Bookstores are gone, but libraries still live

Trinity College Dublin library

At my request, my father taught me to read before I started school. This memory came to me because I’m currently moving into the nostalgia phase of my life, not yearning for a return to the past so much as thinking fondly about it. And much of my past has been centered around libraries. It just so happens that my library book group’s February choice is, appropriately, “The Library Book,” by Susan Orleans. It devotes many pages to the Los Angeles central library fire in 1986, but also introduces many figures past and present involved in that library system, and it’s a fascinating story.

UW Library

The King County public library is not my only library. I joined the University of Washington Alumni Association so I could have a UW library card. I don’t use it often, but am glad it’s there, if for no other reason than to visit the Suzzallo Library undergraduate reading room.

I have a deeper relation with libraries than merely borrowing books. My first job — at age 15 and a half — was as a Page in a branch of the Seattle Public Library.  During my three years on the job, I mostly shelved books, a humdrum job but fun because I got to work with two very nice clerks. On my most exciting day, I accompanied one of them on a hunt for overdue books.  No joke. In those days if you didn’t return your book, library staff would come looking for it and you.

We had the same experience at each home we visited, i.e., we waded through the tall grass in front yards that sheltered large collections of broken toys. When we reached the front doors we were greeted by snarling dogs, non-readers for sure. We heard whispering behind the doors but the yaps soon overpowered those voices. After knocking a few times we left. We never did recapture a book.

I don’t have much of a history with bookstores, but they’ve been on my mind after I picked up — from among my library’s Choice Reads — “The Bookshop on the Shore” about a mobile bookshop in a small town in Scotland. I followed that with “The Bookshop on the Corner,” an earlier tale by the same auth0r about the same mobile bookshop. The third bookshop story, “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend,” is set in a dying town in Iowa, and “The Little Paris Bookshop,” takes place aboard a floating store. Each of these fluffy stories were about fictional stores that were cozy and staffed by an owner who had great insights into what each customer needed to read. They also incorporated a touch of romance.

I don’t have experience with many cozy bookshops, except for the lovely Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop, Washington. The independent and chain booksellers in my city have both departed.  Half-Price Books is all that’s left.

I’m encouraged to read that according to a recent Gallup poll, U.S. library visits outpaced trips to movies in 2019.  I suppose that could mean that everyone was watching movies at home and had no need to leave or to read books.  Still, I’m fortunate to have my library, one of the busiest in the country, and I use it often. My dad would be proud.

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Eating mindfully

Recently, I attended a class called “Mindful Eating.” Although it was not promoted as a weight-loss program, I went anyway, on the off-chance it would help me lose ten pounds with little or no sacrifice or effort.

The class was interesting and will be helpful if I manage to follow the advice given. Among the key messages were:  slow down, pay attention to your food, and eat what you want.

Under “pay attention” is the recommendation to use all your senses, not only taste. We saw, touched, smelled and tried to listen to a single raisin.  Mine was silent, but I could smell the sugar. After settling it on my tongue for a minute,  I tried to follow the instructions, but it’s difficult to chew a single raisin in three or four bites. In terms of eating pleasure, the raisin experience was underwhelming. However, I began to wonder about the possibilities of marketing “The Raisin Diet.” Directions: Eat X number of raisins at four bites each. Plan on this taking hours each day, which will prevent you from putting anything else in your mouth.

“Eat what you want” means not falling for the latest “in thing” as promoted by the $4.2 trillion health and wellness and diet industries. We should note that foods labeled healthy become unhealthy ones every five to ten years and vice versa. Fat is in now. But at the point you’ve settled in to a regular breakfast of bacon and eggs, some researcher somewhere will link this meal to locust plagues and boils and you’ll begin your search for the perfect breakfast all over again.

In the class we practiced eating. You’d think by this age I’d know how, but I didn’t and was it challenging. We all received a Japanese dish of sesame tofu, sweet red beans and coconut milk. The first question to answer was how hungry we were.  Not hungry, a little hungry or half or three quarters full? It was lunch time. I was hungry.

Our instructions were to look at the dish and consider all that went into its creation — not only the work of the chef who made the tofu and created a mountain snow scene out of the ingredients but of those who grew the beans and harvested the coconuts. Then we were to smell the dish. After taking each bite we set down our spoons. As one who normally motors through a meal without paying attention, I found that instruction very difficult to follow. But follow it I did. And where normally I would have finished the dish in thirty seconds having made no dent on my hunger pangs, slowing down lessened them significantly.

Following the class I went to a birthday party (as an aside, it was for my friend who just turned 99). The guests there took advantage of the ample food being served and what I observed was that everyone around me ate very very fast and they weren’t paying any attention to what they were eating. That was as much a lesson as the slow eating I’d done earlier.

