady rhythm will make them go away.  Every time.

Don’t open the door to the dark room.  All the dark will leak out.

When playing gin rummy, discard the high cards first.  But sometimes you can panic your opponent into error by throwing a low card early.

Talk to your spouse a lot.  Make sure you spend a lot of time with him or her.

If you walk by a weed in your yard, pull it.

Be involved in your community, your street, your city, your state, and on the national level.  Make things better, no matter how busy you may be.  Stay informed.

Make friends with all kinds of people, all colors, ages, backgrounds, religions, nationalities, and professions.  Most people are good, kind, and interesting.

Learn new things – how to cook a complicated dish, deciphering land use regulations, a language so you can travel somewhere you’ve never been before.

Let go of things you don’t need.  Make room for something new.  Or just enjoy the empty space.

You don’t always need a coat.  Sometimes it’s okay to just be cold for a few minutes.

Pay attention to how you look.  It’s fun to dress up.

You can clear a stuffy nose by standing over a steaming kettle with a towel or a newspaper over your head.

Gargling with salt water eases a sore throat.

Write.  Stories, poetry, and letters.  Show them to people.

Sing to, and with, your children.  Sing harmony.

Share new recordings with your family.  Rock and roll, jazz, Sibelius violin concertos.  It doesn’t matter as long as you are excited about it.

Take pictures.

You don’t have to heat the whole house.  Light a fire or put on a sweater or go out for a walk to get warm.

Growing some of your own food is not that big a deal.

Camping is fun.  Keep a box stocked and ready go to.

Spray the tablecloth with water before you iron it.

It’s not a big deal to bake a birthday cake from scratch.  Black Midnight is the correct cake, although June birthdays may prefer strawberry pie.

If you use a lot of something, figure out how to get it wholesale.  Sometimes you can get others to go in on it with you.  This works for cheese, beef, wine, beach condos, and lots of other things.

Don’t bother with mixes or frozen food.  Food made from scratch tastes a lot better and usually it’s surprisingly easy to make.

Popcorn should be made in a pan, not a microwave.

Cold pizza makes an excellent breakfast.

So does popcorn.

Radishes and green onions are good with a little salt in the palm of your hand.

Sprinkle pepper on your buttermilk before you drink it.

Learn more than one language.

Recycle, even if it’s not convenient.

You don’t have to follow a recipe too closely.  Sometimes it’s okay to guess.

You can make up recipes.  It’s good to write them down.

You can design your own house or dress pattern.

If some things are in a routine, it gives you more brain space for the other things.

Don’t cook the eggs or the coffee too long or too fast.

You can choose how to live your life.  You are not stuck with what you did before or what your family or friends thought was normal or inevitable.

It’s okay to spend money on new cooking equipment.

The candle will stay in the holder if you drip wax in it first.

Antique furniture often costs less than furniture from Ikea, and it’ll last longer, too.  It already has!

What you cook at home usually tastes better than restaurant food.

The family eats together every night.

There should always be a candy bar on a shelf in the cupboard.  You can slice pieces off of it.

A batch of chocolate chip cookies makes anything better.

You don’t need a lot of champagne to make it flow in the streets.  Scraping it with your toe makes it go farther.

You must play a bagpipe recording really loudly on New Year’s Eve at midnight.  Open the door so the neighbors can share the experience with you, and to let the New Year in.

Ketchup is good on scrambled eggs.

Make your own syrup with brown and white sugar.

And my personal favorite…if the pasta sticks to the wall, it has cooked too long.

There.  If you nail this list to the wall, it will be  handy for reference, although you may eventually want to memorize it.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I'm Not the Wreck of the Hesperus

Dr. Oz, say it ain't so!

I've just read my third article in a month about how many Americans think it would be a bad thing to live to be 120.

It'd be depressing because the world is going to hell.  You'd be old forever.  It's bad for society.  We're overpopulated!  The Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation need to die off so the younger people can have their jobs.

All right.  I am fifty seven -- let's spell that out folks, f-f-f-f...can't do it.  All right.   Deep breath.  FIFTY SEVEN, and I'm starting to take this personally.

I agree that overpopulation is a problem.  I'm in the middle of writing a book where 90% of the human race dies off, and this tragedy, ironically, ushers in a new Golden Age.  Let's agree that there are two or three times as many human beings as the planet can sustain comfortably.

But I don't agree that my stubbornness about checking out causes overpopulation.  There are a lot of complex reasons why we have too many people on this planet.  From what I understand, it has to do with, among other things, a drop in infant mortality, a lack of options for women worldwide (I'm talking education and equal rights, folks), access to clean water and antibiotics.

