Read All About It: Books and Travel

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Jean Dubuffet sculpture in Chicago

Mark Twain wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

When I travel, I like to remind myself of the interesting people and stories from those locations. Recently I visited Chicago and while trotting around, head craned to look up far beyond my normal range of vision at the dozens of buildings scraping the sky, made a mental list of famous writers associated with the city. Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. I’ve read something from most of these. But reality doesn’t always match my imagination. It’s disconcerting to have an image in my mind about what a setting looks like, then run smack dab into reality. Hint: I saw few broad shoulders in Chicago despite what Sandburg claims.

Should I blush to admit the author I first associated with Chicago was Veronica Roth of the spec fiction book and movie Divergent fame? This dystopian novel, set in an undated future in Chicago, is sprinkled with landmarks that exist now and, one assumes, in that time to come. Somehow for me, it’s easier to envision something set in the future than the present or past. I’m constantly cross-checking details in books from those other times to see if they agree with my knowledge about them. “Lincoln Street wasn’t one-way in the 40s,” I’ll think, or “Two loaves of bread only cost twenty-five cents in the early 60s,” editing the writer as I read along. Believe me, this isn’t an entertaining way to absorb a a novel.

Roth’s book features a Chicago with a dry waterbed, the outlines of which I spotted during my river tour. It boasts the large Ferris wheel the characters in the book climbed, and slings a zip line down what I believe is the Willis Tower. Numerous warehouses, basements, streets and even the L or El, the elevated train, are part and parcel of the action. Seeing these was like spotting an old friend.

My trip brought to mind lots of other writers I’d love to revisit. I also discovered a small treasure, the American Writers Museum on North Michigan Avenue. Activities encouraged me to write a few lines and learn a whole lot about various writers, including Bob Dylan. But the benefits of travel to Chicago went far beyond writers. I love that the lake and shore are so visible. Denver has nothing approaching the division between land and water. I rediscovered Jean Dubuffet, a French artist whose immense white and black sculpture enlivens the James R. Thompson Center.  

I returned home even more convinced of the truth of Twain’s lines. It may take some effort and money to travel, but the return on the investment is priceless.

 

THE BELL CURVE OF A HUMAN’S DEVELOPMENT, or What Goes Up, Must Come Down

            As I age and begin to realize my body isn’t responding the way it used to, I remember an article I read years ago. Humans tend to lose skills in the reverse order that they gain them. In other words, we usually know how to drink liquids at birth, then we learn to smile, then we’re able to sit without support, followed by reaching and grabbing, eating soft food, grasping, standing, crawling, walking, talking, bladder control, and so on down the line.

            From what I’ve observed of friends and family, this generally holds true. Of course not everyone loses skills over the same time period. Some start with a slooooow decline that gains speed over the years. A good friend of mine entered the shadowy forest of Alzheimer’s, and wandering like a lost chlld, got more and more confused and incapable of making decisions. Finally, at the end, she was drooling and sitting in a wheelchair like a baby in a stroller. Not a nice experience for her or her family.

            Others, like my mother, delayed the onset of miasma until 18 months before her demise. Still others, like my mother-in-law, are incapacitated by a serious disease but retain their mental faculties until near the very end.

            I have learned, to my regret, that individuals don’t have much control over the process. Talk to a group of people under, say, the age of 50, and they’ll deliver mini-lectures about maintaining fitness regimes, lowering cholesterol, ordering physical tests, the value of green (or ginger or Chamomile  or Peppermint  or Hibiscus or Echinacea, ad nausem), and the miracles of marijuana. Even eating dirt, called geophagy, has its advocates.

            With the typical American attitude that anything can be changed or improved, younger folks think the aging process can be controlled, apparently as easily as poverty or war can be wiped out. My suspicion is that people at this stage simply focus on a fitness activity to keep their minds away from the Grim Reaper at their elbows. Ooops. Wrong. I run into many on the 65+ side of the age scale who seem to believe that denial they’re old will ward off aging.

            For purposes of predictions about health and physical condition, I find the good old Bell Curve comes closest to explaining how humans age. At the beginning of life, we gain skills in a certain order over a period of time. At the other end, we lose skills in a certain order over a period of time.

            Take balance. If you have a young child in your vicinity, you’ll note over the months that balance is continually practiced. Once he pulls himself to his feet, he takes a few shuffling steps. Then he holds out his arms to remain erect, conquers independent walking, then to running and leaping. I recently saw a small child using a heavy rock in each fist to help her maintain balance.

            Watch an aging adult. You’ll see the same process in reverse. Within the last several years, I’ve lost the ability to do decent jumping jacks. I only noticed when I failed. Most of us are familiar with the subsequent downslope.  From walking, to using a cane, to hauling out the walker, finally to the wheelchair.

            Other examples I’ve noticed of aging reversal includes skin. A baby’s is soft and delicate. So, too an oldster’s. Hair—a baby’s frequently is wispy and fine. An older adult’s, mine in this case, is returning to this state and even is thinning back to its original toddler’s thickness. Many of us start losing our patience, our ability to delay gratification, our desire to try certain foods (think of toddlers who refuse veggies). As children, we gained height. As seniors we lose inches. And don’t even talk about teeth!

