Special Diets and American Immortals

One thing (one of many!) that has changed since I was younger is the number of my friends on special diets. Dinner parties have become minefields.  Of course, older people with various ailments are even more likely to be avoiding certain foods than the general population; we are not alone in this, but we are the worst.  It makes entertaining difficult, but challenges us to learn to bake gluten-free, oil-free, sugar-free (and usually taste-free) fare.

I have always enjoyed cooking for other people.  I especially liked making birthday cakes, but – alas! – there is almost no one I can make them for anymore except hapless children.  Having just made a layered sugar extravaganza for visiting grandchildren, I realized how much I missed the joy of baking and consuming such an illicit treat.

I am not criticizing.  My husband and I are not immune.  We have struck things off our diet to lower our cholesterol, keep our weight down, and pamper our stomach linings.  I have terrible teeth, so I avoid nuts, hard candies, and anything else that might crack my very expensive caps.

From my work on old age, it appears that, in earlier times, there was little faith that doctors (fisicien), drugs (drogges), and diets (dyas) could help one avoid old age (elde) and death (deth).  In Langland’s 14th century Piers Plowman, the protagonist sees that even the doctor falls prey to old age and death, so what is the point?

Lyf leued that lechecraft ∙ lette shulde Elde,

(Life believed that medicine would delay old age)

And dryuen awey Deth ∙ with dyas and drogges.

 (And drive away Death with drugs and prescriptions.)

And Elde auntred hym on Lyf ∙ and at the last he hitte

(And Old Age ventured against Life, and he hit at the last)

A fisicien with a forred hood ∙ that he fel in a palsye,

(A physician in a furred hood so that he fell in a palsy,)

And there deyed that doctour ∙ ar thre dayes after.

(And there the doctor died before three days were passed.)

‘Now I see,’ seyde Lyf ∙ ‘that surgerye ne fysike

(‘Now I see,’ said Life, ‘that surgery and medicine)

May nought a myte auaille ∙ to medle aghein Elde.’

(Cannot do good at all [might avail] against Old Age.’)   (XX: 172-178, translated by E. Talbot Donaldson)

Langland is right – nothing much does “avail” against the onset of old age.  But, of course, medicine and nutrition have helped us live longer in old age.  But now, regardless of all our drugs and diets, life expectancy in the United States (and in much of the world) is falling, probably for the first time since the Black Death.

Ah, but you say, now we have better drugs and diets and doctors.  Yes.  And we can sometimes delay the inevitable.  But I do wonder a little about making life a war against old age and death.  In 1968, life expectancy was 68 years, in 2019, 41 years later, it had increased almost 20% to 79 (no wonder social security is in trouble).  However, by 2021, it had decreased to 76.  Part of the loss was due to Covid – but not all of it.  There were also increases in fatal drug overdoses, accidents, gun deaths, and suicides.   On the other hand we are keeping people with Alzheimer’s and most chronic conditions alive longer.  Women still live longer than men, white people live longer than black or brown people, and rich people live longer than poor people.

My own parents died at 77 and 89; my maternal grandparents died at 76 and 82.  They, of course, ate cheesecake and had their cocktails until the end.  Will I live longer than my parents?  And, of course, in making life expectancy predictions, one must also consider the life expectancy of the planet.  Enough said.

A few years back (2014), Ezekiel Emanuel (noted oncologist and bioethicist who was recently appointed to Biden’s Covid team and whose brothers are Rahm and Ari) wrote a much-discussed article in The Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  The title is misleading; Emanuel does not necessarily hope to die in his mid-seventies.  But he has decided that by age 75 he will give up all measures to make him live into a very long but perhaps debilitated old age.  He is clearly against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but:

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.  Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.  This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I wrote about Dr. Emanuel in a blog a few years ago, but I recently looked to see if he had changed his stance as he was almost ten years closer to 75. (He is now 65).  He has not completely reneged, but he has softened his stance. I think we all soften our stance as we get older.  Death is a scary foe, but not as scary (for me) as prolonged dementia or debilitating illness.

But back to special diets and what Dr. Emanuel calls the aspiring “American immortal.”  I have learned to give tofu some flavor, to cook with flax and applesauce rather than oil, and to live without red meat.  I am part of the trend, willing to cater to those who are trying more extreme measures – to a point.  I do think that we need to spend more time thinking about what we are saving those extra years for, and what we might be giving up as we look for the magic bullet.

I once wrote a story about how food can sometimes make us feel better, even though it might not make us last longer.  “A Spoonful of Sugar” ends with these lines: “Gabriella couldn’t figure out death today. But she would think about it again. Meanwhile, she would make more cookies.”  More cookies please.

Crabbed Age and Youth, or Silent Serenity Meets Carpe Diem

Crabbed Age and Youth” is the title of a wonderful essay written by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was but 38.  Of course, Stevenson never reached old age himself (dying in 1894 at age 44); one can wonder if he still would have thought old age was “crabbed” if he had ever arrived there.  Nevertheless, it is an excellent examination of irreconcilable differences between the old and the young.  Stevenson observes:

All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and none, or almost none, for the disenchantments of old age.  It is thought to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.”  It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall probably think when I am yours.”  And yet the one is as good as the other: pass for pass, tit for tat, a Roland for an Oliver.

