CIAO, SAFFIE -- March/April 2009
In spring, everything comes alive, and a woman's fancy turns to thoughts of love.
I have a special love for Saffie. He is my father, brother, son, and friend.
He is strong and protective, loyal, affectionate, tolerant.
He stands guard at my door, greets friends, peruses strangers. Lovers must pass muster.
He wraps his arms around my neck, licks my chin and cheeks. No doubt he likes the salt. But he could be kissing....
He watches me, eyes direct, unblinking.
He listens, digests, understands, accepts.
Outside, he savors the grass, marks his territory, settles quietly. He wiggles his backside, focuses on bunnies and birds.
Off he flies, but never kills.
He wallows in catnip bushes, loves new growth in the garden. He chomps and closes his eyes in pleasure.
Inside, he jumps from pillow to piano, finds a warm spot, sleeps in the sunlight.
He knows how to live.
Yes, he is a cat, a short-haired, orange marmalade cat named Saffron, Saffie for short. I adopted him when he was two, and now he is almost 18, about 90 in people years.
He is beautiful, with thick, lustrous fur and light green eyes. He is eight pounds of muscle and bounce.
I love him and he loves me.
"I'm just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about me. They call me mellow yellow...."
Thank you, Donovan, for that lovely pop song.
Famed New York veterinarian Louis J. Camuti, who treated only cats and made house calls, said, "Cat people are different, to the extent that they generally are not conformists. How could they be, with a cat running their lives?"
I am decidedly non-conformist (aren't we all?) and my household indeed revolves around Saffie. I hydrate him every other day, because he has kidney failure. I give him an insulin shot every 12 hours, for his diabetes. Twice a month, I take him to an animal chiropractor, because he's had back injuries and wobbles when he walks. I cook his food: organic fish, chicken, and vegetables. I add vitamins, blue-green algae with stem-cell enhancers, wheat grass juice, Brewer's yeast, glucosamine sulfate, and shark's cartilage.
Yes, he likes it.
I am happy to accommodate; I consider it an honor to love and care for him, as I did my parents in their old age. Saffie makes me smile. He has quirky habits, like passing by a bowl of perfectly-fresh water and going to the gutter-water catcher for a drink outside. He demands nothing, makes no mess or complaint. When he wants something, he stands by an empty dish, a closed door, a high chair, and waits.
If I am slow to react, he is patient. His gentle disposition gives me joy.
Canadian novelist Robertson Davies observed, "Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons."
I am not so sure about my wisdom, but I know Saffie has it. He is measured and balanced. He thinks before he acts. He smells his food before eating, tests the red gravel lawn with a ginger paw before venturing into the backyard, and takes minutes to find the best sleeping position.
I was an author when I adopted him and his female companion Chessie in Washington, DC in 1994. The pair soon learned to ride in a car, and came on all my book tours. We made six cross-country trips in my old Cadillac. By day, the cats perched on luggage or nestled in seats and pillows. At night, they cuddled with me and friends who offered hospitality.
Chessie did not like the car motion, and objected loudly. But Saffie was mellow. After sniffing and exploring a spot, usually the front passenger seat, he quieted down and fell asleep. We often drove the New Jersey Turnpike, and his presence brought smiles to the faces of toll-booth collectors.
In Oklahoma and Texas, we endured battering hailstorms on the interstate. Both cats were so frightened that they burrowed deep under the seats. I had to search hard to find them, then pull them out -- backwards. In the Rockies, we maneuvered curvy roads and high altitudes. When I moved to Sedona, Arizona, they accompanied me and acclimated nicely.
I lost Chessie to cancer three years ago. I miss her gentleness and femininity. She was a long-haired beauty, a Great Lady.
Recently Saffie came on a 3,000-mile road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. He stayed in the car while we hiked in Glacier National Park. Upon return, we found a park ranger peering into the backseat, windows cracked. "You really shouldn't leave your cat inside," she warned. "A bear might catch his odor and destroy your car."
OK, we do not do that anymore.
French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, declared, "I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul."
Saffie is the soul of my Sedona home, and was the soul of my east-coast homes. He happily trots toward a newly-filled bowl of food, and appreciatively licks and rubs me to say thanks. He is affectionate with everyone. He is graceful in walks, runs, and jumps. He is handsome, his tawny yellow and orange coat, the color of saffron, made more beautiful when he stretches languorously after a nap. All his qualities steal out around him, fill the air, and sink into the walls and rooms. The house becomes his happy, calm, harmonious self.
Occasionally Saffie acts crazy, when he tears around late at night, on a wild run. He is full of joy and fun and energy, which spill out everywhere.
He is forgiving. Sometimes I accidentally trip over him -- he tends to get underfoot -- but after a loud "Meow!" he is back near me and happy to be picked up and held. His consistent loyalty and easygoing nature make me feel safe, accepted, loved.
My house has always been a haven for friends to visit, meditate, and heal in. If they feel sick, Saffie inevitably arrives and sits close to them. For weeks, he lay next to Alicia, in bed and fighting pancreatic cancer. I tell him, "I love you and I'm grateful for you" every time I leave the house, every time I return, and many times in between.
Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychiatrist, observed, "Time spent with cats is never wasted."
I know that my time with Saffie is valuable because he is old, and every day is a gift, a miracle. In the morning, he walks to the bathroom and waits near my stash of vitamins. I open capsules of fish oil, and he licks the oil from my fingers. His tongue is rough and insistent.
