Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fun Ain't What It Used to Be -- and That's Okay

I used to be fun.

I think that a lot, and sometimes I say it aloud. In a recent email, a friend said it about herself:

“Went to the office Christmas party. Was dragging, then had a Manhattan and perked up. It reminded me that I used to be fun.”

Maybe a bumper sticker is in order? Or even a book?

(Though first I have to write a book called “All Women Are Tired.“ Been threatening to write that one for decades. Too tired.)

Fun. Yes – I remember!

I have dusty memories of testimonials from friends claiming I was fun and even dustier photos showing me being fun. In many of the photos, I am dressed in one costume or another (though I consider all clothing as costumes), probably drinking a bit and definitely dancing a lot.



Not far from where I now sit typing in my jammies is a remnant of those days, a throwback to fun from years gone by. In a bag, high in the closet, is my nine-foot-long feather boa, its shiny black rooster feathers now sparse and definitely bedraggled.

Still, it’s here, which means I wanted to be prepared to have fun when I moved to San Francisco five and a half years ago. In preparation for the move, I got rid of two-thirds of my stuff. I did bring remnants of the fun years, but not long after I settled in, I took most of them to the classiest of the vintage shops on Haight Street and I sold them.

Goodbye to the black silk-lined cape I bought in Sydney; goodbye to the deep purple opera gloves I bought in Paris; goodbye to the velvet clutch purse fronted with a bejeweled peacock I bought in Delhi. All these items came from flea markets and all these items served me well.

“Why are you getting rid of these lovely things?” the shop owner asked.

“Because this is not who I am anymore,” I said. “My life is different now and it’s time for these things to go to others who will enjoy them.” I didn’t say it, but I remember thinking, “I used to be fun.”

I’m not saying I don’t have fun now. I do!

Moving somewhere new at 62 changed so very much about my life, and the new beginning was more than welcome. For instance, I am fascinated with San Francisco’s history and have a shelf of books about this city, which was rowdy then and is rowdy now. Also, every day, things happen in the Bay Area that surprise me, and some of the most astonishing events are part of the natural world.

One day on a road trip to Bolinas, I drove past six turkey vultures perched on a single power line. When a dead humpback whale washed ashore in Pacifica, I went to watch the necropsy. This week a 900-pound pregnant elephant seal charged up out of the water and tried to cross Highway 37. She even attacked a car that got in her way! I’m a fan – and to me, all this counts as great fun.

Because I can, I drive to the edge of the continent often and stare at the sea. It’s always different and I never know what to expect. In addition to watching the ocean steal the land with every wave, I see pelicans, surfers, gulls fighting over garbage, people flying kites. Last week, I saw a guy trying to master his new hoverboard, and wondered whether it would catch fire as I watched. (It did not.)

To me, these trips are fun -- and restorative at the same time.

Of course I still enjoy spending time with friends. I go to parties via Skype with pals in St. Louis, and here I initiated a Full Moon Cocktail group. Four of us go out for drinks and bar food once a month, sometimes even on the night of the full moon. A silky smooth pear martini, a basket of truffle fries and friends to laugh with – that’s my idea of fun!

My family is here and I treasure time spent with all of them, but especially time spent with my grandson, who is almost 4.  We work puzzles, play with cars, interview his stuffed animals about their favorite colors and foods and go on adventures to the zoo and the science museum, where I can teach him about animals and the Earth.

Maybe instead of thinking that I used to be fun, it’s time to admit my definition of fun has changed, and be okay with that.

And maybe – just maybe – tonight when I put on my nicest sweater and my best jeans before I head out for a casual New Year’s Eve dinner party, I will top off my ensemble with that nine-foot-long feather boa.

Wouldn’t that be fun?






Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Woman Walks into a Bar with a Tiny Coffin

As I put my tote bag on the bar at my favorite upscale Indian restaurant on a busy Saturday night, a small cardboard coffin tumbles out. The bartender looks at the coffin, looks at me, looks back at the coffin.


“I went to a solo show and the actor gave out souvenir coffins,” I say brightly. He’s heard it all before – the man’s a bartender. He just nods and asks if I want a drink.

I do. But not because I am carrying around a tiny coffin.

The show was “Loveland: Good Grief,” presented at The Marsh in San Francisco by Ann Randolph, a gifted writer and fearless performer. Mel Brooks declared Randolph a genius and she has been compared to Gilda Radner.