The old have learned something, perhaps, from experience; unfortunately, we cannot seem to pass that along.  Experience must be had (and hopefully learned from) by the experiencer.  And there is the additional problem, of course, that sometimes what the old have learned is a measure of fear.  We love the young because they are fearless; they dismay us for the same reason.

I had an experience this week of crabbed age encountering youth.  We have learned that it is often far easier to visit our children and grandchildren in their own environments; our house, our life, is not set up for either toddlers (too many fragile things to touch) or teenagers (not enough electronics or basketball hoops), so it is easier to go to them and see how the younger folk live (never jealous).  Like many in our generation, we are older grandparents – we are in our seventies and our grandchildren range in age from 2 to 15 (see my post “The Age of Grandmothers“).  Last week, however, we had a family of five visit with children from age 3 to 13.  Knowing we had a dearth of space and patience, we put them in hotel rooms; nevertheless, they were in our environment for about fourteen hours a day.  It was hard for me, and probably for them too.

As a habitual catastrophic thinker, I thought I had imagined all possible hazards.  I had put away breakables, locked away personal information, stocked the refrigerator and baked ahead.  I had good intentions.  But they weren’t in the house for five minutes before the ten-year-old was spinning her sister around in faster and faster circles in my favorite upholstered rocking chair.  I had no idea that it would turn 360 degrees, and no desire to see it send itself into orbit at the speed it was going.  The end table had already tipped over.  And so I “corrected” them.  Not a good start.

I never had a chance.  For one thing, we were outnumbered.  For another, they had far more energy than we did.  We hiked in the morning, ate lunch, hiked some more, and when we came home in the midafternoon, they were immediately looking for something else to do.  The only “something else” I was capable of was a nap before feeding dinner to the seven of us and cleaning up, all while hoping that nobody dumped their spaghetti on the carpet.

And there is another problem with spending too much time with your progeny.  You learn lots about their lives that is fun and interesting, but you also learn things that you don’t want to know.  More things to worry about, to catastrophize about.

But, back to Stevenson, they are young and we are the crabbed aged.  I don’t want to be young again, make the mistakes I made, have children underfoot all day and worry about how I am going to send them to college.  And they don’t want to be old.  So we rub along; they surely are glad to see the back of me (but also glad I packed cookies and sandwiches for their trip home), and I am glad to recede into my placid, quiet, and predictable rituals.

Stevenson, even though he was never old, knew that there was no use trying to make old age more adventuresome:

Childhood must pass away, and then youth, as surely as age approaches. The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances. To love playthings well as a child, to lead an adventurous and honourable youth, and to settle when the time arrives, into a green and smiling age, is to be a good artist in life and deserve well of yourself and your neighbour.

The children and grandchildren are gone.  I’m a “green and smiling” old lady again.

Was She Someone?

In the beginning of Penelope Lively’s wonderful novel Moon Tiger, Claudia, an “old ill woman” in a hospital bed, tells a nurse that she’s “writing a history of the world.”  The nurse is dubious, but asks the doctor later, “Was she someone?”  The doctor looks at her record, which includes illnesses in various parts of the world and notations about her books, and says, “Yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.”  She was someone… probably.

Claudia could be any of us.  We are  no longer identified by our work (although some of try to hang onto our titles and accomplishments); many of us are no longer identified by place (almost all of the seniors we have met in North Carolina came from somewhere else).  Our families might identify us as Nana or Grandma – but we are no longer the heart of anyone’s family.  Our appearance has changed, the culture around us has changed, and some of us have children who seem to have metamorphized into someone different than the offspring we raised.

In Buddha’s teaching, there are three principal “signs of being:” Change, suffering and non-self.  Buddhism posits no self (anatta) in the sense of a permanent identity; this follows, of course, from the first “sign of being”: change.   How can we hang onto a permanent identity in the face of relentless change?  If you are old, this is a query you have put to yourself many times.

Western thinkers have been much taken up with the subject of personal identity.  In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke tried to connect what he called “personhood” with consciousness and memory:

For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self,  and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things: in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being.  And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person.  (II: xxvii: 9)

 Linking consciousness and memory to identity is problematic in relation to old age, when changes in the physical self and mental forgetfulness may both challenge any assurance of continuous identity.  In addition, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our sense of identity when it is not acknowledged by those around us.  But I am an esteemed professor with an academic title, thinks the old man whose physical therapist has just called him “Georgie.”

Not only our bodies, but the physical world around us has changed also.  Things we thought were solid, have proved disposable.  My mother, in her eighties, was heartbroken when the child of some former neighbors e-mailed her to tell her that the house that her husband and father had built by hand just after I was born had been demolished to make room for a McMansion.  I cursed the person who shared that information with her, nevertheless it was the truth.  Houses change, cars change, neighborhoods change, culture changes, even the landscape is changing.  There is nothing to cling to.  Attachment to anything, even personal identity, is the source of dukkha, suffering.

