Brave people don’t admit to being scared of ordinary things. Who wants to be seen as weak? We aren’t talking here about major dangers. This is about being irrationally scared of things embraced warmly by people other than ourselves. Continue reading
Time Magazine has published 100 photographs from America’s past. People who see the book are likely to identify with the ones that are related in some way to their age. Many are dark, many moving, but each is likely to take you back to the moment when you first saw it. These were the ones that struck me at 86.
1936 – The Migrant Mother – It was taken by Dorothea Lange during the year I was five and I never saw it until later in my life when the extraordinary picture of despair and strength reminded me that I had been alive then and my life was just fine while so much of the country was desperate for food and shelter. Each time I look at her face I am struck by how it could have been that so many were desperate and so many untouched.
1937 – I remember my parents conversations about the possibility of transatlantic air travel by Skyliner and hearing on the radio that the 804 foot long Hindenburg, a symbol of the future, would be landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. They discussed wanting to drive the short way down, but didn’t. Instead we heard the crash on the radio – The terror in the voice of commentator Herbert Morrison as the airship burst into flames that killed 36 passengers instantly while some jumped to safety. It happened just feet above the crowd that had gathered to welcome them. To modern eyes, mine too, the sight of a balloon filled with gas over a tiny passenger cabin underneath is a warning of inevitable catastrophe. But back then, it was the promise of future travel. And then it unraveled in one horrific minute.
1945 – The iconic sight of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square in 1945. This is a still life of the chaos enveloping them in Times Square in celebration of the end of World War II. We hear none of the welcome uproar but photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt caught a still that even today is the symbol that brings it all back for us. Those of us who were young can remember the nationwide relief that unfolded as grownups bent their ears to the descriptions on the family radio. I was fourteen when I went alone to a Trans Lux Theater in New York and watched the spontaneous eruption. The long war that took so many lives was over.
1953 – At the invitation of Joseph P. Kennedy, photographer Hy Peskin took a weekend’s worth of pictures of Jackie Bouvier and Jack Kennedy at play in Hyannisport for Life Magazine. The unmentioned side of the story was that Jackie hated sailing, the family’s favorite pastime. The Life spread fixed the newly engaged couple in the public eye as comers. I was a Vassar freshman when I met Jackie who lived across the hall just six years before this picture was taken. I never knew her well at all but now, seeing this picture, knowing it was the first resentment she held against the publicity required of public figures, knowing now what lay ahead for her. Slightly over two years of the glamorous life of being the President’s wife and then the tragedies: The assassination of her husband, the murder of her brother-in-law Bobby, the murder of their friend Martin Luther King. She faced it all with great dignity. And then of how carefully and seriously she managed to carve a final career in publishing in New York. Finally she had privacy. And then cancer killed her. If there is anything good in her timeframe, it is that she wasn’t alive when her son John died in the crash of his plane.
Mom’s Peppermill 1948 – 2010
Six decades or so ago, Mom’s Peppermill opened as a hot dog stand near Hightstown, NJ to serve workers who were building the New Jersey Turnpike, the state’s new miracle road. The hot dog stand expanded over the years to a diner with 120 seats and stayed that way until it was abandoned in 2010. Never opulent, it was a landmark, a welcome-to-New Jersey place, a diner where after a long trip, drivers could stop for a burger and a coke before moving on.
Mom’s Peppermill always told us we were almost home whenever we returned from the places we lived in Washington D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, and Chicago. It was a tiny, proud dot in Eisenhower’s dream of connecting Americans by road. Now the Peppermill stands untended in its decay. I feel a little sad when I pass because it still triggers the travel history of our family and because it was an announcement that we had found our way home. Whatever it is, it means something to me and I don’t quite know why.
We rented them from 1949 to 1959, in New Haven during my husband’s senior year, Washington while we both worked for CIA, Wilmington where he shoveled coal into hot furnaces on the night shift as a trainee for American Brake Shoe, Chicago for more hot furnaces and studying for a degree at Northwestern, Baltimore to work for Rowan Controller, and finally Red Bank, NJ to help start a division on the home turf of Rowan’s founder. And what did I do? I kept all the apartments clean in the manner of ‘50s wives and had one baby in Wilmington, one in Chicago and one in Neptune, NJ. And always I remember piling our children and their equipment in the car to return to New Jersey for vacations and stopping at Mom’s Peppermill as we left the Turnpike.
After deciding to build, we went with a developer who stamped out small ranch houses in a matter of days and weeks. When he looked at the 17 acres of land we had acquired for next to nothing in the isolation of Cooper Road (1959), the builder told us he could never ask his men to work in our long mud driveway and the bramble covered field. So we began to clear with two toddlers playing in the dirt, a new baby in a basket, and our new tools: a brush axe, a hand saw, and clippers. The house went up quickly. We raised three children there in what we thought was paradise for them.
I renovated the house after our divorce in a modern way that was loved only by me and I lived there alone and happy with occasional visits from family for another 25 years until, at 85 I began to feel too isolated, too alone, and slightly overwhelmed by the load of outdoor work. I still have the ledger of the money I earned plowing snow, the memory of mowing the fields and clearing evermore into the brush. It had been perfect for us, then perfect for me and it was time to go.