            When it comes to higher faculties, a sizeable percentage of the elderly regress in this area, too. When someone complains to me that her aging parent won’t accept reasonable explanations for lost items or missing medications, but instead accuse those around them of theft or abuse, I point out that the older parent is now mentally at the stage of a two-year-old, having regressed on the downslope. No one can reason with a two-year-old, so don’t expect to be able to do it with a 92-year-old.

            A caveat: the slope of both the up and down sides of a bell curve may be extended or compressed. The angle of the curve differs for each person. Getting old is just as challenging a process as growing up. No matter where you are on the age spectrum, understanding the Bell Curve of aging may help you tolerate yourself and others.

If You Have a Crutch, Use It! Language crutches and discourse markers

On a recent phone call, the person I was talking to ended nearly every inquiry with “Perfect,” even if it had no application to our topic of discussion. I eventually realized she was using this as a filler word, also called discourse marker, to fill in the silence that accompanies speech between humans. People used to commonly use “awesome.” Others over the years have included the British “brilliant,” the old-fashioned “groovy,” the hipster “right on,” and a slew of others, including “um,” “ah,” and “like.”

Discourse markers fascinate me. Although they do nothing to add to the content of speech, simply slowing the discussion down and, if extreme, distracting listeners who start counting the number sprinkled here and there. They can give hints about the speaker’s age and, I believe, a bit about his background, educational level, gender, lack of social ease, and social class.

Women tend to use them more than men, as if fearful that silence equates to boredom. Men tend to overdo the F-word. I’ve eavesdropped on men talking to one another during which a variation of “f—-ng” served as noun, verb, object for nearly the entire conversation.

My grandson picked up a filler word relatively young. At the age of six, he started prefacing his discourses with “literally,” which he probably heard his big brother using. It does serve to facilitate his language because (1) it sounds somewhat adult, (2) it grants him a few seconds to organize his thoughts before spewing. His big brother seems to avoid many of the common discourse markers. For some unknown reason, he doesn’t feel obligated to fill in every second with speech. On the other hand, my granddaughter could serve as the poster child for filler words. Like a traditional Valley Girl (which she is not), she uses the word “like” in every sentence.

I figured out why. Her brain is speeding so quickly, she has to allow her mouth to catch up. There are some valid reasons to use discourse markers. Some others are to slow down your news, particularly if it’s bad; to show you’re thinking; to stall for time. In my example, my phone partner indicated she was listening to me and working to resolve our problem.

This verbal shorthand seems to operate well only when talking out loud. Still many experts say using them too much makes the speaker appear unprofessional and scrambling or pompous and wordy. Best to try to avoid their overuse.

Can you imagine how boring a written passage would be if laden with filler words? Hmmm. Maybe not. Might make the story ultra-realistic and relatable. As a writer, I find the idea intriguing and challenging. Perhaps it’s exactly what I need. You know?

SOME GOOD THINGS ABOUT AGING

The idea of getting old isn’t a happy one in our culture. Maybe in the centuries gone by the Chinese revered their elders; perhaps aging folk in other societies earned respect, a cozy place by a fire, and the finest tidbits of food. Certainly not true in our times. Even discussion about being old is abhorred by many of my friends.

In fact at a recent gathering of a small group, the others reacted like irate cats when I said we all are now old. “Don’t call me that,” one snapped. “I get around just as well as I did twenty-five years ago,” said another. “Old is a matter of attitude,” chimed in a third.

I admit that the term old has such a negative spin that I cringe every time I hear it, particularly since it’s usually associated with negative qualities. Why? At its heart, old is just a description, along the lines of tall or blond or thin. A state of being or existence, not necessarily to be associated with any value judgment.

I’m not naïve enough to believe my own statement. Descriptions most often carry an appraisal, a worth. So in an attempt to qualify old with some positives, I started thinking about what I’m finding is good about my increasing age.

I don’t have to pretend I care about nonessentials. I don’t like dogs, wasn’t raised with ‘em, am scared of them. My neighborhood runs rampant with the creatures, and some of them are aggressive, others bark or bound all over the walkway, most of them are irritating (shoving their noses up my privates). And, know what?, I’ll say something if they’re bothersome. Your babble about “he’s nice,” “he’s friendly” mean nothing to me. I never let my kids chew on people’s shoes or legs or lick them, and you shouldn’t allow your pet. Nowadays, I’ll tell you so.

My appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all of my personal concerns. Men don’t eyeball me whenever I’m out, and I’m relieved. So what if I failed to apply makeup or tint and curl my hair? The public doesn’t even register the attractiveness of aging women, and a little lipstick isn’t going to change this. Ditto about clothing. As long as I avoid flaunting nudity or dirt, that’s all that matters. I may have come by this attitude through genetics. My mother traded wearing bras for comfort at about 65. My dad, always eccentric, once wore rope for a belt. He opted for flannel and Hawaiian shirts as his uniform when he became eligible for Social Security.