In his old age, Jonathan Swift, who had thought much about identity and age, would sit and rock and say, “I am what I am, I am what I am.”  Perhaps what Swift was trying to remember in that mantra was that he was a popular author, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, one of the leading minds of his age.  But when he passed a mirror, Swift exclaimed, “O poor old man.”

But, back to Moon Tiger.  The last words of Lively’s novel tell us that Claudia has died and focus on what remains:

And within the room a change has taken place.  It is empty.  Void.  It has the stillness of a place in which there are only inanimate objects: metal, wood, glass, plastic.  No life.  Something creaks; the involuntary sounds of expansion and contraction.  Beyond the window a car starts up, an aeroplane passes overhead.  The world moves on.  And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.

We live with “objects” and leave them behind; yet, as I have noted, even objects change.  I have been thinking about houses these days – perhaps the most intimate of objects which we live with as we “inhabit” them.  This led me to reread (rereading being one of the great joys of old age) the interregnum in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Ray Bradbury’s poignant and scary story, “There Will Come the Soft Rains.” The title of the latter comes from a wonderful poem by Sara Teasdale in which are the memorable lines:

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

All this inspired my short story, “The Beach House,” in which the house does seem to wonder about the people, people who become attached to a house – an object, which in itself is healthily detached.

Amnesty for Amnesia

We have all been deeply schooled in the value of “letting go.”  My Centering Prayer group talks often about “letting go and letting God.”  “Consider the lilies,” says Jesus in answer to two questions about anxiety: “… which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?”  OK, right. “Letting go” is also a pervasive theme in Buddhist meditative practice; I cannot tell you how many dharma talks I have heard on the necessity of letting be and letting go.  “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace,” says Ajahn Chah, and I believe him.  The problem is that I still have not been able to let go the of big things, while I am “letting go” of little things constantly.  And I don’t like it.

I let go of small things all the time – mostly names, but sometimes words.  I also let go of objects (reading glasses) or the reason why I walked into the kitchen. The most strange and aggravating thing about these little “forgettings,” these “senior moments,” is that I know the word or answer is buried somewhere in the folds of my grey matter, from whence it eventually surfaces – long after the moment when I need it.  Sometimes it teases me – I can remember that the name starts with an “S” (Sara?  Sally?) but still cannot produce the correct name when we meet up in the grocery store.  It is like when you wake up at the tail end of a dream – you try to grasp it but… it’s gone.  And then, while you are brushing your teeth and not standing in front of a woman trying to remember her name, the answer floats back into your consciousness.  “Stacy,” you say to yourself, “that woman’s name is Stacy.  Where was that name when I needed it?”  Where indeed?

These are small lapses, but it is not an inconsequential matter to me.  My mother spent her last years in a nasty sort of dementia, so every time my brain fumbles, I start to hyperventilate.

It bothered Elizabeth Bishop too, but she turned her lapses into the wonderful poem, “One Art“:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Losing things is an art; it’s going to happen, so we might as well get better at it, “accept the fluster.”  Bishop’s poem is bittersweet, pairing the need for acceptance with the letting go of keys, names, places, and the grief over things that are permanently gone.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Philip Larkin seems to take the letting go of memory as a blessing; the past is what gets in the way of future happiness.  Funny and cynical, in “The Winter Palace” he longs for the peace of an empty mind:

And [I] am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.

It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.

Billy Collins at least has a sense of humor about it:

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones. (from “Forgetfulness”)

Amnesia and amnesty both come from the Greek word amnestia – meaning oblivion, or forgetting.  Amnesia means “complete or partial memory loss” and amnesty means “a general pardon for offenses.”  Now, it is somewhat paradoxical that I have been working hard at “letting go” for years, and yet – when my brain is ready to part with something, albeit something as trivial as where I hid the extra key, I panic.  Silly.  And, I have been assured that these minor memory lapses are rarely a prelude to true dementia (from the Latin dementia, meaning “out of one’s mind”), which is defined as a condition characterized by progressive, persistent, severe impairment of intellectual capacity. Some self-amnesty for amnesia is in order. Clearly, I need to pair Bishop’s advice about learning the art of losing (“it isn’t hard to master”) with Larkin’s assurance that the less cluttered my mind is, the better.  And add a dash of Collins’ humor.  I just wish I could choose what my mind lets go of.  There’s some stuff I would really like to get rid of, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I have written several other blogs on letting go and memory – if you are interested in the topic you might try “Whispered Words of Wisdom” or “Dementia, Creativity, and Forgetfulness.”

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood, now eighty-three, recently published a story, “Babes in the Wood” (in a book of the same name), about two old women staying at an old family cabin on a lake, far into the woods.  It’s a good story about sisters and memory and the limits of things; I recommend it.

