Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Art of Aging

I'm now listening to some of today's live "Transforming Aging" sessions on the web-- still free for 48 hours -- that started today. You can just go to the website... sign up here
again if you didn't already.

Then click on any of the sessions that have already happened -- and you can listen! (I list the schedule at the end of this post.)

Here are a few highlights of "The Art of Aging",  with artists Alice and Richard Matzkin 
Richard Matzkin, sculptor: "Creativity is the willingness to move into the unknown.
This has a lot of meaning for older people who have the tendency to go with the tried and true, the habitual ways of being. That deadens creativity. Bringing creativity into your life is like bringing renewal into your life....You have to let go of judgment. That's what stops creativity.

Alice Matzkin, artist:
It doesn't have to be art-- can be gardening, cooking, being with your family in certain ways. Having a passion for something you love to do and put your heart and soul into it.

Q. How to tap into your creativity?
R.M.: Have the attitude of "play," of being a child again and play.... When you're in the zone, creating, it's a meditation.

A.M.: Take a class, meet others... you don't have to show your creation to anyone. It's for you.

Confronting her own aging, Alice Matzkin,  whose work is in the National Portrait Gallery, also painted herself:

Alice Matzkin: self portrait

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

March 3-5: A Creative Aging Telesummit

Some of the top thinkers in the creative aging  movement (aka "third age," "sage-ing," "encore career," etc. ) are hosting an online summit, March 3-5. And it's free!
Mental calisthenics! I'm always up for new ideas.
Wendy Lustbader, author of a book I love, Life Gets Better,  is among the participants. She's a terrific speaker, so I'm sure it will be worth registering, just for her session. (March 4, 3 p.m.)   See my previous blog about her.   Marc Freedman, a pioneer in the notion of "encore careers" after retirement and founder of, is a guru of this movement. He talks at 4 p.m. March 4. For a taste of what that movement is about go here.
Below are some highlights from the schedule, East Coast time. (There's a drop-down to enter your timezone above the schedule.)
March 3, 1 p.m.: The Art of Aging, hosted by a noted artist/sculptor couple.
March 3, 2p.m.: Images of Aging in Film
March 4, 1 p.m.: Why Consciousness Matters in the 3rd Phase of Life
March 4, 3 p.m.: Life Gets Better, the Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older  (Wendy Lustbader)
March 4, 4 p.m.: Inventing the Encore Years (Marc Freedman)

And here's how you register: Transforming Aging Summit 
After you enter your name and email address, it takes you to a page where you can pay for access if you want to tune in after the 48-hour free broadcast period. If you don't want to pay,  just  click out of that page (there doesn't seem to be a "next" to get out of it.) But it works! I got an email that I'm in, with more instructions on listening by phone or internet.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A New Gender-ation Comes Out

Ever hear the phrase "gender fluid?" How about "nonbinary?" Or "genderqueer?"
In the new ever-more-open vocabulary of a younger cohort, they mean the same thing. 
In just the last week, I heard of several examples of young people who describe themselves with these words.
The first was from a friend  -- a man who himself was a trend setter some 18 years ago, when he and his gay partner adopted children, a boy and a girl. Recently his teenage son was talking about a classmate whose name did not make clear his gender. My friend asked his son, "Is that a girl or a boy?" The son replied that this classmate was  "gender fluid" and that the classmate had given themself a new first name to straddle the divide. (I know "themself" is not grammatically correct but keep reading.)
The second example came from a school in a free-thinking New England town, where my daughter lives. The school sent home a letter from the new student teacher, an introduction done for all new teachers. 

Aside from mentioning this teacher's many interests and enthusiasm about being at the school, the letter also said:
"I chose this unusual honorific (M. instead of Ms. or Mr.) because I identify as nonbinary. This means that I do not see myself as either female or male (the traditional binary genders.) Because I identify as nonbinary, I prefer using 'they/them' pronouns, which are also unmarked in gender.

"There is historical and social precedent for using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun," the teacher wrote. "Think about how you refer to people you don’t yet know – you will usually say, “Oh, who are they?” or “This friend of yours, are they nice?”  While some nonbinary people use invented pronouns (such as ze/zir/zirs/zirself), I prefer ‘they.’"