We go into the kitchen for breakfast. After eating his food and washing his face, he finds a soft spot on a flokati rug, and naps.
Later when it is time to meditate or do yoga, he follows me to the living room and sits nearby. If I have students, he lies next to them. When the weather is good, I let him out to explore the front walk or sit in the doorway. He luxuriates in the afternoon sun.
At night, after his meal, he comes to my dinner spot -- I often sit on the floor -- and sniffs the fish, meat, or dairy on my plate. I give him a bite or spoonful: he loves vanilla ice cream. Later he lets me brush his fur and stroke his head and cheeks, favorite spots. I rub my nose on his face and tell him I love him. Then I sweep my hands over his entire body. Soon he enters a blissful state, and rolls over on one side, to bare his belly. That is total trust. I slowly pet him on the tummy, cradle his head, and rub between his ears. He purrs and falls asleep.
Twice a day we stroll to the adjacent golf course, in the shadow of Sedona's famous red rocks, to get exercise and greet passers-by. "Oh, what a beautiful cat!" they exclaim. "What's his name?" Saffie walks to them, rubs against their legs, and raises his head to be scratched. "Aren't you afraid he'll run away?" they ask.
"Oh, no," I say. "He stays close to me. He is quite old and knows all about coyotes, bobcats, and the Great Dane next door. I never let him out alone."
Phillipe Diole, French undersea biologist, friend of Jacques Cousteau, and author of THE ERRANT ARK: MAN'S RELATIONSHIP WITH ANIMALS, wrote, "Cat-lovers will no doubt point out that the elegance and dignity of cats are the consequence of their sojourn in the temples of the gods, where their attitudes and movements were regarded as divine prognostications."
A friend who is psychic told me, "Saffie was your protector in ancient Egypt." I am not surprised. Saffie often sits inches from me, in a sphinx-like pose. Once a neighbor cat wandered into my home -- not unusual, since I often left the door open during the day. Saffie chased the bigger cat around the living room. then hurled himself on the unlucky intruder.
The two jumped a foot in the air and twisted into a column of swirling fur and strident shrieks. After 30 seconds of fighting, the visitor managed to escape and run under a couch. I had to take Saffie into another room before his owner could coax her cat out.
The great theologian, musician, and physician Albert Schweitzer liked cats. He believed, "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats."
I love to play and listen to music; I'm a musician. But I cannot snuggle with music as I can with Saffie. Intuitively he appears when I need him most. He did so with my mother on her deathbed. In tough times he is my refuge. I like the anonymous saying, "Cats are magical...the more you pet them, the longer you both live." We both are very old, believe me.
In the 1930s, American poet T.S. Eliot, winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature, wrote verses about cats for his godchildren and friends. The poems were collected into OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, which delighted a child named Andrew Lloyd Webber, and inspired him, as an adult, to compose "Cats," the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Wrote Eliot, "The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, it isn't one of your holiday games; you may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, when I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES."
Saffie has three names: Saffie, Poofie, which my friend Marie-Luise affectionately calls all cats, and Mr. Crosman. That comes from my friend Dieter, who believes that after my father died, Saffie took over the father role. Quite true. Saffie is everything that a father should be: a gentle warrior, loyal protector, precious friend.
Dieter voiced that sentiment at Saffie's memorial service in March.
Yes, Saffie has died.
I invited friends to my home for a memorial service, suggested by my dear friend Gary. We gave Saffie a grand send-off, preceded by a backyard burial and readings from the Bible, and ending in champagne toasts and music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
We spoke fondly of the great cat. One friend said Saffie stayed longer than expected because he knew I wasn't ready to live without him. That may be true: Saffie endured a lot the past year. I told funny stories, like the time he investigated a neighbor's car and got locked inside for the night. I frantically searched the neighborhood for him: no luck. The next morning I suggested checking the car, and when we opened the door, there was Saffie, waking up in the leather backseat. Leisurely he greeted us with a quiet "Meow," slowly stretched, jumped out, and walked home for breakfast.
Always the gentleman, he left no trace of himself in the car.
I know that Saffie is happier now, younger and more agile than before. He is truly free. And he is home. I was privileged to caretake him here on earth, and I hope to do it again, if he comes back in another form. I wish him the best. I miss him deeply, but I feel he is beside me in spirit, and in my heart.
Occasionally I imagine I hear a faint meow, or see an orange flick of tail out of the corner of my eye. But I think he really has blown this taco joint, to pursue other interests. And that is all for the good. In his new and vibrant body, he can leap and spin and run the way he did as a kitten. He no longer suffers from arthritis. His kidneys are working, his glucose levels are normal, his back is strong, and he needs no vitamins.
I know he is fine, because it is spring. In spring, life begins agaiin. We all burst out and grow and reach for the golden sun.
Saffie died on the last day of winter. We celebrated his life a few days into spring. The cycle is complete.
In the Bible, Ecclesiastes tells us, "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens."
Saffie fulfilled his purpose: a good, long life with many adventures and a lot of love.
America's 16th President Abraham Lincoln observed, "No matter how many cats fight, there always seems to be plenty of kittens."
Soon I shall stop by the Sedona Humane Society. It has a splendid volunteer program where you can pet a cat..
I like that idea.
For photos of Saffie, please visit the website www.sedonaverdevalleytimes.com, and check out "Ciao, Saffie"
MY LOVE FOR JOE -- January/February 2009
I fell in love with Joe Swavely slowly.