I moved in 2015 to the West Side Lofts in Red Bank in what is now referred to earnestly as “the Arts District” in the New York Times. The credit for that goes to Bob and Joan Rechnitz who built the beautiful Two River Theater that has become an outstanding part of New Jersey’s regional theater network and the off Broadway theater world. Life here is good with deadlines for my movie reviews, the Danish Café across the street where I eat all too often, the Two River Theater, and the independent movie theater within walking distance. It feels like a professional community and I love it.
And then this year, the people who bought our house tore it down along with everything we had built – the rock walls, the banks, the decks, the shed I had built that blew down sideways one night in a windstorm because I hadn’t braced it diagonally, the rope tow we built, the coasting hill we cleared, kids who came to coast and skate on the pond according to the weather. They all remember it, they tell me now, and so do I.
Something else I remember that they don’t – because they had grown and gone – the years when my close friend built a house on five acres of the seventeen for herself and her daughter. From age four to her teenage years, that little girl played, as my children had, outdoors on that land, but there was a difference. Because I was older then, without all the pressures of being young, I watched this little person playing on that land, gently catching a butterfly, holding and looking at it and setting it free into the air. It was my chance to watch a child grow up peacefully and I loved the friendship with her and with her mother until they moved away to Vermont. Their house still stands.
Looking from the road up the long driveway I see only the flat red clay where our house stood, the broken remains of the beautiful enormous rocks we skittered around with our jeep to hold the banks, the smaller ones we used to build walls. And so I reminded myself often that, like Mom’s Peppermill, our place had been a home to two families and a playground for their friends for several decades. Things endure only when next generations choose to live near their roots. All of them are scattered and working now in other places and it is up to the family who bought the land to make it their own. I had my time there, now it’s someone else’s turn.
Our Atlantic Highlands Plant
Just one more scar. I have written before about starting our company in our kitchen and our garage, about moving from one small building to another in Atlantic Highlands as it grew. When my husband bought 120 First Avenue and asked a fine local architect to renovate it, we thought our grandest dream had come true. It was painted pale yellow and within a few years, he had bought other buildings for the growing company. And then he and my son moved the whole thing to Eatontown, NJ and our roots in Atlantic Highlands were gone.
Now, some years later I don’t know one person who remembers our company or anyone who worked for it even though more than 100 employees lived in the town and worked in that building. That’s how fast time flies. One day last month as I drove down the street I sensed an enormous void, pulled over, and saw the scar in the earth. Bulldozers had destroyed the entire, magical building that had made us part of the town. All that’s left of that particular dream is a big dirt scar.
And so in just one year, I have been chilled during my drives by the sight of Mom’s Peppermill, of my home of 57 years on Cooper Road, of the building that made us proud of the company my husband and son had built – all gone in one year. But scars also heal over good memories. Losing what you’ve built happens to everyone lucky enough to grow old.
At 86, I remind myself that this has been going on since the beginning of time. People build, move on, grow old, and die and another wave comes along to build new lives. 2016 was a tough year of watching the physical erasure of our early dreams, but I have the reward of knowing that my children, my grandchildren and my two friends had good beginnings here.
One other thing I never expected. How can anyone know, before growing old, that the great gifts of old age are insight and perspective? We – man or woman – can look back at our various decades with new understanding. The end of something? Of course. But isn’t it harder for men? They spent years working in defined ways and are suddenly adrift in retirement. Women of our generation, on the other hand, learned how to do all the work of life except earning the money. Chances are good that there’s something they’ve always wished they could do “if only I had time.” Now we have time.
Would I go back to my 20s with the uncertainties of marriage, babies, housing, and income? How I loved raising my family, but you need to be young. Or to my 40s facing college tuitions and an empty nest? Or my 50s when so many marriages came unglued? You certainly could talk me back into the 60s when we could begin to follow our own dreams and feel the first edges of freedom. The 70s can be pure gold. 80s too, though shadowed by mortality. There is a rhythm to life that makes each phase of it right for its time.
That is what allows me now to make sense of both past and present. Scarred earth where we once lived and worked is one thing. The freedom of life in old age is another and it can be very good if we think of it as a reward.
In a provocative article in Time Magazine, Tom Vanderbilt describes the frustrations of teaching his seven year-old daughter to play chess. After she soon started beating him, he turned for understanding to experts. Vanderbilt writes, “There are, I learned, two forms of intelligence: “fluid” and “crystallized.” Fluid intelligence is, basically, being able to think on one’s feet, to solve new problems. Crystallized intelligence is what a person already knows – wisdom, memories, metacognition.”
For young people, everything they see and learn flows into an open mind that doesn’t judge or sort. Over 18, things are subject to our judgements and slotted to the appropriate places in our heads. Sometimes that flow becomes wrapped in the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice or a physicist; for others it can become a thinker rooted in stone.
People who work in a field that runs on fluid intelligence will face the obstacle of facing obsolescence that begins around age 30. That’s the age when everyone must try to stay relevant in new age companies. When their minds start to organize material, they have lost their fluidity. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek advises people to exclude any experience further back than ten years – no matter how impressive – in their resumes. They suggest hanging out in parking lots to see what people are wearing, to absorb the lingo of their juniors and if they fail, to look for work that older people can do.
