This piece was published in the Los Angeles Times on December23, 2000.
My coworkers and I were subjected to a very convoluted office gift exchange for many years. We finally eliminated it after the lone worker who kept it going finally retired. Her concept, which involved giving a gift every day for four days, got very expensive. Her system was laced with guilt and peer pressure and was way out of sync with the spirit of the season.
Late last October we sat together in a staff meeting and lamented the waste of giving one another tiny packages of “joy” that didn’t really elicit said emotion. Most of us wanted to wish our coworkers well by word of mouth, perhaps by a kind deed, but certainly not by material possessions. There seemed to be no way out of this holiday quagmire.
After the organizer’s retirement, we all agreed not to continue with the current system, but stone silence greeted the call for what to do instead. Finally, one soul spoke up.
“We are all blessed,” she declared, “but others are not.” She wanted to “adopt” a a family. We could visit our largess on them, the truly needy, and not on one another.
The rest of the staff members chimed in. Yes, yes, yes. Through the Salvation Army we received the names and ages of the children in our adopted family, along with their wish list. They didn’t ask for much: a coat, shoes, hats, a toy car. We quickly divided up the list and went shopping. We bought what they wanted, and more.
This, we quickly concluded, was fun. When we shopped for useless but cute gifts for our fellow staffers, it was stressful, a chore to complete. When we tried to select just the right gift for a child who needed our help, we reveled in the true spirit of the holiday. The stack of gaily wrapped gifts grew higher and higher each day.
We adopted the entire family and bought gifts for everyone – mom, dad and the four children. Gifts for the dad came as generously as gifts for the three-year-old.
The team spirit that came from our holiday project didn’t come from an outside trainer or hired consultant. It didn’t happen in a classroom or during a retreat but came from the best part of every employee.
Our staff is very diverse in religious backgrounds and faiths but we all caught the spirit of the holiday. It didn’t matter if we celebrated Christmas or not, we all wanted to buy a gift for the family. We all wanted to donate food and other staples to lighten their load and brighten their holiday. We all preferred to reach out to the family rather than purchase a gift that is not needed or appreciated.
My coworkers and I will awaken on Christmas morning, safe and secure in our homes, watching our children or grandchildren’s joy. All of us will pause at some point on that dear morning and imagine the face of a child we will never meet, tearing the wrapping paper off our personally wrapped present that contains her dearest wish.
We didn’t save the world or the city or the community, or even this particular family. We saw a need and filled it; we adopted a family and embraced the season as we saw it. And along the way, we had some fun.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on Dec. 3,1999.
The fish was the ugliest I had ever seen. I actually recoiled as my son proudly pointed him out in the aquarium. He loves fish. Most boys want a dog or a cat. Fish, it seems, capture my son’s imagination.
“Fish,” he told me, “don’t bark or jump on guests.”
“You can’t pet them or teach them tricks,” I replied.
They look at me sometimes, he claimed, and that was enough.
He brought the ugly fish home on a cold, dark December day. Jet-black, just like the winter night, the fish’s eyes were perched on the ends of hideous balls protruding from his unfortunate body. The rest of him looked like a regular black goldfish, but the awful eyes made me cringe. He was quite out of place in the aquarium.
After a few visits to the tank, I began to admire the fish’s moxie. We bonded and I started to call him Bugsy. He glided past the more elegant fish, ones with tiger stripes and brilliant dots of color, with his big baseball eyes held high. He found his way and found his place in the underwater world.
A few days before Hanukkah began, my son came to me, expressing concern for Bugsy. It appeared that the black scales around the horribly shaped eyes were coming off. We looked at Bugsy and felt a terrible sadness. We turned away.
My son felt the fish was looking to him for help. He didn’t know what to do. Although I appreciated his concern, I knew that his beloved pet was a $2 fish and could be easily disposed of. He rejected that idea immediately and said he would call the fish supply store for advice.
He got busy with school and work and didn’t consult the store. When the other fish began to nip at Bugsy, he removed the fish from the tank and put in him in a big jar of water.
Bugsy was on death watch. We could not know for certain if he suffered, but nonetheless, we felt his pain. Darkness descended.
