Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fifty Years From Now?

The other day I was waiting for my imac tutorial at the Apple Store and ran into my cousin Jerome. We chatted a while and then he looked around and shook his head. "What have we come to?" he asked. "We are so dependent on computers and gadgets that we've lost our work ethic."

I would like to say I raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue, but I can't raise one eyebrow. Both of mine always go up, and the only thing that will change that is a stroke, which I hope to avoid. [I would also like to say I quoted him accurately, but I'm sure I have merely reported the sense of what he said.] So I waited.

"What will this country look like in fifty years?"

"I'll be dead in fifty years," I said.

Jerome looked surprised, but he is hovering around thirty and hasn't thought that far ahead.

I expect to be dead in twenty years, twenty-five at the most. Both of my parents died by the time they were 85. And I don't expect to live longer than they did even though two of my father's siblings managed to live into their 100's and my Great-Aunt Lyda was 99. Both of my parents abused their bodies with cigarettes, and that is no doubt a factor.

My dad's prostate cancer remained dormant for close to twenty years before it exploded all over his body and killed him. My mother gradually faded. It got to the point that she didn't know who I was. Once, only after she made a comment on how blue my eyes are did she have the sudden realization she was talking to me. I could see the embarrassment in her eyes.

I am not upset about dying in my eighties. Earlier this year, after the stock market did its thing, I expected to be living in a nursing home on welfare in my twilight years.

I watched some of the Alzheimer's Project on HBO this summer and it terrified me. Not that I plan to have Alzheimer's, but that I couldn't answer some of the standard questions they ask people to determine how vague they have become. What is the date today? is the question that scares me most. I know it's Thursday if I go to art class, and I know it's Friday if I have breakfast with my grandkids' dad, and I know it's Sunday when I go to church. The other days of the week frequently escape me because they aren't important.

And the date? I indulge my superstitions and try to remember to say "Rabbit, Rabbit" first thing on the first of every month to have good luck [and probably fertility, which at my age I do not want] for the rest of the month. And I like to check my bank account on line to see if my pension was deposited then, too.

But I don't need to know the date for another 28 (29 in leap year), 30 or 31 days depending on the month.

I am not allowed to write checks, so I don't have to keep track of the year. I do have my own allowance account, but I mostly use the ATM, and I don't write things down in a check register because . . . I don't like to. I don't have a check register. I never wrote them down, which is why I'm not allowed to write checks. If something happens to Ann, I'll have to hire an accountant to keep my bills paid. And I can do that without guilt.

But Jerome's question still floats in the ether. What will the United States be like in 50 years? The answer is we really don't know.

When I was in junior high - middle school now, for no apparent - reason about 1955, the Scholastic Company or My Weekly Reader had a contest in which we were asked to predict what the world would be like at the turn of the century. Students in my class suggested giant greenhouses over cities to keep the climate stable and comfortable. They suggested jet packs and airplanes in every home for travel.

Not one of them suggested individual, multiple computers. Nor the end of petroleum. And not one of them suggested that as we age, we don't change much, we merely intensify.

And that's happened to our country, it seems to me. We haven't changed much. We had a long period of affluence greater than when I was a child. We expanded the number of homes, the number of cars, our standard of living in general.

But most of us still live in houses just like I did when I was a kid. We worry about how high the utility bills are going to be, just as my parents and grandparents did then.

And we wonder how long we will survive into old age.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Constitutional Amendments

I think it’s time we had some Constitutional amendments.

I can think of many issues we need to address in these United States. This list is not exhaustive by any means.

First, let’s think about the right to privacy, which is not stated explicitly in the Constitution, but has been interpreted from the Ninth Amendment, which mentions “other rights being retained by the people.”

That’s pretty ambiguous. It was invoked when laws against contraception and contraceptive devices were struck down in the 1960’s. I find that your history is my current events, and I was in high school at that time. People who used contraception were considered immoral. In order to buy condoms when I got married, I had to ask the druggist because they were kept behind the prescription counter - and that wasn’t because they were easily stolen. My, how times have changed.

At this point we have heavy federal protection - or at least lip service - when it comes to privacy. We are required every six months to sign privacy memos if we visit the doctor or therapist that frequently. We must designate who can visit us in hospital, and whether or not our spouses - even our spouses - can be advised of our condition. However, the gatekeepers of our health decisions, the insurance companies, trade this information freely, and we are currently in the process of creating a national data base of medical care.

Another amendment we should seriously consider is an Equal Rights Amendment. An ERA has been introduced into Congress every year since the 1920’s. When I marched in the early 1980’s, we were sure it would pass. It didn’t. We have laws that guarantee gender equality in the United States, but we have no Constitutional guarantee. When I marched, women were getting 59 cents for every dollar men were paid - on average. Today, that’s somewhat better, at 82 cents on average. But despite laws guaranteeing equal pay, pay isn’t equal.

I think we should drop the protection of marriage amendment. It’s aimed against a group of people and denies them rights instead of expanding or clarifying rights. It does not protect marriage. That would take something completely different, like requiring people to pass mandatory classes before they are permitted marry.

