The pleasure of doing nothing

From a glance at the bestseller list, it’s clear the French have something to tell us about the art of living well. Frenchwomen don’t get fat—nor do they get facelifts, and yet they manage to remain elegant toujours. And French children don’t talk back, thanks to the way French parents have raised them.

I wonder if there’s an enterprising French author out there writing a book on retirement. From the American writer Adam Gopnik’s memoir “Paris to the Moon,” it seems that the French do it differently than we do.

Americans, says Gopnik, feel that “to stop working is to stop living. It is the vestibule of death.” But in France “there is no equivalent anxiety.” Indeed, the opposite holds true—there’s a “romance of retirement,” he says, and the earlier the better.

Gopnik cites a series of articles in Le Figaro on young retirees who boast of having the time to “reflect”—in other words, to do nothing. The pieces are written, he says, “in exactly the same admiring spirit that an American daily might use for a series about old people who are as busy as all get-out.”

I am one of the lucky ones with a foot in both worlds. I like to work, and I’m still at it in my 60s. But because of the nature of my job, I have downtime, too. I work for a quarterly publication, so I am busy four times a year during our production cycle and off duty in between.

What do you do when there’s nothing that has to be done? Time becomes elastic. A morning or afternoon might pleasantly pass with nothing much to show for it. It’s easy to put things off, because after all, there’s always tomorrow. I don’t have to cram all my chores into Saturdays, as I did when I worked full time.

An errand like grocery shopping may make an afternoon. There’s time beforehand to check the cupboards and contemplate my list, time later to have a cup of tea after putting everything away. When I was working, going to the supermarket was something I did in spare moments. It’s roomier now.

There’s time to take a walk, time to read, time to meet a friend for coffee. We have a couple of spots in town where you can while away an hour over an espresso without feeling pressured to leave. They may not be Parisian sidewalk cafes, but the croissants are just as good.

I have scheduled events in my life too, meetings and appointments and the like—enough of them to anchor me in the here and now. I don’t lose track of what day it is.

But I’m happy to stay a little laid-back and resist the temptation to be overly energetic. Let’s call it my homage to the French. Soon enough, my production cycle will kick into gear again and I will be thrust back into the working world. Let me revel in the pleasure of doing nothing while I can.

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Is it better to give—or to receive?

OK, show of hands: who is sending out Christmas cards this year? Every Christmas I rethink my list, weighing the pros and cons of the traditional paper cards (environmentally questionable, no doubt) vs. the e-mail variety (a touch impersonal, perhaps?).

In the end I will probably opt for the USPS, as I always do. I certainly have enough cards, thanks to the freebies I keep getting from charitable, humane and environmental-action organizations.

I receive these and other types of premiums almost daily, from agencies I support and those I’ve never heard of. I’ve never been to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, much less given them a donation. Yet, they have been sending me note cards for years—rather nice ones, too. You might get one from me this Christmas.

Greeting cards and the ubiquitous address labels (invariably, with the street name wrong by a letter) aren’t the only goodies I get. All my many umbrellas come from charitable organizations; likewise most of my many tote bags. I receive bookmarks, pens, baseball caps, T-shirts, toy animals (from groups like Defenders of Wildlife), backpacks (Sierra Club), rain slickers, small fleece blankets the perfect size for a cat to sleep on, and key chains up the wazoo.

I get Buddhist prayer flags from the Free Tibet people and religious medallions from the Catholic organizations. Some groups send actual cash—a dime or a nickel glued to the appeal letter. Others include a postage stamp, presumably for use when you mail back your check. Meanwhile, I need never buy another calendar or notepad as long as I live, since so many come to me unsolicited.

Some organizations have a tick box on the return card where you can decline the promised premium. But many others send the premium first, and only later issue their appeal. All of these goodies beg the question of whether the money spent on gifting potential donors couldn’t be better put to use in the charity’s actual work. But there are marketing gurus who specialize in these things, presumably armed with statistics showing that a set of Christmas gift bags with matching tissue paper will draw more donations than a naked letter with no freebie at all.

Moreover, the organization may have already paid for my $7 coffee mug as part of its promotional budget. Maybe I’m doing them a favor by taking the mug off their hands and relieving them of the cost of keeping it in inventory. Who knows?