"Loveland," which is hilarious and profound at the same time, is about a woman traveling by plane from California to Ohio after the death of her mother. Randolph portrays half a dozen or more characters. Along the way, she makes the point that sometimes, great beauty comes from loss.

Her brilliant example? Erosion carved the Grand Canyon.

Talking to Paper: A Worthy Conversation

After the show, I stick around with another 40 people for Randolph’s writing workshop.  First, she assures us her own mother is not dead, though the 70-minute piece was crafted from a place of personal loss.

Pads and pencils are handed out. Randolph asks us to think about a time of grieving.  Then she instructs us to write “What I remember most about this moment,” and see what we have to say after that.

I thrive on these sorts of exercises, on talking to paper. How do we know what we think until we ask ourselves? Everyone has a story, a story worth telling.

Plus, first sentences are always magical to me. After more than 35 years in the newspaper business and 10 years as a certified writing workshop leader, I still am delighted when the perfect first sentence pops into my mind.

Being handed one is a bonus.

Choose Me! Choose Me! Choose Me! 

We write for eight minutes. I am not surprised when I veer away from past memories of grief. And I’m not surprised that my hand goes up as soon as Randolph asks for a volunteer to come on stage and read.

The Marsh stage is familiar to me. Last fall I took a course at the theater in solo performance development from Charlie Varon, another gifted playwright and performer. (For classes, see themarsh.org ) After eight weeks of writing and rewriting, we six students were granted time in the spotlight at a public performance.



I'd been on other stages before. For eight years, I tap danced around the Midwest wearing an abundance of red sequins and a fabulous wig. I’ve also done a great deal of public speaking. But performing my short bit at The Marsh that night last December was exhilarating, and 10 months later, I’m not over the thrill.

So I jump up to read. The audience makes soft, empathetic sounds and, when appropriate, they laugh. They are with me every minute. They applaud wildly when I finish reading.

That’s why I wanted a drink with my appetizer – to celebrate the rush.

Anticipatory Grief vs. Anticipatory Joy

Here, with only minor editing for clarity, is what I read:

What I remember most about this moment is that it is not a memory so much as it is an example of anticipatory grief over something that hasn’t happened.

I’ve been to grief counseling about this depressing habit. Perhaps I come by it naturally, embracing my Irish melancholy, and by tallying up my dead:

my brother

my mother

my father

a beloved friend

my left breast

And several dear friends, many pets -- and oh yes, a marriage -- and other smaller losses too.

I’ve been told all this is why I experience anticipatory grief, though I have made great strides in turning it around to anticipatory joy. That’s a term I made up, and I am unsure whether it is accepted in psychology circles.

Fighting Off Foreboding for My Miracle

I well know the importance of living in the moment, of being here now, of breathing from the belly to fully appreciate this moment over all others.

Still, sometimes out of nowhere – or OK, probably somewhere – comes this deep shuddering sense of foreboding when I try to come to grips with the realization that I have less time ahead of me than behind me, and that the day will come when I will have to say goodbye to a three-year-old boy.

Wait! Hold on a minute! He is three right now, and that day has not arrived. Maybe I will live to see him through high school, or maybe longer.

But no matter how long we are together I must help him know while I am here that he is a miracle in my life, a miracle my mother never got to experience, a special treasure I want to inhale and absorb fully -- my grandson.






Saturday, August 1, 2015

Will Fog Make Me Taller?

Standing on the edge of the continent, I am enveloped by the fog. It has time for only a quick embrace, and then rushes off to nourish the coastal redwoods, which grow 300 feet and higher.

Will standing in the fog make me taller?



I’m shrinking. Not in mind or spirit, but the body has taken a hit. For decades, I was 5 feet, 4½ inches tall. (During these same decades, I told everyone in my water aerobics class that I was 5 feet, 10 inches, and they bought it because I was loud.)

Now I’m barely 5 feet, 3 inches.

At one doc’s office, my height was recorded as just under that. I fluffed up my hair, but a second reading was the same. I protested to the doctor – a short man – and he changed my chart to show 5 feet, 3 inches. We are friends for life.

Why am I shorter?