This is day three. I’ve lost a pound and a half. Breakfast was a little less frantic than usual. I didn’t wait forever between bites but I did slow down. Later in the day, halfway through eating an apple I caught myself speeding. After lunch I paced myself and felt full, the first time in an eon. This is going to take practice, but my curiosity is now piqued and I hope to develop a new habit of slower eating.

The biggest problem with eating mindfully is that if you start out eating hot food, by the time you finish you’ll be eating cold food. One possible solution is to start off cold by trying the ice cream diet if the raisin one doesn’t work.

 

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Calling all Rats; your year is almost here

Welcome to the Year of the Rat (beginning January 25), a title applicable to so much more than the upcoming Chinese and Vietnamese New Years. Zodiac Rats were born in 1936, 1948,1960, 1972, 1984, 2008 and 2020. Other kinds of rats are born every day of every year.

According to the Chinese zodiac story, in the competition held by the Jade Emperor to decide the zodiac animals, the quick-witted rat asked the diligent ox to take him on a ride to cross the river and jumped down before the ox crossed the finish line, so the rat won the race and became the first of the twelve zodiac animals.”

Different sources don’t agree on everything, but some say the rat’s lucky numbers are two and three and its lucky colors are gold, blue and green.

For mates, the rat would do well to choose an ox, rabbit or dragon. Strange pairings under normal conditions, and according to the analysts these rats like to play around before settling down.

part of Vietnamese celebration

As you might imagine, the rat has any number of different qualities depending on which website you read. Some of the positive ratty characteristics are that they’re charming, intelligent, witty,  and outgoing. Rats also like to collect things. Think pack rat. Less fetching traits include being restless, picky, stubborn and greedy. Some say rats are good leaders because they do a better job of directing others than themselves.

Performers in Vietnamese NY Celebration-Tet

As a practical matter, The Feng Shui experts recommend Rats wear amulets with rat symbols (bracelets, pendants, key rings). At home, they might want to place a statue representing a golden rat, the symbol of prosperity and luck, “in the northern side of the bedroom or living room.”

Curious as to what the fortune tellers predicted about how my zodiac animal — the dog — would fare in this rat year, I learned that I should place a dog statue in my bedroom — southern side — and carry a dog amulet with me at all times. At least they don’t tell me to buy a dog, which would cause great conflict at home (with my cat), in a year in which they predict great luck for me and other canines.

Enough on rats. By tomorrow I’ll be seeing ads for golden rat statues and keychains on Facebook.

 

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Generation gap from a new perspective

Eleanor, 99; me, 73

For the first time I understand what it means to be on the other side of the age gap.  Not that I haven’t had many glimpses earlier, but now they’re following me everywhere.

I remember the gap between my views and those of my parents after they turned fifty, as well as  the battle cry of the era, coined in 1964: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” My parents and their peers favored Richard Nixon (at least until he made that impossible), thought hippies were destroying the world, viewed women with pierced ears as verging on slutty, considered protestors communists, and hated rock and roll.

In that same era, tattoos were for sailors. End of discussion.  Now they are a fashion statement for men and women.

Hair colors used to be brown, black, blond and gray. Since then, we’ve added pink, blue and green. The most bewildering change, from the perspective of someone who spends money to hide gray hair, is that young women are choosing to add gray.

Slang changes often, so it’s no surprise that you’re not sure of the meaning now attached to words you used to know. Three I’ve picked on for this blog: —  ‘cancel’ as in ‘cancel culture,’  “Boomer,” as in”OK Boomer,” and ‘humblebrag.’

The latter is my favorite, because it opens the door to so many creative possibilities.  You can brag about anything if you just use the right combination of words. It’s not that the action is new, but the label is. Here are two I copied from Twitter: 1)”The first million is the hardest.” 2)”…You’re the coolest man on the planet!! … — what I resisted saying when I met Johnny Depp …”

And one of my own. “My hand is cramped from all the people who asked to shake it today.”

“OK Boomer” is intended to remind older folks that we’re responsible for ruining the earth and being condescending, negative, judgmental (just like our parents). In the context of the environment, there’s truth here, though trucks and SUVS are the most popular vehicles in America and the largest purchasing group is between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four.