If you’ve hit 40, you’re probably done for even if you play a clever game. Your fluid intelligence is already crystallizing. Talking to someone whose intelligence has crystallized into wisdom may be fine for the Supreme Court, but not for those who want to work in the world of new technology. For the first time in the lives of those of us still breathing, the power ladder is undergoing a radical shift.
Think back. In the 1950s, women of all ages remained at home doing “women’s work.” In the explosive ‘60s, Gloria Steinem led, and still leads, the revolution for awareness that has improved the status of women forever, but one road block remained. Nothing could change the fact that in a few seconds, men impregnated women who then dealt with pregnancy, birth, and the raising of that child – and whatever children followed. Women were knocked out of circulation for roughly two decades while raising families. Men were charged with earning their support. For millions of us, these were lives we loved. And then the ‘60s exploded. From that time forward, mothers, given new attention, struggled with how to realize themselves in ways additional to their full time domestic roles.
Then came the massive and unexpected disruption of our culture. The revolution wrought by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and their generation not only changed the power structure, but did it so fast that most of us are still trying to make sense of it. By the time the century turned, young college graduates, both men and women were computer literate and many were turning to on line startups. Marriage was shelved for many as they lived with people they loved, worked in on-line startups and prospered in a new world no one had predicted. This is a world where women can often work from home while their children are young if they choose to.
The language and structure of our culture had been revolutionized without a wide understanding of what was happening. What indeed was going on? Men in their 20s no longer wanted to start at the bottom and work their way up. Applications to law schools dropped, corporate training programs thinned. In existing law firms and corporations, women at the secretarial level learned the now essential language of computers. Men at the top still thought of computers as advanced typewriters, as secretarial tools, as something they didn’t have to learn. Their subordinates could deal with it. They soon found out.
And the world for those kids? They have become the go to generation. They are the ones who understand the new language of commerce. And if for a moment we thought this power would lie forever with the Millennials, think again. Even they are already turning to younger people for explanations of whatever they don’t understand. Because children now begin learning the language of the internet when they are three, a 30 year-old Millennial may deflect a complex question with “ask a kid.”
As the Millennials operate comfortably in this new world, the power has shifted downward toward them. The president of a bank may still earn a bucket of money, but he may be lost in the world of communication. He has to turn to those beneath him in the power structure and that power is moving slowly down the ladder in exactly the same way employees used to acquire it on the way up. At his older age, he no longer has the mind that can grab odd new ideas on the fly.
The revolution that introduced computers in the ‘80s signaled the approach of a new global culture that will forever remain in a constant state of change. And that is precisely why the people working in it must be young enough to absorb the world through their fluid intelligence before it crystallizes. Our new world belongs to them.
July 9, 2016 – The day started one way and ended quite differently. The notion had crossed my mind that it would be fun to write a post about the spontaneous gifts of words from strangers that have shown up on my Facebook page. Here are a few that made me smile that day before an incoming email triggered a major mood change.
How can anyone not enjoy this from a stranger? “I was driving and I felt cold. So I turned down the volume on the radio. It was a full ten minutes before I started thinking, “I’m still cold and now I can’t hear the music.”
I’ve often wondered how to describe my son’s work to anyone who asks the perfectly ordinary question, “What does your son do?” As if in answer to my confusion, this public relations release appeared on my Facebook page under the following headline:
AN INFRASTRUCTURE-FREE IIoT?
“Ideally, enterprise information technology (IT) systems should include or accommodate architecture that is based on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which leverages internet protocol down to the sensor level,” says Erik Dellinger, manager for the IoT for Kepware. “While II0T is gaining momentum, the reality today is that enterprise IT systems must interface with older technologies. Innovative suppliers are meeting this challenge with unique easy-to-use, and cost effective technology that enables cloud-based, Big Data solutions to collect and organize data. Called intelligent data aggregation, it revolutionizes the implementation of an enterprise system.”
With a lingering envy for any mother who could say “My son is a pilot, a doctor, a florist, or a carpenter,” I decided just to say, “I really don’t know.”
Then, still thinking back about starting the company in the kitchen in the early ‘60s, I wrote this:
People my age often ask how I knew it was the right time to leave the land I had loved for 56 years. It had rolled over me gradually that I used only my bed, my desk, and my kitchen, that going in the other rooms just made me sad. In my new place I still have a bed, a desk, and a kitchen. What I don’t have is the several hours a day of outdoor mowing, plowing, and splitting that I loved. That’s what I miss: my tractor, my plow, and my splitter maul – and at this age, that’s okay – except on winter nights when it’s impossible not to think about plowing snow under the moonlight.
And then, on July 8th, this email came from my daughter, Laurie:
“Caught a raccoon and took him to our old house to release him. It is being torn down today. The guy said it was a solid well-built house that was hard to take down.”
It felt like a sock to the gut even though I had known it was inevitable. I wrote back, “This makes me very sad this morning,” and sent that to Laura and her two brothers, my sons Corky and Kevin. Suddenly, those three kids of mine started to reminisce by collective email. Here it is.
From Laurie: “Don’t be too sad, Mom. It was a glorious time for all of us and now Time has marched on. The next house will make its new family some great memories. The land is still there, and the raccoon I released was very happy about that!