Yes, a higher life expectancy is also a factor.  But maybe the answer to overpopulation is more complicated than lowering our expectations of how long we can live healthfully if we're interested in carrying on.   Could we educate women and allow them to work and give them the resources they need to control how many children they have?  And once children get here, can we be intelligent about how many resources they use?  I think it's ironic that this keeps coming up here in the United States, where five percent of the population uses 25% of the fossil fuel.  After all the fuss about Grandma and the alleged Death Panels, I don't understand why I'm now getting the message of "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?"

We need to stop working so younger people can have our jobs?  Really?  Have most thirty-year-olds mastered the skill sets that I have?  Amassed the experience, the wisdom?  I've lived three adult lives for their one.  They are doing different jobs, jobs that I outgrew a generation ago.  And all these jobs need to be done, because the more people there are in the world, the more people we need to take care of everybody -- we staff each other.  Living longer is only a problem if we decide to sit around for the last half of our lives and let other people take care of us.  If you're going to live to 120, why would you stop being productive at age 65?  Sit around for 50 years?  Please.

And why would an older person be a less valuable consumer, a less valuable volunteer, family member, counselor?  I assume that you'd get 50 more years of health and vigor with 50 more years of life.  I could understand a reluctance to sit around being spoon-fed Cream of Wheat for half a century.  But I don't think that's what we're talking about here.   The science of aging is exploding.  Researchers are completing large-scale studies that clearly show that what we think of as "aging" is actually just cumulative dis-use.  Eat well, move vigorously, stay connected and productive and you will double or triple your chances of living healthfully into your eighties and beyond, effectively extending middle age.  I know that I am more healthy and energetic than I was in my twenties and thirties.  And yes, I like walking four miles a day and lifting weights twice a week, and I don't miss ice-cream, much.

It's bad for society to have older human beings around?  In many parts of the world, it's understood that when you live a long time, you become wiser.  Your talents, skills and experience all create a nice synergy and the younger set tend to seek you out for advice.  The long-lived ones are considered to be a precious resource.

I don't know why this isn't the case in this country.  I've been bumping into age discrimination since I was in my early thirties -- I was trying to make a career as a performer at the time -- in my forties when I entered grad school and was told at one school "We're uncomfortable with older students" and faced blatant age discrimination at another -- into my fifties where I have to edit my resume very carefully to hide the fact that I'm old enough to still be mad at President Ford for pardoning Nixon.  I've been told that I'm "ageless," and that's nice, but why do I have to look younger than my years?  Why isn't it good to look my age?  Is there something wrong with it?  (I happen to think I look great.  Not for my age.   For me.)

Finally, the argument that it will be depressing because the world is going to hell in a handbasket...people, I have been depressed about the state of the world since I was a teenager.  Between the ages of six and sixteen, I lived through the 1960s and early 1970s.  My heroes were being assassinated, we witnessed riots and murders associated with according U.S. citizens civil rights, students were shot on the Kent State campus on their way to class, and we were just really beginning to be concerned about possible damage to the planet (Silent Spring was published in 1962, and then there was Carl Sagan and his writings on nuclear winter the year my first child was born).  I lived through the Vietnam War and the Cold War.  Even the advent of rock and roll couldn't disguise the fact that those were not happy times. 

It's never happy times, though.  My parents and grandparents lived through the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the first two World Wars, and I don't think those were a chuckle-a-minute years, although they made for some great stories.

The world, as I keep noticing despite all my best efforts, still isn't saved.  As a matter of fact, it seems to be getting messier.  But isn't it possible that people of my generation could be helpful in fixing it?  I read recently that on the whole, people of my generation are more concerned about the ecology of the planet Earth than the thirty-somethings demographic is.

If you're one of my age cohort or older, I want to say:  Depression, apathy, loneliness, being unproductive -- these problems aren't necessarily age-related.  You are not a number.  You have some control over how healthy and productive you are.  Don't let the wrinkles and gray hair scare you.  You didn't let pimples ruin your life, did you?  (Don't answer that.)  Jerome Hines made a comeback at the Met in his 80s.  The great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was 40 when she made her Met debut and recorded the definitive Isolde at the age of 63.  (In case you don't know, singing Wagner should qualify as an Olympic event).

If you are younger than I am, be aware that an accumulation of wisdom and knowledge, and comfort with yourself and the world, IS age-related.  Enjoy it as it comes.  Enjoy us, the long-lived ones.  Get to know us.  We're actually pretty cool.  Don't be afraid of us -- we're you, or at least, you're going to be us, pretty soon here.

And don't show us the door.  We've earned our right to be here.  And you need us.