Some call 2019 “The Year in Cancel Culture”). ‘Cancel Culture’ means boycotting famous people who’ve behaved badly. But that’s not all. It can be much darker, says a teenager who was canceled — meaning no one talked to her –during her first two years of high school.  “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.” (NYT, Tales from the Teenage Cancel Culture, Nov 2, 2019)

“From Marvel movies to OK Boomer, 2019 was a year of generational divides,” says Jeffrey Fleishman (Los Angeles Times) Fear of the future enters into it, but, he says, “it is a progression changed by, but as old as, time.” And he reminds us the older generation is still in charge.  The current president is  73. The top three Democratic presidential contenders are 70 (Warren), Biden (77) and Sanders (78). Yet two out of these three are popular with younger generations.  Proof that generation gaps are more complicated than we might think.

 

 

 

 

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Phone tag

After a two-month break, I’m returning to blogging.  The work I’m doing on my novel has become…well… difficult. How would my protagonist react in this scene?  What about the one after it?  It’s constraining, especially when my writing coach asks, “Why is she reacting this way?  It doesn’t fit. Does she have a split personality?  Is she schizophrenic? Do either of these conditions apply to you?”

In a blog, the one thing I can be sure of is how my protagonist reacts since I’m the protagonist. I enjoy writing about whatever comes to mind and allowing myself to sound ridiculous.  I would have resolved to blog regularly in 2020, but I — like the eighty percent of those who make New Year’s resolutions — don’t keep resolutions. If I did, by now I would fit in a size eight and be able to run a marathon.

So let’s just say I’m back and want see if I can keep up two writing projects in 2020 and enjoy them both.

Today’s topic is losing things — most often my telephone-  as I age.

This week, while reading the hard copy paper (something only older people do now) I remembered that I’d forgotten to charge my phone so I got up and started a search. I called myself several times from the landline (also a device recognizable only by older people) but no answering sound came from the refrigerator, toilet or trunk of my car. My first thought was that I’d left it in a church pew on Sunday. Easy to do since my husband and I arrive there with arms filled with ukuleles, choir music, a music stand, and other service-related paraphernalia. And though a friend told me her daughter advised her that handbags were  passé, replaced these days by many pockets or a backpack, I still cart around a purse for my phone, reading glasses, cash (also passé) and credit cards.

But after a while my husband remembered that I had used the phone at Whole Foods later in the day and reminded me of my confusion involving searching for my store app (which allows amazon to track my buying habits even more closely). I had to point it at the computer while we were navigating the self-service checkout as the robot nattered on and on. “Put the item in the bag. Put it in the bag. Put the *!$ in the bag.”

Later that morning, I drove to Whole Foods and sure enough my phone was one of two they’d locked in a cabinet there. I was most worried about my travel photos, which I should have transferred to my computer ages ago, since I do have somewhat of a phone-losing history.  I left it on a picnic table in the town square in Haarlem, Netherlands and the finder found me and mailed it to me wrapped in a paper towel in a business envelope; and once I left it at a table in a coffee shop a mile or so from where I live.  I realized I didn’t have it after they’d closed for the day.  I got that back too.  But three times may represent the limit to my luck as in three strikes you’re out.

One reason I wasn’t so worried this week was because people who shop at Whole Foods probably have newer and better phones than mine and would scoff at the thought of using anything less.

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Robots, drones and weird dating apps: what is the world coming to?

Not Robby who is copyright protected but a reasonable facsimile from Lost in Space 1966

These days, I find myself astonished by the latest hot issues or trends — not just some of them, but all of them. Recently, I came across three news items in the Seattle Times (Oct. 28, 2019) that qualify for my “I’m so glad I’m out-of-touch” files.

The first speaks to a new approach to applying for work.  When I applied for jobs, humans read my application and resume and asked me questions. The only change over time was that groups of humans did my interviews. When I left the workplace, job applications and resumes were screened by software that recognized key words. If applicants wrote all the right words, presumably ones that had some relation to the job they were applying for, they were invited for an interview, again with humans.  How shockingly yesterday this sounds now.

Today, applicants for jobs at Hilton International and at least one hundred other employers are using Robbie the Robot — no, not Robbie, but a different artificial intelligence system — to conduct interviews. Using applicants’ computers or cell phone cameras the system conducts the interviews, considers candidates’ “facial movements, word choice and speaking voice,” and gives them a score. (I admit that a friend of mind said when she was the only female on a hiring team, the men all voted for the cute young woman regardless of qualifications, but I’d still give myself a better chance with them than a robot.)

I once taught a course in career planning and job interview skills at a community college.  I always told applicants  they should try to come across as likable, as someone interviewers could see themselves working with. But I wouldn’t know how to prep them for Robbie.