From Corky: “She was a great place to grow up. Simple, but we thought it was the greatest place. The linoleum floor in the kitchen that withstood skateboarding around the kitchen table. Family dinners of Barfaroni, Welsh Rarebit, pure low fat hamburgers with Gerbers baby spinach or squash, and all the mud in the beginning, with Dad bringing ash from someplace in Highlands for the driveway. Oh, and the roof as a bounce back for football catches. She was a great home.
From Laurie: “The ash came from a furnace in a school in Highlands. What a mess it made. Jumping off the mulch hay mountain with an umbrella, playing mud pigs, digging very deep holes to find old bits of blue and white china. Old bottles everywhere! Skunk cabbage. Forts. The sandy corner on the well road where there were always ticks. Wild blackberries and violets on the way to the gravel pit.
From Kevin: I was just born and didn’t see any of this. The gravel pit was a huge forbidden place like something out of Tolkien. There was danger there.
From me: I just hope each of you knows how much it meant to me to hear your memories and that you took the time to send them.
From Kevin: I was too young for the mud. For me it was the magic of a poured basketball court – 22 feet to the end exactly – with lights!!!! Janny and Grampy’s pond for skating and the coasting hill. The long days and nights on the basketball court after Laurie and Corky had left for boarding school left an indelible mark on me and enabled me to live sufficiently alone with my thoughts. Oh….and living next to your parents may have been a drag for you sometimes. But it was great for me. Great having them around. I wish I’d appreciated it more.
From me: Kevin may have been too young to remember this but it happened: I was sitting outside the cellar on the flagstones I had laid as a “terrace” having tea with a friend (I don’t remember who) when I realized that Kevin, who had been playing at our feet, was gone. Remember this, he couldn’t yet walk. He could only crawl. With increasing terror, I searched all round the house with no luck. I called next door to my mother to enlist her and my father in the awful search. They opened the front door and there was Kevin sitting happily on their front stoop. You can understand this only if you know that he couldn’t walk; he was just one. He had crawled down to the lake, turned left on a trail through the woods, and then right over a bridge across the little stream, up the hill and around to my parents’ front door where he was sitting happily when they threw it open to join the search. Fifty-seven years later I still turn cold when I think of it.
From Laurie: I believe you, but I find this hard to believe. Mom, you must have been weak with fear! How about when he stuck his finger in the fan belt? A couple of things come to mind: Kevin knew the route because we all traveled it many times a day. Living next door to one’s grandparents was a fabulous gift. And Kevin’s athleticism and gregarious nature were already in evidence.
From Corky: That story about Kevin seems impossible. He could have crawled off the bridge and fallen into the brook, or gone into the pond. Was he dirty?
From me: That’s precisely why I still go cold every time I think of it. Yes, it was that dangerous. And I don’t remember whether he was dirty. All of you were dirty all day long until your late afternoon baths before supper when you suddenly became three perfectly clean little people who might not have been doing all you have described here all day long. I ask you all to imagine what you looked like after jumping from those high hay bales into the wet black furnace ash that we were using to harden the driveway mud.
From Laurie: I love hearing Kevin’s memories. When we first moved there the basketball hoop was nailed to an oak tree outside of Mom and Dad’s bedroom window. If you missed the rebound the ball landed on the tree root and shot across the lawn, getting covered with mud in the process. It was a great incentive to make our rebounds.
I agree that living through the woods from Janny and Grampy was HUGELY important. I ran over there multiple times a day, always assured of a warm welcome. Janny taught me about roses and vanilla pudding with nutmeg. Grampy was silently loving and always taking pictures. He was addicted to his insant camera. How ironic that the instant photos didn’t last, something about the quality of the film. But our memories do last. Can we keep this roundtable of memories going? It’s such fun and eases the loss.
From Laurie: do you remember when I fell into the well when they were digging it?
From me: Didn’t you read my description of you falling in? I was in the bottom of the well shoveling dirt into a bucket on a long rope which Dad would then pull to the top. You, of course, leaned too far forward and fell in and somehow between us, I got you onto the bucket and he pulled you up. I, of course, was scared the rope would break. It didn’t.
From Laurie: My memory is exactly this:
Joan: Laurie, stay away from the edge of the well; you might fall in.
Laurie (in her mind): Don’t tell me what to do and I will be perfectly fine. I will get in as close as possible to the edge and see what happens.
From Corky: The water pump breaking constantly, Dad and I going down to the hole, where he constantly had to repair gaskets to hold the seal, with me holding the flashlight.
From Kevin: I HELD THE FLASHLIGHT TOO. But I could never hold it still. I would lose my attention and he would yell at me.
From Laurie: Hahahah. You guys make me laugh! He never asked me to hold the flashlight. Once when he was helping me make a rabbit trap (I was about 7) I hammered a nail in crooked. “Girls,” he sighed with exasperation. I was offended, infuriated, and determined to hit a nail straight from that day on.
This small exchange, over a couple of days, did so much to put the demolition of the house in its proper perspective for me. They all grew up, all married, all had children, all have work of their own. They began their lives in that house on that land with a mom and dad who were in their 20s. So now I’m reminding myself that it’s all okay, it’s all the natural flow of life.
