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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Father’s Expectations

Unlike most of my peers growing up in the ‘50s, I didn’t have any extended family nearby: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins to celebrate holidays or share Sunday dinners with.  They were all back in Philadelphia, the place my parents had boldly left in their 20’s—in 1939—for my father’s new job in Chicago.

We’d travel back usually once a year, by car, and only very occasionally would some of them come to visit us.  No one had much money for anything beyond that, and, so, except for the Christmas gifts that arrived faithfully by mail each year, I had little sense of who these people were, especially the older ones.

All except one: my Great Uncle Vince, a life-long bachelor who came to live with us after his sister, my paternal grandmother, died.  The two of them had shared an apartment in their later years, and, in a moment of utter sentimentality, while back in Philly for his mother’s funeral, my father sobbingly told his 70-plus-year-old uncle to come live with us in our small suburban home near Chicago, a place he’d never been.

“Us” at that time included my mother, who wasn’t consulted about this new arrangement; my teen-age brother, who ended up having to share his small bedroom with Uncle Vince; and me, clueless at 12 about how my life was about to change.

Mostly it changed because Uncle Vince, not especially able-bodied, couldn’t do much of anything but sit in the living room all day, except to regularly walk up, cane in hand, to the local bar to drink too much.  (At his wake, not too many years later, our family was shocked to see how many people showed up that we didn’t recognize, bar pals all.)

As a result of this experience—and because of his innate stubbornness—my father would insist throughout the post-Uncle Vince years that he would not expect his children to take him in or to care for him as he aged. 

He remarried not long after my mother’s death at 50 and lived 40 more years, pre-deceasing my stepmother at 95. And in all that time, true to his word, he never asked his kids—or hers—to do anything for him, including as he grew older.

Well, except once.

I was pretty surprised when the call came in 1999 or thereabouts.  Legally blind and unable to drive, my father and stepmother had finally reconciled to moving into a retirement facility, one that offered independent living, assisted living, and nursing care.  My father the pragmatist wanted all levels available when/if needed.

But when the choice of an apartment was finally made and the papers signed—at a suburban facility right across the street from their two bedroom condo—my father thought it’d be a great idea if I moved into their condo, rent-free, while they lived directly across the street.  Even though it was some 25 miles from where I lived on the far north side of Chicago, a city I'd left the suburbs for in my mid-20's, and where I had long-established professional and social relationships. 

I’m not sure how long that late night phone conversation went on—though some of it surely involved my attempt to understand his request.  I mean, my father was pretty mentally fit, even into his 90’s.  Couldn’t he see what a lunatic idea this was?

Eventually he did, though would never admit it.  But what I can see—now, from this distance—is how he was unable to confront the depth of this transition, of moving from real independent living to a faux, if quite pleasant, version thereof.

More, he could not imagine actually moving, and of going through all the stuff he and my stepmother had accumulated over 30 years together, the assorted clutter jammed into every corner of every room and under every bed and stick of furniture.

He also couldn’t imagine expecting me, asking me to help him in that awesome, arduous task. 

And so instead I volunteered.


For more on what our aging parents may or may not expect from their (aging) children, click here:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Walk This Way

This morning, I walked to Tony’s, the grocery store five blocks south of where I live.  On the way, I stopped off at the Dollar Store and Chase bank, which took me a block farther west than I needed to go.  

Total round-trip: 1.5 miles.

This evening, I walked to Walgreen’s, four blocks to the north.  After making a small purchase, I then walked another two blocks west--an unnecessary detour that took me farther away, rather than closer, to where I live--before returning home. 

Total round-trip: 1.5 miles.

With those two walks, each to buy needed groceries and household goods, I had accomplished my usual 3-mile/day walk.

I first started walking in earnest not long after I found and brought home a dog in 1979, the one who quickly became my dog Rollie.  And it didn’t take me long to realize that this fellow was not interested in taking two or three quickie walks every day.  This was a dog who clearly liked patrolling the neighborhood—not just marking his territory—and that required lots more time than I was giving him.

And so he quickly behavior modified me into longer and longer rambles, which I then continued after he died 10 years later, and to this day.

A favorite stop-over for Rollie and me on our morning walk was the White Hen Pantry not far from our Lincoln Park apartment.  He’d stand outside and oogle me through the big glass doors as I bought a cup of coffee and a donut, the latter to share with him once back outside.

We’d then continue on for another 30 minutes before heading home, me to dress and go to work, Rollie to sleep off his half of the donut.

We’d repeat this ritual—minus the donut—at least two more times each day.

BR (Before Rollie), I didn’t do much walking; like most Americans, I drove everywhere, even when I was settled in the city.  But during Rollie, I’d become conditioned to moving in that very particular way, whether to walk my dog or visit the neighborhood bookstore or walk to the train instead of driving downtown.

And like any good-for-us habit, those daily walks became such a natural part of my life that I would feel out of sorts, both physically and mentally, if I missed them.  For which I am ever grateful to that strong-willed dog. 

And now it turns out that regular walking has benefits other than the obvious physical ones: especially as we age, moderate weekly walking can keep our brains well-tuned, a not inconsequential result of heading up the street to buy some apples.

For more on walking and aging, click here:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Why I Travel

You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine these days, or surf the www without reading the latest news about “brain health," i.e., how to fend off the inevitable decrepitude that comes with aging, especially in cognition and memory.

Neuroscientists, gerontologists, and psychologists, among others, are eager to report the latest study that shows how x, y, or z will keep us from losing our marbles later rather than sooner. 

Maybe certain exercises will help.  Or diet.  Or maintaining a wide social network, doing crossword puzzles, or learning Russian.

