More News from the Mound People

Recently I wrote about going to a memorial service for a dearly loved and highly regarded journalist (The Measure of a Man…). One thing I did not mention in my post is that his family put a bunch of his books on display in the dining room and encouraged people to take one home as a remembrance of him. Today I ran into another couple who had been at the same event. The husband, who knew the deceased very well having worked with him for many years at Newsday, stated that he would have been very pleased to know that his family had chosen to disperse some of his books in this manner.

That got me thinking. On Wednesdays I have lunch with my daughter. I was telling her this story when I suddenly got an idea. “Hey!” I said to her. “Suppose when either Dad or I are gone you just open the doors to the basement and tell our friends they can have anything they want! That would certainly cut down on your having to sort through all that stuff.” We laughed together at the thought.

Later, I mentioned to her that the Lupus Foundation had called asking for donations of household goods and clothing items. We have donated at other times, but we are a bottomless resource for them. Again, we agreed we should just invite the Lupus Foundation in to take whatever they need.

Not long ago the members of my family were joking about cleaning out the basement, when my son, an aspiring filmmaker said, “We could make our own horror movie down there. It would take an hour of the movie just to get through the basement to the door of Dad’s shop. The final half hour could take place in the shop.” This had us bent over in stitches. I suggested renaming the “shop” the Little Shop of Horrors. Or perhaps, I suggested, we could just put this wonderful sign I bought to hang in my classroom that says “Welcome to Paradise” over the shop door!

Obviously, our situation has been the occasion for a lot of family humor as well as a lot of discomfort. I am happy to report that since I wrote my post about our world of clutter, we have been trying to spend a couple of hours a week poring over our treasures in the basement. I have been lugging cherished books to the library for donation; my daughter has been sorting out her wardrobe into piles such as “the tie-dye years”…and giving away what she clearly will never wear again; and my husband has been industriously sawing old pieces of molding and leftover wood to place out at the curb for pickup. The “tower” I described in the earlier post (Clutter…A Family Affair) is no longer there. We are all beginning to feel we are making a difference.

While taking a walk with my husband recently I said, “So what if we have a 5-year plan? Two years to clean out everything we no longer need or want; two years to get the house ready to sell and another year to move?” For the first time in years, this actually seemed possible!


Happiness Is the Great Books Club at the Library!

If you are a lifelong reader like me, you probably have a bucket list or a to-read list of books you hope to get around to someday. Although I was an English major in college and grad school, there are still so many great books calling my name. Throughout the several decades we have lived in Huntington, I have been reading the library’s monthly newsletter describing all the wonderful activities that are available to residents, including the Great Books Club, and longing to be able to participate.

Now I am retired. Suddenly there’s a cornucopia of activities competing for my attention and my attendance. I’ve been delving into them at my own pace, like selecting from a box of chocolates. I am happily ensconced in two exercise classes.The QiGong class I find very challenging but interesting because it combines a lot of eastern tradition by focusing on the mind and the body simultaneously. The Chair Yoga class has become my favorite form of exercise each week because it is designed for creaky old people like myself who are trying hard to hang on to what they’ve got! It’s gentle and forgiving and I love the meditative music the instructor plays while we assume our modified yoga positions.

I tried out another group, Op Ed, which is a lively weekly discussion group based on current issues. Any participant is invited to suggest a topic for discussion and then the group members jump in to expound upon the topic. I noticed that some of the members are much more knowledgeable and/or articulate than others, so the discussion inevitably ended up with the same half dozen people doing most of the talking. What they had to say was always interesting, but I wasn’t sure if I would stay in the group.

Monday night I attended the Great Books Club for the first time. For me this was a big step because I wasn’t sure if I had the literature creds to be part of such an erudite group. Part of being a lit major is to always feel like you have never read enough, or you aren’t as smart as everyone else will be. (It’s sick, I know.) Besides, it has been decades since I participated in a real discussion of literature. So, with some trepidation and a lot of expectation I entered the bare basement room where the club is held. To my surprise the u-shaped table was filled with about 20 lively looking people more or less my age. There was a palpable energy in the room and there was an equal amount of men and women.

The facilitator warmly greeted the 3 or 4 newbies, including myself, and explained how the discussion is organized. Basically, he would throw out a question and anyone could answer. The important points to remember are to be a good listener and to keep the discussion focused on the text chosen for that evening. It so happens that the designated text, “A Defence of Poetry,” a selection from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was a challenging piece of writing. I had struggled through its esoteric vocabulary and language and wondered if I was up to the task. I would not let myself quit and decided to do a “close reading” section by section to try to get as much meaning out of it as I could. (Sound familiar?) Then I reread the whole piece to get a better sense of the flow of the arguments he used. I read the piece a third time just to re-familiarize myself with it the afternoon before the club met. My understanding was not complete but I was beginning to “get it,” and looked forward to hearing what others would have to say.

