Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Aging’ Category

498. Remembering Mum on Mother’s Day

In Aging, Family, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender, Work on May 9, 2021 at 1:05 pm

                Mum’s bleeding hearts

On this glorious early-May Mother’s Day, I sit in bed with my second cup of tea, thinking of my mother, who passed away three years ago. Though she is still very much with me, I so miss the quality of her active presence in the world—my world. As I contemplate retirement and feel overwhelmed at the very thought of all that must be done to prepare for it, I think of Mum, who plunged into every task and saw it through with determination. She worked so hard to make life for our family easier than it had been for her and her brothers and sisters when they were growing up, and even when she could have sat back and rested on her laurels she couldn’t let go of the lifelong habit of hard work. The house my parents bought at retirement was the biggest one they had ever owned, but Mum never even considered hiring anyone to clean it. She did it all herself until Alzheimer’s Disease prevented her from doing it any longer.

Dad told me a story about Mum from the time when they were first courting. Visiting the flat that he shared with another bachelor, she was shocked at the state of it. She entreated Dad to let her clean it for him, and he eventually acquiesced, although he had some qualms about allowing his girlfriend to do such dirty work. But for Mum, work was never dirty, and cleanliness was next to godliness. Dad said that when she was done he could hardly recognize the flat, sparkling clean; and when his roommate returned he was absolutely astounded.

Mum didn’t limit her cleaning to her boyfriend’s digs, but also took on his washing and ironing. Again, Dad said he made an effort to deter her, but I suspect it was a rather feeble effort, because he loved dressing well, and must have found it hard to maintain his own high standards in that tiny apartment in cold, damp, sunless London. Mum took his shirts away with her and returned them to him spotlessly clean—washed, dried, aired, and ironed.

All this Dad told me in wistful tones, as if he hadn’t fully appreciated all Mum’s hard work through the years. Even as the Alzheimer’s took hold, she continued to try to clean the kitchen, tearing off strip after strip of paper towels and wiping down the countertops with an energy born of the frustration that she was unable to do more. At first Dad, thrifty as both our parents were, was annoyed by the number of paper towels Mum was wasting, until I pointed out to him that she was only trying to hold on to some remaining control in her own kitchen, most of which had been taken away from her. As was always his way, Dad was instantly penitent, and never complained about waste again.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before Mum couldn’t even wipe down the surfaces anymore, turning instead to untangling and smoothing down the fringes on the woven placemats as she sat at the dining-room table. For my part I remembered wistfully how, before Alzheimer’s, she would race to wash all the pots and pans before sitting down to dinner while we entreated her to join us so that we could begin our meal without guilt. She did this because she knew that after the evening meal was over and it was time to relax in the living room, she would instantly fall fast asleep, exhausted, even while her tea was still hot. For Mum was a lifelong early riser, up for hours before the rest of us even stirred in our beds. The only exception was Baby Nikhil, also an early riser in those days. Whenever we were staying over at our parents’ house, Grandma Gladys—or GG—would play with him energetically while I, never a morning person, took my own sweet time to get myself in gear.

Mum, detail from one of Dad’s paintings

So here I am on Mother’s Day, looking out at the garden and contemplating my To Do list. Thanks to dear Andrew I have now breakfasted and had both my morning cups of tea. The bird feeder and bird bath are full, freshly-potted marigolds glowing orange in the courtyard, and sunlight streaming in through all the new Spring greenery. Mum would have loved to sit out on the terrace with me underneath the umbrella, bird-watching or doing the Times crossword. To be honest, though, with the exception of her first cup of coffee at the crack of dawn when her mind was the sharpest and she would whizz through even the hardest crossword in record time, she never sat still until, perhaps, late afternoons in retirement. Then she would join Dad under the umbrella in the back garden, her flower garden in full bloom, enjoying a cold glass of her favorite Miller Lite and, finally, allowing herself to look upon her handiwork and see that it was good. Here’s to you, dear Mum!

NB: Lest you get the impression from the above that Mum was all work and no play, nothing could be further from the truth. She had a passion for life and, ever restless with the status quo, longed to live it more fully than ever. Endlessly interested in people, she tended to make friends with women much younger than herself because she was forward-thinking and young at heart. She adored children and never tired of making up games to play with them. She never stopped teaching or learning either. Mum loved music and dancing, as I have written in other posts. And she never could resist a Kit-Kat.

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495. Clothes and Clothing

In Aging, Britain, clothing, culture, Music, Stories, United States, women & gender, Words & phrases on April 3, 2021 at 11:15 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Clothing is used to cover and protect one’s body from threats of all kinds, and it is used performatively, to mask and dissemble. Clothing can make you feel more fully yourself but it can help you present yourself as someone else, someone more socially acceptable. Clothes make the man, as they say. They can bolster your confidence or expose your vulnerabilities. No wonder there is such a wealth of idiomatic language involving clothes and clothing, in sayings and expressions that refer to covering up, like the predatory wolf in sheep’s clothing and to stripping away, like the emperor in the fairytale whose new clothes turned out to be his birthday suit. (Here’s Danny Kaye telling the story in his inimitable fashion.)