Mostly, though, it reminded me of another excellent Atwood story, “Death by Landscape,” which Atwood wrote in her younger days and about very much younger people.  Although the story is framed by an elderly woman (Lois) looking at artists’ renditions of the Canadian wilderness on her living room wall, it is about two teen-age girls, who go to camp together in the summer.  On their last outing, the two good friends take a walk to an overhanging cliff, and while on a “bathroom break,” one of the girls (Lucy) disappears, never to be seen again.  The woods are combed by men and dogs, theories abound, and the camp director – desperate to find a scapegoat and save the reputation of her camp – even insinuates that the other young girl (the old woman of the frame of the story) might have had something to do with it.  Even into her old age, Lois surrounds herself by pictures of the Canadian wilderness.  All her life she has felt an empty space, an “echo” where her friend Lucy used to be.  Lois imagines her turned into one of the trees in the landscape, for what could have happened to her?  She lives in the empty space in Lois’s mind and in the landscapes on the wall:

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is.  She is in Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inward on the wall, not like windows but like doors.  She is here.  She is entirely alive.

In “Old Babes in the Woods,” two sisters at the old family lake cabin are also preoccupied with people long gone. They have come even though they really can’t handle it – water must be pumped, firewood scrounged, and laundry drying (“toasting”) on the dock falls into the water and must be retrieved.  Wading in the water, trying to pick up clothes with her toes, Nell says to herself: “You old ninny, you really shouldn’t be doing this… One of these days you’ll break your neck.”

Unlike the young girls in the wilderness, the old women in “Old Babes” mostly know how the story comes out.  Parents are gone; spouses deceased.  They are left with ageing bodies in a disintegrating cabin – and everywhere there are reminders of the life they lived and the people they lived it with.  And, unlike the earlier story, there are messages that these people have left behind.  There are notes in the cookbook and on the kitchen walls in their mother’s handwriting: When feeling down in the dump – go for a brisk walk!  These many years later, her daughter reminds herself that she is no longer capable of a brisk walk.  Nell finds a note that her husband folded up with the mosquito netting for the instruction of future occupants.  The messages are both about continuity and  about inevitable change.  The husband knew that he might not be the next one to use the netting.  He is gone and Nell treasures the note from the past – “a cryptic message from the dead.”

There is no mystery in the second story – or the only mystery is time and what it brings.  The two old ladies watch the sunset every night because it is the “best way of predicting the next day’s weather…That plus the barometer, though the barometer isn’t much help because it almost always says “Change.”  And change is what always happens, and yet it surprises us. The two sisters find themselves wondering why the cabin is not designed better for old age:

“He [their father] didn’t intend to get old,” Nell says.

“Yeah, that was a fucking surprise,” Lizzie says.

Well, yes, it is a fucking surprise.  But here we are.  We may not be trying to vacation in an old cabin with minimal conveniences, but we are trying to live in a world that has gone on without us.  Mysteries, for the most part, have been resolved.  We know whether there was a happily ever after or not; we (generally) know how we ended up.  Most of us are not still looking for missing friends in landscapes, partly because missing friends have a way of showing up on Facebook.  But while there may be no mysteries, we are still mystified:  How did we get old?

Wise Old Women – Elderly Detectives

I have often thought that the most admirable old women in literature were the spinster detectives, and there are many to choose from.  My two favorites emerged at about the same time – the end of the roaring twenties, the “Golden Age” of detective literature.  Miss Marple made her debut in a short story in 1927 (“Tuesday Night Club”) and her first novel-length appearance in 1928 in Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage.  Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver solved her first case in 1928 in Grey Mask.  I got to thinking about these two recently (just finished a Miss Silver novel) and realized that the two ladies presented interesting models for old age.

Neither Miss Marple nor Miss Silver ever marries.  Miss Marple lives in a house called Danemead, “the last cottage on Old Pasture Lane,” in the little English village of St. Mary Mead.  She has apparently never worked and has “independent means of support.” She has learned all she needs to know about humanity by closely observing those around her.  As she points out frequently, “very painful and disturbing things happen in villages sometimes.” As far as I recall, Miss Marple never takes remuneration for setting the world to rights, but she often helps her nephew (an officer of the law), who supplements her income in later years.  Miss Marple has a soft look about her with clouds of white hair and pink cheeks; she presents as a kindly grandmother or a favorite great aunt.

Miss Silver was not so fortunate; she worked tirelessly as a schoolteacher and a governess for many years before inheriting a little money with which she acquired a London flat.  To supplement her modest legacy, she supports herself by taking on “discreet private inquiries” – all references are by word of mouth, and word travels fast among the genteel class of Brits.

Miss Silver knows children very well indeed from her years in the classroom, and to her, all adults are just tall children, still trying to get away with things.  There is nothing “soft” about Miss Silver; she wears a rigid hair net, very thick stockings, and prickly tweeds – every inch the governess.  Both ladies are proficient and constant knitters, but I will come back to that.

Christie was 38 when she wrote the first Miss Marple; Wentworth was 49 when Miss Silver was birthed.  Both authors wrote books well into their eighties, and it would be interesting to study how their descriptions of old age evolved as they themselves aged.

