Friday, November 17, 2017

Getting Younger

A few years ago, Audrey insisted that I read the book Younger Next Year. It’s a popular self-help book written by a cardiologist and one of his patients, both of whom are up in years, as we who are aging like to say euphemistically. The major thesis of the book is that you can ward off the evil effects of aging if you start a regimen of daily exercise, as well as a sensible eating plan.

It all makes a lot of sense, and I have taken two key steps toward meeting the book halfway: (1) I read a copy of the book that I checked out of the library, though I admit that I returned the book to the library as soon as it was due and didn’t even entertain the thought of purchasing my own copy for continuing reinforcement; and (2) I joined a gym and signed up for regular sessions with a personal trainer named William. 

I have written about William before. He is what I like to call a “gentle sadist.” He has a vision of me as someone lighter, stronger, and, yes, even younger than I really am. I am trying not to depress him too much by continuing to demonstrate the “real” me at our sessions.

I try to exercise pretty regularly, but often take a day or two off. A person has to have time to rest and add calories, after all. Which might tell you how well I’m doing on the sensible eating part of the plan.

For example, today I’m taking a rest day because my calves ache. The pain is the result of a strange machine at the gym that William imposed on me yesterday during our “work on your legs” day. Here is what it looks like.
(Needless to say, this is not a picture of me on the machine.)

William’s idea is to set the machine for a weight a bit higher than what I consider comfortable. Then I am to place my shoulders under the two horizontal pads, stand with my toes on the bar at the bottom, raise up on my toes, and lift the pads with the “power” of my calves. Normally, I do three sets of 15 lifts. Though some days, like yesterday, William pushes me to 4 or 5 sets.  You would think I would emerge from the machine with a sense of greater strength. Not so. I emerged with wobbly legs and moved “drunkenly” toward the next exercise.  And today, I’m having a little trouble climbing stairs gracefully. Not to worry. This exercise stuff is not a sprint, as they say, but a marathon. Sure. . .

During my “day off,” I’ve been reading an amusing memoir by an Israeli writer named Etgar Keret. I recommend it highly. Here is his take on taking up yoga to get in shape.

I did try yoga a few years ago, At the end of my first beginners’ class, the pale, skinny teacher came over to me and in a soft but firm voice explained that I wasn’t ready yet to work with the beginners and should first join a “special” group—a bunch of women in advanced stages of pregnancy. It was actually quite nice—the first time in a long while that I was the one with the smallest belly in the room. The women working out were very slow, and they would pant and sweat even when they were asked to perform simple, basis actions, just like me. I was sure that I had finally found my place in the cruel world of physical activity. But the group steadily grew smaller: as on a reality show, each week another woman was eliminated.  About three months after I joined the class, all of the members had given birth except me, and the teacher with the same soft but firm voice told me before turning out the lights on the studio for the last time that she’d bought a one-way ticket to India and didn’t know whether she would be back.
                        --Etgar Keret, The Seven Good Years

I figure soon, once I can walk into the gym without listing right or left, I’ll get back to the machines and to William’s pushing. Is this going to work the way the doctor suggested in his book? Sadly, I think it is more likely that I will succumb to a comment my mother might have made. “Get cracking. You know you’re not getting any younger.” 

Friday, November 3, 2017

A for Activism

A few weeks ago, Audrey and I went to see Michael Moore’s show on Broadway, The Terms of My Surrender. The tone was set in the opening moment, when Moore—dressed as frumpily as usual—walked onto a stage with an American flag motif as a backdrop and shouted, “How the fuck could this happen?”

Who is that man hiding behind Michael Moore's playbill?

The question seemed to glow in the air. It made us laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time. We wondered if Moore was planning to tell us something during the show or was going to blame us for doing or for not doing something. The answer turned out to be both.

