Real Drivers Required!

A Saturday morning jolt: Stumbled back upstairs with the newspapers, poured coffee and sat as the New York Times business section fell into my lap. Oh my gosh, a story about a couple in Florida asphyxiated when their keyless car did not turn itself off. That’s the car I lightly, almost jokingly, wrote about on my personal blog last February, describing a harrowing 65-mile drive in a Colorado snowstorm with a push-button rental car. Same car, same model. The Times article says that older drivers especially, forget to turn the ignition off. How is it done? Instructions for starting the engine without a key were printed on the dashboard but not for stopping it. I’m an older driver, and that evening in the motel parking lot, I was disturbed to walk away from a still-running car and sought help from the young desk clerk.  He walked outside to look just as the car shut itself down. “Oh, that’s one of those cars that gives you enough time to get into your building,” he said. The following day I sought instruction from another young man at a car wash on how the various buttons work. “Sure,” he said. “I have the same car.”

Judging from comments by the few friends who read my sporadic postings, many people are confronted by new cars whose bells and whistles leave them flummoxed.

I began to think I was among the few drivers left whose car at home needed my intervention for all sorts of actions. I had titled that February post “Bring on Self-Drivers,” but had been thinking better of it in light of increased news coverage about horrendous mishaps like this one with the unfortunate Florida couple who bought a car they believed was safe. I also recently heard of a car that drove itself under a semi-truck to devastating destruction, its computer works having mis-calculated the space available.

When I contemplate roadways filled with self-driving cars, the picture that comes to mind is an amusement park attraction. Bumper cars without drivers, moving about haphazardly.

No, these times are haphazard enough. People — and real drivers — are required.



The 2020 Campaign. At Last!


It’s barely just begun, but are you enjoying the 2020 Presidential Campaign as much as I am? Or are you not a fellow political junkie? Trust me, there’s good stuff there: Two nights of Democratic debates with a total of 20 candidates, any one of whom I would find preferable to the current situation. And there are even a few more who didn’t make the cut first time but could still do so. Smart, articulate, brimming with ideas; as a bench, all give me hope.

Along with politics, I am also a language enthusiast. I enjoy the words being added to the lexicon during the campaign. We already were aware of “mansplaining,” which any woman alive in the last hundred years could recognize immediately, but after last night’s second televised event – more raucous than the first rather polite offering – we met “manterrupting.” Again, instantly recognizable.

I have been mulling over whether there could be similar terms for what older people encounter. In a conversation a while back with an adult person I know, an adult but not one as old as I – who is? – I remarked that increasingly I find myself being interrupted in mixed-age group conversations as if what I’m trying to add has so little consequence that it doesn’t warrant slowing down the rest of the conversation. “When did I get so boring?” I wondered. “Yes,” she said. “I know what you mean. And how about when entire conversations go by around you as if you weren’t there?”

Did we do that to older people in the past? Were we that rude? There needs to be a term for that. “Elderterrupt” perhaps or “elderignore.” No wonder elders tend to cluster together instead of mixing in with all ages.

Everyone needs to emulate one individual I see on the news frequently who refuses to be interrupted: “Excuse me, I am speaking here . . .”

Good News for Bibliophiles

In yesterday’s New York Times, Columnist Timothy Egan gives hope to all of us who love books – real books, the kind he describes as “with a spine, a unique scent, crisp pages and a typeface that may date to Shakespeare’s day.” Dismissing Steve Jobs’ 2008 dismissive quote that “people don’t read anymore” and acknowledging that “nearly one in four adults in this country has not read a book in the last year, Egan still manages optimism. He cites rising sales of printed books, along with increased new openings of independent bookstores and declining sales of electronic versions.

Egan’s piece was titled “The Comeback of the Century.”

I read the column while casting rueful glances at my apartment-sized IKEA bookshelves that hold the remains of my late husband’s 3,000-volume collection. “This is a very nice collection,” said the only buyer of books I was able to entice to the house to look. “Yes,” I responded. “Ed loved to prowl used bookstores on his lunch hour when he worked in New York.” I refrained from mentioning that was easier to do in New York, not that the book-buying ceased much when we moved to LA. Bibliophiles will always find a way to acquire.

I watched the book buyer arrange those that interested him into pathetically short stacks and nodded as he pointed to each stack and said, “Two dollars, five, ten and fifteen.” I accepted the small check he wrote and watched him pack his purchases in the boxes he’d brought and drive away. I hadn’t even paid attention to what warranted the “fifteen.” Just one more unpleasant chore for the newly widowed.

