When a hack attack isn’t

Just over a month ago, an ominous message popped up on my iPad screen informing me that my Apple ID was “being used to sign in to a device near Lower Towamensing, PA.” Oh my gosh. Was I being hacked?

I consulted a map to locate Lower Towamensing. It turns out to be in Carbon County, near Palmerton, some 61 miles south of where I live. Population 3,228, according to Wikipedia—and one of them, it seems, had usurped my Apple ID.

Was it a professional who would worm his way into my iPad’s big sister, the Macbook, and access sensitive files? Could the hacker get into my bank and PayPal accounts? Or was it just a kid, messing around for the fun of it?

The iPad said I could either “allow” the access or change my password. Naturally, I chose the latter and considered the matter done. But no. The next day and the day after that, same message: Someone in Lower Towamensing was using my ID. I began to think of this distant rural township as a hotbed of hanky-panky. What was happening? Was I being stalked?

I changed my password at least five times, wondering how the mysterious miscreant managed to detect each new one. Was he shadowing my every keystroke? Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep up with my own passwords. I would jot one down, cross it off and conjure up another. More than once I typed in an expired password when trying to access things like text messaging. It was getting annoying.

The problem subsided for about a month and I forgot all about it. Then, last week, there it was again. Same message, again from Lower Towamensing. I changed my password three times in a row, only to be instantly told that the mystery hacker was again using my Apple ID to log in to a device. How could he snatch a password so fast?

It was time to call Apple’s help line. That’s a story in itself. You submit a query by e-mail and get a call back immediately—but it’s only a robo voice saying the next available person will be with you whenever. It took 20 minutes, and let me just say that Apple’s hold music is less than restful.

Finally, my advisor, Judy, came on the line. She listened to my story and explained what was really going on.

There was no bogeyman in Lower Towamensing mirroring my every virtual move. Because I had ticked off “two-factor authentication” for my Apple ID, my iPad was trying to tell me that I myself was signing in to one of my own devices. Thanks to Apple’s dodgy sense of direction (remember the fiasco with Apple maps?), the service thought I resided 60 miles away.

Judy told me Apple was taking geography lessons and would soon be better as discerning actual locations. I had nothing to fear from Lower Towamensing. The only person using my Apple ID was me.

Now, if only I could remember my new password….

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A tale of two dads

Even after all these years, it’s hard to talk about my dad. He died more than 40 years ago but I still haven’t “gotten over it.” Do you ever? And I find myself thinking about him in the runup to Father’s Day.

My father was tall, handsome, gentle and athletic—the favorite brother in a family of seven, favorite uncle among the cousins on his side of the family, or so many of them have told me. He had a wonderful singing voice and for a while did local amateur musical theater productions (he made a cute sailor in “South Pacific”). He could whistle double, something I’ve never heard anyone else do. When Dad whistled a tune, it sounded like two people whistling in harmony.

Dad had a keen sense of the absurd and he loved verbal shenanigans—puns and every other form of wordplay. “If you can mend a situation, mend it. If you can’t mend it, darn it,” was a favorite line. On a family road trip out West, we learned of a bird called a goshawk. Dad would point to the sky and say, “There’s a goshawk. Gosh, what a hawk!”

He taught my brother and me to skate, swim, ride bikes and drive a stick. And he took part in our pickup softball games even though his trick knee sometimes brought him down. In the end, leukemia was what brought him down, at the age of 52. We’ll never know if exposure to the chemicals of the industrial workplace—he was a quality control inspector in a factory—was the cause. It might just have been bad luck, as apparently is the case with most or many cancers.

I often wonder what my father would have been like as an old man. Would he have lost his hair? His marbles? My second dad, aka my father-in-law, kept the one (he had the impressive head of hair of a Hollywood-style Southern senator—think James Whitmore) but not the other.

If I never knew my dad as an old man, I didn’t know my husband’s father as a young one. I came into the family late—it was my second marriage—and he was already in his 70s. Then, Alzheimer’s came creeping inexorably in. My mother-in-law did her best to compensate for his deficits. When she died, they became frighteningly apparent.