There are at least four reasons the two old ladies are such successful detectives.  For one, they are brilliant readers of human nature.  They have closely monitored the world (a relatively small world in both cases) and learned all the lessons there are to learn.  They are able to winnow out the facts, even in emotionally charged situations. “I have cultivated the habit of close observation,” says Miss Silver.  “These things are not really difficult to perceive.”  At least for old ladies who pay attention.

Secondly, they are great knitters.  There is no cheating in knitting.   If one drops a stitch, one needs to chase it down.  Patterns are important; all the parts must fit together.  Miss Marple and Miss Silver will patiently untangle a skein of yarn, just as they untangle a situation.  They will quietly knit until a shape emerges (usually a bootie or other piece of infant attire – the ladies have countless great-nieces and -nephews).  The incessant click-clack of their needles mesmerizes those whom they are subtly examining; people relax into truthfulness.

Third, they are detached.  They are able to stand back from the emotional turmoil of the moment and ask the pertinent questions.  Who stands to gain?  Who loved the victims and who hated them (sometimes the same person)?  What makes sense given the facts?    Being detached also means they bring no false pride to their work; they are not afraid to follow the facts or their instincts.  They could not care less what anyone else thinks, although they are empathetic to the sufferers in any situation.  And they don’t care who gets the credit, endearing them to the law enforcement officers (always men) with whom they work and who are happy to get the case solved and take the bows.  This, of course, also means their favorite bobbies are happy to take suggestions and share information.

The fourth reason that these ladies are able to discover the murderer when even Scotland Yard is stymied is that they are always underestimated and often not even noticed.  They can find a reason to insinuate themselves into almost any situation, and then they listen and watch – and knit.  Both do more cogitating than they do actively pursuing clues, but they do sometimes take the initiative.  The old ladies faint away in households where they wish to spend the night, and they gladly offer to sit with sick patients or recently bereaved widows – if they hope they can learn something.  And they are kind.  “Now suppose you sit down here, dear, and just tell me all about it,” says Miss Marple over and over again.  Being old is often about being invisible, but these ladies use it to their advantage.  People sit down, watch the knitting needles click, and tell these old ladies everything.

There are many other old lady detectives – Mrs. Bradley (Gladys Mitchell), Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman), and countless others.  Please feel free to suggest your own favorites.  My point is that they exemplify ways we can make the most of old age.  I don’t like being marginalized in any way, but it is nice to remember that we can use our status (or lack of it) to it our own advantage – and that of others.

I’m trying to write my own old lady mystery these days, but I once wrote a story (“Essentials”) about a younger woman whose imagination is sparked by the thought that she might be involved in a murder investigation.  Of course, I am not suggesting in any way that we need murders to liven up our lives – but to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there is nothing like a death to “concentrate the mind wonderfully.”

What Do Old Women Lust For?

The first story in Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing opens in the mind of an elderly woman taking herself to task for her sexual fantasies: “The lust of an old man is disgusting, but the lust of an old woman is worse.”  Campbell then goes on to give us thirteen captivating stories of love and lust and loneliness and old age.  Her book quickly disproves her opening statement; there are many kinds of lust (including that for the sensual satisfactions of simply brushing your cat) which make life richer and are far from disgusting.  We don’t often talk about our physical needs or lusts (which may not be the same thing), but Campbell’s old ladies pull no punches.

Jane Campbell was born in 1942 and published her first book eighty years later – but this is not the tentative voice of a literary newcomer.  This is an author who knows exactly what she wants to say (perhaps having had many years to think about it).  Her language sometimes brings blushes, but it always has the ring of honesty.  The stories range from infatuations of old women with their caregivers to complex relationships with Artificial Intelligence (AI) “creations” (one good, one bad – and I’ll come back to that) to simple stories of attachment to friends, place, animals.  Death hovers throughout, but few of these ladies die in the stories, at least physically.  Most of the characters make good (if hard) choices, but even when bad choices occur (one old lady runs away from a tyrannical handicapped sister, only to end up with a murderous husband), we are not so sure that the women have any regrets.   Let me start with the AI stories.

In “Lockdown Fantasms,” short Covid lockdowns have eventually merged into a continual isolation for the old; old people who live alone must do with limited assistance, but they are allowed weekly visits from fantasms, which seem to be AI-generated beings who give the old people companionship of whatever kind they wish – the fantasms will even have sex with you, watch a movie with you, cook for you.  At each weekly visit (they are not allowed more often) their form is different; one cannot get attached.  But for the narrator in the story, the fantasm is something to look forward to and prevents her from using the morphine/tranquillizer combo that the government provides in case a hologram once a week is not enough.  Fantasms are tweaked to respond to the needs of the recipient, but are only provided to those elders who live alone in pandemic-approved isolation.  It is an incentive to remain isolated.

In another story, “Schopenhauer and I,” the form of AI is a personal care robot supplied to a resident of an assisted living home after her beloved dog, Hobbes, disappeared.  The old lady is sure that the institution she is living in did away with her dog because he was too much trouble.  In turn, they have forced on her a mandatory robot – which she names Schopenhauer, but casually calls Arthur, and hates with the same passion with which she loved Hobbes.  Arthur monitors her 24/7, making life easier on staff.  I won’t give away the ending, but it is a tale of retaliation, and vengeance by an old lady is not pretty.  These two stories about AI do point out, however, that humanity can approach and utilize robots/holograms in many ways, but the choices relating to old people seem to be aimed at comfort and control – or, perhaps, to control through comfort.

In Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, the lusty old bawd from 14th century Bath tells us that what women most want is sovereyntee, sovereignty or control over their own lives.  In days when women’s lives were chattel, this was a way of looking for equality of some measure.  But companionship, sexual partners, are also of great interest to the old Alyson; she “kode of that art the olde dance” (she knew the art of the old dance).  Thus, the sexual life of old women might not be a frequent literary topic, but it is not new.  It has deep roots.  And, incidentally, Chaucer’s last poem, which he wrote when he was fifty-nine, was “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” which has sly sexual allusions to his sex in old age.

Many of the stories in Cat Brushing dwell on the fantasies (and not just sexual ones) which keep us alive (and not just breathing).  The final loss of such fantasies is never easy and sometimes kills us.  Most of Campbell’s women come to terms with reality and adapt – but not all.  Most of their fantasies involve relationships of various kinds and seem to evolve out of loneliness. What do we do for contact when we are old and alone?  Even when the women in Campbell’s book find companionship, they know it may be temporary.  Their partner, friend, pet, may die before they do.  But for today they have a cat to brush, and the memories of touch and ecstasy.

I find that I don’t write many (any) dirty old lady stories; I am a New Englander born and bred and we don’t talk about such things.  We try not to even think about them – more’s the pity.  This is the value of Campbell’s book.  However, my short story, “Snickerdoodles,” was inspired by The Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Retirement as Utopia/ Life as a Game

Residing in a household where there are diverse reading preferences, I sometimes find myself catching enthusiasm for a book I would have never come across on my own.  Thus it was that I picked up The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard SuitsIt is a book of philosophy – a very strange book of philosophy – wherein the speaker is, surprisingly, Aesop’s grasshopper (from “The Ant and the Grasshopper”).  Now, Aesop’s moral was that we should work hard like the ant to prepare for winter and not play around all summer like the grasshopper.  Suits’s Grasshopper, however, thinks that play is the thing – or, specifically, games are the thing.  And Suits spends much of the book on proofs and definitions concerning games, all of which are more interesting than you might think, though not the parts that fascinate me the most.

What I am most interested in is Suits’s chapter on utopia (as he defines it).  What would we do in a world where all our needs are met?  Basic physical requirements met, no need to earn a living, no need to prove ourselves?  Here is what Suits says:

For I suspect that playing (genuine) games is precisely what economically and psychologically autonomous individuals [read adequately housed, fed, and medicated without working] would find themselves doing, and perhaps the only things they would find themselves doing.  (165)

Now, the Grasshopper admits that people might do things like chop down trees or till gardens for the “fun of it,” but claims that our relationship to those things would change.  They would become games or play, and we would be happier for it.

Bear with me.  If a sufficiently funded retirement (and I mean sufficient to cover the basic costs of life sustenance, and not necessarily six cruises a year) can be thought of as a kind of utopia, what would it mean to think of our lives in terms of games, in terms of play?  Believe it or not, I think this is a serious question.  Would you be happier if you didn’t take life so seriously?  I’m talking about the day-to-day stuff here; this is not an argument for trivializing climate change or anarchy.

When we “play” games, we win and lose and still look forward to the next game.  It is not the end of the world if my husband beats me at gin rummy or a grandchild beats me at the very first level of a video game (as grandchildren always do).  I accept the terms of the game, including the fact that I might not win, and still enjoy playing it.

Camus said that the fundamental question in the face of life’s (seeming) absurdity was whether to commit suicide.  And once we decide to live (and he assures us that is what we should decide), we must somehow create meaning in a (seemingly) meaningless or absurd life.  Isn’t this what we do with games, with play – create some kind of pleasure and meaning from defining the terms under which we will play and then viewing the game in a positive manner?  Mightn’t life be easier if we could think of it as some kind of game?

When I was working, I always regretted that I could not take my work life less seriously – I could have worked longer and enjoyed it more.  But in work, one is less able to define one’s own rules, decide which games to play.  I have more latitude now, but am not sure that I am really taking advantage of it.

Now I am aware that while all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, the reverse is also true.  That is why it is not just play, I am talking about, but games, where there is the pleasure of striving, but perhaps in a more joyful sense.  Think about playing a board game with friends.  You know it is not serious, but you lose yourself in the play of the game within the limits of the rules.  You don’t consider cheating to win; you don’t stay up at night over misplayed cards (unless you are a championship bridge player) or think you are a better person because you won.  You take the game as it comes and do your best and enjoy the experience.

