The gifts of aging

Of the many gifts of aging, certainly the one we’d most like to share with younger folks, is the realization that our time here on the earth is limited but maybe not limiting. One reaches a certain age and recognizes to see that there are not so many of you left anymore. Your high school classmates or their husbands have passed away. Your boss just died; another co-worker is in assisted living. Not only are your peers dying; they are fading away. Their memories are receding and their abilities are, in some respects anyway, weakening. Of course, there are those us who have been blessed enough to continue with our lives, our loves, our passions, our challenges for some more years. But this sense of decades ahead, not unlimited time, is sobering and focusing. It is in many ways a blessing.
I am late in life runner. I started running at age 68 last year and ran a 5K in October on a tropical day with 100% humidity, leaving me soaked to the skin and victorious. Huh? After some weak efforts at running during the winter on the treadmill, I thought I’d try a beach run this first week of July, at nearly high tide, early in the morning. I did this because a younger friend reminded me about the romance of running. She said, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it. It is only thing that keeps me sane.” I thought, “Well, my own mental health could use some attention, maybe I should try a run tomorrow.”

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So, I headed out barefoot, my iPod on shuffle, onto to Narragansett Beach, running north at about 11 mph. The beach sand was nicely packed in some spots and littered with shells and rocks and in other places. And, most difficult of all, seaweed washed up into the shore, making it slippery with unsure footing. I did my best to run those lengths like a Marine in training. So, with a mild breeze this nearly perfect morning, I ran down the beach to Narrow River and back up again, as if I had been running all my life.

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I ran through Crosby, Stills & Nash, Julia Fordham, Vivaldi, Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell—none of it fitting running music but perfect as an accompaniment to my little world. At the end of this, at the top of the beach, at the curve of the sea wall, I stopped to take a breath and found myself dissolving into tears. Simply, this was recognition that the grace of this run through warmed ocean water, with each step a mark of strength and rhythmic energy, was an unearned blessing. Like the gift of last October’s run after pneumonia and this one after a serious strep infection. How much longer can I rely on these blessings? Am I taking away the good karma that should be flowing to the more deserving? Shouldn’t there be sacrifice and effort before such an offering to me? Do those tears count as penance or supplication or just awareness of the randomness of surprise beauty? If this event stands alone and never happens again, it will, as Jewish ritual would pronounce, be enough. Dayenu.

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Warning: Dangerous side effects from self-meditating

Meditation begins with great intentions and dreams but can end poorly. Of course, such is the path to wisdom, self-knowledge and about one of the marriages in the U.S. Even with a great meditation app and outfitted with a perfect set of Lulu lemon yoga pants, things can go wrong quickly. Those distractions as we breathe, those pop-up thought bubbles, those nagging urges to think about something, anything else. All to much to handle with grace.

I try to remain calm, gently returning to focus on my breath. Ah—inhale to a count of four— pause to a count of five- — exhale for a count of six. I know the drill. However, it seems no matter how hard I practice, these fleeting thoughts enter, ready to party when I am planning for a quiet evening at home, in my head anyway. So, after many failed attempts at kindly asking my attention to return to my breath I decided to try something new. I had politely asked by thoughts to wait their turn in line and to advance when called upon. I was thwarted n that plan when my thoughts simply jumped ahead, like an eager two-year old pushing himself ahead for a piece of candy. So, I began to abandon the reasoned mature approach and took up a more aggressive posture.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale. I move through several cycles. Good for me. And then a nagging thought emerges, provoked by the smell of burning rubber from the garage.

“Something is burning”, the voice says.

Using a steady and forceful inner voice, I reply, “ Can’t be. Shut up.”

That seems to quiet that voice. I return to my pleasant cycle of breath. But soon another distraction pops up, this prompted by a bee sting on my left hand.

“Ow. That hurt” the voice complains.

I nearly shout internally, “You are such a complainer, Shad up in there!”