The third example (proving that this is definitely a trend) was in today's NY Times. A University of Vermont student, after struggling to feel comfortable as a woman and not feeling comfortable as a man either discovers that the description  "genderqueer" feels right. "Before, it had been really difficult to explain how I was feeling to other people, and even really difficult to explain it in my own head," said Rocko Gieselman. ("Rocko" is the first name Gieselman gave themself.). "Suddenly, there was a language for it, and that started the journey."
So... in the space of a week, I've gone from a baby kind of coming out,  to quite a different one.
It's a new gender-ation!.

Within a day of writing this, I'm told about these other discussions of the topic:
This book "How To Be Both," by Ali Smith.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My Daughter's Gender Reveal: A Coming Out of Sorts

The invitation from my daughter was sweet and unexpected: come along with her and her husband to her 20-week ultrasound. Even more unexpected was what was to happen afterwards.
I would run a sealed envelope with the gender of the baby ensconced  inside over to a bakery. The baker, in the privacy of his kitchen, would open up this secret dispatch. Then, accordingly, he would bake a cake that was either pink or blue inside. It would be covered in chocolate, with a question mark on top.
And then there would be a "gender reveal party," a phrase that every bakery now knows even though the practice is new to the older among us.
When this daughter was born, my husband and I, too, wanted to be surprised even though my doctor already knew the answer from amniocentesis.  But when I entered the examining room around the seventh month for a routine visit, the chart was lying open on the table, and I saw this:

No way could I keep this a secret from my husband for two more months. So I immediately bought a pair of tiny pink Winnie the Pooh PJs, put it in a plain white box and handed it to him that night.
I'm now just back from the modern-day iteration of this unveiling.
Friends arrived at my daughter's place. Her husband set up a "google hangout" so that siblings, nephews and nieces in faraway cities could watch. And then, the not-yet parents gingerly sliced into  the cake.

Five hours away, an eight-year-old niece cried.  Her older brother punched his fist in the air.
The couple kissed. Either way, they would have kissed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stories that Just Spill Out

Sheila Levin: Writing what she knows

While traveling, I have heard some very personal and often surprising stories.  These are not your usual oft-told, this-is-who-I-am biographies.  These are stories that, perhaps, were bottled up. Now that the genie has arrived, the teller can release his secret burden. And know that when this trip is over, the listener will not be around. And the teller will never again be in that person's presence, forever embarrassed by his confession.

Recently, while on a trip to the Amazon, I met  Sheila Levin -- an intense and charming woman who, while sitting in an airport lounge, revealed to me some of her story. With Sheila's permission, I'll just say that her stunningly beautiful mother, who apparently looked like Rita Hayworth, wanted little to do with Sheila, and at age 5 she was sent off to a high-end boarding school, even spending summer vacations with the head mistress. Brilliant and determined, Sheila eventually made her way to Barnard College and became a boot-strap kind of survivor who forged ahead in life.
The author in  1982
Among other things, she was on the front lines of the effort to rescue Jews from the former Soviet Union. She plunged into politics, though not on her own account. And she became a mother to several children of her own -- trying to do a better job than her own mother did.
Sheila also wrote a novel. After the trip, she sent me her first book, written in 1982, as a much younger woman, shown in the flyleaf with raven hair and light eyes. Having heard some of her personal story, I was curious to read Simple Truths. It proved to be a voyage for me to parse the real Sheila from her fictional character.
"It's a first novel," Sheila had said, somewhat apologetic.
Three decades later, with more of life behind her than before her, Sheila has come out with a second book, Musical Chairs.  It's a political page-turner about two women politicians and the men who surround them. The tension of the book? Each of the women has secrets they fear may emerge under the glare of a political campaign. Threaded throughout the intrigue is a maelstrom of emotions -- passionate love and friendship love, rivalry, loneliness, ego, the quest for power, and misunderstandings that lead to tragic results.
This is a book that only someone who has lived awhile could write. Yet with maturity, whatever personal experience she brought to it -- and I'm sure she did -- was disguised by her craft.
After all, that conversation in the airport lounge could only have been a Cliff Notes version of Sheila Levin's life.

While I'm telling stories of strange stranger encounters, here's this one, from a fellow traveler on a hiking trip in Italy. It spilled out one evening as we sat down at what we feared would be the boring end of a very long table.
One day the man, in his early 70s, gets a letter telling him that he has a half-sister he never knew about. He is in disbelief but his parents are no longer alive to question. So he insists that he and this woman get DNA tests. Astoundingly, the tests prove that  she is not his half-sister. Instead, she is his full sister. No, she wasn't given away for adoption. It turns out he was plucked from the arms of his father's secret mistress several states away and raised by his father and his wife. The woman he thought was his biological mother his whole life really wasn't. The mistress kept  the second child, his sister.