Joe, 91, was a student in my memoir-writing class at OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, in Sedona, Arizona. Joe was also a devoted member of the Church of the Red Rocks, the Mavericks, a men's social club, and the Verde Valley Caregivers, a volunteer group of seniors helping other seniors.
Joe retired to Sedona after an adult lifetime of work in southern California. He and his first wife Shirley had three sons. She died of cancer. His second wife Rusty, a former nun and math teacher, is compiling, along with Joe's sons, his written words for Part II of his memoir.
Part I was recently published: JUST JOE: STORIES OF THE PAST (TRUE, MOSTLY). I did a final editing of the manuscript, and Joe was ecstatic to finally send it off to the publisher.
Joe lived fully. He was enthusiastic. Every time he saw me, he called, "Hi, Babe!" and gave me a big hug.
In numbers, he was old. But he didn't think of himself that way. At the end of his poem "When I am An Old Man," he wrote: "Say what?...Say again?...You're saying I AM an OLD MAN! Well, I don't know why someone didn't tell me."
Joe was funny, sweet, smart, articulate, gracious, and generous. He offered me the use of his weekend home whenever I liked.
Tall and slender, he sported a white, closely-trimmed beard, and a fringe of white hair that framed an angelic face.
More than an angel, Joe was an elf. His eyes twinkled and promised mischief and giggles. That made him fun, and fun to be with.
Last year, at my half-birthday party, Joe put on a child's party hat and had a grand time with the water pistols that I set out as favors. Rusty shook her head in dismay and said, "Do NOT give this man a water pistol!" My guests were squirting water all over the living room.
Joe normally spoke rather softly, and when he wanted to make a point, dropped his voice to almost a whisper, in a conspiratorial sort of tone. It was very exciting when Joe spoke. You listened. He usually had something profound to say.
Joe viewed life in super-technicolor, like the movie industry he worked in for years. He described his adventures expansively and sometimes swept his arms in circles to make a point.
He loved to travel, to collect art for his home. He adored literature, science -- and mysteries. Especially the mysteries of life. We often talked about them. "Why do you suppose this happens the way it does?" he mused.
Joe's writing was full of color and detail. That writing brought us together two years ago, at an OLLI Open House. He walked up and introduced himself. "I've already written Part I of my memoirs. Will you take a look at it?" he asked.
"Sure," I said, without hesitation. After all, I wanted him as a student!
When he arrived the first day of class, he handed me a huge, loose-leaf notebook, two inches thick. I practically fainted. "Joe, Wow!" I said in a strangled voice. "This is -- big." He made a joke. "Yes, but I wrote on only one side of the paper." We laughed. "And I don't expect you to read it all at once," he said quickly. "Please, take your time. I know you have other things to do."
Then he took out a $20 bill and bought a copy of my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE. That won me over.
I put his notebook in my briefcase and took it home. That night I took the plunge and started reading.
By the end of page one, I was hooked. His writing was superb -- clear, flowing, lovingly detailed.
Joe was a fabulous storyteller. He wrote lyrically and humorously. I asked how he remembered details of a Moravian childhood in North Dakota and Minnesota, undergraduate years at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, then Harvard Business School, and service in World War II. He replied, "I don't know. They just come to me."
I made edits and corrections. Nothing drastic: just tightening up sentences and correcting a bit of grammar. I crossed out long words and substituted shorter, more punchy ones. When he wrote "numerous," I changed it to "many."
Joe was a rampant individualist. From the start he told me, "I respect your talent as an editor, but I have the right to disregard your suggestions." He said it with a smile. I deferred to his age, as my parents taught me. "These are just my ideas, Joe," I said. "You decide in the end what to do."
He freely admitted -- he proudly admitted -- that he liked long words. In his poem "When I Am An Old Man," he explained, "When I am an old man, I shall use the longer word for the intended meaning. Proves that I am still climbing -- and not over the hill."
I had to laugh. Joe stuck to his guns. His writing didn't really suffer for those occasional long words.
But I am a journalist by trade, and I was trained to use short, Anglo-Saxon words. So I continued to edit his manuscript.
Sometimes he let out a wail. "Oh, Annie, I will BLEED if I have to cut this paragraph!" But piece by piece, chapter by chapter, I did my work, and handed it back to him.
His pages were full of my red-pencil edits. He groaned and held the paper up for the class to see.
"It's just a little editing," I said.
He rolled his eyes. "If it's so good, why is it full of red marks?"
"Those are just edits. I LIKE your writing," I insisted.
That was the last I saw of his manuscript. What he did for final revision was his business. But when you read his book JUST JOE, you will find a good share of both our words.
JUST JOE covers the first 29 years of his life.
These past months, as Joe fought cancer and the effects of radiation, he told me, "I'm working on Part II of my memoirs, my days in the motion-picture business, and my BMW car dealership in southern California. I've got 65 pages written, and I write a little bit every day."
He asked me to edit what he wrote, and I did. As always, it was good.
Writing is hard work. I can only imagine how hard it was for Joe, dealing with cancer and radiation treatments.
But maybe it was not work, as we know it, for him. I believe Joe loved, even lived -- to write.
He took joy in seeking and finding the correct word, the perfect word for what he meant.
And he taught me to do the same: to be more exact in my speech and writing.
Joe's interest in writing more of his memoirs was a trademark. He got involved in many projects. "I'm just so busy," he exclaimed. "I don't have time to do everything I want."