The next day, after his geography final, my son planned to release Bugsy into a fountain in a park to let him die with dignity, but first he promised he would stop at the fish store to see if anything could be done. I said goodbye to Bugsy as my son walked out to his truck, gently cradling the big glass jar in his arms with the fish swimming blissfully in tiny circles.
Less than 30 minutes later, my son returned, holding the big glass jar aloft. Bugsy, it seems, had contracted a virus. All he had to do was put some pills in the fish tank for a period of time and Bugsy would recover quite nicely.
He showed me the pills, eight in all, in a tiny plastic packet. Eight pills, eight days.
Hanukkah! Bugsy was our Hanukkah miracle . . . his recovery lit the night. A tiny fish that could have been tossed out when in distress was given a second
chance by a compassionate young man. Bugsy is holding his own and we are quite optimistic.
We hope he will survive the odds and light our winter nights, as the lamp lit the dark nights of the Jewish people centuries ago.
We light the Hanukkah candles to keep away the winter darkness and find our miracles where we may.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on December 22, 2010.
This is the time of year when we get in touch with people we only get in touch with
once a year. Many people I send cards to are in that category. Still, I want to let them know how I am doing and hope they will also send a card to me. Most of them are people I knew in the past but they still matter today.
One of those people is a co-worker I knew twenty-five years ago. I worked with her at a retirement community in Van Nuys. We were called retirement counselors but we were really rental agents. Betty had been in the business for a few years; I was brand new. She quickly became my teacher and I learned as I watched her gain the confidence of the most skeptical and worried adult child of a frail senior in search of a safe place to live. She would be there the day they moved in and hovered like a mother hen until the tenant was settled.
When we weren’t showing apartments, we worked together in the rental office. After dealing with stressed out families all day we often found humor in the absurdity of life and often laughed so hard we cried. We worked with people who were nearing the end of their lives, living in one room, often ill and alone, having outlived most of their friends and family. We admired them in many ways and treated them with utmost respect and affection, but we needed our downtime too.
Betty had been happily working at a state-of-the art retirement community in Montana but moved back to Los Angeles because her thirty-something daughter, her only child, was ill. Her daughter’s health was precarious and she had to be hospitalized from time to time. I came to understand that Betty’s job was a respite from her difficult home life with her daughter.
Several years earlier, Betty’s husband was tragically killed on the job as steelworker due to negligence on the part of the company. After a protracted lawsuit, Betty received a settlement but she was still alone in the world with her daughter to care for. I admired
her resilience, her constant good humor and positive outlook.
Eventually I moved to another job and Betty followed her heart and moved to Arizona with a man she had become reacquainted with through mutual friends. We talked on the phone occasionally and exchanged Christmas cards.
After a couple of years passed with no phone calls or cards, I called Betty’s daughter a few times but never got a call back. Her number in Arizona was disconnected. I called the corporate headquarters of the retirement community company and spoke to the marketing manager, who knew Betty too. He had lost touch with her as well.
It has been more than a decade since I heard from Betty and I have assumed the worst. I have to conclude that her daughter never let any of her mother’s many friends know what happened to her. I don’t know why her daughter didn’t go through Betty’s address book and call her friends. When someone passes, lots of people who knew them well, even if it was years ago, still care.
In this electronically connected society there is no excuse for not letting people know when a loved one passes. It leaves a gap in the relationship that can never be filled.
When a former neighbor passed, his son stopped by to tell me in person and I was very grateful. I wasn’t family, or even a close friend, but it gave closure. When a loved one passes, it is better to err on the side of giving their friends a call or email. It is best to let people know, especially at this time of year when people stop to think about old friends and miss them still.
This piece was published in the the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on Dec. 24, 2006.
This is the season that we remember people who have taken care of us all year –
people who cut our hair and our grass, pick up our trash and deliver our mail and
newspaper. If your paper appears at the top of the step every morning and not in the
grass next to the sprinkler head, you know that someone who began his workday at
4:00 a.m. is doing his job right.