Well, I wasn’t the only one who struggled. One participant admitted immediately that he had given up trying to read it. Others confessed to having to struggle but wanting to be enlightened. The discussion began, many people including myself jumped in at various points, and before I knew it an hour and a half had passed, and I had a greatly enhanced experience of the text. Toward the end of the discussion I explained that what we were doing is exactly what the Common Core curriculum currently being utilized in classrooms across the country is attempting to do: Teach students to carefully read a couple of written pieces, pick out the salient points and be able to conduct an articulate discussion comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the readings.

We all agreed that what is different about what is happening today, however, is that the lesson is scripted and the teacher does not have the freedom to choose either the reading selection or the points to be discussed but is expected to work from a prepared “module.” I pointed out that what I found amazing about this group is that we had all been educated during more or less the same period in American history, the 50′ and 60’s and our education was so good that we were able to carry on this very insightful discussion without our teachers having had to read from a script. I declared that period the “golden age” of education and we all lamented its passing (just as you would expect from a group of Boomers).

You can probably guess that I’m going to say I felt really good after this meeting. I felt back in the groove again as a student of literature, I found my reading and debating skills on a par with the other members, and I totally enjoyed learning something new. Together we had achieved a synthesis of the various arguments of the piece and an understanding of the intention of its author. I learned that I will always be happy in a classroom whether I am the learner or the teacher. But, most importantly, I felt like I had found a new home.

Red Lobster and a Turquoise Hat

They were seated in a booth diagonally across from us a few feet away. He was dressed in a gray suit and seemed to be about 80-something years old. She sat with her back to us and all I could see was a corner of her turquoise-colored straw hat peeping around the corner of the booth. I remarked to my dining companion that a sweet-looking older couple were all dressed up to have lunch at Red Lobster.

I am a lobster lover. I know this is politically incorrect as the lobster population has been dwindling for some time. But I believe that it may be on the rebound now that we’ve stopped spraying for West Nile Virus. (Lobsters are in the same family as mosquitos, so were killed off by the spraying.)

In any case, despite the fate of the lobster population, Red Lobster announced its annual Lobsterfest about a month ago. I was very excited until I realized that my lobster-eating companion was vacationing in Florida and wouldn’t be home for a month or so. “Oh well,” I thought. “I’ll have to wait until summer for my lobster bash.” My husband doesn’t care for lobster and my two children refuse to eat them any longer due to their scarcity.

About a week ago my lobster-lover friend returned from Florida and immediately called me to ask if I wanted to go to Red Lobster for the Lobsterfest which was not yet over. My heart soared. We went there yesterday and were seated at our table near the older couple.

Every now and then I would glance over to see what they were up to as we ate our lobster extravaganza. The gentleman was trying to crack his crab legs with one of those tools designed for the purpose, but he couldn’t because his hands were shaking so badly. It upset me so much to see him struggling I couldn’t bear to watch him.

Eventually I noticed that they were getting ready to leave. He had put on his coat and was heading for the door. His companion in the turquoise straw hat was still beside the table struggling to put on her coat, trying to get her arm in the sleeve. I couldn’t help but notice that the fashionable little jacket she wore with her black skirt was the same color as her hat. She was wearing nylon stockings and it was then I observed what beautifully shaped legs she had.

“You have very nice legs,” I said to her as she turned toward us. She smiled and immediately walked over to our table. For the next 20 minutes she regaled us with the story of her life.
“It’s my birthday today. I am 84! I just came from church where I gave my testimonial. Do you know monseigneur _____? Well, everyone in the church was really surprised to learn that I had breast cancer 20 years ago but my husband refused to let me have further surgery after my mastectomy so there’s nothing here,” she said as she slapped her hand on the spot where her left breast would have been. “See…there’s nothing there,” she said as she hit her chest again. “I’m a born-again Christian so I gave my testimonial today and, boy, were they surprised to learn that I had cancer because, you see, I never told anyone about it. It’s my birthday and….

This stream-of-consciousness speech went on for at least another 10 minutes. I tried to gently end it by saying several times, “Well maybe you should find your husband. He’s probably wandering around somewhere wondering where you are.” But she was in no hurry to leave us. “Oh, he’s fine. He’s so slow he probably hasn’t even gotten to the door yet.”

“Well, happy birthday and enjoy your day,” was my last attempt to close out the conversation. She finally left.

Next time you go to Red Lobster, beware of complimenting an elderly lady wearing a turquoise hat while lunching with her elderly spouse at Red Lobster on her 84th birthday. But I do think it made her day!

The Amazing Sea Shells in My Garden

Yesterday my husband and I had spring fever. I took a walk in the nearby park to see what the ducks and turtles were up to while he pruned the rhododendron bushes which lost some branches in the last big snowstorm a couple of weeks ago.

