An Elder By Any Other Name

We older people get all worked up about what you call us.  You think you’re having trouble defining us?  So are we.  Maybe we’re sensitive about words because we’re still attempting to define ourselves for ourselves.  We haven’t always been this age. Everything old is new to us. 

It’s understandable that some people who are celebrating an important milestone that begins the last part of life, and that brings physical changes, and that implies fewer choices – would not want to acknowledge it with a name.  It’s as if refusing to agree on descriptions will allow old people to keep from actually getting old.   

We – and I include this oldest generation-and-a-half to take in pre-Boomers – were in the forefront of movements in the 60’s and early 70’s that were intended to do away with labels.  We fought the good fight but eventually none of us could stop people from calling us whatever they choose.  So we are sometimes called Senior or Old or Elderly or Aging.  Add to this the men who say “Call me anything but Grandpa” and the women who say “I love my grandchildren, but don’t call me Grandma.”

I’m not personally offended by any of these words.  They’re not epithets.  They’re mostly attempts to label who we are for the purpose of selling us stuff, marketing being the all-powerful force.  Whether the products are  cars or political candidates, a great deal of money changes hands according to how many of us fit into a specific demographic.

I don’t mind being identified with the older millions when it comes to advertising.  I made a living in advertising for years and I understand target audiences, but I also know of major ways in which advertisers and ad agencies are wrong in their perceptions about how elders think and feel and what we really want.  They’re turning old into a cliche and nobody wants to be a cliche.  There will be a price to pay someday for these oversights, I hope.

The older I get,  the more I resist being perceived merely as a person of a certain age. I know all the ways in which I am nothing like my peers with whom I have in common only the year of my birth.  I give up trying to come up with a word that will please everyone.  From now on I’m taking it case by case.  If a word makes me wince, I consider the intent.  If I feel it’s dismissive, I speak up.

I care very much about language that might diminish in any way the respect that should be paid to this very special time of life.  It’s our responsibility to set our standards high.  The words we’re willing to accept inform the ways we’re willing to be treated. 

Ó By Anita Garner

Grandparent Geography

My only grandchild lives in Los Angeles.  I live near San Francisco.  It’s a 400 mile trip.  I’ve checked flights and with travel to and from airports and renting a car when I get there, it’s easier to drive.  I love this place where I live but I also love that little girl, so I drive a lot.

From the time Caedan Ray was born, her mommy always said the same thing at the start of each visit.  As I scooped up the baby, she’d ask, “You got your Hammy?”  After Caedan learned to talk, when her mother asked the question, she answered with a big loud “Yes!”

During my drive south on I-5, her parents and I stay in phone contact and they tell her, “Hammy’s almost here.”  When I pull up in front, Caedan is waiting at the front door or outside, standing with a parent by my parking spot.  As soon as I’m out of the car, I hold out my arms.  So far she chooses to jump up.

At the end of each visit, after a sad goodbye, I head north toward home, already missing the little family.  At my halfway point, Harris Ranch, I feel a hint of “almost home.” The horizon shifts on the last hour of the drive.  Northern California skies always hold a promise for me.  That’s what I see when I look ahead.  

I live in Marin County, in the redwoods.  This is a place where the ratio of open space to developed land is astonishing and astonishingly beautiful.  Is it foolish to love and need specific surroundings so much?  Or is it something we’ve earned at this time of life?

During the last hour of my drive, traffic picks up considerably as I merge with drivers heading home from San Francisco, coming off the Bay Bridge and through several interchanges.  The skies shift again.  It’s usually late afternoon when I make this part of the trip, and fog rolls in.  I love fog.  It’s one of the reasons I live here.

From the top of the Richmond Bridge, I see ships alongside the dock. Welcome home.  The city shimmers in the distance.  Welcome home.  Here’s the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.  A commuter ferry coasts to a stop as I pass.  Welcome home. I approach my exit and see redwoods in the distance.  It’s familiar and beautiful and it’s blue and green and peaceful here.