Shockingly, he later learned that people in his small town knew the story but had never told him.
Life…. stranger than fiction.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lisa Scottoline: The Joys of "No!"

Lisa Scottoline: her to-do list shrank 

On leaving my newspaper career, I  was given this advice:
Learn to say "No."  
As any parent of a toddler knows, we're born programmed to say "no."  So you have to wonder how standing up for yourself and your precious free time gets so problematic with age.
Women, especially, are taught to please.
Mystery writer and columnist Lisa Scottoline takes on the say-no issue in her column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. For her, it's a skill that should, like a fine wine, improve with age.
In her ode to aging, she says her guilt and need to make others happy had turned her life into a big to-do list. "And it wasn't even my Things to Do List," she writes. "It was everybody else's."
It took her 50 years to figure it out, but she discovered that when she said no, "I didn't die. On the contrary, I started living my own life."
But like a glass half empty or half full, there's some risk-taking in saying "no." You might also deny yourself the opportunity for a new experience. When my children were little, I loved the now out- of-print Richard Scarry book, Pig Will and Pig Won't about two sibling pigs. One was the good pig who always said "yes." The other was the stubborn, negative piggy who always said "no."
Guess which one ended up having the most fun?
The trick for us who are "new and improved," as Scottoline calls herself, is to know when saying "no" to others is really giving ourselves the permission and the time to say "yes" to what we really want to do.
Whatever that is.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bah! Humbug! and "Funeral Face"!

I cracked up this morning when I read that Pope Francis had chided? berated? his inner circle for such things as walking around with a "funeral face." He also accused the Curia of "spiritual Alzheimers" and  "spiritual petrification."
Is it because they are high-ranking clergy? Or simply because they are a bunch of  "old" guys.
I don't use the term "old" often on this blog, since I feel it is more a state of mind than a state of body.
You can have a young spirit that makes a face light up, a body appear to prance. But an old spirit….
Pope Francis:  Scrooges all around

That's really what Pope Francis is talking about.
"Funeral face" doesn't need much explanation. It's the outer manifestation of someone who has lost his or her sense of humor. Who only sees the negative, not the opportunity. Who's likely to say "no" to any new idea, any adventurous proposal, anything that takes then out of their ever-narrower comfort zone.
"Spiritual Alzheimers," according to Pope Francis, is a "progressive decline of spiritual faculties" leading people to live in a "state of absolute dependence on their often imagined, views." That, to me, sounds like they're stuck in their own reality or unreality.  Not listening; talking over others. Hibernating -- atrophying --  in their own thought vortex.
Another of the 15 "spiritual diseases" which Pope Francis outlined is "existential schizophrenia" -- a phrase that deserves recognition. This, he said refers to a "double life, a result of the hypocrisy typical of mediocre people and of advancing spiritual emptiness, which degrees or academic titles cannot fill." You might call it "resting on your laurels," as if what you did or who you were in the past is enough for the future. We must keep on growing, adding ever more to our CV of life.
As for "Spiritual emptiness..." Let's hope you're not feeling this way this holiday season. Open your windows, let fresh air blow in.  Take a walk. Put a smile on your face. If you practice smiling long enough, you will really smile. That's a proven -- and free -- remedy for what ails the spirit.
Thanks for reading my blog and have a Happy and a Healthy New Year.!!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Kurt Herman: His Voice Still Heard

Arriving in U.S. in 1939, Kurt Herman, 9,  is just left of life ring; the Krauses are in the center.

I remember the twinkle in Kurt Herman's eyes, his smile, his joy in life. After all, he was one of the rare survivors. When Gilbert Kraus, a Philadelphia lawyer, and his wife Eleanor arrived in Vienna in 1939, determined to rescue 50 children, Herman's parents offered him up.
The mission became the largest kindertransport to the United States out of Nazi Europe, and more recently a movie and a book.
Kurt Herman, who died yesterday at age 85, featured in one of my first blogs. And for reasons only social media can explain, it has garnered the most "hits." Maybe because his story is that of a miracle. After all, few escaped Hitler's mass murder machine.  Or maybe people are drawn to the unbendable determination on Gil Kraus, who argued his way through torturous red tape on both sides of the Atlantic to accomplish his mission.
Or maybe it's simply because this is an unfathomable chapter in world history whose tellers are leaving us.
Kurt had that kind of double-edged view of life that comes from hard experience. He was an optimist and loved every moment; he was also a realist, saying "friends are great but you can only count on family." His friends, he said, abandoned him the moment Hitler arrived.
These are words he shared with hundreds of Philadelphia school children over the many years that he would go out and speak to them, despite his big jobs as an accountant. They are also words he would share with his grandchildren, as he did with me in an interview on YouTube.