He spent his final years in a VA nursing home across the river in New York state, and he was happy there. The nurses liked him and he enjoyed being fussed over by them. My husband visited faithfully every week and I went with him when I could. Although the two of them had butted heads repeatedly when they both were younger, the Alzheimer’s sandpapered my father-in-law’s rough edges and made it easier for them to relate. It was a weird but welcome gift from an otherwise remorseless disease.

My father-in-law passed away at the age of 90. I’ll be thinking of him as well as my father this Sunday. RIP, Dads.

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Take me out to the ballgame…as long as the Red Sox are playing

I once won an office Super Bowl pool, but not on account of my knowledge of football, which is nonexistent. I simply picked at random from a grid someone had created of possible outcomes and plunked down $5. I used part of my winnings to buy a Super Bowl cake from a supermarket bakery (half price, since it was the day after) for my colleagues to nosh.

I’ve never cared about the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup or pretty much any other sports contest. There’s only one professional sport I follow, if only sporadically, and that’s baseball—the great American pastime. And the team I love is the Red Sox.

I grew up in Rhode Island, just an hour away from Fenway Park. As a family, we listened to all the games on scratchy transistor radios, caught them on TV when we could and occasionally trekked to Boston to sit in the bleachers and cheer.

The Red Sox were not winners back then. Some fans whispered of a jinx. This was, after all, the team that traded Ruth (1919)—the team that opened its ballpark just as the Titanic sank (1912).

Rooting for them through thin and thin, I learned about heartbreak, and the hard truth that in this life, the good guys don’t always win. We called them the Red Flops, but meant it affectionately. They might be stumblebums, but they were our stumblebums.

I moved from New England long ago, but my team allegiance didn’t change as my geography did. I’ve been in the New York City orbit since the late 1970s, but I could never cheer the Yankees. No self-respecting Red Sox fan would.

I don’t mind the Mets, heartbreakers in their own right, but they are a National League team and don’t play the Sox during the regular season. It’s hard to forget, however, the way they won the 1986 World Series, when a Boston error in game seven, bottom of the 10th, handed New York the game. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Unlike my brother, also a lifelong fan even though he likewise has left New England, I don’t watch every game. But once in a while I like to catch one. My husband finds televised baseball slow moving and a little boring. I disagree.

To me, there’s something kabuki-like about baseball. There’s ritual to it, a rhythm in the stately march of the innings. The gameplay is almost balletic—the pitch, the swing, the dashes and leaps of the infielders and outfielders in pursuit of a ball. Just look at the cadence and coordination of any double play. It’s nothing short of beautiful!

Now that I’ve “liked” the Red Sox on Facebook, I have a new way to keep up with the games. Facebook tells me when they are playing, informs me of the score and lets me “celebrate” the wins on my timeline, if I so choose.

The team is doing well this year. I won’t say more because I don’t want to jinx them. Go, Sox!

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No easy job disposing of your stuff

How to get out from under a lifetime’s accumulation of STUFF is a problem we baby boomers face as we declutter, downsize or otherwise streamline our lives in anticipation of—well, the final chapter.

“We’re all doing same thing—decluttering,” Colleen commented on my Facebook post about the big yard sale my husband and I planned over Memorial Day weekend. “I want to leave a small footprint, tho’ my former possessions will lie in landfill.”

“I’ve been rehoming many of my things,” another friend chimed in. “Don’t want to leave a lot for others to do.”

“Me too,” said a third. “Trying to make it easier for those left behind.”

I hasten to add that these are healthy, active people who are not facing imminent demise. They’re just taking a level-headed look ahead and planning for the inevitable, whenever it should arrive.

My experience with my mother shows how tough it is to do a clean sweep. Mom lived in the same house for almost 50 years and never threw anything away—except, sadly, my brother’s baseball card collection, featuring players going back to the 1950s. In her active years, she saw no need to discard anything. By the time she reached her 70s and was preparing to move near me, she had health issues and couldn’t manage it alone.