Two years ago my sister and I gave a Christmas bonus to some very special people
who helped us immeasurably by taking care of our mother as she lived out her last days
in a board-and-care home. I don’t want to minimize the importance of my hairdresser,
gardener or paper carrier, but the people who cared for my mom every day,
twenty-four/seven, were extraordinarily kind and did work that few of us could handle.
As we hired people to care for both our parents in their declining years, we became acquainted with professional caregivers. The ones we met were patient people with a temperament that enabled them to meet the physical and emotional needs of very frail, very old people.
Every time I visited Mom at the board-and-care home, I came away with a renewed
appreciation for the people who sat in the living room of the large house with the residents, watching g-rated movies with them, cooking their meals and making sure they took their pills on time. The caregiving profession is largely unregulated and offers low pay and few benefits.
The facility my mom was at was owned by a very compassionate woman who provided as best she could for her staff as well as the residents. She struggled to provide insurance and other benefits to the staff and still make a living.
My sister and I took this into consideration when we sat down together to decide what to give the caregivers, with Mom’s blessing, as a Christmas bonus. Mom had been in the board-and-care for a full year and most of the staff had taken care of her on a daily basis. She could do almost nothing for herself and was incontinent.
The staff delivered her meals to her room, bathed and changed her and kept her spirits up. Mom was mentally sharp and often discussed politics, books and the weather with
her caregivers. She kept chocolates on her bedside tray and would teasingly accuse her favorite caregiver, Tony, of sneaking a few when she wasn’t looking. Tony always denied it in mock horror and called her “Trouble” with a large and gentle smile.
We decided to give each of the staff $100. I put fresh, crisp one hundred dollar bills in each of greeting cards that we gave to the staff. Tony told me that the bonus enabled him to buy gifts for his family. He had only enough money to go home for Christmas. Now he could buy gifts for his nieces, nephews and his parents. He told me this through grateful tears.
Mom died three months later. Tony attended the service and he had tears again, as did we all. He told me he thought of my mother as a friend. Then he said he wanted to get out of the caregiving business because it was too hard. I told him he was exactly the type of person who should be a caregiver, as difficult as it was at times.
Few people in the personal care business are paid as little as care givers of the elderly. I was grateful that my mother had the financial means to give Christmas bonuses to the people who cared for her. It was a small gift in return for their daily gifts of kindness, care and companionship.
As we think of those who we notice only when they don’t do their job, it is a perfect time to stop and think what their efforts really mean to us, how best we can show our appreciation and what it may mean to them.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Daily News on December 6, 2000.
Memories of parents can haunt us at holiday time. As I watch the lights go up and prepare my own holiday, I recall memories that will remain in my heart. I remember the time my dad brushed my hair when I was six years old. I remember the look on his face when I climbed so eagerly out of the car as I departed for college.
I’ll always remember the cold green walls and the tiny stool I sat on as my dad and I waited in pre-op for the surgeon to remove his colon cancer. The plastic shower cap rested atop his high forehead, the one I inherited.
The cancer was successfully removed, but my dad was never the same. Two short years later he was dying. It was a new cancer that grew in his cervical spine. Given one month to live, without treatment, he opted for radiation.
After three weeks of that torture, pneumonia set in. He couldn’t swallow. He was weak and had to go to the oncology clinic in a wheelchair. The clinician who was to administer his radiation treatment instead sent him to the hospital.
Caring for a dying parent requires the ability to assimilate complex medical information that has, as its bottom line, the ultimate question: What is best for this man who helped give birth to me, raised me and made a lot of mistakes while he did his best.
I had no better compass to avoid mistakes than Dad did when he had my tiny life in his hands. In the beginning, and at the end, we all do the best we can.
During his last two years, Dad, a very proud and private man, suffered from impaired vision, a bad pain in his shoulder, itchy feet, weak legs and lot of other ailments that left him exhausted and frustrated. His outrage was understandable, but his acceptance of loss and adaptation to “assisted living” was admirable.
When the radiation people turned my dad over to the hospital people, we knew it was the end. My mother, sister and I were ready to suggest Dad enroll in the Medicare Hospice program. I stood at the end of his hospital bed with my mother on one side and his physician on the other. The doctor told him my father that he was terminally ill and it was time for hospice. Dad agreed and we all cried together, but inside.