That quiets things for a while. I complete nearly two minutes of silence and nearly trance-like meditation, (12 cycles of breathing over a two-minute time frame—an all-time best for me, even if am not really counting). Soon, I am interrupted by a squeezing feeling in my chest, a tightening in my throat and a sense that my face is swelling up. The voice clears her throat to get my attention. This time I really let that inner voice have it.

“For mercy’s sakes. We’re trying to meditate in here. Please be quiet!”

And to my great surprise, I hear,

“No. You shut the heck up.” Undaunted, I reply strongly, albeit with bated breath, “No! You shut up right now.”

That inner voice responds,

“And just who’s going to stop me?” in a very challenging tone. It continued,

“Not you. If you haven’t noticed, your heart beat is zooming up. You’re sweating. Your adrenaline is soaring. Your so-called meditative breath is beating away double-time. You are actually in shock from that bee sting. And if its escaped your attention, the fire department arrived five minutes ago. They are putting out a fire in your garage. I am urging you to calm down. Stop meditating immediately and get to the hospital.”

That inner voice sounded so kind and tender that I listened. It could have been that higher power that I was trying to reach through all this meditation. II took another deep breath, maybe my last, and called 9-1-1-. Lucky for me, I had practiced meditative techniques being on hold for the cable company for hours at a time.

 

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Just like my mother

Nearing seventy years old, I’m having more and more conversations with my friends and family members who complain about a lot of things—health, money, caretaking, their children, other drivers, the erosion of manners. I won’t go on. Recently I have heard plenty of sentiments along these lines.

“Oh, my God! I am so looking just like my mother.” It should be noted that this statement is never expressed as a one of relief or accomplishment; it is definitely something else.

So when someone says that they look like they are on their way to looking just like their mother, I think, “Well, who else would you look like as you age?”

When I asked a friend of mine that question, she said, “Well, I don’t know. Joan Baez? Gloria Steinem? Dr. Phil says we always have choices.” I think, in this very small matter, Dr. Phil may be wrong.

I mean, really. Is this not a crazy thing to say? Isn’t this like saying, “I seem to be getting older as I age. What’s up with that?”

If we didn’t look like our mothers did at our age, wouldn’t we be sending a cheek-swab to 23 and Me or other DNA profiling agency to ascertain our heritage. Wouldn’t we be cooking up schemes to remember the name of the milkman, find his children and sneak a cheek-swab from them, as well?

I may be too harsh here. I am a Baby Boomer and I know how youth obsessed we are. Research shows that our self-perceived age is about thirteen years younger than our chronological age. When we don’t recognize ourselves in the mirror is not the mirror’s fault; it is our fault. We are in denial. This younger age, what researchers call “felt age” or “subjective age denial”, is not confined to the elderly. In our celebrity enchanted, youth-adoring, appearance-envying culture, even the relatively young perceive themselves 15% younger than their chronological age.

So it may be that my friends are not so much complaining about aging like their mothers as dealing with changing perceptions of themselves. They are crossing thresholds their younger selves couldn’t imagine. Is there a generation that has sought and followed more advice about aging? We have turned natural and normal aging into a giant industry that has neither the science nor the moral standing to guide us our way. Charles Revson made this point clearly when he wrote that the beauty industry doesn’t sell cosmetics; they sell dreams. The same can be argued for the whole enterprise of preserving our youthful hair, bodies, resting heart rates, and cognitive power. This is not an argument for maintaining wellness as long as we can but we may be pushing the envelope and the envelope is pushing back.

This looking more like my own mother gives me pause. I should have been kinder to her when she was aging. I should have made less fun of her jiggling upper arms and confusion about technology. I should have understood her reluctance to go the beach and her eagerness to cover up an aging body—vanity aside. I should have listened when she complained about falling hair and the aggravating noise levels in restaurants. It is hard to come to terms with my younger ageist self. I bet my Mom never said, “Oh my gosh, I am becoming as clueless as my daughter.” I do have regrets here–that I wasn’t more patient and kind. That I didn’t have enough moral imagination to consider myself being in her shoes. And now that I am I can take some pride in thanking her for this long-lasting curly hair, my increasing reluctance to go to parties, my inability to get too riled up about anything, and the greater frequency of people thinking I am a little old lady with a wicked sense of humor. We are so cute, after all, as were our mothers.