The second issue is a problem that you or I will not be called on to solve and for that we should be grateful. It’s the laws that must be created before Amazon, Google and others flood the skies with drones. These tech firms must answer many questions such as, if my neighbor orders a barbecue from Amazon and the drone accidentally drops it in my yard, may I be the first to put a steak on the Barbie. Or, if the drone lugging my encyclopedia accidentally lets it go over my neighbor’s cat, who’s responsible for the cat? Another question: Can drones read signs that say “No trespassing?” or “No soliciting” and can they tell the difference. Even if they can, does the air over my house belong to mep. The latter question– Who owns the air? — is real.

In the same paper I read about dating apps. Apparently people have grown tired of Tinder and Bumble. (Some of us hardly knew they existed and now they’re passé.) The problem is that often dating apps cast too broad a net. To help us narrow down we now have “GlutenFreeSingles, Ugly Schmucks, and FarmersOnly.” I await “PeopleWhoColorTheirHairGreenonMondays,” and FansofDeadSingers.

I have considered not reading the paper because the political news stresses me out.  I think I’ve found three more reasons not to read it at all.

 

 

 

 

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Mindfulness in the garden

Yao Garden, Bellevue Botanical Garden

Yesterday, I attended a class called Mindfulness in the Garden: Autumn Awakening.  In this ninety-minute outdoor program, about twenty of us engaged in heavy breathing, teasing our senses and Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku in Japanese).  Sound risqué? Not with a temperature of fifty-five degrees, fierce winds, and the occasional raindrop.

My sensual journey included shivering, squeezing my hands under my armpits and attempting to mindfully ignore my discomfort.

But the actions of breathing, and paying attention to all aspects of the environment that surrounded us kept me from dwelling for long on the chill.

The class took place in a botanical garden I often visit. By visit, I mean circle the grounds fast enough to raise my heart rate while also stopping to take photos. Yesterday, none of that was permitted: no selfies, no haste, no talking.

Yao Garden, Bellevue Botanical Garden

One definition of Forest bathing is simply spending time in the woods. And so we stood quietly, inhaled and exhaled and felt the ground under our feet. We moved at the speed of starfish and stopped every few seconds to look closely at a particular plant or a tree, finger a leaf or two, stick our noses into the last rose of summer, pay attention to the water gurgling under a bridge, and listen to leaves rustling overhead. I even stopped on the trail, peered into a thicket and waited until I saw a leaf fall, one leaf.

We also gathered in a grove and thought about our relationship to the trees encircling us. We inhaled oxygen produced by the trees, and exhaled carbon dioxide for their benefit.

The effect of the class was to still my monkey mind, introduce me to dozens of plants and leaves I’ve never noticed on my fast walks, make me focus on what I was doing, not on what I was going to do later, and feel content. There are more benefits, which Japanese researchers have discovered. These include

  • Boosted immune system functioning
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep.

And to achieve these results is uncomplicated. No equipment needed. No number of repetitions required. No knowledge of botany. Only a good coat and boots in winter. Next time, I will pay more attention to the coat.

 

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The thrill of finding your ancestral roots

  • Recently a friend posted on Facebook — in all caps — her excitement of learning that her ancestors came from Northern Nigeria and that she was a “full Fulani woman. I found my home. My heart is full.” In response, another friend said, “I think the feeling of connectedness that arises when we are able to trace our ancestors to a particular country and culture must be embedded at the cellular level.  It’s so powerful.”

I understand that feeling even though I have ancestral ties to many places and, thanks or no thanks to ancestry.com’s growing databases, these sometimes change. However, for every loss of one motherland there is usually a gain of another, and I take pride in being a mix of nationalities.

Since retirement, my husband and I have traveled to Europe, Ireland and several Northern countries. On our first trip, we spent a few days in Amsterdam.  Walking down city streets surrounded by Dutch pedestrians, he said, “I feel like I belong here.  These are my people.” His DNA results support this claim.

The next step was to visit the lands of ancestors whose names we knew.  My great grandmother came from Sweden. I felt right at home in Stockholm, especially when people spoke spoke Swedish to me.  Bergen, Norway, the port my husband’s great grandmother sailed from, became a special city to us. And I fell in love with Ireland, which was the home of a great-great grandfather.

I agree with my friend’s comment, “My heart is full.” There is something special about knowing where you came from, and coming from many places, which seemingly makes you root-free, is also a plus. You can pick and choose which cultural paradigms you want to accept from each country.  The Irish are famous for storytelling, so I’m thrilled with that connection. My husband and I also call ourselves Vikings because of what ancestry.com says are our Scandinavian, Northwestern Europe and British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish connections. The Vikings inhabited all those places.

The other bonus that come from searching for your ancestors is that millions of others are doing the same thing.  Today I heard from a woman who said one of my grandfathers was a brother of her grandmother. She’d even met my mother once. We share the same Irish ancestor and have both traveled to the counties in Ireland where this ancestor lived.