My sister and I clocked countless hours on the road, driving to the little mountain town in Arizona to which our folks had retired twelve years earlier, when they were healthy. Our biggest concern then was if they remembered to turn on the burglar alarm before they left on a trip.
Now we were spending our days trying to raise Dad up high enough in his hospital bed so he could spit-up in a basin. Pneumonia isn’t pretty. Add a throat swollen from radiation treatments and you have one miserable human being, relying solely on the people he had always cared for, to care for him. Now it was our turn to care for him, in spite of our astonishment, in spite of our pain.
We filled prescriptions, emptied the suction machine and the throw-up basin, monitored the oxygen level, and made sure disposable gloves were on hand for toileting. We used a maneuver called the “bear hug” to lift him out of his wheelchair, we balanced him on his walker, fed him ice cream whenever he wanted it and poured a dry martini whenever he wanted it.
We stood on the cusp of a new millennium with a guy who was born in 1920 and had prepared to die at the dawn of a new century. So many of his fellows will follow. I hope they will have the courage to enter hospice when it is clear that the cure-at-all-cost modern medicine is no longer necessary. Dad had the courage to accept that his days were numbered. We took him home to die in peace.
Hospice care helps everyone through the process of dying. The knot it leaves in the throat is soon replaced with heaviness of heart. Ultimately, it leaves peace for those who remain behind and a safe way home for those who go before.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on January 29, 2008.
The closest I came to being an opera fan was the 15 years I spent as a regular
viewer of As the World Turns, a so-called “soap opera.” The daily daytime dramas are
called soap operas, or “soaps” for short, because they are often sponsored by laundry
detergent or other household cleansers. The “opera” part comes from the interpersonal
storylines, romantic liaisons and breakups, clear cut villains, brave heroes and fair
New York’s Metropolitan Opera started broadcasting real operas in movie theaters
throughout the United States starting in their 2006/2007 season. I attended “I Puritani,”
one of the first productions, last January in Alhambra and was shocked to see the line to
enter the theater stretching around the block – at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
Who were these people? It turns out they were just like me, curious to see an opera in a
movie theater, broadcast live from New York.
When my husband and I entered the theater, we heard the orchestra tuning, 3000 miles
away in the pit of the Met. We had to scramble to find a good seat because the opera
buffs had come early. After we got settled we watched the people in the audience at the
theater taking their seats on the screen. Listening to the tuning orchestra and watching
the audience members taking their seats made us feel as if we were at a live
performance. The conductor came out and the camera followed him to the pit where he
lifted his baton and the opera began.
The cameras moved around the stage and gave the theater audience a view of the
opera that those at the Met could not see. The subtitles provided the English translation
so I could follow the story, but opera dialogue moves very slowly because
everything is sung, so it forces the viewer to slow down. At first I was annoyed and
wanted the story to move faster because I am used to quickly changing scenes and
dialogue on TV and the movies. In opera, you have to stop, look and listen -- to the
singing, the scenery and the singers in their costumes. It takes a while to slow the pace,
but once you get there, it is relaxing.
At intermission the camera went backstage to the radio booth where Beverly Sills, a
former opera star, gave a backstage tour. Sills made opera accessible, like Leonard
Bernstein did for classical music. She was very funny when she described the “mad
scene” when the female lover thinks she has been deserted by the man she loves and
goes nuts. Sills recalled the mad scenes she played during her long career and gave
an inside-look-at-baseball for the movie theater audience.
Operas are long and they often have two intermissions. That is another part of
adjusting to opera that is worth the effort. There are few things we sit still for these days.
Staying put for the opera gives you a chance to be transported to another world where
emotions are strong and storylines are spare but the singing is glorious and at some
point you dissolve into it. But it takes time and patience.
Since my first experience, I have returned to the theater in Alhambra and am now
savoring my newly acquired taste in opera. We went to see “Hansel and Gretel” on New
Year’s Day. It was a very dark rendering of the Grimm fairy tale and the two singers,
Alice Coote and Christine Schafer, had me convinced they were two little kids. In this
opera there were much more elaborate costumes and sets, and the dream sequence
in the forest was magical.