However, there is one thing I will never accept, and that is that for at least 40 of the 56 years I lived there, that damn well drove me crazy. About twice a month the first person to take a shower would yell out, “Dad, the mice are in the well again.” The stench in the shower water was unmistakable and meant always that we (varying ones of us) would go down the hill to the well and try to patch the holes they used as tunnels to the water where they would die and then stink. I often wondered how many of our contemporaries showered in water smelling of mice. I was still somewhat surprised when I moved to this new apartment at 85 to find myself feeling a visceral thrill when I turned the shower handle with complete confidence that I would not smell a rat.
30 June 2016
For a long time the second week in June sat quietly in my mind as an approaching pleasure. A little complicated, but all good. My 65th Vassar reunion on the first weekend would be followed by a simple wandering through New England seeing old friends, topped off by the weekend of my granddaughter Willa’s wedding in Basin Harbor, Vermont. What I underestimated entirely was the emotional impact of everything that would unfold.
On a bright clear Friday I loaded my beloved Honda Fit with a ridiculous variety of clothing and equipment for all imaginable happenings and set off with that feeling about driving that has never left me: pure pleasure, anonymity, freedom. Why does driving lift me into some odd state of sublimity? Yes, I know that’s not a word, but I like what it means to me.
On the way up I thought back about all our earlier reunions – about feeling guilty leaving my children, about listening to classmates discuss their lives, sometimes with a hint of competitiveness about our families. Most of us are alone now and we are the measure of ourselves.
Two women from the Vassar administration had asked me to encourage classmates to come back by 1:30 on Friday for a gathering of faculty, alumnae, and administration to explore the campus chaos that had developed over the Israeli/Palestnian problems. The young, highly respected Rabbi spoke and then opened the discussion to the floor. At this point, an alumna – I’m bad at guessing ages – perhaps in her forties – stood and yelled that she is Jewish, that there aren’t two sides to this question and that her homeland is being stolen. Every time the Rabbi tried to invite additional opinions, the objector stood and obliterated any discussion until finally, the disheartened Rabbi gave up and closed the gathering. Not just rude, it was a violation of all the college has taught about exploring ideas even through disagreement.
It was a shame because all of us have been reading about the discord on many campuses and this had been our one chance to explore the issues in depth. Mr. Post would have gaveled that woman down to protect discussion, but the naysayer shut up for no one.
Saturday was scheduled microscopically with busses and guides to take us to every stop, further evidence of our age and the college’s awareness that at 85-87 many would not be wandering the campus. During this whole busy day, we reconnected with old friends but, best of all, fell into discussions with women we hadn’t known well or at all. All gathered, all one age for a gentle exploring of ideas among fifty women who have lived through eight decades of cultural change. There was a lot of wisdom in that room along with a deep loyalty to the college that had given all of us a fine start to our adult lives from the day we arrived in September of 1947. One final, comforting thought: Donald Trump wouldn’t find one vote in that group.
It was at this point that I began to understand the meaning of old age exhaustion. After driving to Burlington to the house of an old friend and her partner, I collapsed and slept instead of wandering around New England as I had planned. They welcomed me, fed me, and gave me a spot to call my own in their lovely Vermont house, and then that night, Orlando happened. A march in honor of the victims of right wing hatred was announced for the next night.
We gathered in front of the church at the top of the hill above the town and marched in silence down through Burlington to City Hall. The paper the next day said there were 2000 of us. The silence was so complete that the only sound I heard was that of sneakered footsteps on the pavement. When we stood still there – gay, straight, alone, together, most people were crying. The mayor spoke, Bernie Sanders spoke humbly and quietly angry and when it was done we all began to drift away – slowly, as if we really didn’t want to leave. It felt like the apex of rage in an election season that has been driven by hate from every side. “Love, Not Hate” was no longer a slogan that night. It was a demand.
The Basin Harbor Club sits hard by Lake Champlain in Ferrisburg, Vermont. The fourth generation of the family who founded it runs it still and they have preserved the original flavor of simple cabins looking over the lake – no glitz – just an enormous piece of rolling acreage with all manner of small boats for the pleasure of their guests. One of the special ingredients of that pleasure is the certainty of delicious food every day. Add to that the remarkable good humor of the staff that makes it happen – a group of invisible, friendly elves.
It turns out that this year, much of the staff is from abroad – college students who work at Basin Harbor for five months and then have a sixth for personal travel before going home. To a one they were intelligent, quiet and fun to be with, ready to help in any way and invisible except at mealtime when they served full course meals at the speed of light.
That was the setting. The next terrific surprise was emotional. Four families who did not know each other had gathered – 180 of us, and instead of heading for people they knew, they table hopped, danced, wandered, walked, made new friends of people with familiar names that they hadn’t met before. That setting was what allowed people the leisure to appreciate each other.
And then, the bride and groom. Eric, whose parents started the company he now works for and Willa, my granddaughter, both beaming at 32, welcoming all who had come long distances to celebrate with them. Willa’s uncle ran the rehearsal and the wedding the next day with a gentle humor and warmth that the guests all loved. She was surrounded by friends; she was beautiful; he was handsome and quiet. The guests loved it all as they headed for dancing and dinner under big white tents near the water.