Let’s start with clothing in general. Someone who dresses well and has good taste in clothes is said to have dress sense. If they are obsessed with clothes and buy rather too many of them, they may be referred to as a clothes horse, which is also that folding wooden rack on which you hang your clothes out to dry (something that is coming back into use now that people are trying to reduce their carbon footprints). When you get dressed up for a party, you put on your glad rags, and when you really go all out, you’re dressed to the nines or puttin’ on the Ritz, as in the Irving Berlin song of 1930, written during the Great Depression when someone who had lost everything—lost his shirt, you might say—made an extra-special effort to put his best foot forward. Fred Astaire certainly did! All these sayings are relatively positive, but there are plenty of others that indicate failure or disapproval in various ways.

Society imposes heavy pressure on the young, but also on the elderly. My mother used to worry, as she got older, of being seen as mutton dressed like lamb, as she would put it. In my youthful self-involvement I would scoff at the idea, telling her that she looked lovely–which she did. But it was not until I reached that age myself that I began to understand the social pressure to dress one’s age and, as an older woman, fade discreetly into the background. Times change, though, and I like to think that women of my generation, always a feisty lot, have refused to conform to social expectations that dictate their disappearance.

To pick up the pace here, I’ll wrap up with a quick rundown of some more clothing-related  anachronidioms many of which are as gendered as clothing itself. There’s the expression, wearing the trousers (or pants, in the U.S.), as in, “It’s clear who wears the trousers in that household.” It’s equally clear that it refers to the woman of the house, since she is the one who is not supposed to be wearing them; and that this idiom, though still in use, started to sound outdated as soon as it became common for women to wear trousers in public.

Clothing idioms can be used to make open threats as well as to express social disapproval. The colorful, I’ll have your guts for garters, used to be popular, but with the wearing of garters on the wane, it just doesn’t have the same currency anymore. As for shirts, generous people would give you the shirt off their backs and compulsive gamblers would lose theirs. Having a bee in one’s bonnet has gone out of use with bonnets and a bad hat might have been familiar to the children reading Madeline and the Bad Hat in the 1950s, but little boys don’t wear hats so much anymore, even if bad hats may still take pleasure in torturing small animals. In other images of repression and compulsion, young people speak freely of toxic parents, but not so much of being tied to Mother’s apron strings. In the days of corsets and stays, and hundreds of little buttons on women’s clothing, someone who was so uptight they could hardly breathe was said to be buttoned up. Not to put too fine a point on things, someone who was fired from their job was given the boot. They still are.  

Many clothing idioms seem to come in opposing pairs. One rolls up one’s sleeves to dig into some honest hard work but keeps something up one’s sleeve—often an ace—to hold in secret reserve and use to one’s advantage when the time is right. Listen for it in the second verse of John Prine’s Spanish Pipedream (1971).

From sleeves to gloves and a final pair of idioms, both suggesting the arrogation of authority by the powerful. To handle someone with kid gloves means to treat a difficult person delicately, with great fastidiousness and care, care that they probably don’t deserve. This person is difficult because he can afford to be, and the kid (leather) gloves—made from the skins of baby goats—are not something that just anyone can afford, only the filthy rich. Today, ordinary people wear gloves for work and to keep them warm, but rarely for mere decoration. And then there is the velvet glove, the one with the iron fist inside it. Sadly, that doesn’t look to be going out of fashion anytime soon.

(Done! And to think I sat down to write a short entry off the cuff.)

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491. Anticipation, Not Dread

In Aging, Music, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on January 26, 2021 at 2:06 pm

I’m one of those people who can go from zero to sixty in an instant: a human panic button. It doesn’t matter whether the precipitating factor is a trivial matter like the milk for my tea going bad or an enormity like the war on Yemen: in either case I’m on a hair trigger. I’ve always insisted that I’m not really anxious, that it’s just my way of letting off steam; but this has allowed me to dismiss the corrosive effect of my explosive behavior, not only on my own well-being, but also on people around me. It must be exhausting to interact with someone who is perpetually on high alert about one thing or another. And, I’m increasingly recognizing, it can be exhausting to be that person.

“There’s no problem here.” This proposition has presented itself to me two or three times in as many weeks, raised by different people in different settings. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as irresponsibly acquiescent, when vigilance and resistance is required at this time. Of course this world is rife with problems. But as Pete Seeger reminds us in Turn, Turn, Turn, there is a time and a season for everything. And nobody would accuse the author of If I Had a Hammer of acquiescence. 

What would it mean to tell oneself that there was no problem here? Our meditation teacher has asked us to give this question some consideration. Of course there are many problems, internal and external, small and large. But what purpose does it serve to identify with every problem? Perhaps it does nothing but get one’s knickers in a twist. Might it not be better all round to be able to discern whether or not a given situation needs to be considered a problem in the first place, and whether making it a problem does anything but give one an adrenaline rush?