Perhaps we should also consider making divorce less easy to obtain. Of course, if we did that, only those with means would divorce. Our idols - Brittany Spears five years ago [what can I say, I don’t do popular culture well], Elizabeth Taylor when I was young - jump in and out of marriage. Or did when they could jump.

Mandatory marriage classes would create another branch off the marriage tree, and that’s people who decide merely to cohabit rather than marry. It’s not illegal, although marriage provides legalities people who live together do not enjoy.

If we were thinking clearly, we’d see that marriage is comprised of three parts: the religious, moral side, which churches can take care of; the legal side, which is in effect a partnership agreement; and the wedding, which is a different, over-the-top country entirely for many people. Big weddings do not guarantee long marriages. We have a friend who gave his daughter a very lavish wedding, but she was divorced before the photos were finished. [By the way, I can recommend a photographer.]

That’s probably enough for today. I invite you to suggest other possible amendments in the comments section below. Be creative.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


When I was very young, perhaps seven or eight, well over fifty years ago, I read in my Jack and Jill Magazine a story about a kid who was born in the nineteen hundreds and lived through the landmark of the turn of the Twentieth Century.

I wondered if I would live that long, being too old to be a baby boomer, although I didn’t think about that, and if I would live through the turn into the Twenty-First Century.

Obviously I did. And I thought about that story briefly at the millennium, but it didn’t dominate by any stretch of the imagination. That’s the only thing I remember about the millennium except the scare tactics of so many who said the world would crash around us because computers were programmed imperfectly.

And of course there was the cult (do I mean congregation? No, I think not) a few miles west of us who encouraged their members to stock up on water and food staples and clean air and guns because the world would come to an end as we know it and they would die otherwise. It seemed to me that it was kind of unChristian to believe that human survival was more important than being with their version of God after death. And their pastor reportedly drives a huge Mercedes as earthly proof of God’s grace, something else I don’t buy into. But no matter.

This week I am looking another landmark, albeit a relatively minor one. On Wednesday Ann (the love of my life, which I don’t tell her often enough) and I will have been married for forty-two years. That seems like a hell of a long time to a lot of people we know because they aren’t that old to start out with. We are ancient in their eyes. Old fogies at best. Totally irrelevant at worst.

But forty-two years seems like a very short time to me. As far as I can tell, we’re still in our twenties. Except for the arthritis in my knees no doubt caused by the fact that I weigh close to twice as much as I did when we got married. [But I carry it well. Hah.]

I am sometimes surprised we are still married, but then I look at some of our friends, and they’re still married too. We are having breakfast on our anniversary with my best man Michael and his wife Cathy, who will celebrate their forty-second in March.

Before we got married, my biggest fear was that we’d run out of things to talk about within the first month or so. It hasn’t happened. Ann and I are still talking. And I like to think we discuss things beyond the weather, organ recitals of our health, and the weather. We discuss politics, religion, art, music, movies, books, television, and current events among other topics. Sometimes we even gossip about our friends. But hardly ever.

The divorce rate for all couples hovers around 50 per cent, and has for the last too many years. Add to that the fact that about 85 per cent of people who suffer the loss of a child divorce very shortly later. That stress pushes many couples over the edge. We avoided that because we had very good grief therapy for a long time - almost seventeen years now, as a matter of fact - after Daniel’s death.

We have found joy in a lot of ways. The gift of two grandsons provides immense joy. David is leaving in a week for a semester of his junior college year in Quito, Ecuador. We’re excited and a little worried, but we’ve set up Skype. Sort of. We think. We have wonderful discussions of current events, history, and politics at dinner with David.

Jonathan will be a senior in high school and spent the last few days looking at colleges in Ohio. He wants to major in film production. And he makes wonderful films on youtube, especially for a seventeen year old. He is a funny, quirky, creative guy.

Their father sits back and watches, sometimes awestruck - as are we. The boys - young men at this point - keep the dendrites in our brains forming and the synapses snapping. We hope.

Derek and Shannon chose me their dad, another wonderful gift. They give us immense joy. Add to that Derek’s daddy-hood this week, and we are ecstatic - ecstacy caused by neither religion nor drugs. Ella is a beautiful little girl with ginger hair and a very high Apgar score - eight to nine out of ten. I never ask how much a baby weighs (6 pounds, three ounces) or how long one is (18 inches); it’s the Apgar score that is the important predictor of health. Ella also has ten beautiful fingers, which Derek is wrapped around by all reports, and ten beautiful toes, and she eats heartily he says.

We are planning our trip out to Denver to see her. And, of course, to see her parents - who will now receive short shrift from the world at large for a few years as everyone fawns over our beautiful granddaughter.

Shannon and her dogs visit us regularly. She works in a northwest suburb and keeps pretty close tabs on us - perhaps an indication that we are indeed aging. But we keep tabs on her too. She brings her two dogs Happiness and Ozzie when she visits, and we find great joy in her presence.

