Another reason to pick up a good book

My town is a great one for festivals, and there’s a new one in the offing this weekend. The first Milford Readers and Writers Festival will be held at the Milford Theater and other venues Sept. 30-Oct. 2, with three world-class authors—Gloria Steinem, John Berendt and M.K. Asante—as the headliners.

Reading (writing too, for that matter) is a solitary activity, so it will be a treat to gather with others who love to read. And yes, old-fashioned reading remains an important activity even in an age when our eyeballs are monopolized by tweets and Facebook status reports.

Aristotle explained hundreds of years ago how the “pity and fear” we feel while watching good drama help us better grasp the human condition. Now scientists are exploring the mechanisms by which this catharsis occurs, examining how reading—especially of literary fiction—builds empathy. Genre fiction doesn’t have the same effect.

“These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories … and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life,” the psychologist Keith Oatley recently reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Understanding stories engages the same parts of the brain as understanding other people, Oatley said.

We need this deep understanding now more than ever, but collectively we’re getting less of it. The National Endowment for the Arts disclosed in August that the practice of reading for pleasure had fallen to its lowest point since the agency began tracking data in 1982.

In the NEA study, less than half of all Americans—just 43 percent—reported having read at least one work of literature the previous year. The agency tracked discretionary reading only, and didn’t count books assigned for school or work purposes.

By way of comparison, in the NEA’s first survey 34 years ago, 57 percent of Americans reported reading a work of literature in the prior 12 months.

For purposes of the study, the NEA defined literature as novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I would argue that literary nonfiction and memoir should be included too. Just think of the impact of a book like “The Diary of Anne Frank” on our understanding of the Holocaust.

Women were more likely to read for pleasure than men (50 vs. 36 percent), the NEA found, and there were differences based on ethnicity and educational level as well. People with a graduate degree, for example, were the biggest readers, at 68 percent.

Storytelling is available in forms other than books, or course. Movies, TV series and podcasts help fill our human need for complex narratives to help us make sense of the world. In fact, TV and even video games have been shown to positively affect empathy test results.

But books are the beginning. As the Washington Post noted in an article on the NEA findings, “If we’re reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vietnam: The war that wouldn’t quit

In one way or another, everyone in the baby boom generation was marked by the Vietnam War. Choices made during those years come back to haunt male politicians decades later, even the ones who served heroically, like John Kerry. Those who avoided service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump) scramble to tell us why.

Veterans may still suffer PTSD nightmares all these years later, or have illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide so nonchalantly employed to clear the triple-canopy jungle.

Meanwhile, the aftereffects of the antiwar movement have been slow to dissipate. Some still resent Jane Fonda for her trip to Hanoi in 1972, even though she has repeatedly apologized. “I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers,” the actress said in 2015.

Given the central place of Vietnam in the collective psyche, it’s instructive to read a first-hand account from someone who was there. A high school classmate of mine, Michael A. Montigny, supplies one in his new book, “A Few Good Angels.”

Mike delivers a raw, riveting narrative of what it was like to be a 19-year-old marine at Khe Sanh. This self-published book (available on Amazon in paperbook and Kindle editions) has such immediacy that you feel you are beside him as he navigates the perils of combat and the hazards of the environment itself, from poisonous snakes and giant scorpions to monsoons, mud and heat.

Unable to attend college directly after high school, Mike got sucked up in the draft and wound up as a marine. He vividly describes the harsh discipline—at times bordering on the sadistic—of his training. He was assigned to be a machine gunner, a dangerous job.

“Life expectancy for a machine gunner is about 15 minutes in combat,” his gunnery sergeant told him, since snipers “will always try to kill you first.” Indeed, Montigny notes that only half of his class of a dozen machine gunners made it home alive.

Life in Vietnam was desperately difficult. Mike describes bathing out of his helmet, trying to sleep as rats the size of chihuahas nipped at him and marching through deep mud lugging heavy weapons.

Over it all lurked the specter of being killed or gravely injured at any moment. In fact, Mike had so many close calls in Vietnam that he came to believe he was being kept safe through supernatural intervention—by the “few good angels” of the title.

Mike goes on to describe the letdown he felt upon coming home to a country that seemed indifferent to what its fighting men had endured. With the nation so torn over the war and even top policymakers ambivalent, there was no hero’s welcome. “It took more than thirty years for someone to say to me, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Mike writes.

No one who reads this book will ever say those words casually again. This moving memoir makes you appreciate what “service” really means in a war zone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sick of sick talk

I remember as a kid being alternately fascinated and appalled by the after-dinner chat among the women at my grandmother’s table. After the men left the room, to either play or watch sports, my female relatives would open up about all manner of bodily insults, from operations and kidney stones to the agony of childbirth.

It was scary stuff for someone in elementary school, and I made a vow then and there that when I was an adult, I would never talk about illnesses. Maybe I imagined I wouldn’t have any, or perhaps I expected to be stoic if I did.