What followed was a 90-minute extended monologue (with a few entertaining detours) that focused not so much on the fame or infamy that Moore’s words and films have generated for him over the years but on the ways he has gone about earning that fame or infamy. Starting from his childhood days in Flint, Michigan (an archetypical blue collar city), Moore has done much more than shout or make documentary films to demonstrate his activism. He has—well—acted! And he was making a plea or a demand for us audience members to get our act together and begin acting ourselves.

One of his stories hit close to home for me. Moore told about his adventures while attending Boys’ State in Michigan the summer before his senior year in high school. Guess what? I did the same thing in Georgia about five years earlier than Moore had. 

Moore felt uncomfortable during the week he spent with hundreds of overachievers or would-be politicos. So he used his time writing a speech for a Boys’ State contest sponsored by the Elks Club on the life and impact of Abraham Lincoln. As it turned out, Moore had a grievance against the Elks. His father had decided not to join the organization when he learned that being white was a key requirement for membership at that time. That was soon to change, and Moore was a key reason for the change. Amazingly, his speech attacking the Elks in Lincoln’s name won the contest, and he delivered it in front of several Elks leaders who were I’m sure both angry and embarrassed. The story made the national news, and within a year, the Elks and other fraternal organizations were shamed into opening their membership to all races.

My Boys’ State experience was different from Moore’s, though it did have a couple of activist moments. For the most part. I enjoyed the politicizing that went on during the week and even got caught up in the races for Boys’ State governor and legislature that were held there. I didn’t run for office, but served as one of the party whips, which meant that I was expected to whip up support for my party’s candidates. I became deeply involved in backroom intrigue, making promises and counting votes. If smoking had been allowed, we whips would have worked long into the night in smoke-filled caucus rooms. This was 1966, after all, the days of old-fashioned politicos such as Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn. Of course, it was also the time of Georgia’s notorious racist governor Lester Maddox. My memory is that I was never required to shake his hand when he visited the program that summer. I’d like to think that I would have refused to do so if asked. (In my mind, I was much more of a badass than in real life.)

The week was about more than playing at politics; it also was filled with the undercurrent of the Vietnam War. June of 1966 was a high point of the war, and we males approaching high school graduation were getting worried. Feelings ran high in Georgia on both sides of the Vietnam debate. Like most young “activists,” I opposed the war, which was easier in that I didn’t yet have a draft card to worry about heeding or burning. (“Hell no, I won’t go!” I shouted, and then mumbled in an undertone, “. . . unless somebody makes me.”) We could talk tough because we were all certain that we were going to get college deferments, or so we hoped.

One of the loudest of us objectors was a student from Moultrie, Georgia, named John F. (I’m protecting his identity here because I still don’t trust that J. Edgar Hoover isn’t coming back from his place in Hell to get us.) Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge was coming to speak to us one afternoon. (Talmadge was a strong war supporter at the time; amazingly, he would change his stance a few years later). John told us that he was going to grill the senator over the coals, just wait and see! Talmadge spoke for 30 minutes or so, driveling on about why the fight in Vietnam was so important for U. S. interests. Then he agreed to take questions from us guys. John’s hand immediately went up, and there was smoke coming out of his nostrils. “Senator Talmadge,” he shouted. “I’m John F. from Moultrie.”

Senator Herman Talmadge could bring forth fire and brimstone,
or he could sweet talk to get his way.
That was all he could get out before Talmadge gave him a smile and turned on the charm. “John F. from Moultrie. Do you have a brother named Paul?”


“Didn’t he work in my office last summer as a college intern?”


“Great guy. How’s he doing? Please give him my best. Tell him I remember him well.”

John started to gulp.

“Now, what was your question?”

“A-hum-a- nuh, a-hum-a-nuh,” John seemed to deflate as he sank back into his chair.

It was a perfect lesson on how politicians are able to grab and hold control over an audience.

If only John had had a few lessons from Michael Moore before trying to take on the senator that day.