But this homecoming is also teary.  As I arrive at home, I’m thinking of the greeting I received from my granddaughter when I reached her door a few days ago.  This time, she controlled everything.  She didn’t wait for me to hold out my arms.  Instead, as soon as I was out of the car, she leaped up and hugged me.  She didn’t wait for her mommy to ask the usual question.  Instead, she announced by herself for the first time, “I got my Hammy!”

It’s good to be home and it’s sad to be home.  This commute certainly isn’t getting any easier.

Ó By Anita Garner

Birds Of A Feather

Here’s a question that comes up a lot lately:  Do you still hear from her/him? I used to think it was a badge of honor to say I’ve had the same friends forever, but just as all of my old clothes don’t fit anymore, neither do all the people I used to know.  I still cherish friendships that have endured for decades, but not all the people I used to know are people I want to be with today.  When we were younger, we clumped together for various reasons.  We formed parent groups, church groups, hobby groups, business groups and volunteering-in-the-community groups.

Today I’m not so big on groups.  One size doesn’t easily fit all.  The friend who makes me laugh may not be the one with whom I want to discuss problems.  Neither does one size fit forever.  I now have a shorter list of friends and a more focused to-do list.

Recently my daughter asked, “Remember when we used to have those parties at our house and we’d have a hundred people there?”  I wonder, where did I get all that energy?  I look at photos and examine old memories and they point to the fact that indeed, fun was being had, yet it’s not a situation I’d be drawn to now.

Have you ever fallen out of touch with someone and then you reconnect and it’s just different?  These days I let an extra beat go by before deciding to restore the relationship.  A few sentences after “Hello again” we may no longer have anything to talk about.

Letting go of relationships doesn’t happen without guilt.  I ask myself why don’t I want to be with these people?  The answer’s right there, but I’m sometimes slow to accept it.  History alone isn’t enough.  Seasons change.  Values change.  People change.

My friend, Catherine approaches life in the most realistic way of anyone I know.  She believes we need different kinds of relationships at different stages in life.  Not only does she let go of the ones that don’t fit anymore, but she quickly replaces them with people who do.

A few months ago, she hosted a party to celebrate her 90th birthday.  I’m one of her newer friends, considering we’ve only known each other about twenty years.  I take her counsel to heart and try to be more aware of the natural ebb and flow, but there will never be another like Catherine.  When I mention any age-related problem, she says, “Oh honey, you’ll work it out.  You’re still just a baby.”  Where would I find another friend who’ll take the trouble to lie to my face like that?

Ó By Anita Garner

Long Term Care

I keep living as if the glass is half full.  Always the optimist, I cling to the belief that I’ll enjoy good health for a long time, and when that changes, I hope to continue this delightful relationship with my family while maintaining my independence.  I’d rather annoy them with my independence than by being a financial drain.  Oh, that’s right.  That’s what we all want.  But it’s likely that one day we’ll need help.   

Stay with me here,  because I still believe this is an optimistic topic.  Planning how not to be a burden should be a positive.  Key word: Planning.  Something I haven’t done yet.   Until now, I carried around all these images that could work, might work. The old fashioned place where everybody knows your name and will miss you if one day you don’t show up.  Neighbors who keep track of each other.  Maybe a charming community center a half block away where seniors drop in to visit and chat and eat delicious food.  Options we’ve seen on television – such as the Golden Girls – living vital lives in a big home with room enough for each of their large personalities.  

Images – that’s what they are.  I don’t personally have knowledge of an ideal model for aging.  I do have a couple of wise and/or fortunate girlfriends (yes we still call ourselves girlfriends no matter our age) who have financial planners who’ve helped them take care of the future.  But those girlfriends had resources years ago.  Back when I divorced, I didn’t have enough resources to interest any financial planner in keeping an appointment with me.  Now the future is here and it’s time to get something together that will keep me from losing whatever I’ve accumulated, should I face a debilitating illness.