Fast-forward a bunch of decades and here we are, my boomer friends and I, routinely sharing talk of maladies, from the mundane to the life-threatening. And we don’t mind doing it at dinner.

I get it—I really do. When you’re not feeling well or are facing a tough diagnosis, it’s hard to think about anything else. Your illness is your news, and so that’s what you talk about. The syndrome is so common that etiquette maven Miss Manners has weighed in on the subject.

She proposes that when people of a certain age gather, you “announce Medical Report early in the evening … That way you not only get it over with, but if someone goes on too long, you can say, ‘Oh, dear, I hope you’ll be better soon’ and turn to the next person.”

The thing is, I’m actually interested in my friends’ and relatives’ health and wouldn’t want them to hide anything from me. I want to know how they feel, the status of any chronic disease or the onset of any acute one. However, some of the more, um, personal details might be better shared one-on-one. No one wants to hear about blood and guts while the appetizers are being served.

Lately I’ve been the one doing the sick talk, thanks to a relapse of the whooping cough that beset me in the spring. I started coughing again in August and I’m just getting over it now. It’s not called the Hundred Day Cough for nothing.

Relapses are common in this strange disease that sounds so 19th century. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I first got sick. It was bad enough having it once; I wouldn’t have wanted to contemplate a second round.

So, rather than belabor the point, let me just say that yes, adults can and do get whooping cough. It’s not just a childhood disease. I know five adults besides myself who have had it recently. The paroxysmal cough stops you from breathing and makes you feel like you’re going to pass out—or die.

Almost everyone gets the pertussis vaccine as a kid. But immunity wears off eventually and at some point, you need a booster. Who knew?

For my part, I’ll never have whooping cough again. Getting it at my age makes me immune for the rest of my life. I’ll have to find something else to talk about at dinner parties.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rollercoaster ride of longevity

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I turn on the TV. They say an electronic screen is the worst prescription in the world for insomnia, but for me, the soft TV voices murmuring in the background are soothing. It’s like being a kid in my room, drifting off to sleep to the sound of my parents quietly conversing in the living room.

To avoid commercials, I usually choose PBS. But last week WVIA was doing its fund drive, so I was force-fed house ads. In-between those pledge pitches and falling asleep, I learned an awful lot about improving my health.

Along with the music beloved of baby boomers, public broadcasting peppers its pledge weeks with lectures from doctors and nutritionists who specialize in aspects of longevity. This time I heard about how to boost my metabolism; massage pressure points to relieve pain; optimize my heart health and brain function; lose weight; deal with allergies; and quell stress, worry and anxiety. Those latter three scourges are a bigger factor in degenerative diseases than even smoking and obesity, according to the doctor who presented “The Healing Mind” program.

Unless you take notes (or buy all the books), it’s hard to remember all the good advice offered, especially when some of the medical professionals disagree with others (peanuts: healthy protein or hidden allergen?).

But we boomers are at the age when we need to get serious about health, diet and fitness. In your 20s and 30s, who thinks about aging and disease? That’s something for your parents to worry about. In your 50s and 60s, you are your parents.

Over the weekend I happened to see an article online about a hospital in northern England that’s refusing to do elective surgery on smokers and the obese. People with a BMI of 30 or more, along with anyone who smokes, must wait six months to a year for routine, non-life-threatening operations, though they can move up in line if they quit nicotine or lose 10 pounds.

The ban is a cost-cutting measure. But weirdly, I read another article the same day that showed how it’s actually the thin and fit who use up the most health care dollars.

A study in Holland found that smokers and obese people did consume health care resources when they were middle-aged. But because they died sooner than the healthy group, “it cost less to treat them in the long run,” the New York Times reported. Healthy people, by contrast, “live years longer” and the care they got in those extra years outweighed any earlier savings from staying fit.

In the Dutch study, the healthy lived till age 84, the obese till about 80 and the smokers to 77.

A friend who smokes once told me that she’d never give it up. Longevity wasn’t a goal. “I don’t want to live to 90 and have somebody changing my diaper,” she said.

The rest of us are still listening to PBS specials, hoping to find a way to grow older without growing iller.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life lessons from Mom

In her day, my mother was a political junkie. She attended town council meetings, wrote letters to senators, worked on local campaigns and followed national politics avidly. After suffering a series of small strokes at the age of 72, she no longer cared. “Let the next generation do the worrying,” she said.

Nevertheless, in 2008 she was excited to learn that none other than Bill Clinton was planning to visit our tiny borough, on a campaign swing for his wife during that year’s Democratic primaries. The former president was scheduled to appear at a home just a few streets over, but by then, Mom couldn’t walk well. She had no stamina.

So we drove up the alley to the church parking lot, a block away, to save her from having to walk uphill, then proceeded slowly, arm-in-arm, through the crowd for another two blocks.