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The Russians Hacked My Semester

It is not a far stretch to imagine that professors are the targets of the interference from foreign powers. Every time, I teach about the French revolution, I worry that some Frenchman will take offense at my PowerPoint and attempt some sabotage. And when I teach about China and free speech, I worry that my bus trip on one of those $1 passages between New York and Washington, D.C. will be cancelled. It is not beyond belief that foreign powers can review our lectures notes and our curriculum strewn all over Blackboard and other “learning management sites”. Given the openness of these files, much mischief will ensue and, actually, is already underway.

Case A

In the spring semester of 2018, I am fairly certain that four undercover agents were planted in my classes trained to destroy my teaching mojo, undermine my professor authority and drive me to seek other employment. I am fairly certain they were foreign agents by their excellent verbal and written skills, certainly better than the students I typically find in my classes. They were also better read than most students and knew a curiously prodigious amount about U.S. politics and civics. In response to a proposal from a what I took to be an American national student that voters should take an IQ test and a quiz about current events before being allowed to vote, a student that I suspect was a Russian plant raised her hand and asked if she might weigh in on this question. She then traced the jurisprudence of U.S. enfranchisement law, related the history of Jim Crow literacy tests in the south and asserted the disallowance of any pre-qualifications for voting as established by the Constitution and a series of court rulings. I must admit the undercover student did a good job outlining these issues for the rest of the class. She was, however, a bit arrogant and suggested that instead of make voting easier for ignorant Americans, we should only have one candidate run for each office. This would greatly simplify having to be informed about the positions of each candidate on major issues. When I saw several students nodding in agreement, I changed the subject. Definitely subversive.

Case B

At the end of that semester, I had a long series of negotiations with a student who could hardly go a day without sending along several email inquiries about topics we had just discussed in class. The student insisted at every turn that all of this was news to him. He stipulated that information stated in the syllabus simply wasn’t there. When I disputed this by reading from the syllabus, he simply stated, “Well, professor, no disrespect intended but there are at least two ways to look at this issue. I simply don’t agree.” This was reminiscent of the movie Gaslight when Charles Boyer tries to drive Ingrid Bergman crazy by suggesting that she is losing her mind. The aim of this scheme was to have her institutionalized so that he could continue his criminal activity—looking for the jewels he was after when he murdered her aunt. While I don’t think the student had that intention, claiming that words on paper didn’t exist was dissimulation of the sort prized by the KGB. These series of exchanges culminated in a conversation where the student contended he shouldn’t have to write the final essay because I knew him well enough to give him an A. When I countered that this wasn’t the way I did things, he suggested something about my adopting a more innovative approach to teaching. I may have heard him whisper something about “draining the swamp” under his breath but I didn’t pursue that line of conversation. No question an oppositional agent attempting to challenge the core principles of intellectual engagement at the university level. No doubt part of a large scale conspiracy which is evident if you ask any faculty colleagues about whether this experience sounds familiar.

Case C

As everyone knows, an important part of espionage is the falsification and trading of important documents. Just this semester, an agent pretending to be an American lacrosse player attempted to pass along false documents in my sociology class. I must confess that the disguise was masterful. The student was approximately six feet tall, with a chiseled chin, deep blue eyes and a blond sweep to his hair, sort of like James Dean if he played sports (which seems out of the question to me). When this student came to class, he always brought his lacrosse stick to better cement the disguise I suppose because none of the assignments in this Crime & Justice class required the use of a lacrosse stick, tennis racket or swimming goggles, for that matter. (Although with the growing power of college sports, this may be the newest innovation in our classrooms. This would save the athletes a lot of practice time and not make their studies such a distraction.)