I have one child who is now raising a child.  I don’t want to have anything but a positive impact on them, and when I’m gone, I hope their memories are good ones.  Surely there’s a way to achieve  – quickly – some  kind of balance between my inevitable aging and my daughter’s inevitable worry about me. 

Because as a nation we still worship youth, we continue to postpone the prospect that we will actually be old someday, and so we postpone learning about options.  In this country we’re pretty much on our own in terms of health care.  After all the years of working and paying taxes, and all the years of campaign promises, and all the years of voting, and  all the turnover in elected officials who promise remedies, I don’t see any progress.  Our country’s health care system is an embarrassment.  It demonstrates an ignorance or downright lack of concern about this part of life that millions of us have entered.  It’s shocking to be a rich nation and still so poor in terms of dealing with the needs of an aging population.  I’m ashamed of us.

So I’m off on a search for an insurance policy that will help pay for future needs, which aren’t covered by anything I already pay for.  I’ll also have to factor new premiums into my budget.  I’ll start with AARP and see what they have to offer.  AARP is my new community center.

Ó  By Anita Garner

Old Dog, New Tricks

I watched my toddler granddaughter’s anxiety mount as she attempted a new task.  “I tan’t do it!” she announced and went marching down the hall with her head down, in the dramatic way she has of dealing with technical mysteries.  Her mother followed to offer encouragement and asked, “Are you frustrated?”  “Yes!” the little one agreed, “I am fuss-u-wated.”  Her mother urged her to try again.  The answer was “I don’t want to.”

Each time I visit, I see her learning so many new things and I wish I could help her understand a concept she’s too young to grasp – that experience makes everything easier.  The knowledge of how we learn can offer the assurance that we will get it if we keep trying.  

I’m reminding recalcitrant beginners of every age that new isn’t as scary now as it was when we were younger, because we already have experience at learning.  Older people can’t learn?  Nonsense.  Won’t learn?  Unfortunately sometimes true.

My learning process hasn’t changed much with added years.  I digest new data by going through it three times, and then, most of the time,  it’s mine.   First, when approaching something involving substantial motor skills, I like to see it demonstrated.  For other kinds of tasks, I  learn by watching it or reading it for myself.   Second, I need to write it down, making notes I can refer to later.  Third, I’m ready to try.  Eventually I’ll absorb some version of what’s being taught.

The biggest difference these days is that I’m selective about when and where to fire up the learning process.  I’m aware that I don’t have all the time in the world and I know what interests me, so I choose to learn first the stuff that I want  to know or need to know.

For people who’ve decided they don’t need any new data, there’s plenty of science at work to show that using our brain cells really does help keep us healthy while at the same time forming new brain cells.  

I wish people wouldn’t say “I can’t” when what they really mean is “I don’t want to.”  We don’t need any more negative myths about aging. 

Ó  By Anita Garner 

Is It Just Me?

I can’t believe it’s time to start a new year.  I also can’t believe this is me sounding exactly like every older person in the world talking about how quickly time flies.  

Days go by faster than I can mark them off on my calendar – or more accurately my Day-At-A-Glance appointment book and ever-present To Do lists.

There’s both good and bad about this.  The good?  We don’t have to wait too long for anything we’re looking forward to.  When we were kids, it seemed the day after tomorrow would never get here.  Now?  Just turn around.  Here it is.  The bad, of course, is that it’s possible for several days to slip past while we’re still deciding what to do about next week.

As inevitable as aging is (someone said if we’re lucky we’ll get old) so is the need to make time count for something.

I’m not a resolutions person, but I do have intentions that matter to me,  and one is to make better use of the time allotted.  That’s about the only thing I stand a chance of affecting.   There’s nothing wrong with a modest goal to ring in the New Year.

Ó By Anita Garner

Christmas Movies

It wouldn’t be Christmas without syrupy movies.  Along with fruitcake and continuous holiday music, nothing says ’tis the season like the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime.  With a remote and a DVR, it’s time to wallow in sentiment.  