Allegedly, chemo some 20 years ago took some of my height. Now I’m shrinking because of changes in my bones, specifically in my spine. (Diagnostic Tip: My doc says if you lean on the grocery cart to relieve pressure in your back when you shop, you likely have spinal stenosis.)

It’s Not Just Me

Don’t feel sorry for me. You’re shrinking too.

The National Institutes of Health reports, “The tendency to become shorter occurs among all races and both sexes. People typically lose about 0.4 inches every 10 years after age 40. Height loss is even more rapid after age 70. You may lose a total of 1 to 3 inches in height as you age.“

What can we do about it?

The NIH counsels: “You can help minimize loss of height by following a healthy diet, staying physically active, and preventing and treating bone loss (osteoporosis).”

What you can’t change is this: Evolution has not yet adjusted to our lengthened lifespan – so our parts wear out. And yes, you can get a variety of replacement parts at a hospital near you, or have surgery on parts that can’t be replaced, in the hope of feeling better as you age.

Here’s a shocker: In 1900, the average lifespan for a woman was 48 and 46 for a man. By 1950, the average lifespan was 71 for a woman and 65 for a man. Today, the average American makes it almost to 78.

If You’re 65, Head for 85

The longer you live, it seems, the older you may get. No less an authority than the Social Security Administration (and they pay us, so they should know) reports this: “A man reaching age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 84.3. A woman turning age 65 today can expect to live, on average, until age 86.6.”

The typical diseases of aging – degenerative disc disorder, spinal stenosis and bulging discs – all are “manageable,” at least when they are at the mild or moderate stages. Here are my management strategies:

using trekking poles when I walk

doing physical therapy exercises

scheduling acupuncture appointments

walking in a warm-water pool

taking a restorative yoga class

Plus, I’m always working to find that all-important balance between too much movement and not enough.

That’s tricky, but worth the effort, because if I can improve my mobility, I can go to Disneyland, a lifelong dream since I first saw the place advertised on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Bonus: I can go with a wee boy in tow.

Dancing with Delusions 

That’s not aiming too high.

But how’s this for delusionary thinking: At a physical crisis point a few weeks ago, I did indulge in a modest dose of pain pills. Lying on the couch in a mellow mood, watching “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” I so admired the elaborate dancing that I decided to enroll in a Bollywood dance class.

Holding off on that so far.

But I continue to visit the seaside on foggy days.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Livin’ La Vida Freelance

My friends say I am living the dream, working part time as a freelance writer and playing the rest of the time in San Francisco, my adopted city.

I am. But the landscape in this particular dream has shifted over the years, making my professional future more uncertain than ever. Most employers on Craigslist now want “content providers” instead of writers, and those content providers must be savvy about social media and often be willing to handle some office chores as well.

Some publications that once paid decent rates now offer freelancers the opportunity to “build a resume” instead of paying them. Some writers, desperate to do just that, agree to write for free because competition is so stiff. Of course, working for free hurts all of us.

Think about it. In the last decade, every daily newspaper in the country has sacked or bought out up to two-thirds of their staff, plunging a lot of highly skilled, deadline-abiding people into the freelance pool. Small ad agencies and p.r. firms have closed or been devoured by larger ones.

Yet colleges and universities continue to hand out degrees in journalism, communications and media studies.

Over Half a Century of Bylines

Fifty years ago, I sold my first magazine article to a national teen publication. Because I thought those magazines were written by teens, not grown-ups, I submitted a feature on a boy at my high school, a gifted comic artist. The magazine sent me a check for $25, which I never cashed.

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote my first book, a whale-watchers guide for Globe Pequot Press. At the time, I worked as a newspaper reporter, and an ambitious agent tracked me down after reading some of my syndicated travel stories. She talked me into writing that book, and now 16 titles – all nonfiction, on a variety of topics -- bear my name.

Ten years ago, I took a buyout from a daily newspaper after more than two decades there. Thanks to a small pension, a lot of hustle and now, Social Security, I am a full-time freelance writer, at least part of the time. Just a month ago, in three days I interviewed five people and finished six articles for the web sites, marketing firms and newspapers that buy my work.

Why am I doing math to help explain my life as a writer?

This Trophy Proves It

A few days ago, a friend noticed a small trophy on my bookshelf. The plaque reads, “First Place” and indicates I won it for a “beginners news story" in 1964 at a Missouri Interscholastic Press Association Conference in St. Louis.