Only the next morning did we hear that Eric’s mother had been taken, in great pain, to the hospital following that perfect day. She reappeared for the wedding but still wasn’t well and after that we heard she had gone back to the hospital. She is a brave, warm woman determined to keep her sudden sickness from spoiling the fun she had helped to create for so many.
At breakfast the next morning the room was full of goodbyes and emotions that I sorted through on the long drive back to New Jersey. A new life for a fine bride and groom, hope for recovery for his mom, love for my three now middle-aged children, and pride in all eight of my adult grandchildren who had come from near and far – a Hollywood scriptwriter, a Washington on line car dispatcher, an assistant on Bernie Sanders’ staff, a stand-up comedian, a member of an online shoe sales startup, another in online cosmetics, an artist/teacher in classical realism, and an account manager in commercial business insurance.
And then, a new element in the chemistry. Of the 180 people who gathered, my ex-husband, his wife, and I were the oldest in the gathering by an entire generation. And the fun of that, as it is for so much of life over 80, is that irrelevance means freedom from responsibility, from duty, and work. We had been handed a fanciful new freedom just to love and appreciate what the two generations below us have become.
One of my children has asked me to abandon my blanket generalizations for specifics in my reaction to the Republican debate last night. I will try to do that but still, the generalizations haunt me – the loss of dignity, the refusal to discuss the “why” of their beliefs, the unwillingness to discuss the issues this country is facing now.
But to the specifics of the debate on 3 March ‘16:
Trump said he is against gay marriage. Who exactly decreed that marriage is between a man and a woman? The Church. How wonderful it is that men can now love men and women can love women, that politicians – hard as they try – can”t tell anyone who he/she can love.
He repeats with awful regularity that he will build a border wall. First it was going to be 3000 miles, now it’s going to be 1000 miles. Will we have soldiers posted every few feet for the unprotected 2000 miles?
He said he will defund Planned Parenthood. Isn’t it odd that it is usually men who push the defunding? Just one sexual encounter with a man can put a teenage woman in a position she simply cannot handle and all the unwanted children add up to tragedy. Just say no? Come on. In the American culture of alcohol and sex and fraternities, that isn’t going to happen. Prohibition? We tried that one once.
Trump repeated last night not only his defense of the 2nd amendment but his defense of buying and selling assault weapons. This, of course, is the one that inflames me. Read it again:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
In the absence of army bases, or forts, or camps, the Militia kept their weapons in their houses. Let‘s put weapons where they belong: in the hands of the Militia (or today’s national guard) and since we all know that for Americans raised on John Wayne movies, that is impossible, let’s at least address the problem of the need for me to keep an AK 47 in my house. Let’s put parents in jail who keep unlocked cabinets full of assault rifles that their children then take and run off to school to shoot their classmates. Have you been to Newtown? I have. Why isn’t anyone trying to defeat the NRA’s belief that people have unfettered permission by that amendment to keep weapons of war in any house in America? He said, “I would do nothing to alter the second amendment.” We aren’t talking about altering it. We’re talking about interpreting it. If you stretch it to include implied permission to keep assault rifles in your house, why stop there? Will we next be asked to accept hand grenades in houses as a right?”
Trump announced that there will be no minimum wage increase. That one is a matter for legitimate discussion, but there was none of that. Just the announcement.
He repeated three times that a new poll shows he would defeat Hillary. Three times.
Trump University – A large piece of the debate was given to Trump University which is still the core of a court case against Trump for defrauding the students he enrolled. His reply last night was “Let’s see what happens in the court in three years.”
Trump said last night that “Snowden was a spy. He is guilty of treason.” I think Snowden will one day be acclaimed for having pierced the unquestioned secrecy we have allowed the CIA, FBI, and NSA to cloak themselves in ever since WWII. Republicans howl their disgust for big government and yet preen themselves in pride for those three agencies that operate in secrecy without accountability. I did work there for two years, I do know something: there is not one ounce of accountability, not once ounce of oversight. Remember when George H.W. Bush was so applauded for being a fine head of CIA? As they said then, “He never asked any questions.” The head of CIA is an appointment that is mere cover for what they do. Would you like to discuss how we killed Mossedegh and installed the Shah who had been trained in Washington by CIA? That led to every single thing that has happened in Iran since then. Do you want to talk about our assassination of Pinochet? Of all the others? Each assassination of a series of dictators by us has opened the door to chaos. In our ignorance, we think that killing dictators will be followed by democracy. Democracy is a fragile experiment that still needs nurturing in our own country. Do you even want to edge up to what we did in Cuba? There is no oversight of these three agencies – absolutely none. No one knows what they do.
Trump last night endorsed torture without any limit. This country and its allies set a standard for not torturing during WWII (yes it happened, but it was then punished), for treating prisoners as prisoners while Germany carried out the Holocaust). And now we have a presidential candidate endorsing torture when even the Military has said that torture does not succeed in getting information. What succeeds is extracting information with skilled conversation over and over again. The men who interrogate have testified that torture doesn’t produce results (even if you aren’t morally opposed to it). There is nothing as awful as a prisoner shackled and at the mercy of captors. They are terrified. Apparently, good treatment and conversation plays into that fear and succeeds in getting information. They have said it over and over.