It was clear that the student’s attention was elsewhere. On several occasions, I found him checking out websites during class. When I asked him about this, he answered that this was part of a “special assignment” for another class, which was much more important than what he was doing for my class. Well, I am no fool; I can decode what “special assignment” means. I have seen plenty of James Bond movies: I know the language from Mission Impossible. At the end of the semester, this embedded agent handed in a paper prepared by another agent. I was alerted about the plagiarism because I had assigned the topics two years ago. To me, the false document handed in by the student was equivalent to trying to pass off an outdated passport from a country that no longer exists. When confronted about the fraudulent use of a term paper, the student simply claimed diplomatic immunity. I countered, of course, citing Chapter 243 from the Geneva Convention, which states that professors can fail foreign agents. He suggested that this could lead to a serious break in our relationship, which I said I would welcome. To violate the norm of intellectual property and academic which each American student prizes so highly was a clear indication that this student was yet another foreign agent dedicated to throwing a monkey wrench into the social order. As noted above, faculty members at other institutions may have also noted this practice. The challenge here, of course, is not just to identify these foreign agents and call them out. What about the influence of these insidious practices on our own students? Such is the danger of Russian interference.

Case D

It was this final case that made me leave my teaching career and seek employment as a barista. As a long-time professor (almost twenty years), I have survived many potentially challenging situations by skillfully combining flexibility and empathy with students while enforcing standards about what should be learned and how that would be demonstrated in the classroom. To my credit, I have had few complaints about my performance overall and receive better than average teaching evaluations from the thousands of students I have taught. This semester, one of the Russian trolls met with my supervisor to file a complaint about my assignments in class. Despite clear instructions, the student seemed to be unable to understand my directions about projects and deadlines. Perhaps, to be fair, the student wasn’t a native speaker and there could have been translation issues. However, the point of the “faculty development” conversation with my supervisor was that the students were paying a lot of money for their educations and we wanted them to be happy. This undercover agent who met with my superior suggested that he wasn’t happy enough and I needed to address that. I laid out a plan and tried to assure the authorities that all was well enough. I promised more happiness and less teaching and that seemed to cool their interests in reprogramming me. The idea that education is about delivering a consumable product and that students should be satisfied customers and eager-beaver workers instead of educated citizens is stunning. It is certainly an affront to the core American ideals of educating young people for active participation in a democracy. If the Russian strategy here is to turn our youth away from citizenship and toward consumerism, I couldn’t imagine a more dangerous trend. This is the sort of poisonous ideas that these Russians are spreading. Can you imagine these implications?

Given these serious hacks, I will demand an investigation to get to the bottom of this breech of security. I would like to avoid a reoccurrence of this next semester. I am also convinced that I am not the only one being messed with like this. There could be collusion here. Of course, this malicious behavior and pernicious intent could also be coming from a party other than the Russians. But, whoever it is, let’s posit that these are the enemies of higher education and of the nation, as well. And they are no friend of mine.

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What the lesbians are wearing

It is unfair, of course, to summarize an entire fashion season by narrowing one’s focus on a single group of style setters. Similarly, there is little to suggest that this year’s style hits will carry forward and morph into a “real thing.” We also know that trendsetters and their publics are notoriously fickle, even more so in these days of You Tube phenoms and overnight viral sensations. However, even with all those provisos, one can’t talk about fashion this summer (and any season actually) without mentioning what the lesbians are wearing. A short review of sitings at The Annual House Cat Festival, at the Womyn’s Music Roundup, at the Fix-Your-Own-Subaru Mash-Up and at Home Depots in urban and rural locations afford enough exposure to lesbian fashion to make some important statements about where lesbian fashion is going—at least in the short run. There are few demographics that pay more attention yet appear not to care at all. That casual and confident air so many lesbians display is no doubt a cover for the careful and deliberate choices they apply to their business dress, casual sportswear, and outfits for roller derby tournaments.