So another landmark. I will wake up on Wednesday and probably not feel any different having been married forty-two years than I do having been married forty-one. It’s like waking up on a birthday and not knowing the difference - especially these days as they pile up - until I step out of bed and my knee buckles.

Please feel free to comment by clicking comments below.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What are you wearing?

What are you wearing? Whenever he called, my friend Bobby would ask that instead of saying hello.

Bobby was a brilliant man beset with demons, a charming, charismatic person who was an inspiration to a generation of high school kids in the Sunday School class he mentored, an addictive personality who damaged himself in slow suicide until he was murdered by his equally damaged lover who subsequently committed suicide. Bobby was a good friend and an inspiration to a lot of people.

Daniel was in the High School Sunday School class Bobby taught and looked up to him like an older brother, as did most of the kids in the class. When Daniel died, Bobby was prostrated with grief and took to his bed for two days, unable to function.

About a year ago he called and asked me to help him finish his dissertation for a PhD in clinical psychology. He had a last gasp extension. He would supply a ticket from Chicago to San Francisco and how much time did I need? That was shortly before lunch. I told him I could be on a plane by five that afternoon. He sent an e-ticket and I boarded at 5:05.

The whole trip was surreal. To start with, the plane had navigation system problems and the pilot made a joke about hitting it with a wrench, but we ended up back at the gate. The mechanic boarded, apparently fixed it, because we ended up in San Francisco about 10:30. Bobby wasn’t waiting for me at baggage claim as he said he would. I called and he said he’d fallen asleep, I should take a cab.

Surreal continued. The cab driver was about a week in the US and I had to spell Castro for him to enter into his GPS system. Even with the GPS, he missed a turn and took the long way around. When I arrived at the apartment, I didn’t recognize Bobby. He was emaciated. His hair (he had had GOOD hair, dark, curly) was long - past his shoulders - and straight. His eyes were sunken. But he was the same old Bobby and I was glad to see him.

I was glad to see him until he pulled out a glass tube, which I shortly learned was a crack pipe, and lit up. It broke my heart.

He was in complete denial. He said he didn’t believe in addiction. He said that crack had no effect and I should try smoking some. I declined. I hate smoking. I hated the smell that pervaded everything when I visited my parents. I tried smoking in college - maybe three cigarettes -and I hated the taste in my lungs for the next several days.

Bobby kept smoking crack. He was awake and pacing for the next three days. He had just moved and I did a lot of unpacking. I walked the dogs and made sure they were fed. He had no food in the apartment and I got sandwiches at the little bodega kitty corner from his apartment. Each morning I went to a coffee shop for coffee and a roll. That was several blocks from his apartment, and the hills were like climbing up or down ladders. It is San Francisco, after all.

We drove to the house he had just moved from and which he had put up for sale (for an ungodly high sum. It sold within 60 days) and retrieved his computer system.

I tried to help with his dissertation “Artifice and Authenticity in the Gay Male.” His Introduction was brilliant, but at over 100 pages, too long. The next five or six chapters were less than 20 pages. They too were brilliant, but the whole work was so unbalanced, I couldn’t repair it without him. And he couldn’t focus.

After three days he slept. For about 20 hours. That scared me because I wasn’t sure he was alive except by nudging him. His teenage crack dealer and her two thugs made deliveries to the house, and that scared me too. This was a life I had never experienced before. And don’t want to experience again.

I had a ticket home that I didn’t use. Instead, I bought a ticket on a redeye flight and left for the airport six hours in advance. Before I left, Bobby and I had a talk. He wasn’t delusional, for a change. He said he was surprised I lasted as long as I had. I told him how heartbreaking it was to see him in the condition he was in. He talked about checking into a hospital for detox, would Ann and I come back and watch his dogs?

I hate airports, but sitting in it for six hours was far less painful than watching Bobby destroy himself. I bought a hamburger and fries. It was overpriced, but delicious. The airport that late at night was practically deserted. I liked it.

[More surreal: The plane left on time about midnight. I drifted in an out of a doze during the flight. At about 4:30 CDT there was a kerfuffle in the row ahead of me. The flight attendant told two men standing in the aisle to sit down, and then she came back with her cohort and started screaming at one of the men. Evidently the man in the middle seat had been groping the woman on the window as she slept. Cops waited for him on the air bridge as we left.]

It took me a long time to process my trip. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone at home except Ann because I didn’t want to harm Bobby’s reputation. Bobby and Paul, his partner, had gotten the equivalent of a partnership divorce. I understood why. Money was involved. Lies and anger and name calling were involved. It was pretty typical of other divorces I have seen. And of course, Bobby’s drug use was a big part of it.

I believed I would never see Bobby again. I expected him to be dead of an overdose or an organ failure from drug use within a year.

But I never expected him to be brutally murdered. Ann and I both loved him. And we’ll continue to love him. We believe he is in a better place.

The essential Bobby was a kind, loving, brilliant, funny, charming, charismatic man. But his demons killed him in the long run. No matter how he lived, he didn’t deserve to die the way he did. No one does. I try to make sense of it and I can’t. We will miss him.

Pray for his soul.