Up until a few weeks ago, that’s where my Boys’ State memory of John F. ended. But after our evening with Michael Moore, I decided to find out whatever happened to John. Through the magic of Google, I was able to learn a new chapter. It seems that John rebounded from his Boys’ State deflation to head to college and even to Harvard Law School. He practiced law for many years and then found a new outlet for his energies. He became a psychic and teacher of meditation and psychic development. An article I read online refers to John as “one of the nation’s better known serious psychics.”

I am not sure what qualifies one as a serious psychic, but I’m sure it requires a special type of activism. And I’m sure I would have as much to learn from John as from Michael Moore about how to give voice to my thoughts and hopes.    

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Not-so-Gracious Hello

Those of us old enough to remember “Laugh In” fondly remember Lily Tomlin’s insufferable telephone operator Ernestine, who would hound customers with a greeting that began, “A gracious hello. . .,” followed by a harangue that let the customers know that in a battle between themselves and the phone company, there could be only one winner.

"one-ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy"
I have been in a similar battle lately and losing it.  Over the past month, I have received more than 20 calls that began, “This is Verizon with an urgent message. This is not a marketing or service call. We are trying to get in touch with Kerri I. If this is Kerri I, please press 1. If this is not Kerri I, please press 2.”

Because I am a sap (Audrey uses a stronger word), and because the calls insidiously come from an exchange and a town in my calling area, I have often answered them, mistakenly believing they are actually for me. Disappointed but determined, I dutifully press 2 to let the caller know that No, I am not Kerri I. The call does not end there, however. I get a series of recorded questions, such as “Is Kerri I available? If Kerri I is not available, please pass along a message to Kerri I.”

Now, here comes some strange shit. I am asked to pass along a specific number to Kerri I and to let her (him) know that she/he should call the number and then enter a special 10-digit code number (555-555-5555). Yep, ten 5’s. Now that is an easy-to-remember but not too secret code. Who thinks this stuff up?

Twice in the last two weeks, I have gone further. After following another instruction and pressing the number 3 to get myself removed from the call list, an operator has come on the line. When I explained that I am not Kerri I, I was asked to tell the operator my phone number. For some strange reason, this request made me nervous. I said, “You called me, so you must know the number.” The response came: “Sir, if you don’t tell me the number, I cannot take your number off our list.” “Well, I am not stating my number aloud,” I replied. (I made this decision because somewhere I heard that you are not supposed to use the word “yes” with a crank caller or to give out information that could be used to identify you in some way. A little late for caution, you might say, but that’s where I drew my line in the sand. We had reached a standoff. The operator hung up, and I felt a little satisfaction. Of course, I received the same call at least three more times later that same day. I hung up each time even without pressing 2. So there!

I decided to do some detective work. I looked up Kerri I in whitepages.com and discovered such a person existed in a town nearby with a number that was just like mine with one digit changed. Now, I would be ready for Verizon should there be a next time with a surefire way to get them off my back (or out of my ear).  

Predictably, the call came a day later. Then time, I pressed 1. The operator was thrilled to be speaking to Kerri I, then perhaps disappointed when I said I was not Kerri, but knew how they could contact her. “Do you know Kerri I?” the operator asked. “No, but I looked her number up. You could have done that, too,” I added with a little snip in my voice.  I got this reply, “Sir, we are Verizon, we don’t look up phone numbers.” Of course not. I tried to give her the correct number for her records, but she wasn’t budging and refused to listen. She did give me a little satisfaction (or agita) when she read out my own telephone number for confirmation so she could make a notation to get me off the call list. So Verizon really could look up numbers if they were pressed to do so, I thought.

I placed the phone back on its base with a little smile of victory, thinking that I had taken on Verizon and won. Sure. Now, I am just waiting until the calls start for someone other than Kerri I.

I have since found a You Tube video of Ernestine taking on a caller on “Laugh In.” “Please be aware, sir,” she noted, “that we at the phone company are not subject to local, state, or federal rules. We are omnipotent. That’s potent with an omni- tacked on.” Kerri I, I am sorry if I gave away any of your secrets to Verizon. I simply succumbed to a greater power than either of us.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Running Out of Stories?