Hansel and Gretel slept at the front of the stage while at least a dozen characters
walked in, with giant heads, like the bubble heads of sports figures. A table rolled in and
the characters brought in cakes, pastries and other confections – some were real and
some were props, as we found out during intermission from the Stage Manager when
we were taken back stage by Renee Fleming. The music played in the background and
we had a visual feast as the stage was transported into an elegant dining room.
Opera in movie theaters provides an opportunity for people who want to check out
opera to see and hear the best the art form has to offer. The Met is going to present its
high-definition simulcasts on 300 – 400 movie screens this season, a nearly three-fold
increase from last season. An art form that originated in 1597 has relevance today and
can be seen by anyone who buys a ticket. For more information go
to www.metropera.org/hdive or call 1-800-Met-Opera.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News, Whittier Daily News, and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on October 8, 2018.
"That's not politically correct," a co-worker said snidely.
I first heard that term about twenty-five years ago in a staff meeting. The offender had said something about an ethnic group and the nasty food they ate.
When I first heard the words “politically correct,” I took it to mean that people watched what they said about other people in what we used to call “polite society.”
Along came Donald Trump, proudly proclaiming that he was not politically correct. He then unleashed a barrage of accusations against several groups of people, specifically Mexicans and Muslims. It was just the start of the vile things he says that we now have come to expect. His supporters cheer him on when he breaches the norms of decency that prohibit epithets and racial slurs. This behavior drags us down further every time. His idea of not being politically correct is breaking the bonds of common decency.
Being politically correct means you watch your mouth around other people. When you are in a group setting, you give some thought about what you say so as not to insult other people. You expect them to do the same. It’s called manners. It doesn’t mean you can’t state an opinion, or have a heated debate. It simply means that you must respect people who are different from you.
Donald Trump kicked off his campaign calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and women names I refuse to reprint. He denigrated heroic Americans like John McCain and Khizr Khan’s son, Humayun Khan, who died defending our country. He said those things before he got elected and most Americans thought that people wouldn’t vote for him because he jeered at our deeply held American values under the guise of speaking some perverted kind of truth.
Many times I thought his terrible rhetoric would disqualify him; it wasn’t like the Republicans didn’t have some other viable candidates running. Trump picked them off one by one, with insults and accusations. That is why millions of Americans were depressed on election night. A man who had just been elected to the highest office in the land had no respect for millions of Americans, for the environment, disabled people, science, and basic American values. It broke my heart when he called the White House a “dump.”
Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us and has managed to further polarize our country by pitting people against one another and dividing families, including my own. Social media has thrown gas on this blazing fire. Words we Americans would never say to a person’s face, we will post on social media.
His rhetoric is rapidly dissolving the glue that holds our civil society together. It’s easy to follow his lead, to blame the politically correct crowd, to want to see them fail. But if good manners fail, and we believe insults and slanderous words are permissible, the future of the county is in doubt. Donald Trump started this awful trend and he will not be the one to stop it.
With every vicious tweet from the president, we sink a little lower. Many have said that Donald Trump is a symptom of the deterioration of our public discourse. Gossiping and
name-calling will never go away. They are part of human nature. But they need to go back where they belong, behind closed doors where, at some point, somebody says, “That’s mean. Stop it.”
Mr. President: That’s mean. Stop it.
This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on March 31, 2007.
After six weeks of trouble with our computers, my husband and I have decided to quit our jobs, sell the house and all our belongings and move to a deserted island in the South Pacific, where we will live on coconuts and fish and never see or touch another piece of technology.
It’s not so much trying to use new technology, although the image of a child being able to use a computer, much to the amazement of her grizzled old grandma, is a pretty well entrenched stereotype. The problem is tech support – AKA customer service.
Customer service died shortly before the advent of our age of technology. I believe that the people who work for companies that sell products that “support” our computers, aren’t even aware of the concept of customer service.
I paid about $50 for a CD that I can install on my computer to protect it from spyware. As the technology gets more sophisticated, so do the crooks, trouble-makers and people who buy information about us in order to sell us stuff, thus requiring us to constantly buy ‘upgrades.” There was no phone number for tech support on the package of my spyware protector.