Good nutrition often can be ignored. Within reason, my eating habits built over the years, including attempts at maintaining my weight, are so reflexive, they affect me automatically. I’ve stopped reading labels, juggling calories, wondering if an additive or preservative is going to negatively impact me. Thrown away my calorie and carb counters. Freedom!

In terms of the medical community, health care professionals tend to be laid back about tests, medications, and advice. Pap smears, breast exams, my Type 2 diabetes pills, the quantity and quality of my bowel habits, the push for dental implants, all have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps doctors realize, like a wise parent does, that I’m not making major changes at this stage of my life.

Also related to physical condition, some positives actually occur in the body. Oldies tend to get fewer colds. Not infrequently allergies lessen their impact on you. Mental capabilities for a number of areas can even improve–vocabulary, spatial orientation, verbal memory, and problem solving abilities. Age can provide a helpful perspective about what’s important and accumulation of certain types of knowledge.

Another good thing: age becomes a card I can play when I’m in a tough or delicate situation. When pulled over by a police officer years ago, I used to bat my eyelashes and flirt like crazy. Nowadays I do my best to emphasize my grandmotherly qualities. Who wants to envision a harmless little old lady being dragged to jail. Ditto on clumsiness, acting grouchy, forgetting an appointment or a fact. People have a great capacity for overlooking these errors once they realize I’m getting along in years. “Aaaah,” people breath in sympathy.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to me personally: I no longer feel a responsibility to resolve the world’s evils. Guilt no longer dogs my every thought. Used to be an incident of child abuse, domestic violence, international armed conflicts, starvation and failure of crops, the impacts of hurricanes and natural disasters, children isolated alone in armed encampments resulted in a round of obsessive thoughts. What can I do? What should I do? Why can’t our so-called leaders see what’s right the way I can? Evil has a finite limit. At the least it will come to an end for me when I die. And if I’m activated to do something, I can contact officials and call them assholes with impunity because I don’t worry if they think I’m impolite or stupid.

This comes down to just not giving a damn any longer. I know I can’t do much, so I give myself permission to stop worrying. Aging brings me a blessed relief and release. When I’m tempted to resume my burden, I recall a cartoon I saw years ago. An aging man sat at a table, his face wrinkled with apprehension. He said to his wife, “Don’t tell me I’m as old as I feel. I feel like I’m a hundred and seventy-eight.”

Finally, my rose-colored glasses have vanished

bob dylan small

 

 

Music has a remarkable ability to connect a person to memories and emotions. Hearing tunes probably is good for us. Studies say listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain. Recently I plugged in a CD (yes, I still listen to those) and popped in a Dylan album. I was immediately plunged into a sentimental voyage back to days when wild parties were fun and people’s politics were more important than the size of their bank accounts.

As the CD rolled on, I first became uneasy, then upset. Instead of a shimmery, warm blanket of nostalgia, anxiety welled up. The words were replete with messages, cautions, insights. The memories they resurrected were of marches, demonstrations, agitated arguments. “The Times They Are A-Changing” was the most poignant to me.

The order is rapidly fadin’

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’.

Did Dylan really believe his lyrics? Did I? I certainly claimed I did not; even then I was posing as a cynic. But as I hear the song again, and anguish wells up in me, I realize that I never acknowledged I’d been silently hoping all those years ago the times were changing. Now at the distance of decades, I shake my head at my own naiveté.

If anything, we seem to be regressing to much worse earlier times, in which people felt free to say anything they wanted and threaten anyone who didn’t agree with them. In which leaders bragged for taking advantage of those poorer, weaker, more disadvantaged. A period when evil could be implemented with impunity because it was the law, and no one questioned whether the law was good or bad. Robber baron industrialists were touted as heroes. Native American children were exiled to schools that only taught the white man’s history, and many groups of immigrants or ethnicities could only hope for the lowest, most degrading employment.

I thought about the advances I believed our country was making all that long time ago in the 60s and 70s— reducing discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and income; improving the education and health of the general populace; speaking out loud and clear about malevolent practices as we identified them be those environmental, legal, or social. Many of these were driven by Dylan’s insights and expression.

Nowadays, not only are we not treading water or staying even with social change, we’re sinking swiftly into a morass of inhumanity, ineptitude, and immorality, as children die on our borders, families are ejected from homes and jobs, talented students can’t afford to get advanced education, and the grossest tirades and accusations are leveled irrationally by our leaders.

Dylan may be a musical and literary genius. Makes no difference to the validity of his works. It’s time to return to yesteryear, and strengthen our consciences and wills. It’s past time to crack out these protest songs by Bob Dylan and others once again to inspire, enrage, and toughen our resolve. The least we’re required by good sense and conscience to do is be aware of what we’re losing. Perhaps we can resuscitate our collective integrity, pester ourselves to action. Once we do, I’ll decide if I should hunt down another pair of rose-colored glasses so I finally can convert to a full-fledged optimist.