Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Midlife: the best of all possible ages?

The other day a friend of mine, who is 45, was offended when someone referred to her as middle aged.

This seems odd, since female life expectancy in America is now approximately 81. Or since a woman who has reached the age of 45 can expect to live another 40 years. Or since the ages at which an American is most likely to be employed are between 20 and 61. By all numeric indicators, my friend is clearly middle aged.

People used to think middle age began at 40 and ended at 60 or 65. Even they were somewhat optimistic, but not downright silly like folks who now say that 60 or even 70 is the new middle age.

No, 60 or 70 is not middle-aged, unless you think the middle lane on a three-lane road is the one farthest to the left, in which case I'd rather not drive with you.

But why doesn't my friend want to be middle aged?

After all, middle age is when you might be
  • young enough to be beautiful and old enough to have character
  • young enough to stay up late and old enough not to want to
  • young enough to be stylish and old enough to know what suits you
  • young enough to have a bright future and old enough to have solid experience
  • young enough to have energy and old enough to know what to do with it
  • young enough to feel good and old enough to take care of your health
  • young enough to have strong opinions and old enough to know when to express them
  • young enough to start over and old enough to put down roots
  • young enough to protest and old enough to govern
  • young enough to have living parents and old enough to appreciate them
  • young enough to be smart and old enough to be wise
Oddly, I don't know anyone past 40 who wishes to relive their youth, nor do I know anyone of any age who longs to be old (despite recent research indicating that the older we get, the happier we are). 

Apparently most of us prefer middle age--as long as we can call it something else.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Remains of the Day

A Nor'easter swept through Baltimore on Friday, uprooting trees and downing power lines as it went through.

Our lights went out at 2:30 in the afternoon. The inside temperature began to fall. I put a second down comforter on our bed.

We took the dog and our electronics to our church and spent a warm evening and morning there. And then the power at the church went out.

Fortunately we have a gas stove and a gas water heater. We were still able to shower and cook. This is a picture of our table after Saturday night's dinner (good thing the Christmas candles were still out). It would have been romantic if we hadn't been shivering.

Sunday morning the church temperature was 50 degrees. Most of the faithful bundled up and went to church anyway. After the Eucharistic prayer, the priest faced the congregation and said, "The gifts of God for the people of God." At that exact moment, the lights came on!

Or so they say. Back in my neighborhood, where the new pup and I were vainly trying to keep warm, the power was still out. Most of Baltimore was back on the grid, but badly damaged areas could lack power until midweek, said the newspaper. Several big trees were down near us. I was ready to despair. We packed up the pup and drove to a warm place.

And then good news!

Rejoicing! Merriment! Celebration!

Funny how we take heat and light for granted until they're missing. Funny how grateful we are when they come back.

I suppose that's the point of Lent--a little deprivation makes Easter that much more radiant. Though I confess: I'd rather have bunnies and chocolate all the time.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST by Louise Penny: a chilling conversation

I love Louise Penny's novels about Three Pines, Qu├ębec: a Brigadoon-like village near the Vermont border full of friendship, good food, warm fires, beautiful scenery--and the occasional murder. Penny can terrify you, though more often she makes you chuckle. With a perspicacious eye for character, she can also amaze you with her insights.

I recently came across this chilling conversation in The Nature of the Beast (2015). Retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is questioning a physics professor about a suspect, Gerald Bull. The professor speaks first:
"... no one really worked with Gerald Bull. It might start out that way, but eventually you found yourself working for him."

"Were you working for him when he came up with the plans for the Supergun?"

"No. I left when he began using the Soviets as a back door to sell his arms. He wasn't very smart."

"Is that why you left? Fear you'd get caught?"

"No. I left because it was wrong. ... Gerald Bull was the consummate salesman, and completely without a conscience."

"Why did you just say that he wasn't very smart?" asked Gamache.

"He made some stupid choices, like cozying up to the Soviets. He had an outsized ego that told him he was smarter than other people."

No, Ms Penny is not alluding to Donald Trump.

[Hand-colored woodcut, 1523,
for Martin Luther's New Testament]
She most likely wrote this passage in late 2014 before Trump had begun exploring the possibility of running for president. And, while Trump's connections to Russia had been going on for decades, they were not yet a matter of public speculation.

Penny's stories tend to have literary, not political, themes, and this book is no exception. In it she frequently mentions an image from the biblical book of Revelation, chapters 17 and 18: the great whore who--riding a fearsome seven-headed beast--glorifies herself and lives luxuriously, consorts with kings and merchants, helps them become rich and powerful, and deceives all nations.

But don't feel bad if your first thought was that the passage referred to Trump, not the great whore. Feel bad because the two have so much in common.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Trump wall everyone will love

Here's an idea for President Trump and his supporters. Let's build an impenetrable border wall around maybe a third of the United States. Make sure that no immigrants can enter. Make equally sure that no Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) who favor universal healthcare can enter. Likewise, don't allow any Democrats (or Republicans) who favor gun limitation and regulation to breach the wall.