NOW TO THE NON-SPECIFICS – ANGER AT THE TONE. Is it unreasonable to want just a mite of dignity in the tone of a presidential election debate? We were reduced to listening to Trump and Rubio arguing about the relative size of their penises. Trump “Look at the little boy, little Marco, this little guy.” (who happens to be short). Rubio: “Look at those hands.” Trump then holds up his hands and assures the audience that what goes with them is plenty large. And they continued to yell at each other about their body parts. Let’s put both of them where they belong: on Saturday Night Live in comedy skits.
Trump lies repeatedly. “I was against going into Afghanistan, oh no I guess I mean Iraq. I was against going into Iraq.” Lie. He is on film as being for going into Iraq. Almost everything he says illustrates his greed, his lying and his insufferable ego.
How can we take seriously a man whose hair is a different color each day, whose face is a different shade of orange each day, whose eyes are encircled in white from the goggles he wears to protect them from self-tanning damage?
And here’s the big one:
When asked how he could make someone do something, Trump replied, “I’m a leader. If I say do it, they’ll do it.” Those are the words of a genuine fascist. As president he would have the threat of American bombs and guns and a whole generation of young Americans to send to their deaths until no one anywhere would dare to disobey him. Sound familiar? This is exactly how Hitler came to power. . Trump is a fascist, right to the roots of his orange hair.
Of all the insights swamping us in old age, surely one of the most profound and hardest to ignore is the role of change in our lives. With six decades of perspective, can we at last understand that nothing ever stays the same?
Though it’s different for each of us, think about the things we accepted in the 1950s as we moved into our 20s. The voice of the culture told us to marry young, have children and stay home to raise them. Men earned the money and women did everything else. Women became accomplished support systems for their families and communities. Men were judged by how much money they made and women by how successful their children became.
And then, the ‘60s. The sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, the assassinations – all of it shook the country, and yet it didn’t affect the expectations of family. We still hoped our children would grow up, work hard, succeed, marry, and have children. But in this rancorous, violent decade, we were listening, beginning to think, and becoming ready to change.
The ‘70s – In some ways a quiet decade but Gloria Steinem, brave in a disapproving culture, began and never stopped spreading discussion of why women are secondary citizens. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and their generation revolutionized the corporate culture and changed communication forever. No, that’s wrong. They changed everything forever.
The ‘80s and ‘90s – Our children were marrying, our grandchildren were arriving and we began our quiet march toward irrelevancy. But irrelevancy brings a certain kind of freedom most of us never imagined. As we headed toward the turn of the century, our children became responsible for their lives and those of our grandchildren. The dreams of the technology innovators began to change the way our world works.
What we didn’t understand right away was that instant communication brought the immediate exchange of ideas, and when questioning took hold, customs changed quickly, not in the evolutionary way of the past. As the century changed, everything changed.
A new philosophy bubbled up in the culture: acceptance. What had it told us when we were young? That homosexuality was a rare disease that could be cured with help, that drinking was acceptable within limits and could be cured with help when it was excessive, that segregation was simply the way of the world, and that these questions weren’t up for discussion.
And now. Who has the right to tell people who they can love? Church, parents, schools, cultural consensus? No longer. I listened one day as a very intelligent judge explained her theory to me about the Supreme Court and the willingness to take on controversial cases. In sum, she said that when cultural questions are involved, the justices must weigh their decisions against the degree of acceptance that exists in the culture. By 2015, the country was ready to accept gay marriage and the court handed down its decision.
We have not yet addressed the damage done to our society by alcohol and drugs. There is no consensus on how – in a nuclear world – to eliminate war as the way to settle disputes. Will the new openness in the culture encourage us to talk about this before we blow ourselves up?
The truth is that no one now alive can predict where all this is going. Now that the world is connected by the flat phones we all hold in our hands, we know how quickly change will spread. Older men who gained their influence by working their way up in the power structure have lost that power to younger men and women who play in a world of words and concepts that their elders don’t understand. The power they exercised moments ago is vanishing. The architecture of our society has changed completely.
The new tools of work and play are second nature to young people. Right now, they seem to have little interest in power or control, more interest in innovation and change. And when change comes, they celebrate it and look for more.
Just take three minutes to go to YouTube to watch SpaceX, The Falcon Has Landed. As you watch, study the faces in that big crowd that put Elon Musk’s rocket on Mars and returned it to earth. That generation is taking hold of our world and it is exciting to watch their excitement and their accomplishment. Very few people over 60 are comfortable with the language of the new world. We need to salute those who are.
Will they morph into the power seekers of old? We can hope not. But if the hunger for power sets in again, could it happen that men will no longer prove themselves by starting wars? We can hope that the excitement triggered by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Larry Brill will continue. They have transformed the world in a way that encourages peace and competition, not war and weaponry.
Our grandchildren’s generation is moving into a culture where retail is being displaced by online buying, where self-driving cars are nearly here, where old energy sources are being replaced by new and cheaper ones. Yes, industries are being destroyed, and no, there is no point in moaning about that. The speed and breadth of the new discoveries renders criticism absurd. It’s here; don’t complain, don’t judge anything by the standards of our past. We must, even at this age, find our way in it. With a little luck and humor this just might be our best decade.
In the spirit of year end lists, here’s what ran through my head today.