He took many OLLI classes, one in science from a Maverick colleague Lou Camp, who told me, "I was astounded by Joe's willingness to delve into the Big Bang theory and to relate to how scientists think, the critical-thinking process. Joe tracked along and was involved. He worked both sides of his brain. I had great respect for this gentleman's breadth of interest and enthusiasm, and for his continuing desire to learn, right to the end. His book is remarkable."
Joe also took an OLLI class in history, in current events, and in alternative health called "Time Out" with Judie Christian. She invited health-care givers and massage therapists to demonstrate their skills. We all got great massages in that class. Joe loved massage.
"Joe was so open to new ideas and new things," said Judie. "He was a gem with many facets, an amazing man. I loved him, too."
Joe took his first class in poetry with OLLI's Marilee Richards. He thoroughly enjoyed it and wrote beautiful, funny, poignant works, including "When I Am An Old Man."
His pride and joy was an OLLI class that he conceived, called "Word Power." Every week Joe led a discussion on all manner of words, their origins, definitions, and usage. I attended that class and witnessed Joe Swavely in his glory.
A couple of times when he had to be absent, he called on me and classmate Andy Spheeris to take over. We did, but it just wasn't the same without Joe.
In the fall of 2007, I asked my memoir-writing class to write about how they wished to be remembered. In 20 minutes, Joe wrote one of the loveliest pieces I have ever read. Here is part of it.
"I would like people whom I have known well to remember me as one of 'the Good Guys' who occasionally come along. One for whom no buildings were named, no monuments erected, no statues sculpted or pictures painted. One whose greatest accolade would be, 'He was a fine human being.'"
Joe continued, "My greatest contribution to the welfare of the planet, I believe, is the heritage I will bequeath to my three sons, my six grandchildren, and my two great-grandchildren, and for the coming three great-grandchildren whom I hope to hold in my arms sometime this year.
"I will leave traces of my life through some things I have written -- that reveal the uniqueness of my life and times. I hope they will be informative, perhaps even inspirational, to the ongoing stream of progeny who bear identifiable Swavely DNA."
Joe's wife Rusty confirms that Joe succeeded in holding his three additional great-grandchildren.
Last spring when his book came out, Joe called me in a great state of excitement. "The books are in from the publisher!" he cried. "I have cartons of books!"
Every author is thrilled to see his or her work in finished form. To celebrate, Joe invited me to Reds, an elegant restaurant in Sedona Rouge Spa and Resort. Over lunch he thanked me again for editing his manuscript and writing a blurb on the back cover. A blurb is a short paragraph that praises a book.
Then he handed me a copy of JUST JOE and inscribed it, "Dear Anne, You are such a bright spot in my life. Joe." I winked back a tear.
We chatted about many things, mainly his activities and plans. He and Rusty were downsizing and planning to move to their weekend home. I noted that he ordered low-fat food and iced tea. He liked to stay in shape, and exercised regularly.
He wore a fantastic bolo tie, a silver and turquoise extravaganza. Bolos were Joe's only sartorial indulgence. Bolos and big hats, especially straw and Western hats. He wore one in the photo on the back cover of his book. Basically Joe was a low-key man, quiet, unpretentious, understated.
We had a pleasant lunch, a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of a book. "Joe, this is very special," I said. "I've never been to Reds."
Gently he replied, "I kind of figured that. That's why I chose it."
Pure class. Joe was a class act.
Long ago he had his photo snapped in front of a "gag" car, which he asked the prop department of a film studio to assemble from parts of many cars. The gag car was used for a studio event.
A blow-up of the photo was prominently displayed at his memorial service in the Church of the Red Rocks. One of his sons told me, "That picture will be the cover of Dad's Memoirs, Part II. We're working on them now."
How inspiring -- to keep going after you die!
I asked for, and was given that big photo. It hangs in my memoir-writing classroom at OLLI, as a reminder to live every day to the fullest, and to keep going, no matter what.
Thank you, Joe, for being a bright spot in MY life.
YOUNG AT HEART -- December 2008
STRETCH YOUR BRAIN
OLLI saved my brain.
And my sanity
OLLI is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, part of Yavapai College in Sedona, Arizona, where I live. OLLI is funded by San Francisco philanthropist Bernard Osher. His generosity has created 122 OLLIs attached to colleges and universities in 49 states.
At OLLI in Sedona, I take classes in history, science, finance, current events, metaphysics, and the arts. I teach yoga, aerobics, and memoir-writing. At OLLI in nearby Cottonwood, I study art, philosophy, and Exploring the Verde Valley. I meet like-minded people, seniors who want to keep their brains supple. I see a startling array of information, discussion, and friends.
Three years ago, I began as a student, then became a facilitator (teacher), and now serve on OLLI's Sedona council and curriculum committee. OLLI welcomes all volunteers. Its growth depends on new blood.
When I moved to Sedona, I started a new physical life. But I missed the mental life I had back east. I was a radio network news correspondent, wrote books, and read voraciously. I wanted a classroom in which to meet other people and ponder questions. My brain needed a jolt.
I discovered OLLI. I called the coordinator and got an interview. She liked me, read my resume, asked questions, then suggested I teach memoir-writing. I wouldn't get paid, she said. None of the facilitators was. It was all volunteer, for a 6-8 week semester, twice a year.
I'm still teaching memoir-writing. I help people write their life stories. Several are finished and published, including Neil Curtis Krause's. He's a friend and fellow blogger on communityconneXion.com. Students return to show me their bound volumes. I'm proud of them -- they worked hard. My class is a safe place, where we write and read out loud. People laugh and get emotional. Everything stays within classroom walls. Many students return to write more chapters.