If there is one fashion watchword that characterizes the 2018 summer season is the clear embrace of what we can call lesbian casual. While the 2016 season saw a mix and match motif, this year we have seen an articulation of style and clear functionality. The backpack so prevalent in earlier seasons—both winter and summer—has now been replaced by jacket and pants pockets that hold cell phones, water bottles, coolers, diapers, wallets, baseball caps and other equipment—all zipped and velcroed so that the stylish lines of these well-engineered trousers and coats are maintained. Also, key to this season’s casual but well-considered look are the zip-off legs, which easily travel from the tennis court to evening wear at an expensive resort. Paired with this summer’s Hands Off My Ovaries T-shirt, this outfit is easily packed for a quick overnight trip, requires little ironing and passes through TSA despite being festooned with snaps and zippers and hidden panels.

It should also be noted that this season’s outfits are also suited to climate change. Lesbians, as their profiles indicate (see Saving the Rainbow: Environmental Origins of the Modern Gay Movement (2017)), are environmentally aware and this year’s fashions reflect that sentiment. Jackets, pants, headgear, pullovers, shorts and underwear are all quick drying (in case of monsoons) and flame retardant (in case of forest fires). Although we are seeing less of it this year, lesbians in committed relationships can still adorn exactly matching outfits although this is seldom required to reflect the message that two lesbians are with each other.

If trends continue, we may see the power of this growing demographic’s fashion sense spread to other groups. Already, we are seeing the backwards baseball cap seeping into youth softball, the oversized sweatshirt in survivalist camping gear and the ever-present untucked shirt celebrated in men’s fashion magazines. Additionally, we are seeing the influence of lesbian casual featured in fall catalogs for Duluth, L.L. Bean and Tractor Life. Lesbians can relax, embracing their own style and moving ahead as style setters for the almost new millennium.

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I’m predicting a bearish market for sociology stocks

It’s just after mid-year 2018 and I am looking at retirement in about a year. It is a perfect time to consider my investments, my future living expenses, my general state of health, my past earnings, and the viability of social security and other public benefits. When so much is on your plate, you are forced to come up with some crystal ball prognostications for whatever these are worth. After all, every smart advisor warns you to come up with a plan. You are counseled against living longer than your money.

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It is like ordering a nice dinner but remembering that you only have enough money for the appetizer and pretty soon there will be ruckus and you will be charged with enjoying dinner under false premises. So, a plan it is.

It should also be noted here that politically, this moment is also one of great turmoil. I don’t write this as a liberal or as a conservative. I think most informed Americans can agree that we are in middle of some great upheaval, a resorting of values and priorities. For some, this seems like a great recalibration, a return to a social order that should be. To others, it seems like wrenching away of core principles that promised more diversity and equality at the price of a disruption of the existing social order.

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So, as I look to the future and secure my true north, I aim to be thinking clearly about the path ahead. Even though I am trained as a PhD sociologist and have completely drunk the Kool-Aid about sociology being the queen of the social sciences, as Comte argued, I regret to share my forecast of a bearish market for sociology stocks. In any hyper-capitalist moment, sociology can lose value. Not because its analysis is weak or underperforming but instead because economics can explain away any sin of the market. So, with its concerns about inequality and social injustice, about the structuring of opportunity and with its focus on the backstage of complex social systems, sociology is bound to fall in favor during times like these.

A smart investor will weather this storm and hold onto his sociology stocks, taking a short-term hit in the market now in the knowledge that stocks will rise again when the public is in the mood to really understand what is going on in the economy and society.

thI am not predicting here that economics will sustain a major crash in the near future; I am suggesting that the cyclical fluctuations in the market and in the larger social order will provoke more and more of our citizens and investors to recognize that, “it is not just the economy, stupid.”It is the community and the common weal and a larger purpose we all have to build a social order that relies neither on luck nor the largesse of the wealthy. Trickle-down theories have run their course, it seems to me. And after all, we are talking about a trickle here not a river of investment and opportunity.