And now I stare at the remains on the IKEA shelves. I did keep the collection of every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and have since added the past three winners) along with books written by friends and family members, and some I just couldn’t bear to part with. And I purchased a Kindle in order to download books I want to read right now, but I haven’t done much of that. Too dangerously easy for someone on a budget.

My appreciation for yesterday’s Times column extends to Egan’s appreciation for storytelling, which, he writes, “will never die,” continuing, “And the best format for grand and sweeping narratives remains one of the oldest and most durable.” Pointing to the fact that “more than a third of the people in the United States and Britain say their cellphones are having a negative effect on their health and well-being,” he proposes “a clunky old printed book [as] a welcome antidote.”

Ed and I, both onetime print journalists, harbored dreams of adding a couple of those “clunky old” things to the world during our retirement years. He completed the first volume in an envisioned trilogy depicting a fictionalized version of life among the Volga Germans. Those Russian-born descendants of ethnic German colonists, of which Ed’s mother was one, had been living since the 1700s in communities along the Volga River. I was unsuccessful in convincing Ed to submit that first manuscript, titled Scattered Grains of Wheat, to a publisher; he felt he should be further along with a proposed trilogy, and the second volume was giving him problems. “Why not skip ahead to volume three?” I offered. “That book will practically write itself since it covers stories we’ve been hearing about for years. And then you could go back and fill in with volume two.”

But before he could even decide on whether that was a good idea, he was hit with a deadly medical diagnosis: Stage Four inoperable lung cancer that took over both our lives. After more than three years of treatment – both traditional chemotherapy and more experimental options – he died at age 84. Everyone who knew and loved him was heartbroken. “What about his books on the Germans in Russia?” was not a first question on people’s minds, but it did eventually surface. A daughter who is a journalist gathered all his research materials and computer files and hopes to complete the project in her father’s name.

My attempts at producing a “clunky old” thing like a book also stalled. In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey is a memoir of sorts featuring use of my mother’s letters home from France in 1930-’31 where she attended art school, lived with the family of a well known French painter, met and socialized with other noted artists of the day, and also possibly had a romance with a descendant of French nobility – someone her cheeky brothers back home always referred to as “the no-account count.” Upon completion of my manuscript, I was at a loss about how to proceed to get published. I felt I needed expert assistance and contacted scores of literary agents, some encouraging but none knocking down the door to represent me. And I started this website as a way to showcase my abilities.

But life does intervene, doesn’t it? That’s why we should hold up and celebrate those who manage to write and publish in spite of all obstacles. I have always had a particular soft spot in my heart for Helen Hooven Santmyer, author of the 1984 best seller . . . And Ladies of the Club. I read that she found annoying press notices that claimed the book took her 50 years to write. She said, “It may have taken me 50 years or more to get it done, but I didn’t do it all at once, for heaven’s sake! I did it whenever I had a moment, and mostly I didn’t have a moment. I had a living to make . . .”

These days, one might say to her, “You go, girl!”



30 Days Was Enough (This Time)

Trips away from home should not last longer than eight days. “Eight days is enough.” That was my late husband’s maxim. Possibly two weeks if an ocean is involved. During our long marriage, I was able sometimes to draw the time out longer, but it occasioned a lot of grumbling.

He would have hated the trip I just returned from: Four weeks on the East Coast visiting people and old haunts. Well, not the people and old haunts part; he’d have loved that. But an entire month? No way.Northeast USA

My New York daughter, whose apartment was to serve as home base for my excursions to other places, assumed I had planned this in anticipation of my supposed imminent demise. No, I explained, what I’m anticipating is a possible lessening of energy and stamina in ensuing years to enable such an undertaking. Plus, for once in my life I am without responsibilities to any person, pet, job, volunteer activity or much-needed project. My Los Angeles daughter agreed to stop by to water my few house plants should the need arise, but my attitude toward them was: Perhaps my time for house plants is over anyway. Or not, since the plants survived.

April was not the smartest choice of months what with people’s Easter and Passover plans to work around, and the weather was pretty cold and rainy – I am convinced I experienced more rain in four weeks there than I had in the past 13 years in Southern California. But that could be exaggeration.