Moving from the impersonal “one” to the first person—me, that is—how might it be different if I pushed a mental pause, rather than a panic, button when each new situation presented itself? It would give me time to think and space to breathe. It would allow me to assess the seriousness and scope of the situation. It would enable me to determine whether it was something I could affect positively by my actions, and if not, to simply set it aside rather than fretting needlessly about it. And if it was something critically important to me, that pause would allow me to consider how I might address it most effectively.

An example that I’m dealing with now. Next week I start teaching again after a semester-long sabbatical leave. During this time my colleagues have been learning how to use videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom to conduct their classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that I have a lot of catching up to do. I could sound off about it—and believe me, I have—or I could start addressing the situation. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, because I have the time and the tools to deal with it before it becomes a problem. However, my default mode would be to make a tremendous fuss about it and demand that all my friends and my long-suffering spouse make a fuss about it too. Wouldn’t the best course of action simply be to get on with it, asking questions and getting answers, revising my syllabi for the new situation, and reminding myself that my students are likely to be struggling with it much more than I am. It is in the nature of this situation that we will encounter problems—personal, political, psychological, technological—but we are in it  together and we must deal with it together. The trick for me is to look upon my return to teaching not with dread, but with anticipation, and to prepare for it accordingly.

I can’t do anything about the zero-to-sixty phenomenon that seems to have turned me into a Senior Citizen overnight; but I can adjust the hair-trigger 0-60 setting on my fight-or-flight response. In fact I must: it’s unsustainable at my age. What I’ve come to see is that a panic response makes it impossible to deal with any situation optimally. Quite the opposite: it turns every new situation into a problem.

Yes, there is a problem here, but it’s one of my own making.

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486. Fingerprinted and Found Wanting

In 2000s, Aging, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Work on November 2, 2020 at 2:04 am

immigration fingerprinting (Chris Schneider)

After decades of living in the United States as a Permanent Resident Alien, I began the process of applying for citizenship. I suppose I had waited a long time to take the plunge, so perhaps it was only what I deserved to be kept waiting in turn–interminably, it seemed. I filled out and submitted my application for naturalization back in July 2007, in plenty of time to be able to vote in the 2008 presidential election, or so I thought. But nothing happened for a very long time, and all in all the process took nearly two years. My citizenship test and interview were not scheduled until August, 2008, and it was not until March 2009, when the election had come and long gone and the new president had already been inaugurated, that I finally attended my own inauguration into U.S. citizenship, the mass swearing-in ceremony. But the first sign that the wheels of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) were starting to creak into action had come in mid-December 2007, when I received a letter informing me of my appointment to be fingerprinted.

Both the citizenship interview and the swearing-in took place in Boston, but the fingerprinting operation was in Hartford, Connecticut—a little bit closer to home but, as it turned out, much more alienating. It took place in a crowded, dingy office where I was given the distinct feeling that we were already considered guilty until we could somehow prove otherwise. The waiting area was the most unwelcoming place, rather like an old Greyhound Bus station in the sleaziest part of town. All the applicants—whether pregnant, elderly, or infirm it made no difference—were treated with casual disregard if not outright hostility. Although I knew I was a privileged immigrant and had had an easy time in comparison to many others, in that office I got just a taste of what it felt like to be just one of many miserable supplicants abjectly seeking entry into the most powerful country on earth.

At last my name was called. The man rolling and squishing my inked fingers made no effort to be personable, to soften the humiliating ordeal, and as he worked his irritation seemed to increase. Finally he remarked that my fingerprints were very worn, and managed to make it sound like an act of defiance on my part, or if not, then some kind of character defect. I had been tried and found wanting. Was he suggesting that I had deliberately worn down my prints so as to pervert the course of justice? Or simply saying that I was an inferior specimen? I did my best to disregard him, but again, was given the distinct impression that I was a dirty foreigner who didn’t deserve the honor I had had the presumption to seek.

Apparently bricklayers, who handle rough materials, and secretaries, who handle lots of paper, are the most susceptible to the wearing-down of their fingerprints. In my early 50s by then, I had done both–heavy manual work at the greenhouse and the farm and plenty of paper-handling at the press, not to mention mountains of washing besides. But I was not ashamed of my washerwoman’s hands, evidence of hard work (and of forgetting to wear rubber gloves when I did the dishes). So yes, my fingers were work-worn; what did they want to make of it?

My prints may now be part of a massive digital fingerprint file going right back to the 1990s. In 2018 the USCIS announced a plan to digitize their entire archive of fingerprints taken from applicants for naturalization, in a move to be able to deport people retroactively, even after they have already become U.S. citizens. Just knowing this keeps you on edge which is, no doubt, the intention. Don’t get too settled! You’re still an outsider.

Here are a couple of songs for all the hard-working immigrants out there—Hoyt Axton’s Boney Fingers and the Rolling Stones’ Salt of the Earth. Hold your heads high. Make no mistake, no matter what Homeland Security and the Border Patrol might say, America needs you; it is not just you who should have to prove yourself worthy, but this country that should have to earn your respect.