We are enduring full time media coverage of an abysmally ignorant candidate whose hair is dyed bright orange atop a face that has a pink suntan with white goggle circle around his eyes.
His opponent is a woman who is trailed by his/her scandals and the stain of big contributions to their Foundation from abroad.
On college campuses the demand for political correctness is silencing the exploration of tough subjects that makes college the exciting seedbed of adult thinking. College administrations seem baffled, silent, and weak in delivering the First Amendment.
The evangelical Right is determined to defeat Planned Parenthood.
A drunken, unlicensed teenage boy kills four pedestrians with a car and is given probation based on the theory of Affluenza – that newly popular defense position that if you are rich and privileged, there’s no way you can know right from wrong – and it’s not your fault.
We are now awash in evidence of the nasty role played by our biggest banks in the mortgage bundling that brought on the depression. No one dares challenge the men who spend millions to save billions by manipulating federal policy and the tax code because they make enormous contributions to both parties. It’s called the “income defense industry.”
Where is our leadership? We hear nothing from bankers, brokers, college presidents, or candidates. Is it true, as so many businessmen say with pride, that money has become the sole engine of our nation? Is it true that moral leadership has become a dirty phrase? It has been a rotten year for intelligent dialogue. Maybe they’re all victims of Affluenza.
27 December 2015
I’ve written before about leaving the land and house I had loved for 56 years. When the time came, the physical part of the ordeal was far harder than I expected; the dreaded emotional part, far easier. I wish I could reassure my contemporaries that there might be a good surprise waiting for them when the deed is done.
When I Googled “professional downsizers”, a dozen emails appeared within an hour. That was the first surprise – the realization that downsizing had become a profession. I chose the woman who sounded confident and tough knowing she might compensate for my reluctance to get rid of nearly six decades of accumulation. She packed, wrapped, labelled, and planned without ever letting me find excuses to escape.
Toward the end, we had divided my world into “keep” and “garage sale” and it felt ugly. The barn the Amish had built to house the outdoor equipment, the shed I had built, the garage, cellar, attic and yes – the whole house – all of these spaces containing the remnants of the good lives of five of us who had lived there.
But then and inevitably, with the movers about to arrive, I discovered the things we had missed – wedding present silver and suitcases in a forgotten part of the attic, several four drawer files of our company papers that had to be inspected and shredded, and books. What to do with my collection of biographies and American history?
At that awful time when everything seemed impossible, my saviors arrived. My daughter-in-law, my daughter, and my new friend and accountant – all changed their plans when they saw I was in trouble. Kimberly came down from Vermont and worked without pause for four days, Laurie worked equally hard for two – both cleaning up everything I had forgotten – bathroom cabinets, closets, attic nooks, boxes of college papers. My new friend, who saw me unravelling, went quietly through all the company papers, stuffing them into green garbage bags and then summoned the shredding truck – the life of our family company in shreds. Do you want to know the weight of a dozen green garbage bags full of papers and files that had to be carried outside and up a hill?
And then the tide began to turn. Three men arrived from Teachers Moving Company. They were not only capable and friendly but funny and patient. They took the boxes and books I couldn’t abandon along with the china and glass I thought of as indispensable. .
Recognizing self-punishment when I saw it, I didn’t go to the garage sale, didn’t want to hear disparaging remarks about furniture I had loved and books I had read with such pleasure. On the night of the move, I slept in my new small apartment on the fifth floor of a new building in Red Bank, New Jersey.
During that first week it took just a day or so before I began to realize I loved the sound of the train whistles, the rain pelting the big windows where my desk would be, sunsets and sunrises seen from the sky instead of the woods.
Dare I call Red Bank a city? Of course not, but the enveloping silence of the place I had loved for so long had become just a little shot through with a touch of fear; friends were gone; family lived elsewhere; the isolation was complete. Now, two months later I have new friends in the Danish Café across the street where I go too often to escape turning on my stove. The Two River Theater is downstairs a few steps across a side street. When a lecture is scheduled, I go with pleasure. When I work at my desk I look straight ahead over my monitor at a piece of the river, sunrise to my left, sunset straight ahead. And three blocks away is the movie theater I go to for my review deadlines.
And then, the best part: when the panorama of traffic and pedestrians morphs into silence at night, I look down at a still life painting of the railroad station, brick buildings, and empty streets sprinkled with night lights. It stops me in my tracks every time. There is an odd feeling of safety that there are no deer or people walking on my deck, no thoughts of taxes owed, deterioration to be repaired, or big old broken trees to be cut at $1000 each. When morning comes, the stillness below jumps alive. The isolation we had once loved as a family is over. Why didn’t I see that sooner?
In fact, what I had never expected was the deep feeling of freedom I now have as I build a new life. The bones of it are my review deadlines which are pure pleasure for someone who loves movies. Everything else is freedom. I have no obligations. When have I ever been able to say that before? At 85, many people my age can look back at the teamwork of early marriage, at the fun of raising families, at lives lived well in the homes we created. But now I feel positively frivolous when I file a story and then say to myself “OK, well done, now, a movie? A lecture? The Café? Or shall I watch the news or just read for a while. Whatever the answer, it is no longer something that needs to be done. Don’t wait too long.