When I returned from my walk I stepped into the backyard and began to examine the very old, large azalea bushes which border the wall of my garden. They were planted by the previous owner and are probably 50 years old at least. As I picked leaves out of their branches leftover from the fall, I came upon my mother’s seashells sitting atop the garden wall. They are beautiful, old conch shells from a Florida beach (probably in Jacksonville where one of my aunts lived) brought back to LI by my family over 50 years ago.

For most of those fifty years the shells (there were maybe 20 of them originally) sat on the ground along the concrete foundation of our house in Bayville. They always drew a passerby’s attention because we, of course, do not have any shells even remotely as big or beautiful in our local waters. These still have such a beautiful pink glow I can’t even imagine how beautiful they must have been when we first found them on the beach as children.

During the past fifty years there have been two times our old neighborhood has been completely flooded with sea water. Actually three times if you count 1953 when Hurricane Gloria devastated much of LI. My father was building our new home and much of his lumber floated away! My parents tried to sell the house, but no one would buy it because everyone had been so traumatized by the hurricane. The second time occurred when we had an unusual nor’wester in 1993 which led to my parents being evacuated by rowboat by local fire department volunteers. The third time took place during Hurricane Sandy when Oyster Bay Harbor and the LI sound both breached the narrow peninsula on which we lived.

Amazingly, all three times our house was not flooded like those of most of our neighbors. Before building our house, my father had been warned by a relative who lived nearby of the possibility of flooding, and so he built a higher than usual foundation to avert the floods. It worked. The really amazing thing is that the conch shells bordering the foundation of the house did not move an inch, even though they were submerged for a week each time.

Now both my parents are deceased and the house was sold. At the last minute, as we were preparing to leave the house for the final time, my daughter said, “Mom, why don’t you take some of the seashells with you?” I thought it was a good idea and picked out the 8 best ones I could find. They now sit in my garden atop my brick garden wall looking amazingly beautiful and out of place. I love that about them, and the fact that every day for almost 20 years as I gaze out my kitchen window they are a daily reminder to me of my childhood in Bayville, my family home…and my parents.

The Measure of a Man…how he lived his life

I used to see him occasionally around town but I was never sure if he knew me so I hesitated to talk to him. Besides, he was a tall, imposing figure with an intense demeanor that kind of scared me a bit. He was a former colleague of my husband so I knew of him but very little about him.

Several months ago our paths crossed unexpectedly at a radiologist’s office. I was there for my daily radiation treatment for cancer and he was a new patient. He was accompanied by his wife and daughter. I said “Hello,” and he looked up at me with a searching look, but my husband was there beside me so perhaps he made the connection. What I saw in his eyes troubled me. He looked terrified and like he was definitely not feeling in control of what was happening to him. It startled me to see a man who normally had so much composure look so frightened. We tried to be comforting to him and his wife,

Several weeks ago we learned that he had died. His cancer had metastasized and he was unable to tolerate the radiation treatments. A month and a half ago I learned that my cancer (which had also metastasized) was in full remission. When my husband told me the news about him I felt a shiver go through me. I was the lucky one; he was not.

Today my husband and I attended the memorial luncheon hosted by his wife and family to celebrate his life. His wife had chatted amiably with my husband and me during our brief encounters at the radiologist’s office. She and my husband often sat together and waited for me and for him to complete our treatments for the day. She seemed very grateful to have my husband’s company during this very difficult time and they grew close in a very short time.

I learned so many wonderful things about him today through the words of his former colleagues, neighbors, family friends and family members that I wish I had had the chance to get to know him better. I learned he was a natural-born master gardener, historian and journalist, and to top it off, a great father and husband. I learned that The Student Briefing pages in Newsday that I used often with my students to address a wide variety of topics were largely written by him. He also wrote a highly regarded book on the history of Long Island, As if all this were not enough, he was in the first group of volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the early ’60s. His wife was in the second group, and not more than a year later, he proposed to her.

His daughters who both eulogized him were tearful and conveyed a picture of a father who cherished everything about them. His departure clearly left a big hole in their lives. His wife, a gracious and lovely woman, spoke of their early romance and the 50 years they shared as a couple. He came from a very poor background but managed, nonetheless, to live a very full and complete life. When I thought again about that look of panic on his face described earlier, I felt it must have been very difficult for such an accomplished and sensitive man to know he was facing his final days. His body was failing him, but his mind grasped every nuance of the terrible situation he was in.

I am so glad I got to learn more about him today and it made me think about my own life. What will I have accomplished? Who loved me more than life itself? How will I face my own demise? These are not happy thoughts, but they are profound human thoughts that we all experience. Hearing about this man’s life today made me want to live an even better life in the days, months or years that are left for me to live.