My cousin and I got the ball rolling by helping organize a yard sale the spring Mom sold the house. We got rid of the first level of clutter and made a little money, and it was kind of fun doing it together.

Mom then had several months to sort and pack the rest, but somehow she never got to it. Maybe she felt overwhelmed; I can relate. A friend came over to help but the two of them did more yakking than packing. So when my brother and I arrived a day or two in advance of the moving crew, the house looked much as it always had—stuffed to the gills.

We did what we could (props to my brother for tackling the no man’s land of the basement), but by necessity there was lots for the movers to pack. They were overly scrupulous. We later opened packing boxes containing old jars of rusty nails and other junk that should have been tossed, not moved.

Like Alice in Wonderland after drinking from that mysterious bottle, our lives get smaller and smaller as we age. The traditional arc moves from big, bustling house to apartment and then, one day, nursing home. Final stop: a coffin.

My husband and I, still immersed in the big-bustling-house phase, are gamely trying to make a dent in our mountains of materiality. Hence the yard sale.

Memo to any nieces and nephews who might one day get stuck clearing out the rest: Don’t curse us. Take what you want, then hire an auctioneer to cart away the rest. Enjoy the money you make from the sale.

I suggest Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” as background music.

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Good bugs, bad bugs

Words I never imagined speaking to my husband: “Honey, don’t open the nematodes in the kitchen.”

The Priority Mail box of beneficial nematodes, ordered off the Internet, had been sitting in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks waiting for the right conditions. George was about to mix them in water preparatory to using a sprayer and watering can to spritz them around the yard. But I preferred he not do it where we prepare food.

Beneficial nematodes are a natural way to keep down fleas, grubs and other insects. It’s kind of like unleashing ladybugs in your garden—the creepy crawlies that are a plague to you are dinner to them. We had used nematodes once before, some years ago, and they worked well. Our cats barely had fleas that year. But this year, preparing for them proved to be a chore.

The instructions advised spraying around foundations and under porches. We have a large, elevated front porch that offers room underneath to store our lawn tractor and other outdoor items—lots and lots of them. It functions as a quasi garage, in a house that doesn’t have one.

To prepare for spraying, my husband had to clear it all out, pulling tools, an outdoor Santa and six reindeer, a bin full of plastic flamingos and several large, heavy, folding tables that we use for yard sales onto the lawn, along with many smaller items.

What a mess. I’m a Virgo and I like things to be tidy. But in the end, the cleanout turned out to be a good way to reorganize. We sorted out the trash and threw lots away. George then sprayed the nematodes and put things back under. The area is now neater and less cluttered.

If the nematodes (actually a microscopic worm, not a bug at all) were the bright stars of the critters we encountered this spring, moths were the dark side. We’ve had a problem with clothing moths for several months. We’re not sure where they came from—possibly an old rug in the basement—but unfortunately, they destroyed some of our woolen garments before we realized we had them. Thankfully, they spared our Icelandic wool sweaters.

We cleaned out closets (including cedar closets; who knew moths could withstand cedar?), rolled up wool rugs, sent clothing to the cleaners and, as a last resort, bought moth balls. I hate using moth balls because of their toxicity, but we kept them confined to one locked wardrobe into which we put as much wool clothing as would fit.

We thought we were at the end of it until suddenly, we again began seeing the occasional moth. At that point I called a pest control company, a step I had hesitated to take for fear of harsh pesticides. But it turns out there’s a natural way to deal with moths: pheromones.

We now have little moth houses set up near ceiling level throughout the house, emitting their siren scent to any lingering moths.

If only the nematodes ate moths, life would be pretty much perfect.

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Not feeling well? Cue up Internet TV

It’s been a long, slow slog into spring, but I’ve barely been troubled by the cool, rainy weather. I’ve been stuck indoors anyway, with a nagging cough that turned out to be pertussis, aka whooping cough.

Whooping cough seems like an illness from the history books—something children contracted in bygone times. But in fact, pertussis is still around. I know two people who had it in the winter of 2015 and another who, like me, is just getting over a bout this spring.