After talking abut the trophy with my friend, I realized that ironically, by the time I won it, I was no longer a beginner.

The first paper I worked for was The Plymouth Rock, in 1962 at my junior high school. (I am still friends with my teacher and my first editor.) Then I branched out to write for and edit The Peppermint Press, the Candy Stripers’ newspaper at a local hospital where I volunteered.

After I won that trophy but before I left high school, I wrote regularly for the teen page at a daily paper in St. Louis, a weekly suburban paper, a St. Louis Press Club publication, a local teen magazine and my high school paper.

Time Spent in Service to the News

Once I got a taste of the writing life, knew the thrill of a byline, I wanted more.

I got it. After putting in time at an ad agency, a hospital’s public relations department, a religious book publisher and a federally funded educational laboratory, I spent 23 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There, I worked as a feature writer, news reporter, health writer, theater critic, lifestyle columnist, travel writer, restaurant critic, food writer and night city editor.

At the paper, I predicted that the FDA would ban silicone breast implants. I also helped spread the word about endangered pandas and I spent many an afternoon interviewing Broadway stars. Along with my colleagues, I worked seven days a week covering the Great Flood of 1993. (I was interviewed on CNN about that.) I also wrote about pothole repairs, the birth of the zoo’s first baby elephant and recipes for apple pie.

I loved all of it.

In 1968, when I was in journalism school at the University of Missouri at Columbia, we were told that the day would come when everyone would have a home computer. Keep in mind that in 1968, computers took up entire rooms! (Our professors also told us there would be no more newspapers on front lawns; that readers would print out their papers at home. OK, they missed on that one.)

Loving the Freelance Life

By 1990, when I wrote my first book, that prediction seemed more likely than ever, so I started freelancing in case I needed a back-up plan for my career. Over the years, I’ve written articles for Ms., Southwest Airlines, the San Francisco Theological Seminary, Family Fun, Northwest Parks and Wildlife, the Catholic Hospital Association, Toastmasters International, Cruise Travel and numerous grocery magazines. My stories have been published in newspapers across the country, including USA Today.

Writing skills are transferable, so I also have penned web copy, brochures, releases, newsletters, direct mail pieces, speeches and one play. Clients have included a massage therapist, a theater company, a retail shop, an acupuncturist, book authors, a marine conservation organization, a dermatologist, several marketing firms and the lovely town of Gustavus, Alaska.

What are my books about?

When people ask, I say I am a production potter, willing to make whatever sort of paragraphs that publishers want. My best sellers include “Chemotherapy and Radiation for Dummies” (Wiley) and “Dolphins for Kids” (NorthWord Press). With Eve Batey, I wrote "100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die." Other titles include books about cougars, waterfalls of the world, manatees, the St. Louis Zoo, sharks, the St. Louis Science Center and beavers. One book is a collection of my favorite columns from the newspaper.

Keeping the Dream Alive

Today, I am proud to be a contributing writer for Next Avenue (nextavenue.org), the web site for people 50 and older. I also write regularly for jWeekly in San Francisco and the St. Louis Jewish Light. My former newspaper buys two or three travel stories a year from me. From time to time, I put together calendar copy for a firm in Detroit and I do business with a marketing company in Tucson.

So what's my secret to succeeding in freelance?

That's simple. Most often, I say “yes” to work queries that show up in my email because “yes” means work and work means money to pay the rent. Work also means a great deal of satisfaction that I still do the work – and care deeply about it -- that chose me when I was 14 years old, back in junior high.

I am living the dream. But keep those emails coming!







Monday, April 27, 2015

April 27, 2010: A Life-Changing Day

Five years ago today, on April 27, I sold my condo in St. Louis. Two months later, I moved to San Francisco, following my heart to move close to my son and daughter-in-law and also giving myself the gift of a great adventure – the chance to get to know this amazing city.



I have adapted well! Here are just six of the reasons I know I really do live in San Francisco.

1. I do errands based on available parking. Parking is a huge problem in San Francisco. How big a deal is it? When I color with my three-year-old grandson, first he asks me to draw roads for his cars and then he asks me to draw parking places. Even when we play with his little plastic dinosaurs, I am instructed to provide parking. You can tell he is a native!