The choice of dates for my visit was determined by the NY daughter’s two-week break from teaching English at locations all over the city. During that time, she and I would experience a variety of cultural and sightseeing activities together before she began preparing for the next sessions of classes and I headed out to impose on friends in the Greater New York area and beyond. Instead, on the morning after my arrival, her large black cat – possibly excited by the presence of company or simply showing off – leapt from a shelf to a small wood table piled with books, upsetting everything and causing the table to land on the daughter’s bare foot. Having spent the past year recuperating from a stress fracture on the opposite foot, she knew immediately that this was not good. She suffered through the day and night and saw a doctor the next morning. X-rays showed a broken toe with the doctor’s admonition to stay off the foot as much as possible. So much for sightseeing and strolls through museums.

The injury did not, however, prevent the daughter from donning an orthopedic boot and insisting on accompanying me and a heavy carry-on up and down steps and in and out of buses and subways. My offers to use one of the ride-share accounts on my phone or to spring for cab fare were rebuffed. Do all New Yorkers hate cars?

Or did they know without even waiting for the results of a study described in a recent Los Angeles Times showing that the popularity of ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft “is the single biggest factor behind [San Francisco’s] increasingly snarled traffic.” Analyzing millions of trips, the researchers “concluded that the services accounted for more than half of the 62 percent increase in weekday traffic delays between 2010 and 2016.” Additionally, it was found that the presence of ride-share vehicles did not, as originally envisioned, improve traffic there. “Instead,” the study notes, “they often increased the total number of cars on the road.”

So with encouragement from my daughters, I did not rent a car this trip and determined to get re-acquainted with public transportation. And in spite of what I read about crumbling infrastructure and desperate needs for equipment replacement, East Coast public transportation has come a long way since I was commuting. For instance, what happened to all the dirty old men with their wandering hands who preyed on sweet young things in subway cars packed like sardine cans? Did I miss that because I tended to avoid the worst of rush hour? Or is it because I am no longer a sweet young thing but rather a gray-haired octogenarian to whom seats were routinely offered?

On subways and buses in the metropolitan area, I rode with nice people: commuters of all ages and mothers pushing strollers. Once I moved into the suburban areas, transportation became more problematic, and that’s when I relied on friends with cars.

I made several trips from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan to Montclair, New Jersey where Ed and I lived, the last time for more than 30 years. If I do this again, I’ll do a better scheduling job, grouping visits together geographically. As usual, I was over-optimistic of how much I could accomplish, and some planned visits had to be cancelled or not scheduled at all and promised for another time (if I’m still welcome). But looking at the map I scribbled out, there were at least half a dozen subway and bus trips back and forth between Queens, NY and Montclair, NJ; a car ride to Westchester County, NY; a bus trip to and from Providence, RI; a car ride to Freehold, NJ; a bus ride to Bethesda MD; and a car ride to Fairfax VA. In addition, two family members drove over from Pennsylvania to spend a day in New Jersey with me, while we drove around former neighborhoods and reminisced.

My plane ticket had been open-ended, meaning that ideally I could have stayed indefinitely. Except that I was getting tired of alternating the same four black sweaters to wear with my jeans — socks and underwear got washed with my daughter’s laundry — and the few warm-weather outfits I brought never made it out of the big suitcase. The newspaper delivery instructions could be changed with a phone call but I seemed to recall that the post office had different directions in the case of mail held beyond 30 days. Furthermore, for the sake of future family harmony, I needed to return their privacy to my daughter and son-in-law.

I slept on each of the flights back to California, and once home, for many days after, could not sit in a chair more than a few moments without dozing off. And bedtime came very early. I’m now back to normal, walking and working out at cardiac rehab, while thinking of future travel and ways to improve it. I’ve already mentioned the need for better organized planning in advance – Ed’s common sense and realistic thinking would have come in handy for this trip – and, who knows, maybe he’d have come around a bit on the “eight days” maxim. But I’m realistic enough myself to know, probably not a whole month.

Bring On Self-Drivers!

Not only do I own what I am sure is the last station wagon in America, but apparently I am among the last drivers to be unfamiliar with push-button cars. I learned this on a recent four-day trip to Colorado where I attended a funeral for a friend of long-standing, followed up by a quick visit to Nieder family relatives.