The theologian John Dominic Crossan says that games are like life in that they have limits.  In life we have all kinds of limits – death being the major one:

I would suggest… that game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death….  It is the joy of finitude and the laughter of limitation…. Game teaches us to enjoy the limitation posed by the game itself.  To destroy the limitation is to destroy the game.  Imagine baseball with as many balls as the pitcher wanted and as many strikes as the batter chose. (5)  The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story

The laughter of limitation.  I am reminded of Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, who says that “cheerfulness is always good and can never be excessive.”  Cheerfulness comes from joy and brings joy.  And looking at life as play would seem to be a joyful exercise.

The other interesting exercise that The Grasshopper stimulates is that of thinking about what exactly utopia would look like for us?  In his book, Suits somehow assumes that the government would be straightened out in utopia (which should be enough to worry us about his hold on reality, but he is – one must acknowledge – Canadian and that might make a difference).  What would utopia in what’s left of our lives look like?  What would constitute the best life we could live?  Old folks have lived a long time; we should have some idea of what makes life… joyful.  Suits says utopia  would be people playing games.  I do not entirely agree (after all the grasshopper dies because he has not prepared for the winter), but I think if I could see life as more game-like, I might be happier.

Rituals are one of the games I play in my old age; I create “rules” within which to live my life in such a way to meet at least some of my goals.  You might look at my short story, “Ritual,” to see one example of ways in which structure can add to life and what happens when it is interrupted.

I’m Dreaming of a Fifties Christmas

I’ve been thinking about technology (as is evident from my last blog), and I’ve been thinking about Christmas.  We have eight grandchildren, and Christmas wish lists abound with technology-related items.  For the younger children, Santa will bring lots of plastic gadgets which light up and make noise and require frequent battery changes. Santa’s helpers would do well to buy stock in Duracell.  For the older kids and adult children, the requests often involve gift cards so they can replenish their games (or whatever).  It all got me thinking about how Christmas has changed over my lifetime.  I found it a useful exercise to go back through the years (71 in my case) and try to remember what Christmas was like and how technology has affected it over the years.

My early Christmases were simple – in retrospect, we had few presents and little technology.  There were the lights on the tree and the impossible task of determining which bulb was causing the whole string to go out.  There were the amazing bubbling bulbs, and the cardboard villages with lights in each little house. (Why weren’t there more fires?) An old electric train chugged around the base of the Christmas tree. Presents were not complex or technical – dolls, sleds, cowboy outfits.  If the toy moved or played music, it was because you wound it up.  The highlight for me – up to the age of about eight, when we moved far enough away to end the tradition – was an extended family carol sing on Christmas Eve.  All the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at one of our homes, and people would take turns playing the piano while we sang every verse of all the carols, which were printed in little booklets that the banks gave out in those days.  No presents, lots of food, not much drinking (for the most part that was a tee-totaling crowd).  Pleasant memories though.  Christmas morning was exciting but not extravagant, and not shared with anyone but immediate family.

My first Christmas present that involved any technology at all was a wristwatch in my teen years – not too exciting.  But this was followed the next year by a transistor radio – a radio I could listen to all by myself.  It only got three stations but was a joy to keep under my pillow and listen to surreptitiously when my parents thought I was long asleep.  In a way, the transistor radio was a turning point.  It was personal technology, personal entertainment.  In an era when homes had only one TV (black and white in our case), one phone, one stereo, and one radio (in the kitchen), it enabled my teenage self to sequester in at least one tiny respect. But transistors (and then the far smaller transistors on silicon chips) were not done with us.  

As a young married adult, I longed for a color television.  We bought one for Christmas in 1976, just in time to watch Centennial and Roots.  For reception, we had only an antenna with a rotor – which was high technology in those days.  For those of you who never had a rotor, it was an electrical gadget that enabled you – on a limited basis – to turn the antenna on your roof from inside the house.  Each channel (all three of them) had a preferred setting, and much time was spent watching a snowy screen and trying various locations while listening to the motor on the rotor hum.  No cable for several more years.  With the advent of the new color TV, however, we moved the black and white television to the bedroom, which began the proliferation of screens in the house.

When I had children, toys with batteries were more common – talking dolls, beeping robots.  The sea change, however, came in about 1983 when, since we now had a personal computer in the house (which I did not know how to use), my eldest got a copy of King’s Quest for Christmas.  For the rest of the day we could not tear his seven-year-old body away from the computer – except with force (parents) and tears (child) – for a family Christmas dinner.

The link between Christmas and technology has snowballed over the decades, with capitalism keeping right up with the trend.  In fact, I would say that Christmas has become a well-meaning celebration of capitalism.  What was once a tradition rich in ritual has been stripped to its most efficient return on investment.   It has been compounded, in our and many other families, by our adult children foregoing church.  When visiting at Christmas, we bundle up for the Christmas Eve service and ask if anyone wants to go with us – and for that moment only we have a completely “silent night” as everyone tries to avoid eye contact.  So be it.  Their Christmas ritual now includes a compulsory zoom event where we watch the kids tear open dozens of packages on Christmas morning.  I love the children and grandchildren, but the holiday has started to make me shudder.

I must pause to mention another truth, however.  My own children’s best Christmas memories include and cherish the technology I abhor.  I have lived long enough to see my son try to recapture the Christmas magic of King’s Quest for his own children.  So it goes.