Most often, I take Muni, because if you have the time, the bus will take you anywhere you want to go. But if I’m heading out to pick up groceries or anything bulky, I drive. (Still, my odometer tallies fewer than 3,000 miles a year, and I buy gas every six or seven weeks -- but only if I need it.)

Anyway, if I can’t park right away where I planned to shop, I will go around the block four times. After that, I make a new plan to try again at another time or at a different place or I decide on a different purchase option altogether. Sometimes, I just forget about it. So not finding a parking place sometimes saves me money!

2. I know a lot of people here. Standing alone at a bus stop downtown one day, a stop that serves five different lines, I saw a #9 bus approach. I was waiting for the #6, so I stepped back. The #9 stopped and the door opened, but no one got off the bus. Then the driver waved and called out, “Hi, Pat! I’m not on the #37 any more, so I never see you. How’s that grandbaby?”

3. I have a favorite getaway place in the city. Cultural opportunities abound here – theater, the symphony, the ballet, the opera, dozens of wonderful museums. I take advantage of all that when I can, but San Francisco also offers numerous places that boast astonishing natural beauty.



If I’ve been working at the computer too many days in a row, I push back the chair and drive three miles to the edge of the continent. Once there, sometimes I walk. Sometimes I stare at the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes I memorize the cries of the gulls, the rush of the wind and the crashing of the waves. Beautiful – and it’s free!

My favorite getaway place outside the city is West Marin, where I head once a month. (Read my Post-Dispatch travel story on the area at http://www.stltoday.com/travel/west-marin-for-the-wild-at-heart/article_889acf23-3f9a-5c7d-a6be-5bade0a75220.html) Heck, just driving across the world-renowned Golden Gate Bridge gives me a thrill!

4. I’ll pay $10 for a cocktail. (My favorite is the pear martini at Cliff House: Grey Goose Le Poire vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice – tastes like silk.) Once a month, most often on or near the full moon, my Full Moon Cocktail group heads for a bar or restaurant where the four of us order pricy cocktails and split some tasty bar food. We drink, we laugh, we eat, we talk about what we’re doing or thinking or buying or hoping will happen. We never order a second drink.

5. I carry extra layers with me. San Francisco has micro-climates, which means every day the temperature can vary by up to 20 degrees across town, depending on what neighborhood you’re heading to or meandering through. People tend to dress for their home turf, but most of us never go out without a windbreaker and a scarf, just in case.



Before I moved here, I never cared much for gray. Now, some of my extra layers are gray, as are other items of my clothing I’ve bought gray jackets, scarves, sweaters, shoes and purses. Why? I love the famous fog. From my apartment I have a great view of fog banks filling and then receding from the Golden Gate strait, and I am always grateful for the cool air here that the fog guarantees. (I also love the sunsets – art in the sky!)

6. I wrote a book about San Francisco’s neighborhood attractions. What a great way to get to know a city better! Reedy Press asked me to put together the guidebook, so first I found a co-author with deeper roots (the incomparable Eve Batey) and then together we compiled “100 Things to Do in San Francisco Before You Die” (see facebook.com/100thingsSF).



The book, which actually features about 230 things to do here, is one of Reedy’s 19 city guides, all penned by people who live in the cities they wrote about. (That’s rare.) Now that the book has been published, I’m meeting even more people as I spend time marketing it!

So even though I lived somewhere else for 62 years, I have adapted quite well, thank you, to my new city and even made dear friends. (Read my article about how to do that, published on Next Avenue at http://www.nextavenue.org/blog/7-ways-make-friends-new-city)

Still, after almost five years here, I remain in awe that my address is in San Francisco. I celebrate that – out loud. My route to the grocery store takes me up the hill to Twin Peaks, past a stunning view of downtown, with all its classic landmark buildings. On every trip to the store, I roll down the window, face into the wind and yell, “I live here!”






Friday, March 27, 2015

What’s the Verse Thing That Can Happen?

April is National Poetry Month – but you say you’re going to sit this one out?

Poetry scares a lot of people, especially people who didn’t do well in school when it came to interpreting dense verses in English class. How scary is poetry?

So scary that the artistic director of a regional modern dance company, struggling to build his audience, once quipped, “You would think we were trying to get people to sit through an evening of poetry!”