To live inside the walled paradise, you must be an American citizen who wants to pay for your own healthcare or health insurance with no help from the government, or to go without healthcare altogether. You must own a gun, because only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. And you must be willing for everyone inside the wall to get any kind of weapon they wish to have. Don't worry - since everyone inside the wall will be a Trump supporter too, there won't be any bad guys to contend with. (Pssst - you can keep out people who aren't white, if you wish. I mean, you'll be armed. Heck, you can keep out anyone you don't like.)

Only thing is, you must stay inside the wall. Well, unless you change your mind and unaccountably want to have your guns regulated (or, in some cases, even confiscated) and be forced to buy health insurance. Insurance that would help your neighbor but might never help you! And you'd have to live with all those people you don't like. Some of them don't even speak English! Would you really want to do that?

I mean, look at the financial advantage of living inside your walled community. Treating gunshot wounds costs American hospitals some $2.8 billion a year. That adds up to a lot of insurance premiums. If you choose not to buy health insurance, you won't have to pay a dime of it! But anyway, since you'll all be armed, gunshot wounds won't be a problem. I mean, who would shoot an armed person, right?

And here's the best part - you won't have to pay for this paradise yourself. Tell those immigrant-loving, gun-hating, socialist-healthcare-promoting Democrats (and Republicans) that you'd like your own walled country, and they'll jump at the chance to build it for you!

And then, finally, you can make America - or at least your walled-off portion of it - great again.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Ancient Egyptians brought skeletons to their feasts, exhorting guests to drink and make merry while they still could. American Puritans in the 17th century kept skulls as warnings to sober up and focus on the afterlife. Memento mori, the gruesome reminders were called: remember that you must die. People died suddenly, and young. They wanted to be prepared. 

Nina Riggs did not feel prepared when she learned that a small spot in her breast was malignant. Cancer ran in her family: it had taken three grandparents and several aunts, and her mother was in treatment for multiple myeloma. But Riggs was only 37. Her sons, Freddy and Benny, were eight and five; she was not ready to leave them. Merrymaking had its place, but it didn’t address her concerns. And the afterlife, if it existed, was unknowable.

That's how my review of Riggs's The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying begins. It's in the Fall Books issue of The Christian Century, and you can read the rest here for a few more days. After that, the magazine will likely put the review behind a firewall that can be breached only by paid subscribers.

It's a short review; you have time to click and read. Seize the day. Enjoy the now. That's what Riggs advises. In the words of her great-great-great-grandfather Ralph Waldo Emerson, she wanted to be "cheered with the moist, warm glittering, budding and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its pulsation and life to the very horizon. That is morning; to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World."

Reviewers don't always like the books they describe, but I loved this one.

Monday, October 2, 2017

10 reasons I'm giving up Facebook

Some of my friends use Facebook judiciously. Some, like me, spend far too much time on it. And clearly some, also like me, feel worse and worse because of what they see there.

If Facebook is making your life better, far be it from me to criticize. I suspect, however, that it is stripping joy from my life. Here are ten reasons I'm planning to stay off Facebook indefinitely.

1. Time on Facebook is time not reading books.
2. Reading about friends’ lives is great; seeing all the articles they liked, not so much.
3. The barrage of memes, games, quizzes, and “sponsored” stuff continually increases.
4. Call it “recommended for you,” it’s still an ad.
5. Facebook is a rich mine of information for marketers, scammers, thieves, and election fraudsters.
6. Facebook is an ideal platform for liars and haters.
7. Facebook widens divisions and calcifies opinions.
8. It is painful to see friends fall for propaganda from unknown or unreliable sources.
9. It is futile to point out facts to people who prefer ideology.
10. Constant attention to the president and Congress deepens depression. 

I'm hoping that, in the absence of Facebook, I'll spend more time in the physical world, having actual conversations with flesh-and-blood people. I'm hoping I'll pet more living, breathing kittens and puppies, see more sunshine on leaves and lakes, smell more fresh-baked bread, listen to more happy music.

Maybe once I’ve regained Paradise I’ll give Facebook another try: I do love hearing from far-flung friends and seeing pictures of their activities, their families, and their pets.

Meanwhile, I encourage friends and family to stay in touch via phone calls, emails, texts, and actual meet-ups. Then I might never need to imperil my soul by going back to Facebook.

Anyone for lunch?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

RIP editor Judith Jones: She brought us Anne Frank, Julia Child, and many others

[Jones & Child; photo by Boston Globe]
From yesterday's New York Times:
Judith Jones, the editor who discovered Julia Child and advanced a generation of culinary writers that revolutionized cooking and tastes in American homes, and who for a half-century edited John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Hersey and other literary lions, died on Wednesday at her summer home in Walden, Vt. She was 93.
Nearly ten years ago, I reviewed Jones's memoir, The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, in [the late] Books and Culture magazine. Her book is still available, and I highly recommend it--especially if you love books, food, and Julia Child. If you like, you can read my review here.

The NYT obit writer and I chose the same wonderful quotation to end our articles. Here's my version:
Quoting an Italian saying, "At the table one never grows old," [Jones] asks, "Isn't that reason enough to come home at the end of the day, roll up one's sleeves, fire up the stove, and start smashing the garlic?"
Garlic, known universally as the stinking rose. Gather ye garlic cloves while ye may...