My holiday viewing schedule is so packed, I’ve taken to recording all the Christmas shows.  Then I scan the plot synopsis offered by the cable company, pick a show, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and push “play.”  None of the plots are complicated, so I can leave and come back, leave and come back without missing a major development.

I’ll watch just about any Christmas movie, good or bad.  But this year there are so many, plus new ones arriving at the local theatre, I’ve been forced to be more selective.  I won’t  watch movies about a real-life earthly member of Santa’s family, whose personal complications may or may not affect the timely delivery of toys.  Santa’s family just doesn’t interest me much.  I’m also not fond of mean-spirited Christmas movies.  Hitting and yelling and blowing up things and drinking and cussing don’t feel uplifting, so I skip those.

There are at least two seasonal movies that stand out from the rest as memorable, each for different reasons.  My current favorite, which I watch every year, is One Special Night (1999) with Julie Andrews and James Garner.  I’ll watch those two in anything.  I love this movie most for portraying two mature people with full lives. 

The other standout took me a while to warm up to.  It’s Noel (2004) with a stunning cast, including Susan Sarandon, Alan Arkin, Penelope Cruz, Robin Williams, Chazz Palminteri, and others.  It’s an odd story and is very nearly not Christmassy at all, depending on your point of view.  But I haven’t been able to forget it, so I’ll try to find it again.  

Lest you think a couple of quality offerings make me a discriminating viewer, oh no, no.  Those two are the exceptions. Most Christmas movies offer only two basic plots.  The first involves someone whose beloved just passed away.  Along comes another someone or a young family missing a spouse and all are united after only a few minor glitches.  Summary of plot number one:  Completion of the family unit.

The other plot is becoming more popular.  These stories tell how the twin evils of ambition and technology conspire to rob our leading man or woman of their true selves, leaving them incapable of feeling the spirit of Christmas.  As these movies get closer to the end, cell phones are thrown away, major job promotions are turned down, snow storms create whiteouts that bring commerce to a halt long enough to force our hero/heroine to slow down and learn some Christmas lessons.  Synopsis of plot number two:  Dude, mellow out.

One favorite sub-plot involves removing these over-achievers from an urban area and plopping them down in bucolic settings where expensive wardrobes are ruined and hilarity ensues.  The movie unfolds in a charming cabin or a country house far away from the workaday grind that’s eating them alive.

There we have my thumbnail description of every movie that’s playing between now and the end of the year.  Add the every-year Christmas repeats from Charlie Brown and Rudolph and Dr. Seuss and Bing and Rosie and the gang at the Inn, and it’s a dash just to keep up.  

Of course I know what’s going to happen on TV this season, but that doesn’t mean I’ll quit watching.  Predictability is one of the joys of Christmas.  Only a Grinch would suggest otherwise.

Ó  Anita Garner   

Christmas On The Radio

I’ve spent much of my  life on the radio, playing music.  When the Christmas songs start, the radio station staff revolts.  Here’s a scene from a typical radio programming meeting, where on-air people wrestled with the Program Director,  in the good old days before a computer chose the music you heard.

PD:  So guys – and Anita – you’ll notice on your playlist that we’re rotating one Christmas song each hour starting…

ME: …Couldn’t we play more than one per hour?

EVERYONE ELSE:  No!

PD:  And then by week three of the season, we’ll play four an hour.

ME:  Couldn’t we play more than that?

EVERYONE ELSE:  Shut up!

ME:  Could I have more Christmas music on my show?

ON-AIR PERSON:  I’ll be calling in sick.

ANOTHER ON-AIR PERSON:  You can’t call in sick, because I’m scheduling all my dental work now.  I’ll be gone for a month.

The foregoing is only slightly exaggerated.  I haven’t met many radio people who like Christmas music as much as I do.  For me, Thanksgiving starts my own Christmas music marathon.  Give me a couple of songs and three lights that twinkle and I’m happy.

After years of local radio, I had the great opportunity to host a nationally syndicated show.  Something Special aired on stations around the U.S.  I was also writer and producer for this weekly four-hour radio magazine and it was more work than I could have imagined.

