Tuesday, November 15, 2011


There are many losses on the bumpy road to old age. Everyone struggles to avoid, or more realistically, to postpone the loss of youthful beauty and vigor, of fading vision and hearing, and the dreaded loss of memory. Then, there is the tragic loss of cherished family and friends.

In recent years, there have been some contributions that have helped to make some of the bumps less traumatic – medical advances, more knowledge about the role of nutrition and exercise, cosmetic surgery. But this is a piece about loss, not new horizons, for the elderly.

For me, a major loss is the gradual erosion of ambition – that passion to achieve a particular goal and the willingness to work hard to achieve it. It seems to me I’ve always set goals for myself and enjoyed the process of getting there. Like most things in life, getting there is half the fun. That is what I miss. I have to acknowledge that on some level. I feel as ambitious as ever, but the reality is that old age puts a roadblock on getting there.

Many people welcome an end to the “fire in the belly” – that pressure to perform and achieve. They are the ones who look forward to retirement and its freedom from stress. Sometimes, they find even freedom has its own stress and the process of getting old doesn’t stop.

Then there are those, like me, who need to find avenues where that fire brightens their older years, even though its light is not as bright, its heat not as warming; but as Edna St. Vincent Millay once put it in a different context, “but ah my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light.”


I had been invited to dinner at my nephew’s home. When he came to the door to greet me, he said, “Come on in, we’re stalking Jennifer.” What he meant was that the guests who had already arrived, were looking at pictures, hundreds of pictures that Jennifer had sent from Princeton, where she just started her freshman year! There were pictures of her new roommate, the posters on the walls of her dormitory room, of her bed, even her closet. So many pictures! I was quickly tired of them, eager to talk to the other guests, to be in the real world, but the others wanted to see every one of the scenes of Jennifer’s new life.
It was not the first time I had wondered about this new and common practice of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents living in the digital world, living vicariously through the lives of their offspring, through pictures or Facebook.
The word my nephew has used – stalking seemed suddenly appropriate. I have seen pictures on an iPad of Jennifer at her high school prom. I’ve seen her low-cut dress and the dresses of her friends. I’ve seen their breasts almost fully exposed and their bare feet after they’ve kicked off their high heels. I’ve seen her prom date. I’m surprised that there wasn’t a picture of Jennifer and her date “making out” – I suppose that’s yet to come.

Not too long ago, some friends showed me pictures of their children at sleep-away camp. I saw where they swam, where they ate, where they slept. I saw them pitching a baseball and doing a back stroke in the water. I saw them singing around a campfire.

My friends exclaimed how lucky they felt to share these experiences with their children. Lucky? I remember, even though it was so long ago, how lucky I felt going to camp and then away to college – that I was given an opportunity to be on my own, to find out that I could survive without my parents there to help and intervene for me, not even to know about my life away from home. I think the roots of my self-esteem were planted in those days. Then there are the children of my generation – the children of the 60s and 70s, the children of the free speech movement and the light cast by “the diamonds in the sky.” (Beattles) They left home to cross the country or to hitchhike in Europe and Asia. There were no cell phones, no long distance calls except in an emergency. Occasionally there was a letter that arrived weeks after it was written. Pictures? If they had a camera, the pictures were developed after they returned home. And they weren’t that good!

Today, almost every young person has a good camera, an iPad, a smart phone. This modern technology serves as a bond between parents and children, as does Facebook and Twitter. It serves as a way of keeping in touch as never before.
Does the bond interfere with learning to be independent, to develop one own life style and direction? Who is to say?

What we can say is that the world constantly changes and evolves. Tomorrow these will be a new Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg to change the world again and that tomorrow is not very far off.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


We met at a party for Loyalist Spain

We talked revolution

Hooked at you as a fellow traveler

But then you came to my college town

We walked through the beauty of an early spring

Bursting with tender blossoms, fragrant air

We lay in the lush green grass

We talked revolution

But we felt a new loyalty

I looked at you as a lover


There was a time in my life, long, long ago when the word cane conjured up an image of a sugary, red and white striped stick with a curve at its end. These candy canes were a special treat during Christmas and usually disappeared after the holiday season was over.

Years later, when I was still very young, I was occasionally aware that a raggedly old man or woman was limping down the street, leaning heavily on what was referred to as a cane. It was usually not on my street that I saw this sight. It had nothing to do with me.

If I had grown up in any other period of history, canes would have been a very common sight. Throughout every period of history, canes were everywhere. Even primitive man probably used a stick or branch to clear his way or protect him from danger.

Canes and walking sticks, as they were often referred to served many functions from weapon, status, and as a fashion accessory. They were originally made from bamboo or other plants but evolved into elaborate and decorative objects – but somehow the name cane survived.

By the end of World War II, when there was a major cultural change in our society, canes seem to have disappeared. It was the Jazz Age, the age of the flappers, an age of new freedom in dress and morals.

Recently, canes have come out of the closet. They are as ubiquitous -- yes, on my street and in my neighborhood -- just like cell phones, dogs on leashes, and baby strollers. Sometimes, one of these is seen in combination with a cane.

The people using canes today are not as old and ragged as they had been in my youth. If they’re old, I thought, old has a different look. As I see them in my neighborhood, they certainly aren’t ragged. And now there are younger people among the cane users.

The thought enters my mind now and then that given the proliferation of cane users, selling canes might be a profitable investment. I was not conscious that using a cane might be a good personal investment, even though I jokingly referred to the fact that I walked like a drunken sailor.

One day, in a visit to my internist, I mentioned my shaky balance. He immediately recommended a cane, gravely telling me he didn’t want to meet me in the emergency room after a fall.

It took me about two years to act on my doctor’s order. After I bought a cane, it took me months before I actually carried it out of my building onto my street. Yes, it makes me feel more secure as I rush around from one activity to another. Yes, I’m getting used to using my cane – but I’m still trying to get used to the change in my self-image brought about by the cane.