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Imagining my enemies

At sixty-nine years old, a person has few new experiences—unless she plans for them, deliberatively living a new pro-active, pro-aging lifestyle. I am all for that and if I was thirty years younger, I would plunge right in. But, earlier in the week, in the middle of the night, despite security systems and standard precautions, I was attacked in my bed, without provocation, by streptococcus. I woke up sometime during the attack, my autonomic nervous system raising to the call, pushing me to a 103 degree fever, inflamed throat, night sweats, extreme fatigue, stabbing headache, swollen lymph nodes and body aches from head to toe and across the bow, as well. I imagined my immune response system as tiny figures mounting a battle, as first responders courageously and selflessly, running to battle. My response to this response was the result of seeing too many Pixar movies.

I went to the doctor the next day for a diagnosis and while I waiting for my appointment I fell asleep on the examining table. I woke struggling to understand where I was and regretted that I hadn’t brought along witnesses to testify on my behalf because at this point, I also had strep fog. Strep fog is a symptom I have added to the regular list of symptoms to signify the sense that you are too sick to really speak about how sick you are. And, not as well known, there is also strep existential despair, the profound question that arises from that moment of peak fever when you ask, “How can I feel so sick when this will all be over in a few days?” or “What evolutionary benefit can there be in visiting upon the normally healthy an array of symptoms that pushes them to look into getting their final affairs in order?” Surely, I exaggerate a bit. But, I have had major surgeries, weeks of recovery, unaddressed broken bones and more—and I don’t think I have ever encountered the woes of strep throat. In fact, if the doctor had suggested opioids to treat my pain, I may have agreed to taken them for the first time of my life. If asked, I would have also put strep on the list of criteria of reasons to not resuscitate me.

After a few days with penicillin, I began to feel better although it was a long slog. It took me two days to even think that chicken soup was a good idea.

Several days later I decided, after meditating about my bout with strep and my reaction to it, to face my demons. I was wondering what the bacterium looked like. Could I look it in the eye? Could I just appreciate the power of the structure by looking at it? So like everything, I looked for a Google image. While I was at it, I thought I would also explore those who have perished at the hands of strep, making some connection with greatness and their suffering. Maybe, a poet had left some words of wisdom.

So first, images of streptococcus. Could this be less interesting? Really. This felled me? This is dangerous? Doesn’t this look like a figure from an introductory psychology clas220px-Streptococcis when the professor asks you what you see in the picture? For me, I see a smiling sheep or an elephant showing off his tusks in Paris. But, I certainly don’t see a bacteria that almost killed me.

 

So I looked for another image, a 3-D image. At least this one is purple and looks like a threatening pearl necklace that could strangle you. However, it still looks playful in some way. And in the the Pixarification of our lives which lets us see trees smiling at us, makes us fond of rats and ants and cars, and pushes us to grow appreciative of dirty old toys, this could be a friendly tropical worm just getting organized.

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So if an image of a bacterium wouldn’t do it to help me confront this enemy, I would have to rely on stories of other humans who have also suffered from strep. Maybe, I would learn something from their experiences.

Two stories are important here. In my research, the most important person to die of strep is Mozart who died at 35 years old. In this picture, he does sort of look feverish. He was diagnosed with “heated military fever” and died quickly after falling ill. It appears that the infection led to kidney failure. Some accounts say that he infected many other people before he finally fell really ill. Had penicillin been available, mayimagesbe Mozart would have survived.

 

 

 

 

Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, also died of strep, although he should have been saved by antibiotics. However, he had genes that predisposed him to very serious infection called toxic shock syndrome. I avoided that outcome but the world lost a wonderful man with Henson passed away.

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A small percentage of people that get strep will get very seriously ill. So, my encounter was perfectly average misery. That is not much comfort, of course. But, the wonder of being so easily saved from a serious illness and possibly death, is the real news here. So, I can look at the bacterium with deep respect and worship the inventor of penicillin and other everyday miracle. When something happens so regularly, I suppose it is really not a miracle. But like flying at 30,000 feet, it certainly would seem like a miracle 100 years ago.

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