A couple of years ago when money was tight, I took a look at our charitable donations and made some hard choices. We still give to certain organizations that I’ve supported for years, and that score well (on sites like Charity Navigator) in terms of transparency, accountability, administrative costs and CEO salary. Otherwise, we concentrate our giving locally, on organizations we know and trust. No premiums necessary.

It’s my pleasure to be charitable—it reminds me that I’m doing well enough to be able to share, and to support causes that are important to me. But if my charity is rewarded with a gift, does it qualify as charity at all?

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All things must pass

Maybe I’ve spent too much time reading Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal,” a book about end-of-life issues, but it seems that intimations of death are everywhere I turn lately. Or maybe they always are and I usually opt not to see them, because after all, who wants to think about death? It’s depressing—the ultimate buzzkill.

Sure, we all know that we will die—all things must pass, as George Harrison tells us. But not for a long, long time. Or so we hope.

Gawande’s book, subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End,” brings the issue front and center. The author points to the extremes that can occur when a culture fears death and medicalizes old age. Doctors, terminally ill patients and their families often choose futile, costly and indeed, injurious treatments in a last-ditch effort to stave off the inevitable. Oddly, those who pick hospice instead frequently do better and live longer than peers who opt for more aggressive interventions. That’s a very Zen outcome, as Gawande notes: you avoid suffering by not trying to avoid suffering.

I found the book difficult, and had to read it in fits and starts. This is tough material to stomach, since the author—a Boston surgeon—goes into detail about the insults a human body can endure when assaulted by cancer or some other incurable disease.

He also discusses the care of the frail elderly and cites some interesting experiments in alternative living situations that enable even dementia patients to retain a degree of autonomy. Too often, the elderly are regimented in institutions that infantilize them and fail to acknowledge their unique individuality. The goal is to live a life filled with meaning, all the way through to the end, Gawande says.

Which brings us to Stephen Jenkinson, a Canadian palliative-care expert who has worked with hundreds of terminally ill patients. Jenkinson goes further than Gawande. Not only do we all seek a life filled with purpose and meaning, he says, but the only way to have it is by embracing our own deaths. Jenkinson suggests you are not living fully and completely unless you say can say yes to it all—living and dying alike. He presents death as a kind of opportunity for transformation and redemption. It’s both a right and a responsibility to “die well,” Jenkinson maintains.

I recently watched the documentary “Griefwalker” about Jenkinson and his work. The film showed him counseling a number of patients, including a terminally ill woman who was in cheerful denial about her prospects and the parents of a dying child. The medicalization of death was a big theme, as it is for Gawande. But Jenkinson sees death not as something to be hated, but as something necessary—essential—to life and, indeed, even beautiful, in a fierce and terrifying way.

Jenkinson’s book “Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul,” is due out in March 2015 (it’s available now as an e-book). It promises to take the conversation Gawande has begun with “Being Mortal” in a new direction.

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American Anglophile

One day years ago, some colleagues at the art magazine I worked for in New York were speculating about which historical era each of us belonged in. Wouldn’t T. be right at home in colonial New England—and P. in revolutionary Russia?

When it was my turn, my friends scratched their heads. They couldn’t think where to place me. “You seem very contemporary,” Richard finally said. No one could picture me anywhere but in America, here and now.

If that’s the case, I have to wonder why I am so drawn to 19th- and early 20th-century England—or at least, the novels, movies and TV shows based in the period. Why am I such a sucker for anything Dickens or Austen? Why so hooked on “Downton Abbey,” a show during which my husband asks infuriating questions like, “What happened to Matthew?” or “Which one is Lady Mary?” He’s not interested enough to keep it all straight.

I came to Jane Austen relatively late in life. I was approaching 30 and had so far avoided “Pride and Prejudice,” having assumed it was a snobby kind of book, full of antiquated manners and concerns. An English friend assured me I was finally old enough to appreciate Jane—and lucky that no high school English teacher had ruined her for me.

I devoured “P&P” and haven’t stopped since. I usually reread one of the six extant Jane Austen novels every year (this year, it was “Persuasion”). They are literary comfort food for me—reliable cultural companions. I also enjoy Dickens, the Brontes, E.M. Forster and Trollope. Even the American novelists I like—Henry James, Edith Wharton—are English in their sensibilities.