The only link to the people who created and sold the product was a web site and we all know what happens on a web site. You get shuttled to the FAQ section where you are required to sift through hundreds of irrelevant questions, many of which are written so you can’t understand enough to even know if that is your question.
The reason why people like me get frustrated with computer technology is because we grew up in a world where people who sold things to us were available to answer questions, explain the features, and provide customer service.
That is why we get frustrated when we install software and it doesn’t go right. We call tech support, if we can find the number, and then we get a recorded message that directs us to a menu of selections that almost never match our question. It used to be, if you got desperate, you could hit zero and talk to a live human, but that is getting rare. These days, after you follow the menu to a dead end, the computerized voice says, “goodbye.”
I believe that those of us who are considered “old” and not able to comprehend technology, have been given a bad rap. Apparently, we have the outdated notion that a person who sells us a product will provide a minimum of direction in its use.
When we can’t get our basic problems resolved, which are usually quite simple to fix, we get frustrated and give up. Then we get called “old” and it makes us defensive. This could be solved with tech support that answered promptly, was free of charge (at least for 30 days), and was manned by a human being.
If we brought back customer service, this problem could be solved, but I doubt that will happen. Customer service went the way of men’s hats, ladies stockings, and tire swings. Customer service died when the magic words: “please” and “thank you” went out of style. It died when people stopped dressing for church and adolescent girls began to dress like prostitutes, and boys wore baggy pants that dropped below their butts.
Technology has widened the generation gap, and it is as sharply focused as the snap shot taken on a cell phone. People are getting caught at inopportune moments, further eroding any sense of dignity and privacy. Reality TV shows specialize in showing people at their worst, or most vulnerable, apparently for viewers enjoyment.
Most of us old fogies will soldier on, figure out the computers, and keep up with generations X, Y, and Z. My dad got his first computer at age seventy and figured it out, but he did pay the neighbor kid to help him. In his lifetime, he drove a Model T to high school and ended up, sixty years later, with a Lincoln Town Car. I can recall test patterns (for the X, Y and Z’ers that means no programs were on) on TV. The first calculators cost $100 and did only basic math. The first computers used punch cards and filled a room.
Customer service is yet another memory that will fade over time. When I call 4-1-1, the robotic voice, usually female, is pleasant and polite. Future generations won’t know any better and will think the computer-generated voice really cares. Then customer service will make a comeback, just like the good old days.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on April 16, 2000.
I wake up with my teeth clenched, my body tight, tired before my day begins. I know it will be a twelve-hour day: from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. My eyes opened at 7:00 am. Two hours and counting. I have to shower, eat, feed the dogs, and feed the birds.
My car knows the way to work. Sometimes on Saturday morning, when I start to run my errands, I find I’m halfway to the office and not the hardware store. Day after day, week after week, year after year, I am programed to go to work.
Like most Americans, my work is stressful. Deadlines constantly loom ahead of me like fire-breathing dragons, office politics can be a distraction and, of course, I don’t make as much money as I’d like.
One day, quite by accident, I discovered a perfect antidote to stress. I was on my way to work and drove by a beautiful church with a towering steeple. Although I drive by it every day, I hadn’t noticed it before. The day was overcast, clouds laden with rain hung low over the grey stone church.
It was a red light that made me stop and look up. At that moment, a flock of birds flew by, perfectly silhouetted against the early morning sky. The colors were cool, the birds graceful, the sky a soft grey with tiny streaks of pink and blue. The thought of soaring above it all, like the birds, made me think I could fly over the petty, tiresome details of work and life.
After that day I looked for birds everywhere. I installed a bird feeder in my yard and attracted some wonderful birds that appreciated my fancy birdseed. Soon after, I bought a birdbath and watched with delight the curious and very humorous way birds groom themselves.
My wonderful feathered friends have helped me keep cool, calm and collected. I discovered that and entire family of birds live in a tree in my backyard. From my window I watch them dart about, in and out of the tree, landing on the feeder, pecking vigorously, with all their might. They have a life to live and they live it, without a moment’s pause to wonder why.