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479. Of Accessibility

In Aging, Family, Nature, Stories on May 28, 2020 at 10:44 pm

Last summer,  setting up our first-ever bird feeder, we made sure to get one that was guaranteed squirrel-proof. My parents had had a terrible time of it for years; trying to keep squirrels off the bird feeder was almost as hard as trying to keep monkeys off the mango trees. Finally they found a design that worked well, and Dad rigged up an inverted cone on the pole that held it up to make the feeder inaccessible from below as well as from above. So when we went hunting for our own we wanted to make sure that the feeder would be accessible only to birds—and small birds at that, so that big bullies wouldn’t rule the roost.

On expert advice we strung a wire between two trees and hung the feeder on the wire, so that the most intrepid squirrels wouldn’t be able to tightrope-walk along it and then shimmy down to the feeder. To our delight it worked; and the squirrels haven’t lost out altogether, because they are able to eat the seed that falls onto the flat rock below. So everyone is happy.

Of course, the squirrels never stop trying to get at the feeder. They clamber up the laurel bush growing at the base of the rock, but its top branches can’t bear their weight and they are toppled to the ground every time. Ever hopeful, they try shinning up the trunk of first one tree, then the other, but to no avail. Once, during the winter, when we had some felled logs in a pile by the rock, one managed to leap off the top log onto the bottom of the feeder, but when it got there all it could do was hang on for dear life. It couldn’t find a footing on the little perch that the birds used.

We went a step further and put out the bird bath that my parents had had at their house. Now the worry was not the squirrels but the large hunting tomcat that prowls our neighborhood. Right in front of our eyes it has killed and carried off a squirrel as well as a bird, and we didn’t want to lure birds to the bath only to make them targets for the cat.

Andrew had some heavy ceramic drainpipe pieces over at our old house, and I brought one over and set the bird bath atop it. Perfect: it was now high enough to prevent the birds from becoming sitting ducks. Squirrels could and did spring up onto the bird bath as well, and we didn’t mind that—after all, they needed a drink too. But now the bath was inaccessible to another small creature—the resident chipmunk who lived under the big stone doorstep to the courtyard. We watched it try and fail to make the leap up to the bath, but it was about five times its height; impossible.

So Andrew had the idea of standing a log next to the bird bath so that the chipmunk could use it as a stepping stone. We found one just the right size, put it in place and waited. The first customer, we were disappointed to see, was a squirrel. But before we could get indignant, we realized that it was a very young and tentative squirrel who needed the log almost as much as the chipmunk did. Finally our wait was rewarded. The little chipmunk clearly decided that it needed a running jump, so it started racing along the parapet of the courtyard wall at an amazing clip, leaped up to the log, and then, with barely a pause, onto the edge of the bird bath and that cool, fresh water.

Accessible to birds and inaccessible to squirrels.
Accessible to birds and squirrels, but also to cats.
Inaccessible to cats but also to chipmunks.
Accessible to chipmunks and youthful squirrels.

Accessible too, to dive-bombing blue-jays, who love to show off and are a bit too big for the songbird feeder. When we first set up the bird bath I came upon three of them sitting with the water up to their chests like three men in a tub. Spotting me they started and flailed their wings and splashed madly before taking off with maximum drama. What a sight!

It’s a delight to sit in the dining room and watch this endlessly unfolding scene. Sheltering at home with the birds and small beasts, one hardly misses human company.

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476. Youth (and Age) in a Changing America

In 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2020 at 7:04 pm

This is the twenty-fifth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

As I approach the finish line of this whirlwind review of the last 50 years in America, my face is way up close to the screen as I look around at things that are unfolding now and try to see ahead to the United States post-pandemic. As I do so find myself thinking about youth more and more; not my youth, not youth as a stage of life, but the youth of this country and what they are going to inherit. I’m also thinking about the relationship between youth and age, not as a generation gap, but as a collaboration.

In this past month’s daily posts I seem to have been relying on more and more hastily hyperlinked data, but today I want to keep it simple and you can call me on my claims if they’re not supported by facts. But in every opinion poll I’ve looked at, the youth across the country are more tolerant, more open-minded, more ready to embrace difference than any other age group. The youth are more politically liberal than any other group; restrictions on voting are one of the main obstacles to their playing a major role in the outcome of Presidential elections. The youth are the most concerned about the threat of unchecked climate change and the most willing to do something to do something about it. Finally, thanks to this generation of youth, America is only going to get more demographically diverse as time goes on.

‘Post-Millennials’ on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As for my generation, the Baby Boomers rapidly going into what may or may not be a prolonged old age (depending on whether COVID-19 or some other catastrophe wipes a large number of us out), our proportion of the population is projected to rise steadily over the next forty years. We vote in higher numbers, but we are also whiter, more conservative, less willing to accept climate change as a reality, more fearful of immigrants, and more resistant to the reality of an increasingly diverse America. Although a new wave of young people and women are being elected to Congress and are already making waves, wealthy old white men still dominate both Congress and the Senate; until they wake up or get out of the way, they are going to be an obstacle to the structural change needed to green the planet, reduce the wealth gap, and increase the security and quality of life for the rest of us.