Technology has come to bear on Christmas in other ways, of course.  On the bright side, we can stream Christmas movies and concerts without commercials.  But we are not sitting near our extended community when we watch them.  And maybe that is the main thing that has happened.  We no longer do things as families, as communities, as a people.  Technology can cater to the individual and it does.  From King’s Quest to virtual reality, we think we don’t need others anymore.  Maybe that’s true if we are determined to “do what we want,” but maybe we need others in order to figure out what it is that we really want.

I know I sound like a nostalgic old lady.  I am.  When I tell my children and grandchildren about these old Christmases, they look at me with pity.  In truth, I can remember my own mother telling me that Christmas used to mean just some candy and a piece of fruit in her stocking, and I found her story hard to believe.  How could Santa be so stingy? Maybe it is just a normal disjunction between the generations. However, I am determined to spend my remaining Christmases in the way that means something to me.  So, I’ll attend Christmas concerts in person, go to church on Christmas Eve, and burn real candles.  And I’ll rant a little.  Thanks for listening.

I have written a number of Christmas stories over the years, and if you are looking for something appropriate to the season, you might try “Cookie Crumbs” or “Epiphany.”  Or look at one of my old blogs about Christmas.  And if we can’t do anything about “Peace on Earth” after all these years, let’s at least try to find a little inner peace.


Crowing Cocks, Barking Dogs, and Artificial Intelligence

I recently read Jeannette Winterson’s book on artificial intelligence (AI), 12 Bytes: How AI will Change the Way We Live and Love.  Winterson believes that comprehensive AI is inevitable (surely she is correct in this), but that the perfect “AI Mind” could be structured to be free of bias, prejudice, illicit or mercenary purpose.  This beneficent intelligence could replace God for us as the “all powerful” solution – or so hopes she.  Winterson produces little evidence that it is going in that direction – mostly she just scares me and makes me glad I am at the end of life, rather than the beginning.

As has often been noted, technology, in itself, is amoral, leaving it open to good uses and atrocious uses.  But it will be used.  John von Neumann warned us decades ago: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  It is true that we have the atom bomb and have never used it since Hiroshima and Nagasaki– but that is a technology with obvious risks, while AI is much more subtle.  And seductive.

Winterson recommended Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which I am currently reading. The question again is whether we control the technology or it controls us.  Zuboff tells us that “surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.”  And with the behavioral data, surveillance capitalists (think Google) can predict and manipulate our behavior – think of Skinner (ugh).   I am not happy with the thought of becoming “raw material” – it was bad enough when we were just “markets.”  Zuboff posits that we all have an “unbearable yearning” for the old world that is slipping away and gives us a Portuguese word of homesickness and longing to capture the feeling: saudade.   I have saudade– I imagine all old folks have it.  I have saudade for the way life used to be, and I have it increasingly as we race further and further from the world I grew up in – that imagined Eden.

The question that keeps being posed is: whether technology can be slowed down or redirected? As far as civilization and culture goes, technology seems to be a juggernaut.  No one seems to be willing or able to stop it.  But can an individual step aside?  Not easily of course.  There is still the need to interface with the computer to make travel reservations, with AI to get through to my doctor, with e-mail to keep in touch with children who seem to have forgotten that the postal service exists.  But can we carve out a place where we, at least, do not feel assaulted?  Our virtual Walden where we are not checking for messages or responding to beeps all day long?  Winterson herself has written forcefully about taking the importance of asking the question  ‘How shall I live?’ and describes that question as being “fierce.”  It is.

The premise that we do not have to use all the technology that is invented and marketed sounds self-evident, but it is not that easy.  Like Swift’s ancient Struldbruggs, we soon feel like we are not speaking the same language as those around us.  What is the answer?

The answer, for me, is that I do not speak the same language anyway.  And in my more pessimistic moments I think of another quote from Von Neumann’s discussion of how humans will use the technology at their disposal: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

 And yet, I still have hope.  There is the model of the Tao.  I post the eightieth section of the Tao here (“Crowing Cocks and Barking Dogs”).  Written two and a half millennia ago, the Tao addresses technology, over-population, peace:

A small country has fewer people.

Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster

     than man, they are not needed.

The people take death seriously and do not travel far.

Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.

Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.

Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.

Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,

     their homes secure;

They are happy in their ways.

Though they live within sight of their neighbors,

And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,

Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

One is reminded of some fictional utopias – notably those of William Morris and Samuel Butler – where technology is suspect and carefully controlled. In Butler’s Erewhon, society determined to make the cut-off point for technology 271 years before the present time.  The Amish sometimes use newer technology (like phones) for business, but not for other parts of their lives.  Why does it seem so difficult to do this in our own lives, especially since older people do not have to face the demands of a job or career?  At least, we  might disregard the machines that “are not needed” and the absence of which might contribute to our peace as we “grow old and die.”  I know, easier said than done.  Any assistance in where and how to draw the line would be greatly appreciated by this old lady.

If you would like to look at a piece of my fiction that considers the challenges of technology to life, you might try “Two New Apps.”