The point is this: Poetry is a conversation between the poet and the reader, a subjective experience. Some conversations go well, some not so much and perhaps some never should have happened at all. Robert Frost, he who stopped by woods on a snowy evening, looked at poetry another way. People forget, he said, and “poetry makes you remember what you didn't know you knew."

In defense of poetry, here some favorite lines from my favorite poets, poets with whom you may want to start your own conversations.  Keeping fair use laws in mind, only a tantalizing line or two are quoted here. The complete poems are in books or on line. For more about the 19th annual National Poetry Month, look to the Academy of American Poets. (www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/home)

Poetry about Lanyards, Dogs, Sex and Perseverance

A few months ago, by choice I sat through an evening of poetry read by Billy Collins, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003. Here are some of my favorite lines from Collins, who routinely surprises readers:

“She gave me life and milk from her breasts and I gave her a lanyard.”

“When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner, I was like give me a break.”

“I am the dog you put to sleep.”

About that dog -- speaking for those that don’t have a voice is common in poetry. In “Lady Freedom Among Us,” Rita Dove imagines a back story for a statue that sits on top of the Congress building in Washington, D.C. Dove, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, depicts the statue as a former bag lady. The poet challenges readers to consider Lady Freedom as “one of the many” and also as “each of us.”

Some poems deliver barely a glancing blow on the psyche, but some make a big impression. Lines that have stayed with me for decades range from e.e. cummings’ “I like my body when it is with  your body” to Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” to John Donne’s “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love” to Erica Jong’s “You gave me the child that seamed my belly & stitched up my life” to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “funny fantasies are never so real as oldstyle romances.”

As a college student in 1967, I spent a dollar on a new copy of Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which has sold over a million copies and been translated into nine languages since it was published in 1958. The co-founder of San Francisco’s storied City Lights Booksellers & Publishers (www.citylights.com), Ferlinghetti, who turns 96 on March 24, is a poet, painter and activist closely associated with the Beat Writers.

One of them, Gregory Corso, plaintively asks in his poem “Marriage:” “Should I get married? Should I be good?” Rather than entertain a question, Dag Hammarskj√∂ld tells the reader exactly what to do in his moving poem that insists: “It is now, Now, that you must not give in.” Hammarskj√∂ld -- the late Swedish diplomat, economist, author, second Secretary-General of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize -- later advises, “The way chose you -- And you must be thankful.” I routinely recommend the poem to friends going through tough times.

Poetry about Aging, Ginkgo Trees, Cancer and Grandkids

Aging is a topic tackled by many a poet, and reading these works reminds me that I am not alone on this odd journey of growing older. Rainer Maria Rilke begins one such poem this way: “You see, I want a lot.” Later, Rilke notes, “You have not grown old, and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.” On the same topic, Derek Walcott writes, “Sit. Feast on your own life.”

In one poem, Pat Schneider (http://patschneider.com/pat/), the poet and author who founded Amherst Writers & Artists, pays homage to her brother at age 60: “Because the world we knew together is coming to an end, and he’s the one who remembers that day I roller-skated too fast down the hill, how I fell – how he picked me up and called me by my childhood name.”

Marilyn Zuckerman’s poem “After Sixty” begins: “The sixth decade is coming to an end. Doors have opened and shut.” A few lines later, Zuckerman (http://marilynzuckermanpoet.com/) declares that after 60 is a “time to tell the story, time to invent the new one.” She is the recipient of an Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.

Ginkgo trees, a personal favorite, are contemplated in the poetry of Howard Nemerov, Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, and a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Even common diseases are discussed in poetry. Richard Fox occasionally writes poetry about cancer. In his “Day One,” Fox speaks about leaving from his first appointment about chemotherapy and radiation. He writes of meeting “a whistling man” at the elevator, a man with “sunken eyes, bald, no eyebrows” who is wearing a “CANCER SUCKS” button. The man grins and asks, “So what are you in for, kid?” (For more about Fox, see www.smallpoet@large.com)

In her poetry, Olivia Stiffler (www.oliviastiffler.com/) writes beautifully about grandchildren. David Tucker, longtime assistant managing editor at the New Jersey Star-Ledger, pens poems in his book “Late for Work” about life in the newsroom.

See? Poetry is about anything and everything, and about all of us and everything we love and fear and want to hold close. Go on – go to Google and type in any subject and the word “poem” and see for yourself.