In the lack of upcoming Jane Austen-based films like Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” PBS is a reliable source of BBC period dramas. The latest was a two-part Masterpiece Theater staging of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” a whodunit that takes place some years after the close of “Pride and Prejudice.”

I wanted to like this Elizabeth and Darcy. But the actress playing Lizzie wasn’t pretty enough, and there was scant chemistry between her and Darcy. Moreover, maybe it’s a mistake to revisit this couple 10 years later. Do we really want to witness marital spats or learn the details of housekeeping at Pemberley? Do we need further proof that Mr. Wickham is a cad?

I was disappointed, and no closer to figuring out what it is about Austen et al. that appeals to me. Why am I such an Anglophile—at least literarily? I certainly don’t feel a kinship to the highly stratified society these books and movies depict, or a yearning for the manners and mores of times past. I am, after all, a very contemporary person.

Could it be as simple as language? I like how these people talk to one another, the calm and erudite way they express themselves. Even the servants speak grammatically. For that reason, if nothing else, I eagerly await the return of “Downton Abbey” in January.

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Is aging really all in your head?

Last week someone I know turned 50. As I added my good wishes to his Facebook page, I spotted another birthday greeting posted there—the inevitable “You’re only as old as you feel.” Ha! I thought. Easy to say at 50. Wait until you hit 60 and points north. Aging is, unfortunately, all too real, no matter “how you feel.”

God’s sense of irony being what it is, that very day I got an e-mail from another friend pointing me to an article about a Harvard psychologist whose experiments suggest the reassuring old bromide might, in fact, be literally true.

A New York Times article described Dr. Ellen Langer’s “counterclockwise” experiment. Langer had a group of men in their 70s spend a week together at a retreat house decked out as if it were 20 years earlier—no modern music, magazines or other media, no technology that wouldn’t have existed then, no mirrors. The men were asked to imagine themselves two decades prior—a time when they were young and vital—and to behave as if it were then.

At the end of five days, the subjects were measurably stronger, had fewer aches and pains, and scored better in tests of vision, hearing and mental functioning. Observers said they even looked younger. Langer plans to replicate the experiment next spring with women suffering from stage 4 breast cancer to see if attitudes, expectations and the power of mind can affect something as intransigent as a tumor.

Langer is a respected academic, but her work correlates with New Age beliefs that the universe will give you whatever you want—whether health, money, love or a new Jaguar—if you put your intentions out there in the right way. According to this school of thought, it’s all about vibration and attraction.

I find the idea intriguing, but suspect. Could I really obtain a diamond as big as the Ritz if I think about it the right way and really, really want it? Isn’t that the definition of wishful thinking?

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the power of mind may work on a less-than-mystical level. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has landed the perfect job seemingly from out of nowhere, simply by putting the right feelers out there. Years ago, when I frequently drove to New York City, I used to envision and imagine easily finding a parking space. Often enough, I did. Wishes fulfilled, indeed.

Whether you can use the same mechanism to think (or vibrate?) your way out of serious health issues is an open question. Perhaps Dr. Langer’s next experiment with the breast cancer patients will offer clues.

Certainly, you could never stop aging itself by means of attitude adjustment. The years do tick by. But maybe you could feel better, happier—“younger”—even as your chronological age advanced.

I’d like to know what happened to the men in the counterclockwise study after they left the retreat house. Did they retain those improvements or not? Perhaps the gains were a momentary artifact of all the attention they were receiving and the artificial environment?

Still, maybe we should party like it’s the ‘90s and find out for ourselves.

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Putting all the pieces together

There’s just so much Candy Crush Saga you can play. I gave up at level 425, and none of the other iPad games I tried afterward grabbed me for long. My old standby, Solitaire, seemed a drab second best. Very 20th century.

Casting about for a new time waster, I downloaded a jigsaw app. Then another, and then a couple more. There are lots of them in the iPad app store. Soon I was hooked. I’ve been compulsively doing jigsaws ever since.