I look forward to February's semester. It's the best and most varied curriculum ever: current events, how solar panels work, financial planning, geology and plant life of the Verde Valley, ecophilosophy, computers, digital cameras, Classical Greek history, Western Civilization (1350-1700), Mexican culture, Iberia, Becoming a Global Citizen, Thinking Globally/Acting Locally, Islam, and the Spanish language.
OLLI will offer classes in bridge, literature, memoir and poetry writing, art and music appreciation, Finding Your Voice, comedy improvisation, beading thread-scarf technique, hiking, yoga, aerobics, acupressure, herbs, nutrition, allergies, crystals, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique).
There is dowsing, compassionate communication, personal growth, studies of happiness and forgiveness, and the ever-popular Exploring Sedona, mysticism, the Beatles, and American jazz.
The cost is minimal: $115 for unlimited classes and 1-day workshops each semester, and $65 for 4 classes and 2 workshops, plus a registration fee of $25. Facilitators may attend classes free.
There are no grades or homework, except in memoir-writing. Students evaluate their classes. Discussions often spill over to lunch and create friendships.
What makes OLLI sparkle are its people. No flimsy souls here. The students and facilitators are bright and articulate. Many are retired professors, scientists, businessmen and women, government and company officers. Some still work as counselors, teachers, financial planners, and health-care practioners. Facilitators donate their time and knowledge. Their reward is brain expansion.
Next semester I'll present a workshop "How to Survive the Recession" and classes in memoir-writing, aerobics, and art appreciation. I'll take hydroponic gardening, given by colleague Shirley Proulx, and hike trails with Cathie Stater, who knows the territory well. I'll lead a meditation on weekly hikes.
Who knows? My left brain may get stunned, and allow a passion for finance, physics, and computers to flower. My right brain will continue to flourish.
"The only real wealth is knowledge," says Andy Spheeris, paraphrasing a Greek philosopher. Andy, who is Greek, facilitates classes in Greek history and Mexican culture.
"At a time when people sit around, retired, playing checkers and dominoes and watching TV, OLLI offers a great alternative, a better way to age gracefully -- with attitude." He refers to my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE.
"I was retired, went to a couple of OLLI classes, and thought, 'I know about classical Greece. It's a subject very close to my heart. So I could teach that.'" And he does -- very well.
"As a facilitator," says Andy, "you have to do a lot of preparation. It's a self-learning process, a very enlightening experience. We get older, but our minds and brains don't have to get old. Our brains need exercise, just like our bodies."
Facilitator Neil Curtis Krause, a retired math and physical education teacher, rhymes his gratitude. "Old teachers never die. They just lose their class. But, by golly, not at OLLI, where the fun goes on and on."
Physicist Gary Dorer started as a student, then taught a workshop on solar panels. "People tell me they'd like to have more science classes. My class fills that bill, and I'm having fun doing it." Last semester Dorer's workshop was the best attended at OLLI. He'll expand it to a full-length class in February.
"OLLI is such a gift to the community," says coordinator Dena Greenwood. "It enriches, stiumulates, motivates, and captivates learners and educators. Seniors who want to grow mentally, physically, and intellectually come together to share their skills, interests, and enthusiasm with others, all for the love of learning."
OLLI saved my brain.
Most of my friends are OLLI people whom I've met the last 3 years. You know what they say about the brain? It's the sexiest part of the body. I believe that. A person opens his mouth, speaks, and sparks something in another. It's a unique chemistry.
Educator Lina Berle told me in YOUNG AT HEART, "People whom I appeal to and appeal to me are deeply alive and alive in all kinds of ways. Most of them are connected with literature, journalism, or social work. With some it's a sexual accommodation. You wake up something in them that they have waked up in you. Somehow or other in the virbrations, you hit the same key and go on to understanding."
OLLI is the world's best chemistry. It welcomes peoples of all backgrounds.
Good explosions happen.
My brain is happy.
YOUNG AT HEART -- November 2008
GIVING THANKS FOR ABUNDANCE
November brings our national holiday -- Thanksgiving.
As the Pilgrims gathered to celebrate their blessings, spartan by today's standards, we also count our blessings.
We give thanks for our lives, no matter how stressed.
We give thanks for our health, however imperfect.
Thanks for our happiness, often unrecognized.
Thanks for our hope, always an anchor.
Thanks for our humor, silly or dry.
And thanks for love, a gift to ourselves.
We give thanks for abundance, our joy to create.
We give thanks for flexibility, our key to survive.
Thanks for fairness, which underlines equality.
Thanks for fearlessness, now more than ever.
Thanks for freedom, the best in the world.
And thanks for our safety, our will to survive.
We give thanks for the simple grace -- to ever be grateful.
In my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE, comedian, musician, and author Steve Allen said he was grateful for all that he had. "I have a great zest for life," he told me. "For some people, life can be very limited and dull. But I think the universe is DAZZLING!" His face lit up.
"The universe cannot be boring. My God, we don't even know about it yet! I can get excited just thinking about what the word 'light year' means. I really can get quite animated contemplating the wonders of the spatial universe. We live in the most incredible universe and on the most bizarre planet."
We give thanks for living now, in this incredible universe.
YOUNG AT HEART -- October 2008
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE -- IS IT A WHITE ELEPHANT?