As for myself, I’ve relied mostly on writing and teaching in my advancing years, each of which seems to keep the critical neurons firing pretty steadily.

The past week, though, while visiting friends up in Minnesota, I think I discovered another way to maintain the old noodle: traveling.

Like writing, traveling takes me outside of my comfort zone, out of the day-to-day familiar that I typically breeze through on automatic. And even if a particular trip doesn’t involve anything especially dramatic or exotic, the very act of traveling puts me in unfamiliar territory.

And so I have to adapt, re-learn, adjust my frame of reference, lay down new wiring in the old garbanzo.  On this recent trip, for instance, where I stayed with my friends’ in their rental house--not far from downtown Rochester--that re-wiring included:

1.  Learning how far of a walk it was to the nearest Starbucks.

2.  Figuring out what direction I was walking without the benefit of Lake Michigan.  (Every day, I would remind myself that even outside of Chicago the sun still rises in the east.)

3.  Discovering where I might buy the Sunday New York Times.

3.  Learning a whole new selection of Midwestern craft beers.

4.  Adding “Demo Derby” to my list of questionable experiences.

5.  Attempting to understand why anyone trusts a GPS, especially a talking one.

6.  Determining how long, and often, three adults will need to use the one small bathroom every day.

7.  Arranging my clothes and toiletries hither and thither throughout the small guest bedroom, trying to establish some pattern that would be recognizable the next morning.  (“Where the hell did I put my shoes?”)

There are many more ways I exercised my aging brain on this trip, some of which had to do with learning and remembering the names of new places and people.  Fortunately, I kept a journal, where I daily recorded them.

That way, when I return to bike the Root River State Trail that runs through the town of Lanesboro, Minnesota, I’ll be back in familiar territory:

Friday, July 31, 2015

The World Is Too Much With Me

But, first, from William Wordsworth, the author of the poem that inspired this blog post.  Or at least is title.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.

Now, Wordsworth, and his friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, were the reason I left a very secure (and mind-killing, soul-destroying) job in my 41st year to go to graduate school and study English literature, a decision, despite its seeming foolhardiness, that I’ve never for one moment regretted.

But that’s another story.

This one is about the simple act of leaving the day-to-day, and heading out to the territories, i.e., taking a vacation.  In this case, five days up north with friends in whose good company I expect to see the sights, eat whatever the hell I want, and laugh much.

All of which is to say that there’ll be no usual Monday blog post the week of August 3.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Stories or Stuff?

This post is dedicated to my former young neighbors, a married couple in their late 30’s who moved to a new building this past weekend.  As I watched their three movers run up and down the two flights of stairs to empty their apartment, and then stash the limitless contents into the moving van, I was struck with how much stuff the couple owned.

One thought that came to mind: “Exactly how many tables does a person need?”

Now, granted, I am at the other end of the consumerist spectrum, so all is relative.  Also, I have moved so many damn times that it was often easiest to leave this or that table (and other heavy-ish things) behind, either for the new tenant or out in the alley for the inevitable scavengers. 

In fact, I myself have scavenged some pretty nice stuff over the years, especially when living in neighborhoods where college students abide.  Come moving day, usually in the spring, these youngsters would regularly stash some very nice bookcases, tables, and other furniture out near the building’s dumpster, likely the very same furniture their parents had bought for them the previous fall.

Thank you, Mom & Dad.

This ease with which I have over the years accumulated then shed stuff puts me in mind of several recent articles on what makes us happy: owning things or doing things.  It is a question with particular relevance, especially as I age and attempt to live with less and less while doing more and more.

The most recent piece I found is from Fast Company’s website, from March of this year.  Title is “The Science of Why You Should Spend Your Money on Experiences, Not Things.”  It reports on the research of Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell.

Here are some article excerpts:

“Gilovich's findings are the synthesis of psychological studies conducted by him and others into the Easterlin paradox, which found that money buys happiness, but only up to a point. How adaptation affects happiness, for instance, was measured in a study that asked people to self-report their happiness with major material and experiential purchases. Initially, their happiness with those purchases was ranked about the same. But over time, people's satisfaction with the things they bought went down, whereas their satisfaction with experiences they spent money on went up.”

So, yes, over time our satisfaction for things decreases, while it increases for experiences.  Does this not seem to make sense on some intuitive level?*

“But while the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identity.”  In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences."

*Ah, and maybe here’s why:  I may or may not remember the things I owned when living with Philip LaChapelle in Manhattan, shortly after we were married in 1967.  But I sure as hell remember living in that apartment on 106th St on the Upper West Side. Or working in the admissions department of the hospital cross-town.  Or the night some friends brought us live lobster from Boston for our potluck dinner.

‘One study conducted by Gilovich even showed that if people have an experience they say negatively impacted their happiness, once they have the chance to talk about it, their assessment of that experience goes up. Gilovich attributes this to the fact that something that might have been stressful or scary in the past can become a funny story to tell at a party or be looked back on as an invaluable character-building experience.’

Oh, those many character-building experiences.  Got a minute?  I’ve a pile of those to share.

To read the entire article, click here:

And if you are inclined to get some of your character-building—and other—experiences down in writing, please consider joining us at Evanston’s newest indie bookstore, Bookends & Beginnings, on Saturday, August 15, from 12-2 pm, for the Writing Family Stories workshop. 

Here are the particulars:

This introductory workshop is offered for those interested in writing family stories--the real-life accounts of the important people, places, and events in their and their family's life.  These stories of loss and triumph, love and regret, and of lessons learned may be recorded as letters, diary entries, character sketches, even eulogies. We will discuss the merits of each of these forms, plus do some practice writing.

Fee is $40, and space is limited, so please pre-register with Carol or contact her for more information at