While joy comes from knowing what countries your ancestors came from, learning what they did when they got to the U.S. offers both good and bad news.  I believe some of my English ancestors who settled in the southern states were slave owners.  Contrast this to my husband’s Norwegian ancestor who became an artist and painter of French china in Wisconsin. (The photos here are of her work and that of her daughter)

One bit of advice to readers whose family members are still living.  Ask questions while you can.  At some point in your life you will regret not knowing more about your ancestors and their lives, even if the answers aren’t always what you want to hear.

 

 

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Responding to the autumn blues

Molbak’s

Before I retired, which means when I was nine years younger, I always claimed to prefer autumn over all other seasons.  Spring with its gentle rains and slow-sprouting leaves was too pastel, too wimpy.  Autumn meant bold oranges and reds, windstorms, and leaves piling up everywhere, ready to skitter and dance when I walked through them.

One of my biggest arguments against autumn is that daylight vanishes for months. When I worked, I used to leave home in the dark, get home in the dark, look out my office window at two p.m. and ask my secretary if it was bedtime yet. My schedule has changed, but the dark days persist.

Given this gloom and doom picture of the season I’ve been painting for myself, I decided to make autumn a very active season, keeping so busy I won’t notice how dark it is outside. And, given recent developments in national politics, by accident, I’m also providing myself with plenty of distractions from the twenty-four hour news cycle.

My October calendar is nearly full. One Shakespeare play. One book group. One writing workshop. Two musical performances. A mindful walk in the woods with a talk on shinrin- yoku, Japanese “forest bathing.” Two movies. Two author lectures. Lunch with longtime friends. Two other lectures. A little over the top perhaps, but all good ways to nourish me during the season when the weather and darkness fails to do this. My husband will share most of these activities, and if the weather gets too dreary there’s always a cat, a couch and a fireplace.

Molbak’s

Despite perhaps going overboard with one month’s schedule, I haven’t forgotten that small activities can be as rewarding as the large events. Today, we went to our favorite nursery. Walking through all shades of green and swaths of many colors (even cacti have colorful blooms) gave me an emotional boost and cost nothing.

October will be here tomorrow.  I’m going to rest before heading to the starting gate.

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She’s nearly ninety-nine

Every so often I think about death, especially when I’m with a group of friends that started out one size and ended up smaller. I have one friend – her name is Eleanor — who by virtue of her age should remind me of death but never does.  In fact, she seems immortal. 

I’ve written about Eleanor before, but that was way back when she was 94 or 95 and now she’s 98 and 1/2, which she routinely rounds up to “going on 99.” 

Recently, I interviewed her to learn her secrets of aging as they relate to a healthy mental state.

As a guide I used a sort of memoir, “On the Brink of Everything Grace, Gravity and Getting Old,” by Parker J. Palmer, who looks back on his life in such areas as work and vocation, staying engaged with the world, and staying engaged, creatively, with the young.

Work and vocation.  Eleanor’s list is too long to include here. Her careers range from journalist to costume designer to drama teacher. She’s a founder of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and still actively involved. Recently, she hosted a buffet for thirty of the organization’s leaders who were in town for a conference.

When I first met her, we were both enrolled in a writing program through the University of Washington.  She was ninety. She has taken at least one writing course every year since then.

Creative time with younger people. Palmer suggests that as we age we benefit from spending creative time with people younger than we are.  Eleanor is a writer and she hosts a writers’ critique group twice a month (with dinner). At “going on 99,” whether it’s in courses or in the writers’ group, she has no choice but to spend creative time with folks much younger than she is.

Engaging with the world. Eleanor is way ahead of most retirees in this category. “I get out of the house every day and announce my age constantly. I talk to everyone, everywhere.” Her local librarian saves books for her.  She’s well known by the tech staff at the Microsoft store near her home. The woman who hands out free food samples at Costco attended her last birthday party.  “Successful aging is really being genuinely interested in other people. I feel like everyone is a sibling or maybe I’m their surrogate mother.”

But wait, there’s more. She says she has “unbridled curiosity, pays attention to the moment,” though she’s “often undisciplined and unfocused.” She explains the latter, saying, “I grew up wild in a family of eight children, which shaped who I am now. As a child, day and night I was attentive to tangible and intangible details, always alert to the potential for conflict.”

Besides having good genes – her doctor describes her as an outlier – and an outgoing nature, Eleanor attributes her long life to sleeping eight hours a night, taking no medicine, having curiosity, reading avidly, and questioning authority, especially doctors.  

Because I believe Eleanor is immortal,  I look forward to finding out whether her “secrets” list changes once she reaches 100.

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