And then please reconsider celebrating National Poetry Month!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I Am My Valentine

Some people on this planet do love me,  but none are racing out to choose a card, candy or flowers for me for Valentine’s Day. That’s why I use February 14 to assess my personal Pamper Patricia Program, which operates year ‘round.

How do I love me?

I’ve listed five ways here. Feel free to help yourself any time you need to be your own Valentine.

1. Borrow a Bathtub

For a dozen years, I had the bathtub of my dreams, a huge soaking tub in a spa-like bathroom in my condo. I always said that if I ever moved, I would carve out that tub and take it with me – but I didn’t, and my current standard-size tub annoys me.

Even my grandson, who is 3, finds it wanting. One evening after splashing around in it with too many tub toys, he asked, “Nana, do you have a bigger bathtub?” I do not. But I know someone who does. My plan is to rent it from time to time. I‘ll take my heart-print bathrobe and of course it’s Bring Your Own Bubbles.

2. Schedule a Facial

We all greet the world face first, so why not make the most of that face, which is assaulted day in and day out by grit, grime and air pollution? A professional facial offers deep cleansing, dead skin removal and intense moisturizing for dry, aging skin. Also, I pick up tips for more effective skin care to help me combat fine lines, brown spots or puffiness.



Plus, the time spent on the table is supremely relaxing. If you’re on a budget, you can still work in an occasional facial. Call a local beauty school and ask if the students need clients to practice on. For instance, the Cinta Aveda Institute in San Francisco offers facials for just $40. Such a deal!

3. Attend a Matinee

Even though the senior discount does not kick in at most movie theaters until the evening shows, nothing beats the delicious decadence of seeing a movie in the middle of the afternoon. Maybe it’s because I spent so many afternoons at the office wishing I were at the movies, or maybe it’s just a reminder of one of the privileges of being retired. (If you’re not yet retired, consider taking half a personal day sometime and sneak off to a movie theater.)

For lunch, it’s popcorn and a refreshing beverage. Maybe a box of Junior Mints for dessert. And yes, the snacks likely will cost more than the price of the movie ticket, even at the matinee rate.  I am worth it!

4. Make a Date

Where do you like to go to get away, breathe more freely, put down your day-to-day worries? Been there lately? Me either, though my list of favorite spots includes the botanical garden, a local diner with the best milkshakes ever, a cozy bookstore built for browsing and a hilltop with a beautiful view.

I also have a list of places I’ve never gone, and I seem to put off those expeditions as well. Why do I so often allow opportunities for new experiences pass me by? This Valentine’s Day, I am making a date with myself to get to a comedy club or jazz concert, places I have long wanted to go, meant to go and can’t believe I’ve never gone. I’m going!

5. Plan a Lovely Dinner

Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest nights for restaurants – why fight the crowd and compete for the attention of the crazed kitchen staff trying to serve all those couples? It’s a great night to feast on my favorite food in the comfort of my home, go beyond the usual low-key dinner for one.

Once a month, often on a minor holiday like Valentine’s Day, I give myself permission to splurge on my favorite food, either a prepared item or a special cut of meat that I cook just the way I like it. Dungeness crab is in season right now in San Francisco and an upscale grocery sells exquisite crab cakes for $4.99 each, a fraction of the cost at a restaurant. I may steam some asparagus – or I may just buy two crab cakes and a lemon and call it dinner.  

Happy Valentine’s Day to me – and you!





Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wrestling with Aging

I’m 16, sitting in the kitchen at my boyfriend’s house, talking to his mother, while Joey gets ready for our bike ride. Adele Lawton  -- Mrs. Dr. Roger Lawton – is very nice. She offers me lemonade and asks me questions about school. She wears a dress, a dark print, with stockings and flats. I figure she is just a little older than my mom, maybe in her mid 50s.

Joey tells me his parents go to a lot of costume parties, whoop it up and drink and dance. That’s not the woman I see sitting across from me. In a moment of panic, I wonder if Mrs. Lawton suspects that Joey and I spend more time necking than riding bikes. I open my eyes wide and flash my most innocent virginal smile. She doesn’t notice. That’s not what’s on her mind.

Mrs. Lawton leans across the table.  “You’re 16. You look at me and you see Joey’s mother, an old woman. That’s who I see when I look in the mirror, too,” she says. "But inside, I am 16, like you." She settles back in her kitchen chair. “I remember 16," she says. "I remember 25. I remember 40. I do not feel the age I am, the age I look.”