Many of you learned in high-school civics class that every four years, we vote for electors, not presidential candidates. The U.S. has 538 electors in 50 states and the District of Columbia. That number is based on the number of senators (two, the same for all states) and the number of members of Congress (it varies from state to state, according to population). A presidential candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes -- at least 270 -- to win an election.
In November, you will not vote for John McCain or Barak Obama. You will vote for your state's electors, who are pledged to vote for McCain or Obama. In almost all cases, the electors do what they pledge. Each state government makes sure of that.
A problem with the electoral college is that it's a winner-take-all system. That means the candidate who wins the most votes in a state, automatically wins support of ALL the state's electors, except in Nebraska and Maine, where it's more evenly divided.
Another problem is that the electoral college dismisses the "One Man/Woman, One Vote" concept, based on the principle that we are created equal. Our Declaration of Independence states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
The electoral college is unfair and should be abolished. It's a White Elephant, an antique, an idea no longer right for today.
The presidential electoral system began in 1787, when our founding fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted to guarantee the rights of each state. So they decided to base a presidential election on the votes of a group of people apportioned among all the states. Each state would have as many electors as it had representatives in Congress.
A minority of convention delegates wanted to make the presidential election a popular election -- One Man/Woman, One Vote" -- but they did not prevail.
James Madison explained in his FEDERALIST PAPERS that the U.S. Constitution was designed to be a mix of state-based government and people-based government. In Congress, the Senate was the state-based government, with each state, no matter how small or big, getting two senators. The House of Representatives was the people-based government, with each state getting a number of representatives, based on population. The more populous states got more representatives, and the less populous states got fewer representatives. Both Congress and the President were to be elected by a mix of these two systems.
Today presidential electors follow this system. The electoral college was written into the U.S. Constitution (Article 2, Clauses 2-4) and its 12th Amendment, adopted in 1804. In 1845, a national law set up the electoral college. The term "electoral college" developed early in the 1800s to mean that group of citizens picked by the states to cast votes for the president.
Advocates argue that the electoral college protects the rights of the smaller states, and is part of our federal system. They say it means that presidential candidates, when campaigning, must consider ALL voters, not just those in big states. The biggest states are California (with 55 electoral votes), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21), Obama's home state, and Pennsylvania (21). The seven smallest states, including Alaska and Delaware, home states of the vice-presidential candidates, and the District of Columbia, each has three electors. Arizona, McCain's home state, has ten electors.
Presidential candidates and their strategists go to a lot of trouble to target the most lucrative states and Congressional districts to campaign in, in order to win the majority of electoral-college votes.
Critics argue that the electoral college is unfair because a presidential candidate may win an entire state or even the entire U.S. popular vote, but not necessarily the electoral vote. If he or she comes in second in popular vote in a state, even by a small margin, he/she loses that state completely, and may lose the national election.
Congress has tried to abolish the electoral college by amending the Constitution. But it has failed every time, most recently in 1970.
Congress should try again. Eliminating the electoral college should be priority when Congress convenes in January 2009.
Every single vote in the U.S. should count equally, whether a person lives on the desolate cattle ranges of Wyoming, the bayous of Louisiana, or the crowded cities of New York, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Some people like the country. Some like the city. Some would like to live elsewhere, but can't, because they have to live where the jobs are.
No one should be penalized for living anywhere.
The electoral college penalizes residents of small states.
We should adopt a law of "One Man/Woman, One Vote and stick to it.
We do it in local and state elections. We should do it in national elections.
YOUNG AT HEART -- September 2008
"If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything."
My mother pounded that wisdom into me as a child.
I try to abide by it.
September marks a new start for me. The Muslims have Ramadan, which began on September 1. The Jews celebrate their new year, Rosh Hashanah, on September 29. And for pagans and us nature lovers, the Autumnal Equinox on September 22 heralds a new season, full of harvest and promise.
In September, I like to hit the ground running, in business and in private life.
In business, I renew with vigor the research on my next book THE NEW IMMIGRANTS: AMERICAN SUCCESS STORIES. I'm interviewing people who've immigrated to the U.S. since 1975. If you readers know anyone who has come here -- legally --and made a success of his or her life, please contact me with names, numbers, and e-mail addresses. These people don't have to be millionaires. They do have to have built a new life in a positive, successful way.
In my private life, I continue to try to view life positively. That's a challenge. Every day, I see and hear negativity. I make a point to turn it into positivity.
Georgie Clark did that. Georgie was the legendary Grand Canyon/Colorado River runner, whose rafting company "Georgie's Royal River Rats" took paying customers down the river five months a year. I signed on in May. It was five days of rugged bliss, and she led the adventure with aplomb and spirit.
One night, over her favorite blackberry liqueur in coffee, she said, "I see the good in everybody and just forget the bad. I just forget it, pick out the good, and leave the other alone, 'cause everybody's got good and bad faults. It just depends on the person who's judging."
That's a grand philosophy.
Georgie is one of many heroines in my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE.
Another is airplane pilot and instructor Evelyn Bryan Johnson. She told me a fine story.
"I had an employee that, really, I'm tellin' you, he just really bugged me. I really felt resentful toward him and I was prayin' to God to please help me get over this resentment.
"Then, I never did know such a thing was possible, right here. You know these old rubber suits like it goes divin' in the water? It was like I had one on and it started comin' up through here, up over my head, out over my arms and my hands, like someone was pullin' off this rubber suit of resentment. It was comin' off over me.