Rally for Bernie Sanders in L.A.

I loved the relationship that Senator Bernie Sanders had with young people during his Presidential campaigns. The mutual love and respect was tangible. He refused to be a guru figure, lecturing or preaching to his disciples from a lofty height; young people ran his campaign and he looked to them to shape his policy and correct his course when needed. They joined him in much higher numbers than they did to young candidates like Pete Buttigieg.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally in Wichita, Kansas, July 20, 2018. (J Pat Carter / Getty Images)

You don’t automatically get respect by virtue of age; you have to earn it. And the way to earn it is to learn how to listen, speaking to everyone as equals equally worth of respect, regardless of age; keep reaching out to people and sharing your skills and life experience with them; and as long as you have breath in your body, keep being willing to step up when there is work to be done, inspiring younger people to step up with you. Bernie certainly did, and still is doing so as a Senator, fighting for the working people of America  who are the most vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus in a society that values the Almighty Dollar more than human life. Not Me, Us was his campaign’s slogan, and he lived it; young and old alike recognized that and felt embraced, not shunted aside as they are so often.

To me that is the ideal relationship between youth and age, something to aspire to. Pete Seeger had that relationship with young people as well, insisting on going to elementary schools and singing with the schoolchildren into his nineties. Here they are together, making and singing  Bob Dylan’s Forever Young in a project by and for Amnesty International.

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473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violent over the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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464. Middle Age

In 1990s, Aging, Family, Immigration, parenting, reflections, Stories, women & gender on April 16, 2020 at 10:26 pm

This is the thirteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Middle Age.

In the late 1990s I officially entered middle age, if the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary and the United States Census are to be accepted. Since they both designate middle age as the years from about age 45 to 65, I am just moving out of that middle period now, and entering a whole new stage of life. But can I cast my mind back to those years in which I was still approaching it? To be honest, it is all a bit of a blur.

During the decade of the 1990s our son moved from starting kindergarten to finishing his first year of high school, with the dizzying array of activities that fill those years. How busy we keep our children! In parallel, I completed my doctoral work and started my first fulltime faculty position, a 215-mile roundtrip commute north of us. Rather than relocate our nuclear family, which was settled happily in a congenial community with our parents on both sides having recently retired nearby, I opted to drive up on Tuesday mornings, rent a room in a house for two nights a week, and return home on Thursday evenings. I suppose it worked, more or less, but it was exhausting, and the almost-continuous shuttling made it hard to simply rest in any one place for long. Sometimes I wonder what it was all for. Perhaps that’s the nature of the striving that defines so much of our working lives. At the time it seems essential; but in retrospect, not so much.

Despite how officialdom defines age groups, they also vary depending on place, education, and social class. In the mid-1970s, when I was looking into midwifery, one of the paths I considered for a time after college, the British midwifery manual labeled a thirty-year-old first-time mother an “elderly primipara.” (Now, by the way, that age has been scaled up to thirty-five.). In  the 1980s when we moved to a farm in a rural community I was an ancient first-time mother at thirty. There were plenty of grandmothers not much older than I was. But when in 1990 we moved to the university town where we still live, I was enviably young with a kindergartner at 35, since so many women had postponed having children until they were established in their professional careers.

The 1978 portrait of the Brown sisters (© 2014   Nicholas Nixon)

There’s another interesting thing about the relativity of age: one’s perception of one’s own age in relation to the rest of the population. In my twenties and early thirties, I felt that I was younger than most other people round me. Whether or not that was indeed the case, I was caught up in my youthful concerns and nobody else really mattered. In my later thirties and forties, I still felt on the young side, but noticed that there were about as many people younger than me as there were older than me. But increasingly, entering my fifties and on up into my sixties, I’ve become acutely aware that I am either the oldest person in the room or alternatively, one among many grey-haired or bald people in my age group, with nary a young face to be seen.

  The 1988 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

How did my perceptions square with actual population demographics? In 1980, when I was 25, the median age of the U.S. population was 30, so I was younger than many others, but comparatively speaking not as young as I had thought. Ten years later, in 1990, when I was 35, the median age was 32.9, so I was just about in the middle; and by 2000, when,at 45, I was entering middle age, the median age of the U.S. population was 35.3, making me fully ten years older than the average American. I still didn’t feel my age.

The 1999 portrait (© 2014 Nicholas Nixon)

All through the 1990s I had the metabolism of my youth. I was pretty much the same weight as I had been in high school, and I still could and did eat anything, and as much of it as I liked without the scales moving in the slightest. My hair was getting greyer, but I was dyeing it at home with an peroxide-free German product that looked very natural, so nobody noticed but me. I seemed to have boundless energy, too, although the long commutes were silently taking  their toll on my system.