I don’t know what made me think of jigsaws, since I never do them in real life. Who has the patience to devote hours—or days—to snapping together tiny pieces of cardboard on a tabletop? For that matter, who has an empty tabletop? In this cat-loving household, the potential for havoc would be ever present.

And then, jigsaws just seemed uncool—something for kids and old people. Indeed, at my mother’s senior living complex, multiple tables decked out with half-finished puzzles are strategically placed around the great-room area, just waiting for someone with time on their hands to sit themselves down and finesse a piece or two.

But the virtual version is different. There are scads of intriguing puzzle images to choose from, from the standard jigsaw landscapes to edgy graffiti art. You can pick your difficulty level, from too easy to impossible, and then swipe and drag the pieces to your heart’s content. I mute the musical accompaniment—it’s meant to be relaxing but gets annoying fast. But I do enjoy the satisfying sound effect when you snap a piece correctly into place.

At my preferred intermediate-difficulty level, a puzzle might take 10 to 20 minutes to solve. Q.E.D. No tabletop required.

My initial download coincided with the news that one of my oldest friends was gravely ill. All that weekend as I awaited updates, I obsessively did jigsaws. I found them soothing and mindless, with the payoff of seeing all the pieces cohere at the end into something that made sense—the opposite of real life, where nothing did.

My friend died, and I did iPad jigsaws throughout the week of her funeral. Later in the summer, my mother suffered a stroke and lingered for several days before she too died. Again I found consolation in my jigsaws, this time recruiting a companion in my grandnephew Michael, 8. The puzzles were something he and I could do together during family gatherings.

Years ago I attended a smoking-cessation program at our local Penn State cooperative extension. One of the tips for success in quitting was to do something with your hands—something that involved repetitive motion. I took up knitting. Everyone got a scarf for Christmas that year as I knitted and purled my way out of my addiction.

The jigsaws are a little bit like that. You start with what looks like a lot of scattered nothing and wind up with—well, something. You simply have to persevere, trusting that all will work itself out right in the end.

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Christmas giving: It’s complicated

Although it’s not yet Halloween, the stores are shouting Christmas. Our little grandnephew in Florida has already picked out what he wants—a dinosaur train set with lots of whizzing cars. We will have to check in with the other grandnephews and our infant grandniece for their preferences.

It’s fun to buy for the kids, which is a good thing, because they are about the only ones we still buy for. Over the years, little by little, most of the adults have bowed out of the gift game. Thank goodness for my friend Lisa. Otherwise, I’d have no one to exchange presents with.

I used to have a fairly large Christmas list and would begin shopping in the summer, at crafts fairs and flea markets or on vacation. It was fun to poke around at interesting venues, hunting for the perfect little something a friend or family member might like.

But once I reached my 50s, people began opting out. The siblings’ kids were older and preferred a check. And among friends, who knew what anyone needed or wanted anymore? We all had too much stuff. You really had to rack your brain to think of something creative to give. Fancy foods and bottles of wine became fallbacks. Likewise gift cards—always, of course, remaining mindful of the arms race aspect of gift giving: The value of your present had to be roughly equivalent to the value of theirs.

In short, it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, a couple of friends confessed that any gift was unwelcome because of the implied obligation to reciprocate. For them, the giving and receiving of presents was a burden, not a joy. They preferred to step off the merry-go-round altogether.

After a decade of this kind of attrition, I’m left with very few to buy for. There’s my husband, of course, along with a cousin, a neighbor, an aunt—and Lisa. She and I have been exchanging Christmas and birthday gifts since the late 1980s, always with great hilarity and masses of tissue paper.

I love shopping for Lisa, because she and I like the same things. We appreciate arty, unusual or humorous accoutrements. We both like jewelry, scarves and clothing; fancy teas, bath products and kitchen accessories. My favorite sweater came from Lisa, along with a treasured Venetian glass necklace-and-earring set she brought me from her travels and an art print of a cat that she purchased in Barcelona.

This year, I’ve already scored a few things I know will delight her. Finding them was a pleasure. I can’t wait to shop for more.

I’ve read that as you get older, the part of your brain that’s stimulated by acquisitions becomes less active. You’re just not as turned on by new stuff as you once were. Maybe that’s the underlying reason for the waning interest in Christmas presents.