"And I was so HAPPY and I felt so GOOD."
Evelyn's voice has a musical Tennessee twang.
"I didn't know physically you could feel that good. And I just loved everybody. I've never been resentful of him or anybody else since."
It's like the slag I picked up rock-hunting. Alone I climbed a 100-foot high slag heap in Cottonwood, Arizona, a few miles from Jerome, a copper-mining boom town early in the 20th century. On top, I stood sweating and panting. All around me was a vast sea of black, a moonscape, undulating in the noonday sun. Flat and twisted shapes of rock, some as big as boulders, rose and fell, stretching for a quarter-of-a-mile.
Amid the black was color, light, and sparkles.
Some people might say, " You think that's beautiful?"
Oh, yes. This slag is a survivor. By its very nature, it's positive energy. It's fire-tempered remains of copper smelting. It's iron ore that's melted, been cast aside, and cooled into fantastic shapes.
Just look at it. Hold it. Some pieces are sharp pebbles that roll around in the palm of your hand. Some are foot-square, inch-thick slabs with swirls and twirls like the bas-relief sculpture of Frenchman Auguste Rodin. They are worthy of placement in an art museum.
Sheets of gold smear the tops and sides of the slag. Bits of copper and other minerals streak it shiny blue, green, pink, orange, and crystal. The iridescent colors make weirdly realistic pictures. I see mountains, bears, bison, birds, and even a human hand with long, slender fingers.
I just have to look at the slag in the sunlight.
That's it: seeing life in the sunlight.
The bright light, not the dark, negative light.
YOUNG AT HEART -- August 2008
The month of August is named after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, who ended 100 years of civil war by ruthlessly quashing political opponents. Under him, the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace flourished. Writers, artists, architects, builders, and public servants created magnificent works. The Augustan Age was a stellar time in history. It was public service at its best.
During this presidential-election year, let's reflect on the world around us. How can we improve it? How can we make politics and world conditions better for the greatest good?
Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas was the quintessential American politican: tough, fair, bigger-than-life, and devoted to enriching his country. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked to improve American ties with other countries and peoples. He founded the Fulbright Scholarship Program, which gives students a chance to study and live abroad. He was responsible for creating the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which brings world-class talent to Washington, DC.
In my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE, Senator Fulbright explained his belief that America switch to a parliamentarian system of government, in which citizens vote for one political party. The party that wins then picks the country's leaders. "Back in the 1940s, I got in trouble suggesting that we change to a parliamentary system," he told me. "Everyone else has got it right: the French, British, Canadians, and Australians. Our system is a lousy, unworkable system. It's a perfectly hopeless system, and the whole world is laughing at us. We examine every issue and say this or that can be done to improve things, except our government, our society. Part of the problem is that our country is too young to have any perspective."
Fulbright graduated from the University of Arkansas, won a Rhodes Scholarship, and attended Oxford University in England. He returned to become president of his alma mater, before entering politics. The senator advised young people to get a broad education, then to "take an interest in public affairs and change things. Americans think they're the greatest country. They've grown up on, 'We're the greatest people in the world' and therefore don't need a change. We're pig-headed. We absolutely will not seriously talk about our own system."
Do you think the U.S. should switch to a parliamentary form of government? Has any presidential hopeful addressed that? It's good debate material.
Our country has many issues. One of them is "government-ese," the un-clear language that politicians, public servants, and political volunteers use. They are in love with their own voices. I have covered politics all over the world -- New York, Washington, DC, Geneva, Warsaw, Cairo, and Lisbon. Everywhere I've heard people in power talk for talk's sake. It isn't any different here in the US.
We can change that. We can begin at home by cutting the number of words in half and simplifying our sentences. It makes for better understanding all around. Clear speech is infectious: it rubs off on our children, friends, and colleagues.
On a local level, we can take our leaders to task for their "government-ese." In my first career as correspondent for CBS and NBC Radio Networks, I had no trouble asking a politician for clarification: "What was that you said?" They usually laughed and re-phrased their answers more clearly and briefly. Fellow reporters nodded. We hated to be spun around.
A political acquaintance in Washington once confided, "We hear a question and we need time to think. So we start our reply with, 'That's a very good question. I'm glad you asked that.'" Stay alert, my friends. Call politicians on their messy language, often a sign of messy thinking. Hold our leaders accountable and demand their best. Asking them an honest question is never a mistake.
If we don't ask questions, we get what we settle for at the polls.
YOUNG AT HEART -- July 2008
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So states our Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776. We Americans have enjoyed freedom for a long time. But best-selling author Nien Cheng, a Chinese-born woman, now American citizen, achieved freedom the hard way. For 6 1/2 years, she endured solitary confinement in a Chinese prison. Stubbornly refusing to admit to treason charges, she finally exhausted her jailers, and they let her go.
In the 1960s, during China's Cultural Revolution, Nien Cheng was one of many upper-class Chinese accused of treason by Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Nien came under suspicion because she had managed the Shanghai office of Shell Oil, an international company. Mao's Red Guards occupied her house, and as she watched, they torched her possessions in the courtyard and wrecked everything else. Then they took her to prison. Her only daughter disappeared. Years later Nien learned that government zealots had murdered the girl.
In her book LIFE AND DEATH IN SHANGHAI, a New York Times's best-seller, Nien meticulously details the horrendous, inhumane treatment she received in prison. She was tortured, interrogated, deprived of food, and kept in isolation. I read that book -- non-stop, in two days, and when I finished, I knew that I had to meet this extraordinary woman. We both lived in Washington, D.C., and I found her number in the phone book. She answered my call, and after I explained who I was, she invited me to tea.