It turns out that I was a kind of Dorian Gray through most of my middle age, in that while until age 55 I was regularly considered the person in our group of friends who had aged the least, I was living as if there was no tomorrow in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress reduction. The hidden painting was the one that was aging, not me. But sometime in my early 60s it all caught up with me at once, the middle-age spread, wrinkles, thinning hair, “senior moments,” the inability to concentrate after a certain hour in the evening. Suddenly, it seemed, far from looking young for my age, I looked considerably older than my agemates who had been steadily taking care of themselves. But perhaps that too is all a matter of self-perception.

Something else happened to me as I approached middle age that was less about self-perception than about how one is perceived by others. Not just anyone, though; I’m talking about women in particular. At a certain age, women just disappear; once they are no longer perceived as sexual beings, they are no longer noticed at all. I had read of this phenomenon of middle-aged women’s invisibility and my mother had been telling me about it for years. She would storm in, furious at having been passed over while waiting for service in a store in favor of a much younger woman. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” she would fume. “I complained, but then they looked as me as if I was crazy and answered in patronizing tones as if I were a child.” I would sympathize with her but had no idea of what it was really like until it started happening to me. With regularity.

Still, despite the messages from society, I persisted in feeling younger than I was. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center, Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality, found that the older people get, they younger they feel; until they’re about 30 they feel their actual age, but by age 45 they feel ten years younger.

What has advancing middle age meant to me as an immigrant? Having come to the United States when there were very few immigrants here from anywhere except Europe, I feel like a living historical archive, that I have a lot to share with those who have arrived more recently. I also feel less lonely. As a 1.5-generation immigrant (known as such because they bring with them or maintain characteristics from their home country, meanwhile engaging in assimilation and socialization with their new country), I feel that I can understand both first-generation immigrants and their American-born children. And as I move into and beyond middle age, I delight in the fact that the demographics of the American population are starting to skew in favor of immigrants and people of color. While I was in a tiny minority when I first arrived in this country in 1970, when immigrants made up only 5 percent of the population, in 2020 it has risen to nearly 15 percent; if you additionally count the American-born children of immigrant parents, we are looking at fully 28 percent of the population.


Going back to that 2009 Pew Research Center survey about growing old in America, it found that people aged 75 and older had a count-my-blessings attitude when asked to look back over the full arc of their lives and measure it against their expectations. Younger people, by contrast, were much less forgiving of themselves. I am learning to replace judgement with acceptance. My invisibility—a magic cloak for older women. My steel-grey hair—I embrace it. As for my middle-aged spread, I’ve always been scarecrow-thin. Now I’m what Indians of an earlier generation would have called “healthy”, before Euro-American norms reshaped their standards of beauty.

Looking back, I feel protective toward the forty-year-old me, approaching middle age. I want to give her a gold star for effort, but also give her permission to slow down, breathe, and enjoy life a little more.

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449. The Farthest Field

In Aging, Books, Childhood, Family, Music, Nature, parenting, people, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on February 15, 2020 at 11:47 am

painting by Jim Turner

As I advance farther and farther into the territory of old age, I notice that time is doing funny things. It’s a truism that time speeds up as one gets older, and so far I must report that it appears to be true. (It’s mid-February already; weren’t we just marking New Year’s Eve? My friend’s granddaughter is ten already? Surely not; didn’t we only just celebrate her third birthday?) The events that follow inexorably upon each other—daily, weekly, semester after semester, annually—seem to be scrolling by until they are almost a blur. I used to be pretty good at anticipating, preparing for, and keeping track of them; now I can barely nod to them as they gallop by, while—unless I exert a tremendous effort of will—I am increasingly a bystander rather than a participant.

It’s not just the pace of life that I notice, but also the problem of desire. Increasingly, if I miss a meeting or a deadline, I find that I don’t much care. As Arundhati Roy wrote (in a very different context) of her main character Rahel (at the “viable-dieable” age of 31) in The God of Small Things: “Nothing much mattered. And the less it mattered, the less it mattered.” Am I letting myself go, as my mother would have put it? Succumbing to inertia, as my father warned me when he was the age I am now? (See TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself.) Is this a phenomenon I am simply to stand back and observe, or do I force myself to jump back into the fray?

The thing is, I do care, deeply, and have never stopped caring, about the people whom I love and the struggles and injustices in this world. I want to keep acting in it until I can do so no longer. But, as John Prine wrote in the voice of an old man in Hello in There, “all the news just repeats itself like some forgotten dream”(see TMA 333).  As I watch history repeating itself I’m still trying to sound a warning note, but increasingly allowing myself to let younger people take the lead.

I realize that the mere fact of getting older doesn’t let me off the hook. I have responsibility for those around me. Roy’s “the less it mattered, the less it mattered” is a real thing, and at the core a symptom of depression, as indeed it was in Rahel’s case. Surfacing from those depths requires more than an  act of will. But there’s another responsibility I have now that I am officially an Elder, and that is to step back and take a long view of the frenetically unspooling action of the world. As long as I am alive I can’t stop acting, and I certainly can’t stop the world, but it is high time that I gave as much time and attention to reflecting upon action, most especially my own.