During the winter, our friends Phyllis and Harvey came to visit us in the Berkshires for a skiing weekend. As Harvey and I were riding up on the chairlift together, I characteristically began telling a story that connected that moment in time to some event in my past. This is what I do; I tell stories or relate memoir monologues, if you will.
I completed my story, and Harvey said, “Wow! I think that’s one I never heard before.” The comment brought me up short. What was he implying about my storytelling?

I like to think my stories are all interesting both to me and to my listener. Not always the case. I also like to think the stories are in their first telling to my audience and are not recycled. Also not always the case, as Harvey’s comment seemed to show. Sadly, these days the recycling seems to be overtaking the new telling. Which has sparked a great fear in me. Could I be running out of stories!

This could be a serious problem for me. I’m reminded of an old joke. (Don’t stop me, if you have heard it before.) “What do you call a fly when its wings are removed? A walk (rim shot).”  So, what do you call a storyteller whose well of stories is drying up? The answer depends on how determined and insistent the storyteller is. I like to think I am both.

I have taken a few months off to deal with more pressing matters, but I am determined to get my mojo back and to get back into the storytelling racket! It’s a matter of finding some new stories to tell or some new audiences to tell the old ones to. Either would work as far as I am concerned. So I am not really concerned about running out of stories. What worries me is whether I can find an audience for my new or old stories and whether I can convince the audience I find to listen—at least as long as it takes to reach the top of a ski mountain or to get to the end of a blogpost.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Going Up!!!

We’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals lately. My son Brett has had four operations in and around his brain in the past six weeks. The surgeries were followed by stays in the ICU (intensive care unit) and a few weeks in a rehabilitation facility. All of which allows me to generalize a little—hospitals are scary places. They have a look, a smell, and, most of all, a sound all their own.

I thought I had experienced most of the hospital sounds over the past few weeks. Bells, alarms, beeping monitors, loud hacking coughs, cheery nurses, and more. Then I heard something different and a little exciting during Brett’s most recent stay. When we entered the elevator on the ground floor at NYU Hospital, a recorded voice said, “Going up.” Nothing surprising there. But I could swear the words were spoken with an upward lilt. It sounded something like this, “Goooooing uP!”  Not to be outdone, when we entered the elevator on a high floor to start a downward journey, the voice said “Going down” with a little bit of a descending tone, like this: “GOOOing DOWnnnn.”
Movin' on up...
Now this may have been my imagination, but I know what I heard. I also see a metaphor here. There is a happiness when you are going up, even if it’s to a hospital room. And if you’re a visitor coming to see a friend or family member, even better. You’re on a mission of hope and joy. When you leave, you might be a little down. After all, you have just experienced being in a hospital!

We are all happy to be hospital free for the near future. There will be some scans to accompany Brett to on a regular basis and perhaps some other potential procedures down the line. Who knows? A lot is unknown when you are dealing with hospitals, no matter how many monitors, and dials, and tubes, and X-ray or CT or MRI machines are there to demystify the unknown. Good health is a precarious thing, as my mother-in-law often wisely noted. She put it this way: “As long as you have your health. . .” She often left the rest of the sentence blank, but we knew just what she meant.

I am happy to report that, for now, Brett has his health. And that sounds pretty uplifting to us.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Too Many Changes 

(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
                        -- David Bowie

My life had been getting into a pattern lately. Days took on a sameness with slight variations. Work on a few different writing projects. Go to the gym or go downstairs to our exercise equipment. Read from books or on the computer. Watch MSNBC for hours on end and curse the darkness taking over the White House. Think about and do some research for that long-anticipated book (short story, essay, paragraph, sentence, whatever) about my father’s family’s migration from Eastern Europe to the Deep South—which I still haven’t begun writing in earnest, etc.

Some people hate sameness and look forward to change. Me, not so much.

But change seems to keep coming in waves into my life lately.