We began making our Christmas show while the weather said it was still summer.  Show prep (a rather unimaginative term that means exactly what it sounds like) included knowing a lot about the music we’d be playing.  We also knew many of the artists who wrote and performed the music and had been pre-recording their holiday greetings all year when they were in our studio.

For our first annual Christmas Is Something Special, we’d back-timed, to the second, all the music and scripts.  Radio people live by the second hand.  One of our pre-recorded “bits” for this show came from another broadcaster.  My family loved a song called Christmas Isn’t Christmas Without You, found on an album sent to me by a record company years before.  Researching the song for this show, I was surprised to learn it was written by a fellow radio person, Allan Hotlen.

Allan and I met when he was Program Director at (then legendary) KSFO in San Francisco, and now here he was, right around the corner at a station in Los Angeles.  I asked him to tell how he came to write this song and he sent over a perfect recorded “talk-up” to his own song.

John Schneider was the guest co-host for this Christmas extravaganza.  He’d appeared on my show and had become a friend.  Generally we featured a celebrity guest for only the first hour of each week, but this time, John would be with us for all four hours. 

John arrived with one of his ever-present dogs – maybe it was Smudge or, God rest her soul, Gracie.  Cathleen (my daughter worked on the show) baked Christmas cookies and brought a small plug-in Christmas tree. John contributed warm apple fritters he picked up at that place he knew in Burbank.  We took our positions at the microphones.  

One of our song-stories was about Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas from the movie, Meet Me In St. Louis,  about how the lyricist had written alternate words that didn’t make it into the movie.  At half-past-early in the morning, John, apple fritter in hand, sang the original lyrics and the mood was complete.  We sailed right along.  I don’t remember any re-takes.

It’s one of my favorite radio shows ever.  I’ll play it again in a few minutes, right after I plug in my desktop tree with the twinkle lights.

Ó By Anita Garner

Little Luxuries

The shopping season is a good time to adjust old habits and spend a little on ourselves.  After accumulating more years on this earth than we have left, it’s time to stop scrimping on certain purchases.

We scrimp on the darndest things, denying ourselves small pleasures.  Of course your luxuries might be my necessities and vice versa, so here are a few of my purely subjective places to consider not trying to save.

Coffee.  The best tasting coffee you ever had probably won’t break the bank.  I can’t find a cheap, really good-tasting Colombian, so I buy a brand I know will deliver.

Toilet tissue.  Maybe not one of life’s little pleasures, but something we’re in contact with often enough.  I know people who buy stuff so harsh I swear you can still see the wood chips in it.  Why?  Cushy rolls are only pennies more.

Name brands.  Buy generic when it doesn’t matter to you either way, but if you’ve got a favorite brand and you’re convinced it’s the best, get it.  Example:  Cotton swabs.  Every time I buy generic, I regret it.

Bottled iced tea.  I know it’s practically free when you make it at home, but on the road, those attractive bottles are a treat.  Okay, they’re nice at home too.

Hiring someone to do a chore.  Pick your most onerous job and pay somebody to do it.  Mowing the lawn.  Taking the stove apart and cleaning it.  Bathrooms.  Windows.  If you hate it, farm it out once in a while.

Sound system.  Get the best sound you can afford. I’m not talking about the kind where the crew comes over to your house and installs it.  If you have a home theatre, you don’t need suggestions from me about good sound.  But if you don’t, get yourself a reliable, compact system.  Speakers are small but the sound can get as big as the neighborhood will allow.  Vinyl is back and today’s sound systems allow for turntables too.  When you love music, good sound isn’t really a luxury.

Parking closer (and paying more.)  There are times and weather that make finding a parking spot the biggest hurdle of all.  Splurge on the valet or the closest parking structure.  I live in an area (San Francisco) where the joke is, if you’re visiting here and you find a parking space, consider moving here rather than moving your car.  