If I can’t stop the world, I can endeavor to slow it down, at least long enough to hold it for a moment in my mind’s eye. Looking back at the events of the past month, decade, fifty years—for February 6th marked the 50th anniversary of my first arrival in this country—not with nostalgia, but with as much honesty and insight as I can muster—I must try to learn something from it all while I still can. Last month I found a bag full of diaries, including my schoolgirl diaries from 1966 and 1968, and hardly dared read through them in my jaded hindsight, to look with compassion on the mostly-clueless young me, emoting and reacting and taking so much for granted. I made myself do it, though, and among the typically adolescent banalities, found threads that carry forward to the person I still recognize today, in all her flaws and fierceness. I see now why people of a certain age write their memoirs, not so much for others—although no doubt they hope to be able to pass on something that they have learned—but for themselves, as they try to make sense of all that has unfolded in their time and their place within it.

Two more observations before I put the laptop away, dress, and plunge into this busy Saturday.

I want to note the distinction between the words farther and further. In the United States, according to Merriam-Webster, “farther” tends to refer to physical distance while “further” more often refers to metaphorical distance. “Further” also means “moreover” or “additional”, depending on whether it is used as an adverb or a verb. But Merriam-Webster further observes that the two words have been used interchangeably for a long time, and the distinction is by no means a clear-cut one. While The Cambridge Dictionary (U.K.) makes similar but more nuanced distinctions between farther and further, it ultimately maintains their interchangeability. In its book, “farther” is used to refer not just to distance (for which it says the more common word is “further”) but to distance away from the speaker. Since we experience the past and project the future in terms of their distance from ourselves, “farther” is the operative word here, for my purposes. But why does this matter here?

Roger, the beloved founder of RUSH, the singing group I participate in every month, recently passed away, to our abiding sadness. In the last couple of years he had introduced us to a number of songs that looked ahead to the as-yet-uncharted territory of death and dying, and retrospectively I see that he had been preparing himself and us all to face what was to come with courage, and even with gladness. One of those songs was The Farthest Field, which I now sing with gratitude for his farsightedness. Death is not metaphorical.

And a memory of my dear mother, who died nearly two years ago. As the Alzheimer’s advanced, that dreadful disease that progressively blocked her cognitive pathways and ultimately took away her voice, all time seemed to her to fold, like a closing concertina, into the present. Of course I can’t know exactly how she experienced it, but one Christmas season found her taking out all the old cards sent over the years by her distant family members and lovingly displaying her favorites all over the house. Our first reaction was one of annoyance: why was Mum taking out all these old cards, and mixing them up with the new ones that were starting to arrive? How would we be able to tell who had sent us cards this year? But upon reflection I thought differently: Mum had always treasured the Christmas cards sent to us by her family in England, no matter where in the world we were living. Now, as the significance of any time of year— indeed, of Time itself—was fading rapidly, what mattered to her what the joy which welled up in her as she handled each of these precious expressions of love. Increasingly, I too find myself sharing Mum’s feelings about these cards. It is February, and I have put away the cards with overtly Christmassy images on them, but have left some of the others up, simply because they are beautiful and continue to bring me joy.

Oh my dear friends/I truly love/to hear your voices
Lifted up in radiant song;
Though through the years/we all have made/ our separate choices
We’ve ended here where we belong.

There are further adventures ahead to which I look forward with anticipation and, of course, with some quickening of the heart. As the songs tell us, this path is each of ours alone but also, that we are all on the journey together, and I take heart from that fellowship. Until Time folds up like a concertina for me I will make the effort to stay engaged, but must increasingly take time out to pause and reflect on what it all means and how far I have come.

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447. Christmas is Coming

In Aging, Britain, Family, Music, seasons, Stories on December 11, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,
Please to put a penny in an old man’s hat;
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, the season comes around every year without asking for permission and there ain’t nothing anyone can do to fend it off. It doesn’t come quietly, but bold as brass, with all the attendant noise and paraphernalia of a traveling circus. And all over again one sighs, acquiesces, and gets with the program.

For academics in my field it’s the worst time of year bar none, with end-of-term grading followed in short order by back-to-back conferences as often as not in a distant city (for me Seattle, Washington this year), followed immediately by the start of the Spring semester which is always much more hectic than the one before. Such are my gloomy and self-involved thoughts in the fall semester’s last week of classes with the holiday season knock-knock-knocking at the door.

2019 Christmas Lights, Regent Street, London’s West End (photo: Jeff Moore)

In England, or at least in the England I know, which is, admittedly, a Ghost of Christmas Past, one can’t help but get into the spirit this time of year. The Christmas lights have come on in London’s West End (in my time the magic date was December the 6th; now, ridiculously, earlier and earlier in November), the children have written their lists and sent them off to Father Christmas, the parties at work ensure that no work gets done, Auntie Bette’s Dundee cake  has been made weeks ago and is richly beckoning in its special tin. But most of all, no matter where we are in the world, Mum is in Christmas mode.