I’ve begun to notice birds on telephone lines, birds at the park, birds on city streets, birds perched and on dumpsters. They are everywhere and they are delightful. If I listen carefully, I can hear them chirping, calling to one another. Occasionally, I hear a grouchy old crow screeching his discontent. In the same yard, the silent hummingbird glides toward the bright red feeder, his tiny wings beating fast and furious, keeping him aloft.
One day at work, I was trying to decide which of several tasks I should tackle first. All demanded my attention and presented dire consequences if I didn’t attend to them immediately. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful bird sitting in a tree. It seemed as if she was looking at me.
The bird seemed not to have a care in the world. If danger or discomfort came her way she could simply fly away. I watched her for a moment and and then turned back to the work on my desk. Obviously I’ll never know the inner life of birds, but the notion of being able to fly away brings me comfort.
I do know that I will seek out the creatures who knew how to fly before humans did to give me inspiration. Though I climb aboard planes with faith in the pilot and crew, I reserve my admiration for the birds who fly through a winter sky with grace and beauty.
They teach their lessons everywhere: free of charge, free of worry, free of cares and woe; free for anyone who cares to see.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on November 23, 2006.
I went to a birthday party last week at a swanky restaurant. After years of kid
birthday parties in the park or at a burger joint, this one was very refined and they
served “adult beverages” as my Dad used to call them. It was a Ninetieth birthday party for my friend, Ruby, a woman I greatly admire.
To reach the age of ninety is quite an accomplishment, but to reach it and have enough friends to close a restaurant during the lunch hour to accommodate them all, is remarkable. I was proud to be included in her circle of friends.
After a wonderful meal, we all got down to the business of toasting our friend. Many people were close to Ruby’s age and had known her for more than fifty years. I had met Ruby, and her husband Henry, in 1989 when I was manager of the Heath Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Project (HICAP), and they were volunteers.
After I left the agency, my husband and I got to know Ruby and Henry on a social basis. We spent evenings together talking about music, theater and books. My husband and I decided they were our fantasy parents. They never changed our diapers, or spanked us, or grounded us. They never kissed our little heads as we slept. Most important, they never disappointed us, as parents always do, and we didn’t disappoint them, as children always do.
Henry died several years ago and Ruby sold their family home and moved to a retirement community in Sherman Oaks. On the first Friday of every month, I picked her up and we went to dinner and then to services at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts at the American Jewish University in Bel Air.
I looked forward to our evenings together because I was always inspired by Ruby and how she lived her life. She was an avid bridge player, and started a drama club at the retirement community. She took a parking lot owner that towed her car to Small Claims
court, and won.
She went to San Jose a few months ago to attend an Elder Hostel that taught seniors how to do stand-up comedy. After losing her mate of sixty-two years, Ruby was determined to go on living her life, with all its challenges and joys.
During the testimonials at the party, Ruby’s friends described how devoted she and Henry were during their long life together. Some people (me included) were moved to write our testimonials in verse. A trio of ladies from the retirement community sang a song, and her son gave a loving tribute. At the end he proudly proclaimed that his mother was on her third computer.
I think we have the birthday celebrations backwards. Children, who make it through their first year doing almost nothing for themselves, have birthday parties that are quite extravagant and costly. The parents are exhausted, and broke. The honoree is clueless.
As we grow older, and become age-phobic (check out the assortment of “you are old” greeting cards at the drugstore), no one wants a big party. Some poor souls get an “over the hill” fortieth birthday party. But once you get past sixty or so, people just don’t think of throwing a special birthday party. There may be some reasons why.
When some people get to their golden years they become so grouchy, dour and crotchety, that nobody wants to throw them a party. Sometimes they are alienated from the kin that might have the idea to celebrate. They can take a cue from Ruby and try to be pleasant, or at least positive.
When Ruby got up to speak, she said she was happy to hear such nice things said about her while she was still here. At age ninety, she had a good point.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I count Ruby as one of my blessings. In our youth worshiping culture, I cherish my wise old friend. I am grateful that Ruby’s son and
daughter-in-law threw such an elegant party for their mom, and I am very glad I was invited.
Kathleen Vallee Stein