I was never terribly sick with it—no fever or body aches, not even a head cold. Just an eyeball-popping cough that wouldn’t quit for weeks and weeks. At times I coughed so hard I couldn’t breathe and feared I would pass out. It’s not unheard of for sufferers to crack a rib from coughing.

Other than that, my main complaint was exhaustion. Whooping cough makes you want to lie around like the consumptive heroine of a 19th-century opera, if it weren’t for the fact that lying prone can trigger a coughing attack.

So, what is there to do if you’re spending a lot of time in bed or on the couch, propped up by pillows? After reading a 587-page novel (“Americanah,” by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) along with Patti Smith’s memoir “M Train,” I turned to TV, in the form of Amazon Prime.

I knew about Prime from the prompts I got at Amazon.com every time I ordered something. The program offers fast, free delivery and access to proprietary video, music and books. I took the bait and signed up for the free 30-day trial.

We’re a Netflix household, but I knew that Amazon too had its own homegrown TV content, as well as some HBO series that we don’t get with basic cable.

The first series I binge-watched was “Transparent,” a comedy about a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is a transgender woman. The actor who plays Maura (born Mort), Jeffrey Tambor, is far from Caitlyn Jenner cute. This is a quirky and interesting show, though I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to see Season 2.

Then I moved on to “The Newsroom,” starring Jeff Daniels, since I love anything involving the news business. Next came “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s series about an aspiring writer and her hipster friends; “Bosch,” a police procedural set in L.A.; and “Catastrophe,” a hilarious sitcom about an American man and Irish woman living in London. I dabbled with other titles too, but didn’t like them enough to watch more than a snippet.

I don’t think I’ll buy a Prime membership once my free trial is over. How much entertainment do I really need? But I enjoyed it while I had it.

Now that I’m feeling better and life is circling back to normal, I’ve returned to Netflix, and “Midsomer Murders.” This English detective show is recommended by none other than Patti Smith, who confesses to a taste for murder mysteries in “M Train.” That’s reason enough to watch.

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Caregiving: the hardest job you’ll ever have

One day while scanning the thrift store bookshelves, I spotted a memoir titled “Designated Daughter.” Author D.G. Fulford tells of moving home to Ohio to be near her aging mother, serving first as best friend and then, in time, as caregiver.

Fulford rejoices in these “bonus years” with Mom, claiming she’s the one who gained the most from the experience. “A mother needs a daughter’s help and the daughter gets more help in return than she could ever give,” she gushes.

Oh, my. This is a story I imagined I would share—the happy ending I longed for when we moved my mother from her home in Rhode Island to the house next door to ours, where she resided for the next 10 years. But it didn’t work out that way.

The strain of being on call 24/7 and attending to Mom’s needs whether I felt like it or not was tough, to say the least. Over time, as my mother’s health began to unravel, my life became a state of emergency. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop as first one malady, then another, assaulted her. As Gilda Radner used to say, “It’s always something.”

Moreover, Mom was difficult. She did not go gentle into that good night. She lamented moving and hated Pennsylvania—until she left to go into assisted living near my brother in Ohio. Then she spoke of her decade here with affectionate nostalgia. Go figure.

It wasn’t all terrible, of course. Mom could be good company—she was smart, well informed and opinionated—and we had plenty of good times too. But she could also be cutting and sarcastic. And she seemed oblivious to our contributions to her care and comfort. Only rarely did she say thanks.

Lately I’ve been bookmarking articles with titles like “The Seven Deadly Emotions of Caregiving” (for the record, they are guilt, resentment, anger, worry, loneliness, grief and defensiveness) and “Are You Going Broke Being a Caregiver?” They supply affirmation of my own experience of caregiving, so different from the uplifting “Designated Daughter” variety.

Last week a friend who is shepherding her cranky, 88-year-old father through shoulder-replacement surgery described everything she’s doing for him, including sleeping in his room the first night in case he wakes and needs help. “What a good daughter you are,” I exclaimed, to which she insisted “No—I’m not.”