Another place I used to live, (and still visit monthly,) Los Angeles, is similarly parking-challenged.   I noticed for several years during my annual trips to Neiman-Marcus sales in Beverly Hills, that their valets parked only Rolls Royces and Bentleys and similar shiny exotics right outside the valet stand, the place clearly visible to all emerging customers.   That kind of display doesn’t intimidate me today.  Having enough years on us helps us appreciate, unapologetically, our old faithful conveyances for as many years as we prefer to drive them.  We can give them the full valet experience whenever the mood and the budget allow.

As we go along with this blog, I’m learning that just because I feel like posting, poetry doesn’t always emanate, but lists often do.

Ó By Anita Garner

Smile At The Cellphone.

My granddaughter, Caedan Ray, is accustomed to looking into a cellphone camera while her parent on duty sends pictures  to the parent at work. She obligingly  treats a cellphone as a camera and has learned various ways to get into the mood for a pose.  At school someone told her to “Say cheese” for the pre-school photo and she now says that once in a while.   Her mother calls her gap-toothed grin her Spongebob Smile and Caedan responds happily to any mention of his name.  

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Aunt Terri and Uncle Leslie gave her a birthday gift (her third birthday was the Monday before Thanksgiving) and she opened a package containing a baby doll with a magnetic pacifier, which we adults cooed over.  Next she pulled out a pretend cellphone.  She had a play cellphone when she was much younger, but this is her first one with a pretend camera.  It has sound effects.  Point and click and it makes a credible camera sound.

All afternoon and into the evening the cellphone/camera never left her hand.  All twenty of us smiled and posed repeatedly as if for real pictures.  Someone mentioned – perhaps it was Cousin Jeff or Cousin Greg or Cousin Pattie or Cousin Billie – all of whom had posed at least a dozen times – that cellphone must have a huuuuge memory. 

Caedan approached a group of ladies who were giggling on the couch.  There was Aunt Terri, Aunt Terri’s sister, Pam, Mommy and Cousin Tracy.

“I take you picture,” she said.

She pointed her new toy at them and asked, as we always ask her,

“Ready?”

Each of the women offered the peace sign and big smiles.  Everyone laughed.

“I take you picture again.”

Before they could get a pose ready, Caeden held up two fingers, imitated their previous pose and ordered,

“Say two!”

Until just this week, the peace sign was also the symbol for how many years she was old.  She assumed, with a toddler’s absolute self-absorption, that they were all talking about how old she used to be, before she got to be three.

As soon as we left Cousin Tracy’s house, Caedan fell asleep in her car seat and when the cellphone/camera dropped out of her hand, she woke and asked us for it.  At home, one parent carried her inside while the other got her pajamas.  She started to cry.

“My cram-ruh!  My cram-ruh is in the car!”

The day after Thanksgiving, her Abba and Mommy were both scheduled to work a long day.  I was Hammy On Duty.  This is how it went.

“Hi Hammy.  What are you doing?”

“Cooking eggs.”

“I take you picture cooking eggs.”

Click.

“Hammy, what are you doing?”

“Reading.”

“I take you picture reading.”

Click.

“I take you picture drinking coffee.”

Click.

“I take you picture changing clothes.”

“Umm….”

Click.

And so it went all day long.

Lately when her Mommy or Abba comes home from work, Caedan greets them with a dramatic scene.  As soon as she hears the car in the driveway, she throws open the door and shouts, “Mommy!”  or “Abba!” As the parent appears in view, she extends her arms wide and announces, “You came home!  You back in my life!”  No one knows where she learned this or if she even knows what it means, but it does make for a gratifying homecoming.

The night after Thanksgiving, at the end of her day with Hammy, she heard her Mommy arrive and ran to the door to perform her greeting.  Right after “You back in my life!” and at the point where her Mommy usually reacts with a big hug, Caedan stopped her Mommy from entering.  She yelled,

“Wait!” and ran to get her new cellphone/camera.  

“I take you picture coming home.”

Click.

Ó  By Anita Garner