Also here is a story I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Kurt's funeral is 9.30 a.m. at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael Sacks, Second Street Pike, Southampton.
His story, and that of the other children, also will live on in the movie and the book-- 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Mission into the Heart of Nazi German, of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, by Steven Pressman. A journalist, Pressman married the Krauses' granddaughter and unearthed
Eleanor's diary.
Thanks for sharing so much with us, Kurt. Let us pray that the world remembers your lessons.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tom Thomas: You Can Row Home Again

Tom Thomas: Coaching city kids is his passion
Rowing. That’s what William C. "Tom" Thomas Jr. really loved -- even as he married, raised a couple kids, worked in college administration and as a lawyer for 27 years.
That and coaching young people.
So Tom was in his element on the Schuylkill River as I watched him coach city youths a few weeks ago in a non-profit program called Philadelphia City Rowing.
You can find him working by the river almost every afternoon. He makes sure the boats, housed in a narrow shed at the end of clubby Boathouse Row, are shipshape. He encourages the teens to erg on rowing machines, do push ups and jump on and off a balance beam to strengthen all the muscles in their bodies --virtually every one of them is used in the strenuous sport of rowing.

Philadelphia City Rowing: sweating and erging

And, you’ll see him out in the coach boat with his megaphone, urging his charges to swing their bodies in rhythm with the pull of their oars in the exquisite choreography of sculling.
As I tried to hear him over the buzz of the outboard motor on the coach boat, Tom told me how he had come to help city kids get onto the river and learn a sport for which they would otherwise have little access.
Throughout the history of Boathouse Row, the high schools that have dominated rowing were the prep schools and the Catholics -- and more recently suburban public high schools. With only a few exceptions, the city’s public school kids haven’t had a crack at this sport, which involves costly boats and boathouses, unaffordable in a city that barely supports music or libraries.
Philadelphia City Rowing, funded by foundations, private donors, and a handful of dedicated staff and volunteers, is finally making it happen. Besides the rowing, the students are expected to keep up their grades, so PCR coaches them academically, as well, and gives them college counseling. So far, every kid who stuck with rowing through his or her senior year has made it to college.
Every muscle gets used
Tom said that as a student at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Va., he had the luck to row for legendary coach Charlie Butt. He also spent summers as a lifeguard at the Jersey shore in Ventnor “under the watchful guidance of Stan Bergman,” who coached at Holy Spirit High School and was later head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. Tom later rowed four years at Rutgers. Still, he knew he would never be the athlete his father was. “My dad was extremely competitive, a national caliber runner, all-state football in high school.  Very accomplished.”
With his son rowing, his dad, too, became excited about the sport and bought a double scull after retiring from a 30-year career as an Air Force pilot. Father and son competed together in the Head of the Charles in Boston in the 1980s. “In his 60s, when I’m rowing with him, I’m trying to keep up with him and I’m in my 30s! My dad inspired me. Though I had his shadow to kind of walk in,  I always felt it was an encouragement, not an ‘I can’t measure up.’  I didn’t worry about it. I just did the best I could.”
Time passed. Suddenly Tom was in his late 50s. With his kids grown and a law career that left him unsatisfied and wanting more, he circled back to his first love.
“I’m here all day, every day. It has to be done,” explains Tom, who works as director of PCR’s rowing program.
Tom: working to create opportunity
This fall about 80 city high school kids from very diverse backgrounds came out, a record for the five-year-old program, though the number is likely to settle somewhere in the 60s.
How does he feel about his post-vocation avocation?
“In almost any non-profit you don’t get what you’re worth. By the same token it’s a matter of trying to make this program do something and you can’t do it with 20 or 30 hours a week. You’ve got to put more in.”
Before the kids arrive from school,  Tom's out in the sliver of land PCR has wrested from Boathouse Row, fixing boats, getting practice plans together, watching coaching videos and keeping abreast of the sport. “I can’t sit on my laurels,” he says.

His reward? ‘Just watching these kids work harder and grow into rowing.”