A Slice Can Be Many Things…

Sometimes I do some of my best thinking while I am in transit. When I am flying somewhere is when my thoughts take flight! I must feel very liberated from my daily concerns, because I truly become very imaginative in an airplane. The next best place for me to do some creative thinking is while I am driving. Since retiring, I miss my morning and afternoon commute of 30 to 40 minutes for that reason alone. It allowed me to mull over what I needed to accomplish in the day ahead of me and to review how things transpired. Today, while driving home from an appointment in Stony Brook, a drive which takes about an hour, I had a lot of time to think about the spring snowfall and the past several weeks of this writing challenge.

I began to meditate on the phrase, Slice of Life, a title which I love for this writing endeavor. It’s a phrase that says so much in so few words, and allows the writer pretty much free-range in how to respond to it. I think of it as an opportunity to tell a small story from my own life experience in the most interesting way I am capable of doing on any given day. Today’s slice is not a story, however. It’s about the word “slice” and the many ways we use it in daily lives.

The first thought that popped into my head while driving was, “No matter how you slice it, it’s still boloney.” I became curious about its derivation so I whipped out my
ipad and found lots of websites that address this question. Here’s what I found:

1933. “Some of our leading scholars trace it back to a favorite American saying of that time, “No matter how thin you slice it, it is still boloney.”
New York Times, 29 November, p.18

Of course that citation shed little light on the saying beyond when it first began to be used, but it’s a saying I often use and still often hear.

A Slice of the Cake. This idiom was explained as being engaged in some sort of enterprise and wanting a “share” of the benefits (such as money). Not to be confused with “A Piece of Cake,” used to describe an experience that turns out to be somewhat effortless. This assignment was “a piece of cake.”

Alfred Hitchcock has been quoted as saying: “For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” An interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?

I began to imagine different slices…
…a slice of pizza
…a slice of pie
…a slice of bologna
…a slice of bread
…a slice of land, etc.
Each of these slices conjures up such a unique but very familiar image. My continued inquiry led me to the words “slice off.” For this expression I found a delightful saying:
“A slice off a cut loaf is never missed.”
Precisely my thought when I have been sneaking a slice of something that I am not supposed to be eating….’tho I had never actually heard anyone use that expression.

Finally, there’s the term slice as it is used in sports. From spending too much time with my husband watching the tennis channel, I have learned that the “slice” is a powerful type of volley in tennis:

Slice…”A stroke that applies spin to either cause the ball to swerve in the air and/or stay low after bouncing.”

All the best tennis players incorporate the “slice” into their winning strategies.

That’s as far as today’s exploration of our friendly expression, “slice of life” has taken me. Have you got anything to add to the list?

ipad and found

A Kooky iPad Class

They just kept coming through the door…mature types, all ages and sizes. One man even arrived in a wheelchair. They all looked very determined. I started to get worried. My library offered this one session ipad class to help people become familiar with the versatility of the ipad, especially the APPs. I had hoped that the class would be comprised mostly of people like myself who were not total newbies to the tech world, but who needed some guidance. I should have realized that if it’s free…the seniors will come in droves!

Since my retirement I am learning a lot about this senior world. Some of it is good; some not so good. My Chair Yoga class comprised only of seniors has been the answer to my dreams (see yesterday’s slice, Yoga with a Chair) and is helping me back on the path to restored health after a bout with cancer. But many of the seniors arriving for this class are the tigers of the senior world. The class was free and they were determined!

At the outset of the workshop the instructor made a very polite plea for everyone to focus on what he was teaching, and to please not engage in side conversations which would make the class very difficult to control. This worked for about 10 minutes until the hands started going up, always in the middle of one of the instructor’s sentences. The questions were invariably off whatever topic he was on, thereby changing the pace and focus of the whole group. At first, this seemed merely thoughtless, but as it continued it became highly annoying because each person seemed to be wanting the instructor’s personal attention.

Occasionally someone would say something very funny. Whether it was intended to be or not I couldn’t help laughing. For example, suddenly a woman spoke out loudly, “I just received an email from JoAnne asking to share my…” The instructor very patiently tried to address her problem. Moments later she again interrupted saying out loud, “I don’t know anyone named Joanne.” I burst out laughing because the comment demonstrated the “I don’t have a clue, but I insist on making my presence known” type of senior I have encountered at many free workshops at the library.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m a senior, too. But my Mom raised me to be polite and respectful of others…often to my own detriment. After shushing the woman at my table who kept insisting on consulting her tablemates each time she couldn’t figure out something, I finally said, “What about my requests to shush you don’t you understand? I can’t hear the instructor while you keep talking.” I might as well have been talking to the wall. She gave me a nasty look and kept right on doing her thing.

I did manage to learn a lot more about my ipad than I came in knowing, and the instructor was excellent. But I will definitely think twice about attending another free workshop at the library unless it’s after dark when many of my fellow seniors prefer not to drive!