But love is the other side of it. A present is offered “with love from me to you.” As the Beatles surely knew, it’s blessed to both give and receive.

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My mother’s things

Joan Rivers told her daughter to be ruthless about discarding stuff after she died. “I’ve said to Melissa, ‘Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions,’” Rivers told an interviewer in July. “I feel almost hysterical on that. I don’t want them to have a sense of guilt.”

Rivers passed away last month just two days before my mother died, and I came across that quote as we were preparing to clear out Mom’s apartment. I felt grateful for the advice, as if my own mother—she who saved everything—were telling me to take it easy. I vowed to resist the temptation to hoard things just because they were Mom’s.

Melissa Rivers faces the monumental task of unloading a 5,200-square-foot apartment. Mom was down to perhaps 500 square feet in her cozy digs at a senior living facility, so our job wasn’t as daunting as it might have been. The mass of stuff Mom accumulated over 87 years had already been culled three times, during each of her moves, as she downsized and then downsized again.

But the vow not to be beholden to my mother’s possessions soon vanished. When actually inside her living space, I was drawn to all manner of things that reminded me of her, things she had held and used. Crazy things of no value, like little spiral notebooks dotted with handwritten shopping lists, phone numbers, her daily blood sugar readings and random notations like “Stockholm is the capital of Sweden” (important to someone with memory issues).

I took a Rubik’s Cube she liked to manipulate while watching TV and a Scotch tape dispenser in the form of a shark that she had labeled “BRUCE,” after the main character in “Jaws.”

I took jewelry, scarves and clothing; books, letters and knicknacks. I took a few small pieces of furniture, including a porch glider Mom had used on her deck in Rhode Island, her porch in Pennsyslvania and then the patios of her two apartments in Ohio. It’s on our front porch now, and I think of her when I sit in it.

And I took pictures—family photographs, of course, but also some of my mother’s paintings. A lifelong artist, she began painting in oils and acrylics in the 1960s and later turned to watercolors, which became her specialty. She enjoyed the fluidity and freedom of watercolors, as well as the delicious pastel hues the medium could deliver.

I took paintings of each type, along with sketches and charcoal drawings. My original plan was to distribute some of the artwork to friends. But I find myself unable to part with it.

I don’t mean to fetishize the paintings, or any of the rest of my mother’s things. But they are what remains of her now. In these things I sense her presence, rather like the smile the Cheshire cat left behind in “Alice in Wonderland.” Having Mom’s things makes me feel she’s still with me—at least a little bit.

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Is 75 the ‘right’ time to die?

When is a good age to die? Perhaps 80, like the heroine of the 1971 cult film “Harold and Maude”? Or maybe 85 or 90? Or are you one of those hardy souls who hope to make it to 100?

In this month’s Atlantic, the oncologist and author Ezekiel J. Emanuel makes the case that in fact, 75 is the best time to die.

Collective gasp. For some of us, 75 doesn’t feel all that distant.

“I won’t actively end my life,” says Emanuel, a bioethicist who opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia. “But I won’t try to prolong it, either.”

At 75, he says, he will stop seeing doctors, decline medical tests and avoid any treatments except those to ease pain. If he is diagnosed with cancer, he will opt not to treat it. If he contracts pneumonia or a UTI, he will refuse antibiotics, letting nature take its course—and take him out.

Why 75? By then, says Emanual, you’ve had a life. You’ve seen your children grow up (if you’re a parent), traveled, enjoyed professional and creative successes. Your active life is now behind you. Ahead are the mental and physical debilities of extreme old age.

Moreover, he argues, you’ll be doing your children a favor by letting them become the heads of the family and not turning them into your caregivers as they approach their own retirement years. And oh yes — you won’t outlive your money.

Emanuel insists he is not proposing a scheme to ration health care. He’s not even asking anyone to agree with him and knows that most people won’t. He’s simply looking at the quest to extend the human life span and asking how much is enough. How many years do we wish to accumulate, and how many experiences? Does the time come when we can say we’ve had our fair share?

Certain Eastern yogis and holy men are said to have left their bodies when they felt it was time, nonviolently finessing their own deaths. Is 75 a good time for that?

