On Getting Started, and Re-started…

Front pages of the two east coast newspapers that arrive on our west coast doorstep every morning featured references to a few of the primary issues this column proposes to address: staying active and upbeat while confronting one’s mortality; the multiplicity of housing shifts in late generations; and whether one’s life experiences lead to rigidity or understanding.


Even the front page of today’s True/Slant, in Scott Bowen’s innovative take on Boston Globe books and publishing writer David Mehegan’s Over and Out, takes up the end-of-life choices question which has consumed much of my time and energies over the past decade and which I tackled (albeit anecdotally) in a 1999 book, Dying Unafraid.


Now. If life experience can be applied to mastery of T/S’s technological tools – which are not, after all, quite so daunting as the above – it will be great joy for Boomers &Beyond to explore these through headline grabs, riffs and commentaries and perhaps some lively reader responses. Stay tuned.



The Joys of Oxalis

Pulling oxalis is one of life’s little abundances. Not because of anything to do with gardening, or weeding, or environmental enhancement. If one looks closely at the issue, oxalis-pulling is an exercise in existential self-care.

I know this because I pull oxalis on a continuing basis. As therapy, you understand, not as enterprise. Weeding, trimming, yard-care all smack of work. An hour or so yanking grass from between pavings and what have you got? Neatness and bursitis. Gardening, if your thumb is the color of mine, inevitably spells sudden death. Pull oxalis, though, and you are in tune with Nature, awash in golden blooms and the smell of childhood. Oxalis hardly even pulls back. It just piles up in luminous green and yellow piles, yankable by the handful, occasionally adding snaky white roots to the spidery threads that connect it to itself (and to every other living plant and flower in your garden.)

Furthermore, no matter how assiduously you apply yourself to oxalis-removal, there will always be more oxalis available when next you need relief.
I know this because I am, you could say, at one with oxalis. Partly because we live next door to the mother lode of oxalis, our neighbors not having ventured into their back yard in recent years and the lode being well enough established that it will be the next millennium before anything else grows there, and partly because oxalis and I understand each other. I understand the benefits of battle, it knows it will always win.

Underneath the dense tangles of oxalis that present themselves everywhere in our yard it is possible to find things like verbena and geraniums and pretty ground cover of yore. When this happens, it is like establishing a tiny bit of order in the world, and Lord knows we need a little order. It is also a temporary victory, something else rare and lovely. In the meantime, the green-and-gold pile grows, everything smells warm and earthy, the compost-collection people are kept busy and the upper body is exercised. Also in the meantime, one can meditate on the meaning of the universe. At the end of the day, one can sit back and admire one’s progress, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow the oxalis will be back.

The relationship between issues most often addressed in this space and the pulling of oxalis may not be immediately evident but I think it all fits. I offer these thoughts into cyberspace because the stock market and our IRAs are tanking, world peace seems unlikely and the globe is warming. With so many uncertainties surrounding us, it is a comfort to know there will always be oxalis.

Singing with Sisters

My sister Mimi and I used to belt out a two-part harmony tune on our way to work in downtown Richmond, VA a few decades back. “Strolling aLONnng… singing a sonnng… side by side.” Nobody threw shoes at us, although some may have considered it. We actually kept the volume down. But the world at any decibel level was our oyster and the sidewalks of a dozen or so blocks between our apartment and jobs – at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and radio station WRNL – our kingdom . That little pop song and a few other seize-the-day tunes got us through dark mornings and small hangovers for an exuberant season or two – and to work on time. I think it was less about the words and music, though, than the two-part harmony and the sheer joy of singing.

Harmony, particularly among women, might be the secret to world peace. Threshold Choirs (three- and four-parts and more) bring peace and comfort to the bedsides of dying folks, a movement that started not long ago with a group of 15 women and has expanded into many states and several countries. Founder Kate Munger dates her inspiration for Threshold Choir to the time, gathered around a Girl Scout campfire, when “we were all singing and everything about the world was wonderful, connected and sweet.” This may not be globally possible any time soon. But the metaphorical image of everyone hunkered around a giant campfire to sing away our problems surely warms the heart, at least for most of us girls. My friend Susan McMane recently returned from Washington with the elite Chorissima group of the San Francisco Girls Chorus , where they helped sing the new president into office; maybe that campfire spirit will catch on.

And back to the strolling-along spirit – “Side by Side” continues thus: “We don’t know what’s coming tomorrow, maybe it’s trouble and sorrow, but we’ll travel the road, sharing our load, side by side.”

Mimi departed this world recently, leaving me seriously bereft but with the two-part harmony permanently in my head. The world is welcome to join in.

Conversations With Cars

Some of us talk to ourselves, some of us talk to cars.

As in a recent parking episode, at the intersection of 9th Street and Bryant in downtown San Francisco. It happened at the precise spot where traffic from the Hwy 101 off-ramp muscles its impatient way into the mainstream maelstrom of 9th Street. I was late for a lunch meeting on Bryant.