We became good friends. She agreed to be interviewed for my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE. Over a period of months, she talked to me for hours. "During the entire time in prison, I did not see a smiling face. I did not hear a friendly voice. Everybody who spoke to me was abusive, they were accusing me, they were shouting at me, they were calling me dirty names. They humiliated me in every way they could.
"When you live like that for 6 1/2 years, it's very easy to lose your self-respect and self-confidence. Part of my strength during that time came from anger. I was so insulted that they should accuse me of being a spy for a foreign country, against my own country. I was furious! It was the greatest insult anybody could have inflicted on me.
"Anger can make you fight. Americans won't understand this, but Chinese are very patriotic, because China's history MADE them patriotic. From 1842 to the founding of the Republic, China suffered defeat and humiliation from Western powers. The educated Chinese felt this shame keenly. They became very patriotic."
Nien's strength to survive imprisonment also came from faith in God. "I am a Christian. I believe in God. Every night I closed my eyes and prayed. Every night I'd tell God what went on today: the interrogations, everything! I asked for guidance and courage. I asked God to give me courage so I can face tomorrow, so I don't get depressed and not want to live on. Give me the courage to fight on and the intellect to fight effectively!
"I felt God's love for me. I knew that what I was experiencing -- the humiliation, the denunciation, the deprivation of life -- was unimportant, because I had the love of God. That love is more important and better than any human love. I didn't care if these people all hated me. I knew God knew the truth, that I was not guilty of spying for foreigners."
Nien is one of millions of people who have been -- and are -- political prisoners, reined in and rounded up by governments that cannot tolerate freedom of speech by its people. History is filled with stories of injustice to people who speak out. We in America know that many foreign governments today do not allow their people the very basic freedoms.
July is a good time to remember how precious the right of freedom is, and to help other people achieve it, in whichever way is appropriate. Our re-education and actions multiply geometrically. When we help others, we set off explosions, like fireworks, like "the shot heard round the world." (*) American minutemen fired that shot against British soldiers, and began the American Revolution in April 1775.
* from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn" (1837).
"...By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world."
YOUNG AT HEART -- JUNE 2008
June is named after the Roman goddess Juno, wife AND sister (!) of Jupiter, King of the Gods. As queen, Juno could throw lightning bolts just as far and wide as Jupiter!
In June, the sun reaches its zenith, and darkness hits its lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere. June is a month to revel in the warmth of the sun and dive into the pleasures of nature.
In my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE, Edmund Campbell, a civil rights lawyer and social activist, said he "always got right" when he was in the midst of nature. "I used to be very tense, mainly about work," he told me. "That's when I began to realize the joy and importance of taking walks. You cannot get straightened out, unless in the presence of something living -- plants, sky! You can't get straightened out in a room. You have to be outdoors.
"I believe your level of consciousness is raised when you're outside and taking certain types of exercises," said Ed. " Your attitude toward life, your realization of what it's all about, is deepened by being in nature...You get a sense of oneness of life, the unity, let's call it the universal love that you see. You feel like you're part of something so much bigger than you are."
Here in Sedona, Arizona, my new home, I live close to nature: rabbits, quail, snails, snakes, lizards, songbirds, tukey buzzards, javelinas, and coyotes. In June, I take morning and evening walks to visit these creatures, to see trees, walk barefoot on grass, to hear water, and feel the wind. It is my best time to be close to the earth.
YOUNG AT HEART WISDOM
I am writing this column to give you readers a taste of my award-winning book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE, now in a third printing. Each month, I'll tell a story with quotes from the wonderful old Americans whom I interviewed. I'll also let you in on secrets of succesful living -- at any age -- from friends, acquaintances, and strangers whom I meet in my world travels.
YOUNG AT HEART -- MAY 2008
May is springtime, a moment of re-birth, a time to give love our full attention. Love with all its exquisite pleasures, its huge highs, its everyday comforts.
I learned about love from Lillie and Ralph Douglass, a sweet, devoted couple who lived in the shadow of Coffee Pot, a red-rock landmark in Sedona, Arizona. They had retired and often traveled to faraway places. Once in a small town in India, a mob attacked their Volkwagen bug while they were inside. They never knew why they were a target. They were simply glad to escape, by gradually inching away.
In my book YOUNG AT HEART: AGING GRACEFULLY WITH ATTITUDE, Lillie said, "We've been married 67 years and we're still in love. We've had a wonderful life together. My husband has contributed greatly to that, by being kind and considerate and gentlemanly. He also likes to drive a car or a trailer or a motor home in all kinds of countries."
Ralph added, "A lot of older people get mad at each other when they get older. For some reason, they don't get along. You have to have some love involved, or you don't go ahead. I kiss her three or four times a day to keep her in a good humor. Every day I go to the post office and grocery store, do a bit of work in the yard, and then we have a Scrabble game or dominoes or cribbage. We like to play all kinds of games together."
Lillie said, "Our two daughters and their children encourage us to travel. We just take off and go." Before they retired, they were pharmacists, Native American retail merchants, and Methodist medical missionaries overseas. They worked long hours and had a lot of fun along the way. Lillie even wrote a book about it. They were still going strong in their nineties.
I think of them whenever I pass Coffee Pot. Their spirit of love lives in that red rock.