I’d ordered a Volkswagen Jetta but at the Denver Airport’s car rental facility I was presented with an upgrade at the same price, “a white something-or-other parked at the curb” but as a lifetime VW owner, the names of other makes and models is meaningless to me. I did remember “white” and “parked at the curb.” It was evening so as I made my way out in the dark in the indicated direction, I headed for a white vehicle avalon-front.pngsitting at the curb with the motor running. The driver side door was unlocked so I put my bag on the back seat and got behind the wheel. That was when I noticed no key in the ignition. Where a key should be was a button with the words “push to start or stop while keeping your foot on the brake pedal.” I’m paraphrasing there but since the car was already running, I eased away from the curb and headed toward the exit, stopping at the gate to get pointed in the right direction,

I set the mobile phone’s GPS to lead me to the mortuary. I had very little time before the visiting period ended and sure enough, one missed turn or two and the required backtracking and reasserting of myself on the dark unfamiliar highway, and I quickly missed the visiting time altogether. Okay, so I told the GPS to take me to the motel. Once there, I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the headlights; I went inside and played the first of what would be several days’ worth of “old lady cards.” The nice young man behind the desk came outside in the cold – Did I mention it was cold and I’d just flown in from Southern California? – and walked in his shirtsleeves with me toward the car. Just then, the lights went out on their own. “Oh, that’s one of those cars that keep the lights on long enough to get you in your building,” he said, “My car does that.”

I didn’t tell him my car at home doesn’t do that. If you forget and leave the lights on, you will be greeted in the morning by a dead battery. So passé.

Other old friends of the deceased arrived a little later, having “UBER-ed from the airport, and we agreed to meet at breakfast the next morning. There, they accepted my offer of a ride to the funeral later that morning, albeit pointing out that if I hadn’t made plans for a visit after the funeral, I could have done without the rental car. (My shared-ride company of choice is LYFT, so yes, I could have LYFT-ed everywhere, but didn’t.)

At the agreed-upon time, we met at my car and headed for the funeral, which was in a chapel at the mortuary located at the edge of the cemetery. Armed with individual mobile phone GPSes, each shouted directions at me, but we nevertheless arrived shortly to take seats in a pew at the last row. The chapel was lovely with tasteful flower arrangements and our friend’s flag-draped coffin at the front. A large glass window overlooked the cemetery beyond, a natural setting without headstones and other statuary. Shortly after the minister began the service, a flock of wild geese flew past the window, wheeled and circled again, as if on cue. Could Hollywood do any better? I wondered.

At the indoor service’s conclusion, we were informed that those who wished could follow in our cars to the gravesite where prayers were offered and the coffin lowered into the ground. A bagpiper stood off playing, and at the final conclusion, continued to play as he walked off into the distance. It was all very moving and beautiful. The snow boots I’d purchased especially for this instance were in the trunk of the car but it was alright.

Back at the mortuary, a reception was underway with refreshments and a slide show of photos from the life of our friend and his family. Deep in conversation with someone, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of one eye, of a picture of our friend sandwiched between two of our giant dogs. I smiled to remember when we moved next door to that Bismarck at fencefamily, our friend’s consternation, not only that we had a giant dog but that we planned to completely fence in our yard, placing one side up against that neighbor’s driveway. It took hardly any time during the brief year-and-a-half we lived there, for the dog and our friend to develop an early morning ritual, the dog on his hind legs looking over the fence and our friend calling a greeting on his way to his garage.

Snow started falling the day after the funeral, and I headed – wearing my newly purchased snow boots – up the 65 miles to Fort Collins. I quickly realized I didn’t know how to work the windshield wipers, except to do it manually with one finger each time I needed to clear snow away. The same was true of defrosters; as the clear visual area became smaller and smaller, I put the palm of my hand to use. But what to do about the heat blasting out at my midsection? I pushed every button I could reach in an effort to make some of these functions work. Why don’t rental car agencies keep a copy of the car’s manual in the glove compartment?

There was no place to stop, no one to ask and so I just kept driving straight ahead for 65 miles until I pulled into my sister-in-law’s driveway. The bright white car was a mess with splatters of slush and mud and gunk. The next morning I drove to a car wash where I played the “old lady card” once again. When a young employee noticed me puzzling over the start of the drive-through, he approached and showed where to insert my credit card. “When I get through,” I said, “do you suppose someone could come out and show me how to work all these various buttons on this rental car?” “Oh sure,” he replied, “I’ll meet you in the parking lot. I have a car just like this.”


Thank you, George H.W.