“I don’t think I want to go into reverse,” said The Volvo.

I was, at the time, pretty much parallel to the far-right curb in a metered space on one-way 9th. But I was interested in getting a little closer so as to reduce chance encounters with cars making reckless right turns. This required only the slightest maneuvering back and forth, but The Volvo, as I mentioned, was interested only in forth. I eyeballed the off-ramp traffic on the left, and the rather aggressive Bryant traffic dead ahead.

“Oh, please,” I said, inching ever farther into Bryant every time I tried the reverse gear and The Volvo chose not to reverse.

It should be noted that The Volvo, which went only by that uninspired name from the time my husband purchased it, new, was a 1977 two-door stick shift. We had had similar conversations before. “I am, after all, Scandanavian…” it would murmur on days when, left alone in hot sunshine, it would refuse to restart until the cool of evening. Or, “Do you realize you are confirming my image as an old geezer lady,” I would say, gently – well, sometimes not – when it choked up in front of two Yuppies driving BMWs.

Eventually, at 9th & Bryant, I put the thing in neutral, got out, pushed it more or less into a parking place and went to my meeting. Thence I drove it, in forward gears, a few blocks to the Popular Mechanix Volvo place, with which we have a long and intimate relationship.

“I can get home on foot or on the Muni bus,” I said to Jon the P.M. guy and the assorted Volvos hanging around, “but if you by any chance have a loaner it would simplify my day.” Jon understands both Volvos and Volvo owners in distress. Out came a lovely little ’98 number named True Blue. Wayyy fancier than Popular Mechanix’ regular loaners Goldfinger and Black Beauty, True Blue boasted all manner of things I had long coveted: right-side mirror, four doors, automatic everything, functional radio… the works. I sensed right away that we might communicate well.

En route home, while True Blue was beginning a sort of sexual identity epiphany which would lead to knowing herself as The Blue Iris (my favorite flower), we became ardently conversational.

“I could be yours,” she said. And lo, there, affixed to her dashboard was a small card proclaiming, “This Car Is For Sale.” Jon is no dummy.

The next day I signed the adoption papers, and two days later we delivered the ’77 – now fully repaired and running like a Rolls Royce – to the auto dismantlers, where the State of California paid us $650 to get it off the road. I felt a little like I was leaving Great Uncle Philemon at the county home for the indigent. But The Volvo said, “Don’t you work all the time with end-of-life issues? Didn’t you provide palliative care? Doesn’t the time come for many of us when physician-hastened dying is the best choice?”

And Iris said, liltingly, “Hmmmmmm….”

Old Words, New Words

My friend and fellow Compassion and Choices NCA co-chair Stewart Florsheim recently had his fine book of poetry, A Short Fall from Grace, featured in Pedestal Magazine, in a thorough and insightful review by Alice Osborn. Early on, Ms. Osborn declared Stewart a “master of the ekphrastic poem…” which sent at least two of us rushing off to our dictionaries. Alas, nothing there. Not in the Random House, the Oxford American, not even the OED three-volumes-with-magnifying glass. My friend Merla, a dictionary person if there ever was one, e-mailed that she had found ecphrastic, as in “clearing away obstructions,” and since his poetry quite often does just that we declared Stewart a master of the ecphrastic poem and were ready to let it go.

The poet himself, however, having been copied on these e-exchanges, finally weighed in rather gently with the definition: poetry in response to art. He then provided a Web link to the Puddinghouse Magazine site, featuring articles and references and gracious knows what-all on ekphrastic poetry. A chapbook edited by Jennifer Bosveld, Elastic Ekphrastic is an anthology of these gems. I have been feeling, since then, a little like the only person in the literary world previously unfamiliar with ekphrastia. Except for Merla, thank goodness, as she is highly literate.

The word popped up again during a conversation a few days ago, and it took my friend Jim (who is decidedly new school as opposed to old-school Merla and me) exactly eight seconds to whip out his iPhone and find ekphrastic in Wikipedia. Well, of course.

This brings up some interesting questions: Will Wikipedia render the OED obsolete? Is the old-fashioned dictionary, the kind you could put on a shelf, on the way out? Or should I invest in a new OED (ours, I admit, is a 1971 edition, and half the English language has been invented since then) at 275 pounds sterling for the new compact edition with magnifying glass? With at least one word person defending Sarah Palin’s “nucular” (the way no one ever defended Eisenhower) as correct because it is a regional thing, are we on our way to establishing our own definitions and pronunciations without regard to dictionaries anyway? Considering all this instant information and opinion, are we being dumbed down or smartened up by the shifting winds of wordage?

At least I have been smartened into ekphrastic poetry. My spellcheck still doesn’t believe that ekphrastic is a word, but the ghost of my college Greek professor Miss Mabel K. Whiteside is undoubtedly at peace.