She finds the caregiver role oppressive and can’t muster the sunny outlook she feels is expected of her. She’s weary of the constant demands, tired of putting her own life on the back burner in service to her dad’s many needs. Despite doing all the right things, she feels like a failure. And she hates herself for it.

Certainly, there are rewards to caregiving, if only the comfort of knowing you’ve done what’s needed. But the stresses can be extreme. Perhaps it’s better to voice them. Otherwise, you wind up comparing yourself with some elusive—maybe mythical—ideal of the happily self-sacrificing son or daughter. That’s a game you can’t possibly win.

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Competitive aging

The huge baby boomer cohort of which I am a part—people born between 1946 and 1964—has always been a competitive bunch. We’ve competed for jobs and spouses, for material possessions (remember the old bumper sticker “He who dies with the most toys wins”?) and, of course, for concert tickets.

Now, suddenly, we’re competing on a new front: longevity.

Admit it. Who doesn’t scan the obits every day, noting the ages of the deceased and thanking the Lord our own names are not among them? We hear of illnesses among friends and colleagues with rueful relief that for now, at least, we’ve been spared. We scan the faces of contemporaries for signs of aging, marveling at how some look so youthful (did she have work done?) while others seem old—and we plot our own place along the continuum.

The writer Michael Kinsley is here to tell us it’s a losing battle. At some point, says Kinsley in his new book, “Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide,” we are all going to suffer the misfortunes and humiliations of aging; ultimately, we are all going to die.

The author, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his 40s, considers himself something of an advance man—“a scout from my generation,” as he puts it, “sent out ahead to experience in my fifties what even the healthiest boomers are going to experience in their sixties, seventies, or eighties.”

This short book, essentially a collection of linked essays, explains just what that that experience involves.

For starters, Kinsley—a well-known political commentator and the founder of Slate magazine—describes what it’s like to lose a plum job opportunity, presumably because of the employer’s fears about his health; what it’s like to take a boatload of meds every day; what it’s like to endure major surgery (in his case, “deep brain stimulation,” a procedure that has mitigated some of his Parkinson’s symptoms); what it’s like to contemplate no longer driving, with the loss of independence that entails.

Even scarier, Kinsley explores every boomer’s dark fear that if we live long enough, we are statistically ever-more likely to develop dementia. Who wants longevity if losing one’s marbles is the price?

Parkinson’s has long been classed as a movement disorder, Kinsley explains, but the disease affects cognition too. His own case is mild and slow moving, and seemingly has not hampered him too much. Kinsley has written books and articles, edited magazines and gotten married since his diagnosis.

Nevertheless, a recent cognitive assessment—a four- to five-hour round of tests, quizzes and games—showed slippage in certain areas from his baseline some years earlier. It was a sobering experience for a man who makes his living by his wits.

Kinsley admits that he spent the first eight years after his Parkinson’s diagnosis in denial. We baby boomers might be doing something similar as we attempt our generational end run around aging. Kinsley’s book—saturated in humor despite the weighty subject matter—helps us contemplate what’s coming with good grace.




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Am I unemployed…or retired?

I got back from vacation in Hawaii to learn I was losing my job. The company whose corporate technical magazine I had edited for the past eight years abruptly decided to stop publishing. The issue we had just put to bed would be the last.

The job—which was part time and freelance—came to me shortly after I was downsized out of my last staff position. It was a perfect fit. I worked out of a home office, on my own schedule, editing articles and managing the page flow. I loved canoodling with the writers—engineers and other smart people from many countries—and I loved our small but mighty art-and-editorial staff.

The magazine was a quarterly, so there was downtime between issues. And because this was a corporate gig, it paid better than standard editorial work. Deflation has collapsed pay scales in the publishing industry to the point where friends with decades of experience are offered a pittance for freelance editing.

Because my magazine had been in existence for 30 years, I assumed it would stay afloat pretty much forever. I imagined I would have the luxury of staying or leaving as I saw fit, and figured I might quit—officially retire—some day.