Suddenly I see her at 16, laughing with friends, dressing carefully for school, flirting with boys. I see her at 25, married to a handsome doctor, starting a family. I see her at 40, dressed in an exotic pagan goddess costume, paying the babysitter when she and Dr. Lawton return home from a party.

Adele Lawton has just told me that inside, she is all these people at once!

Now I’m 66, but I remember 16. I remember 25. I remember 40. And I remember two months ago, when I’m sitting inside a large, round glass column, sort of a tall test tube designed to hold one person. This cylinder is closed at the top, but it has a door and I can see out.

The medical technician is a short, 30-something man, cheerful but professionally impersonal. He explains how I am to breathe into the hoses extending into the cylinder. We practice together, panting in unison, for six or seven breaths.

I’ve got this! It’s like panting during labor! Been there, done that. For 40 minutes, I pant while the technician stares at monitors. When the panting gets tough, he acts as a cheerleader. “Good! You’re doing great! Just a few more minutes now! Keep it up!”

Finally, the test is over. “Look at this!,” the technician says, pointing to graphs on a monitor. “Look at these numbers! You have better lung function than I do!” The test proves, he adds, that I do not have asthma. I exhale, greatly relieved, and turn to flash him a big smile.

Then I hear the technician say this: “When I saw your age and weight on the chart, I didn’t have a lot of hope for you.”

What? I want to slug him, pound on him, make him take it back!

Suddenly, visions of my athletic prowess race through my mind – me, winning a belly dancing contest on a cruise on the Nile. Me, chasing – and catching – buses all over San Francisco. Me, hiking to the top of Angel Island. Okay, I cried a little along the way, but I did it, made it to the top.

Next I mentally gloat over my most recent blood work. I need a button that reads, “Ask me about my triglycerides.” I pat myself on the back – figuratively, of course -- for losing 80 pounds some 10 years ago and keeping 70 of them off.

Yet in that room at that moment with that technician, I am just an old, overweight, red-faced woman – one with clenched fists. I can’t outrun security guards, so I decide to wound him with words. "Don’t you ever make assumptions about people you know nothing about,” I roar. Then I stomp out.

I am still new to being old. I am startled that I have gray hair, but smart enough to know if I color it, I will never get a seat on the bus. The occasional physical limitation conflicts with my self-image, and I now get why I am too old to fall.

As for my hands -- I do remain in awe of these hands, hands that have allowed me to earn a living as a writer for over 40 years. Through the decades, I’ve interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of older people, and now I realize I was on the outside, looking in.

Now that I’m on the inside, I would ask different questions.

How do you like being ignored, overlooked, undervalued -- invisible?

Do you find it hilarious that young people think they invented sex?

Are you angry that so much of what you know, what you worked for your whole life, what you’ve accomplished, is now disregarded?

Just how much do you miss cute shoes?

Are you unnerved because most of your life is behind you?

Do you relate at all to the word “elderhood?” Beware -- it’s coming soon from the mouth of a medical professional near you.

Back to my hands. I have to admit I don’t much like how my hands look.

My right hand now squares off at the wrist. There is a knot on my left thumb. And one of my little fingers is so crooked that it looks like a new mom standing with her hip jutted out to hold a baby.

I look at these hands and I see wrinkles, a few age spots, a weird bony bump. Yep, these are the hands of an older woman. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming.

I’m 26, visiting my neighbor, sipping tea and talking. Anita reaches for my hand. She holds it a minute, strokes it. “Look how smooth and soft your hand is,” she says, “how youthful and pretty.”

Anita – in her mid-60s then, a retired pediatric nurse – compares her hand to mine. “My hand is wrinkled,” she says, “with age spots. My thumb has a big knot on it and two of my fingers have decided to stiffen up and grow crooked.” Anita stares at her hand. “When did that happen?”

Now I’m the one with the old-lady hands. Every day I use them to push away the past, hang on to the present, grasp for the future. They have another use, as well. One day last month, my grandson, who is just three, looks at me and asks, “Nana, are you a grown-up?”

"No,” I say to Max. “I am a girl." Then these girlish hands grab him -- and hold him close.

Hey, I remember 3!