I GHW Bush 1never voted for President George H. W. Bush nor any of his relatives — and probably never would, left-leaner that I am. But his death the other day at 94 was, in a way, one more gift to the nation after a lifetime of public service: It reminded us of how a leader should comport him or herself, and as many commentators are expressing today, presents a truly stark contrast to what we’re currently witnessing. And not only in the office of the current president, but throughout public and private life.

I am sorry I ridiculed our 41st president when he expressed amazement at his first encounter with a supermarket conveyor belt moving shoppers’ selections toward the cashier or when his handlers told him he should do some clothes shopping to demonstrate how consumers could help the then-ailing economy. I laughed along with the rest of the nation when he emerged from the store with nothing but a single pair of socks. Of course, this man whose life was privileged even before he entered public life, had never done his own grocery or clothes shopping. We should have cut him some slack.GHW Bush 3

We all need to learn to put ourselves in another’s shoes and think for a moment before lashing out, whether in jest or in anger. As someone trying hard not to let my advancing age be too obvious while the changing world catapults ahead of me, I know I need to keep my mouth shut until I have an inkling of what I’m speaking about.

Case in point: When my (younger) brother, the computer science guru, mentioned a “nifty new tool” that showed up as he was composing an email to me, I grumbled that I’d already encountered that “nifty tool” and sacrificed several minutes of my diminishing time on earth trying to figure out how to get it off the screen. I passed along my contention that continually “upgrading” computer software along with other changes in everyday life (popular music, television personalities, slang expressions) is part of an ongoing plot to show old people it’s time to think about moving along.

But almost immediately I was reminded of an elderly (probably younger than I am now) aunt in New Jersey asking me if I planned to do the newly allowed “right turn on red” driving practice. Having just moved back from California where that was a long-accepted procedure designed to keep traffic moving, I scoffed: “Of course!” “I’m not,” she said. “Then,” I thought but did not say out loud, “You’re going to have a lot of angry drivers behind you leaning on their car horns and otherwise exhibiting their displeasure at the delay you are causing them.”

(How did I get from trying to say nice things about George H. W. to imagining angry New Jersey drivers’ expletives? I don’t know; it’s a gift of old age. “Reel it back in to the subject,” one of my daughters would say.)

Reading and watching coverage of the ceremonies surrounding the elder George Bush’s death brought a new appreciation for the man whose New York Times front page article was headed “A Genial Force in American Politics.” Inside that same Sunday issue a special section with copy by Adam Nagourney elaborates on the “geniality” theme with a headline reading “A Genial President Who Guided the Nation to the End of the Cold War.” A lot of American history represented in those 94 years.








It’s Our Nation: Please Pay Attention

The New York Times wants to hear from women about the whole Kavanaugh debacle, and my first thought, after all those days in front of the TV for the Supreme Court hearings was, what’s the point? The time to hear from us (and the many, many good men who stand with us) is Nov. 6 and dear God, do I hope we make our voices heard then. We need to overwhelm the ballot boxes from one end of the country to the other because we simply cannot continue in this direction much longer. It’s more than a matter of showing our displeasure; it’s to save our democracy.


For the Birds

condorAs a break for those of us who have been glued to TV-radio-print coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings, I want to talk about the return of the condors. I stumbled across this NPR coverage of the once-a-year releases of young birds to the wild after a 20-year effort by the Peregrine Fund helped by various organizations and state and federal agencies.

“With a wingspan that can stretch nearly 10 feet,” the Fund’s Chris Parish observed, “California condors are some of the largest birds in North America. They’re also some of the rarest.  After the population plunged to just 22 in 1982, all were taken into captivity for safe keeping and breeding.”

Just a few are released once a year into the wild in Northern Arizona; others are released in California and in Mexico. Thanks to interventions such as this there are now nearly 500 California condors in the wild.

I have never forgotten seeing a condor in a zoo either in Sacramento or San Francisco.  While we stood in front of the enclosure, the giant bird jumped down from its perch with a huge whoosh of wings. and craned its naked pink neck toward us. That might be where my fear of birds came from and not, as I used to imagine, from my friend Lucy’s parakeet. In high school, when I’d stop at Lucy’s house, her father took great delight in watching my reaction when he’d let the bird loose to fly around the kitchen for exercise.

In spite of that, I’d love to attend one of those condor-release viewings. Especially because the birds circle above cliffs some thousand feet above the eager binocular-wielding bird-watchers. My kind of bird-watching.

bird watchers