Whether we were children in India or teenagers in the United States. as Christmas approached that magical feeling would descend upon our home. Cards would arrive from our far-flung friends and family, each one lovingly opened, pored over, and displayed to best advantage, family cards given pride of place. Mum was not much of a baker the rest of the year, but now delicious aromas would waft through the house as she made her legendary chicken pies with the flakiest of crusts, mince pies (in later years made with hard-to-find vegetarian mincemeat tracked down especially for Andrew), and for Christmas Eve, shortbread and sausage rolls. Most thrilling of all, the house would fill with whispers and secret places and rustlings of wrapping papers, as Mum would come home late, laden with bags and boxes from after-work shopping, and slip into her bedroom. She would shop for every single child in our lives, no matter how far away, painstakingly picking out something she knew that they would delight in (never anything merely useful), wrap, package, and rush to get it to the post office before the last safe mailing date for Christmas delivery. For picky people like me, who highmindedly pooh-poohed commercialism but in actual fact had rather expensive tastes, she would fret over getting just the right thing, often driving to the mall more than once to take it back and exchange it for something closer to perfect.

Teenagers are the hardest people to shop for. Not that they don’t want things—they absolutely do, no matter how much they may sneer and turn their noses up at the efforts of the clueless oldsters—but they want exactly what they want and will take no substitutes. Mum knew this, and was determined that no child of hers (and this was very broadly defined) would open a Christmas present and be disappointed; so she annoyed the rest of us to no end as she dashed back and forth to the shops, fussing and fretting over whether a particular pair of jeans, say, was the right brand and model and size and cut, to be sure that the Landlubber low-rise corduroys or Levi 501s or shrink-to-fits would fulfill our hearts’ desires on Christmas Morning.

All Mum’s racing about as Christmas approached had at its core what it had meant to her as a child who grew up in poverty but with the riches of a big family, and as someone who had left her childhood home and family after marriage, never returning to live there again for any length of time. She was determined to recreate that spirit for us in our home, and went on doing so as long as she possibly could. It could be infuriating for us as adults to have to try to live up to her impossibly high standards for the season. But the externals, though they seemed to be desperately important to her, didn’t in fact mean a damn thing. It was the Christmas Spirit she was rekindling, it was the loving connections with distant family and friends she was maintaining, it was everything she held dear that she was honoring, and, to her mind, it was what would keep our family strong in a strange land.

Now that Mum is no longer with us in person, it’s down to me whether or how I choose to celebrate the season, which will surely come and go whether I enter into it or not. All the rest of life’s commitments—student papers and recommendations, committee work, application deadlines, taxes taxes taxes—are of course there as always, however much I may try to clear them away in time. But so are they for everyone else. Hono(u)ring the season is not about duty, or religious observance (for Mum was secular to the core), or keeping up with the Joneses; it is about opening up your heart and your home and making room for who and what matters most to you. Dare I say it: Christmas is about love and hope springing eternal. At the darkest time of the year comes a shift, invisible but no less real, and we, in the northern hemisphere at least, begin moving toward the light again. So all over the world around this time of year we humans celebrate new life, the hope for redemption, even in the mess we’ve made of this beautiful planet we’re privileged to inhabit for a time.

For Dad, Christmas wasn’t Christmas until we had all watched Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. No matter how many times he’d seen it before he would get misty-eyed at Scrooge’s awakening in the proper spirit on Christmas Morning. He especially approved of the moment when Scrooge instructed (and liberally tipped) the street urchin to buy the biggest goose hanging in the butcher’s window and deliver it to Bob Cratchit’s. Because for Dad, besides indulging Mum in celebrating it as she saw fit, the Christmas spirit meant Giving. Spend as much as you want, Darling, was his silent message to Mum as she raced about, perennially unsatisfied, because perfection is not something that clicks its heels on command; one can only do one’s best to prepare for it, and hope that it will come.

So here I am. Now I need only please myself. I don’t believe in wallowing in nostalgia, but certain things mean what they mean to me. Probably the carol that best embodied both Mum and Dad’s idea of Christmas was Good King Wenceslas (sung here by The Irish Rovers). When we sang it on Christmas Eve, we women would sing the page’s part and the men the King’s. Dad the inveterate meat-eater always delighted in booming out, “Bring me flesh and bring me wine,” as the King commanded his page to prepare a feast for the poor man. Mum’s favorite part was the moral at the end, although she disregarded the religious part of it:

Therefore Christian men be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

One year, when Mum’s Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to prepare for Christmas as she had done all her life, we went to the Pelham Library for their annual holiday tea, English Mummers’ play (complete with fighting the Saracen, which always makes me wince), and Christmas caroling. She could still read then, albeit with difficulty, and joined in, clutching the song sheet in her hands. When we got to “Good King Wenceslas,” she welcomed it like an old friend and sang along heartily.

After those closing lines she turned and looked at me, as if for affirmation: “That’s good, isn’t it?” My heart melted. “Yes Mum, it certainly is.”

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