Last Friday, for instance, I had to work with a new trainer at the gym. New for me at least. I have gotten accustomed to Marlon, my exercise mentor from Peru. He pushes me, but not too hard. I sweat, but not in buckets. But Marlon was going to be away from the gym for several weeks with a mysterious illness. So, I agreed to work with Will, who, as it turns out, seemed to have no respect for my advancing age. Here is an example. He put me on a new machine and showed me how to push and pull properly. He figured I knew what to do after I pulled or pushed five times. Then he said, “Good, do 20 of those.”  Then we began our count. I figured we were starting at 6 since I had already done 1 through 5 getting into the pattern. He began counting at 1! So, we were doing 25 and not 20, it seemed. Outrageous!

Then, he kept increasing the weight on each machine with each rep. Soon, I was sweating buckets. Amazingly, I agreed to work with him two times next week.

(Turn and face the strange)
Small changes at the gym, big changes elsewhere.
The patterns of our lives have been undergoing major changes at home.  Our son Brett initiated those when he collapsed on a New York street a month ago and was rushed to NYU Hospital. Three life-saving brain surgeries later to deal with a long-festering brain tumor, and all of our lives have been turned upside-down and inside-out. For the next several months, he will be living back in our house in New Jersey, building up his strength and stamina and getting his overall health in order. His doctors are optimistic. He and we are learning to be optimistic. We’re looking to get our patterns back. It’s not quite as simple, or as satisfyingly boring as it was before, but we plan on getting back there again soon.

Brett has a happy reunion with our dog Tess.
He'll need the helmet for a few more weeks
to protect his fragile skull.

Brett posing with two fellow baldies.
His recuperation has been going remarkably well.

(Turn and face the strange) 

Audrey turned to me the other night in bed and said, “I really don’t like change that much.” I have to agree. After all, I remember those days, just last week, when 20 was 20 and not 25.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Seems Like Old Times . . .

I am thinking a lot about aging lately and about one of Audrey’s grandmother’s most famous sayings, “It’s no fun to get old.” The expression is more fatalistic than Oomi was herself. She was a remarkable woman, who was commuting downtown to a job as an inspector in the garment district into her 80s. But she did have a tendency to make sighing and burping sounds in her later years. I have been making some of those same sounds lately . . . and more. Is that creaking that I hear coming from my bones?
Audrey and Oomi, a long time ago
To add to my sense of foreboding is the recent diagnosis by my ophthalmologist that I need cataract surgery. (Isn’t that something for only old people?) So, next week, I will be going under the knife, or whatever they use for removing and replacing my original, now defective natural lens with a better artificial one. My doctor is very optimistic. He assures me that the surgery will help me feel more comfortable dealing with glaring headlights at night, a problem that until recently I thought plagued only old people. (Uh-oh, there goes that refrain again.) He also claims that 98% of people who undergo the procedure come through with positive results. I am not fully reassured. His comment makes me think of those times as a school kid when I would come home with a 98 on a test, and my father would ask, “What happened to the other two points.” It also doesn’t help that the staff at the facility where the procedure takes place asked me during a preclearance interview if I have an advance directive on file—just in case. Oh my!

As Petula Clark sang, "The lights are much brighter there. . ."
I am not alone in this feeling of declining, it seems. When I told a cousin about the upcoming surgery, he noted that he had a similar procedure a few years ago. He assures me that his condition was probably worse than mine. Of course, when I complained previously about another health issue to the same cousin, he quickly topped it with one of his own.

Then last week when I was in Savannah, I mentioned another potential health concern to my brother, the doctor. It has the word “hernia” connected to it. “That’s nothing,” he said, “I have a …”

My brother and cousin are both in their 70s, and they are teaching me an important lesson about getting older. Whenever someone mentions a health issue (and that is quite often the topic when us aging people get together), be prepared to describe your own issue in detail and to explain why yours is more worrisome. Maybe Oomi was wrong. There is fun to be had in growing old. It’s just a perverse sort of fun in which you out-complain everybody else.