The article brought me face-to-face with my own measure of denial about aging—my belief that if I adopt the right diet, exercise and take supplements I can stave off the worst of it. Emanuel has a word for people like me—he calls us the “American immortals.” The sad truth is, it’s all going to all fall apart in the end, no matter how much mangosteen and maca I consume.

Nor is it useful to point to the exceptional elderly, those who are still pursuing higher mathematics, running marathons or weaving tapestries at 90. These “outliers,” as Emanuel calls them, are not the norm. For the vast majority of us, physical abilities atrophy and creative output stalls at a certain point in life. If you haven’t written the great American novel yet, you’re probably not going to write it at 75.

Emanuel makes an interesting case and raises some provocative questions. But there’s one thing he gets wrong, I think—and it’s a biggie. He makes the mistake of assessing old age from the vantage point of youth, applying the values of productivity and accomplishment to a period that might better be suited to contemplation. Perhaps the life task of extreme old age is not to contribute in the ways we are used to thinking of as important. Maybe the job is to downshift and, I don’t know, breathe.

Maybe old age is a prayer and the nursing home, a cloister. Maybe all those old folks who look like they’re doing “nothing” are in fact doing something mysteriously important.

Sean Strub in “Body Counts,” his memoir of the AIDS epidemic, described a dying friend who that felt suicide might be an option for him if things got too bad. But in the end, a shaft of sunlight coming in his bedroom window proved so beautiful and beguiling that he felt life was still worth living so long as he could see it.

Maybe we too will experience these small moments of grace more fully as we age. Maybe they will give us reason enough to live past 75—even if we are no longer able to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

 

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Meet my good friend Cardboard Bob

Because I spend so much time in my home office, I’ve got the place filled with things I like. Photos of friends, family, cats. Beatles posters. Groaning bookshelves and an over-full CD rack.

But anyone stepping through the doorway would notice something else first: Cardboard Bob, a nearly life-size 2-D cutout of an intense, unsmiling Bob Dylan that stands by my desk. Even I am sometimes startled when I walk into the room and come face-to-face with him.

Bob’s upper body is in silhouette against a brick wall upon which someone has graffitied “holy mackerel” above the singer’s right shoulder. The word HOLY hovers just to the side of Bob’s halo of curls, and I wonder if he planned it that way. With Dylan, you have to think yes.

With his dark hair and mustache, this Dylan looks rather like Charlie Chaplin, assuming the Little Tramp should ever don a lavender cowboy shirt.

On the back are images of all of Dylan’s album covers through 2001, which is when Cardboard Bob was issued. That’s the year “Love and Theft” came out the same month as the attack on the World Trade Center. I had been eagerly anticipating its release, and a few days after September 11, in desperate need of something to think about other than the twin towers, I made my way to the record store in the Kmart plaza to buy it.

There, in the window, was Cardboard Bob. I asked the kid behind the counter, who looked to be about 17, if I could buy Bob when they changed the window display. He said I could have him, because otherwise he’d be thrown out. The clerk took my number and I figured I’d never hear from them again. To my surprise, the store followed through and called a couple of months later. Cardboard Bob was mine.

When I drove over to pick him up, Cardboard Bob was tucked behind the counter in an out-of-the-way spot. The clerks had placed a bag over his head so that you couldn’t see his face. “Scary,” was how one of them explained the drape.

OK, so maybe the Bob Dylan of the 21st century was no longer the cute boy with the harmonica of the early 1960s—the Dylan of the Apple Computer “Think Different” campaign. (I have one of the Apple posters in my office too, along with the famous Milton Glaser silhouette of Dylan with the psychedeli hair.)

But he’s still—well, he’s Dylan.

I admit that even a lifelong fan such as myself doesn’t follow Dylan as avidly as I once did. I was disappointed by a couple of post-“Love and Theft” CDs and haven’t bought one since. The last live concert I saw was uninspiring. It was 2003 and Dylan was playing the now-defunct Mountain Laurel arena in Bushkill. His voice was without volume; you couldn’t understand the words. And he never picked up a guitar, instead standing behind a keyboard all night.

Even so, Cardboard Bob will stay right here by my desk until he turns to dust—or I do.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines and book publishing. She currently edits Xcell Journal, a technical ... Read Full
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