Now that day has come, and in the aftermath I’m unsure whether I’m unemployed or emeritus. I’m guessing I’m not the first Boomer to be ushered into retirement by a pink slip instead of a gold watch.

Should I chase new opportunities, wait for something to drop in my lap or hang up my hat and declare myself done? If the latter, can I afford it?

I suppose I’m of retirement age, though it’s hard to say just what that is anymore. People older than I am still work, and plenty who are younger have left the work force. Then there are all those friends in their 50s who wish they could retire early. I guess it depends.

My magazine’s publishing schedule gave me plenty of time off between issues, and I always looked forward to those interludes. It was great to have free time before the next cycle started.

But time feels different now. With no future issue to gear up for, time seems formless, shapeless and vast.

One thing I liked about my job was the way it kept me engaged with the world, exposed to new ideas and interesting people. It got me out of my bubble. Perhaps the key to a successful retirement will be finding a fresh way to engage, a new sense of purpose and a new source of intellectual stimulation.

Last week I met someone whose main retirement activity is trekking—or tramping, as it’s called in some places. He’s just back from Spain, where he walked more than 600 miles from Malaga on the Mediterranean coast to Santiago de Compostela on the Atlantic. The year before, he hiked New Zealand.

I’m probably not ready for roughing it. But the conversation made me realize that if I can think big, not small, retirement might hold some interesting surprises for me, too.



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For the kittens, grass is always greener outdoors

Every so often you’ll see an old movie on TV—usually a comedy from the 1930s-’50s—that shows the family cat being shooed outdoors at night. Bring in the dog and put out the cat, as The Coasters say in “Yakety Yak.”

Oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, most people keep their cats inside. Not only do cats not go out at night. They don’t go out at all.

The issue of indoor vs. outdoor cats is a subject of intense debate in our household. We had decided when we adopted the kittens last fall that Moe and Sassy would be indoor-only cats. But it’s hard to enforce that rule when the big cats they live with get to go outside.

Now nine months old, the kittens are desperate to go out too. It’s a big, exciting world out there. One or the other of them—sometimes both—will rush the door every time it opens, often slipping out before we can see, much less stop, them.

Moe, the tuxedo, is big and bold. He wails at the door to go out. Moe has a modicum of common sense and I trust him—to a point. He usually stays close to the house and comes when I call.

But the other day he scaled the fence to drop into the neighbor’s yard, and made a game out of running away from me on the other side of it. Then he leaped onto a big oak between the two properties and began climbing. I managed to grab his ankle and then the rest of him, or he might be up there still.

Sassy, meanwhile, is something of a fraidy cat. She darted out the door on Sunday morning and dove under the back porch, and there she stayed. I could lure her out but she wouldn’t let me get hold of her. It took an hour, a supply of cat treats and her favorite blue feather toy, but I finally got her. Once inside she slept for hours, exhausted from the adventure.

Except when I lived in city apartments, I’ve always let my cats outdoors. I figured they appreciated the fresh air and exercise as much as I did. It seems sad to think of a cat who has never felt grass under his feet.

But it’s a dangerous world out there, full of cars, rabies and other diseases, fleas and ticks, other cats to fight with and dogs to give chase. I know people who have lost cats to coyotes, while a friend in Dingmans Ferry once saw a hawk swoop down and lift her cat off the ground. In the end kitty proved too big, and the raptor had to drop him. But the encounter resulted in a visit to the vet for the poor cat, injured by the hawk’s claws.

Is there a middle ground—a way to let the kittens outdoors but keep them safe? I’m considering the idea of a “catio”—a patio for cats. Screen houses and mesh tunnels are available online, but my handy husband might be able to custom-build something.

But is another enclosed space, even one that’s outside, really the answer? Isn’t the lure of the outdoors all about freedom? Isn’t the ability to roam free, like Kipling’s Cat Who Walked by Himself, part of the definition of what it means to be a cat?

Like Moe, I’m still on the fence about this issue.

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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, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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