Soon President Clinton came out onto the front porch and said a few words. He stands out in a crowd, literally, since he’s a head taller than most people. Mom—at just over 5 feet tall—had no trouble seeing him. Afterward, we returned home, happy.

I wish Mom was around during this election season, for I’d love to hear her take on campaign 2016—surely the weirdest in recent memory. Indeed, as we draw closer to the second anniversary of her death, I find myself wishing I could check in with her on other topics too. I miss her commonsense opinions.

I recently began jotting down a small list of life lessons my mother left me with—not the big things that every mother espouses, like “be a nice person” and “brush your teeth after meals.” It’s a more idiosyncratic list.

First item: Don’t bother cleaning any surface that’s taller than you are. Mom was a neat freak and kept her house immaculate. But she was tiny, so the top of her refrigerator was allowed to get as dusty as it liked without her intervention.

Mom taught me how to budget by tucking money into envelopes designated for particular bills every payday. She taught me to iron a shirt and to fold a towel into thirds for the neatest package.

She handed down her love of bargain hunting and thrift shopping. Mom unearthed interesting finds from junk shops long before Martha Stewart made it stylish. She always looked chic on no money, thanks to her ability to sniff out a deal. I remember the time she nabbed new, wool designer scarves for 50 cents each.

As she aged, my mother was philosophical about her health problems. She didn’t much complain; she just dealt with whatever life handed her. She didn’t fear birthdays; indeed, she felt it was a privilege to grow older and was proud of every year.

I asked my mother what it was about aging that she liked. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m less afraid than I used to be.”

That’s a lesson from Mom that I hope to take into my own older years.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The eyes have it

Makeup has always been a mystery. How much is enough to get that “natural” look—the finish that says “I’m not wearing makeup, wink wink; I was born with a natural glow and these huge smoky eyes”—and how much is too much? You don’t want to be Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Let’s assume you finally get it right, after years of experimentation. Then you grow older and find that your skin has changed. Now you have to start over, jettisoning the blue eye shadow and mineral powders, and learning some new tricks.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about makeup—the bare state of my eyes doesn’t keep me up nights. But last weekend at a party, I was so entranced by the eye makeup of a cousin’s wife that I began wondering how to replicate the look.

This is not the first time recently that I’ve fantasized about eye makeup. A young friend who used to live on our block is a whiz with makeup. Not long ago, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook with amazing cat’s eyes, ala Liz Taylor in “Cleopatra.” Stunning.

Can I get that look, at my age, I asked in the comments, only half joking. Wear whatever makeup you like, whatever your age, she responded with all the assurance of a confident twentysomething.

My generation of women has been on both sides of the makeup wars. In the ‘60s we wanted to look like Twiggy, with kohl eyes and white lipstick. In the ’70s, many of us abandoned makeup altogether, either to make a feminist statement or in pursuit of a back-to-nature look. Those who did wear makeup went light and fresh—think Cheryl Tiegs.

By the ‘80s, we were back in war paint. It was the only time in my life I wore red lipstick. Thank you, Madonna.

The art of applying makeup didn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always worn lipstick (I’m too pale without it) and mascara. Beyond that, I’m lost.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with foundation (the color is never right); blush (contouring? but how?); and, especially, eye makeup. Drawing Magic Marker lines on my own eyelids, one at a time, is a messy undertaking. I’ve experimented with pencils, paints and powders and pretty much failed with all of them. As for shadow, the colored ones seem garish, the monochrome ones, drab.

What kind of sleight of hand would I need to reinvent my makeup now? A quick Google search of “makeup for mature skin” produced depressing results involving “hooded eyes” and ways to minimize wrinkles.

But in truth, I’m never going to look like cousin Melissa, even if I were to copy her eye makeup line by line. She is years younger than I am and happens to be drop-dead gorgeous. She would look good without anything on her face.

And that, I think, is the ultimate irony of makeup: The women who look best in it are the ones who patently don’t need it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Creative disruption on the home front

Do you believe in horoscopes? Neither do I, but there’s something spooky in the way the prediction I saw in a magazine at the beginning of the month seems to be coming true.

I specifically remember what the horoscope said, because the prognostications for August were so out of whack for this Virgo that I read the entry aloud to a friend.

Learn to live with chaos, the horoscope advised. Invite disorder into your life—it’s the route toward a creative solution that will please you in the end, yada yada yada.

“Yeah, right—that’s not going to happen,” I scoffed.

We Virgos don’t like chaos. We are nothing if not orderly—assuming, again, that you believe in astrology. I don’t, necessarily, but this is one Virgo trait I relate to.

I enjoy being organized, thrive when things are in their place. It drives me nuts when my husband puts a kitchen utensil in the “wrong” drawer or drapes his jacket over the back of a chair instead of hanging it up. (He’s a Pisces. Is that a Pisces thing?)

So, creative disruption is not something I would naturally welcome. But here in the dog days of summer, it has found me.

I’ve been painting the porches. The side landing went smoothly enough, except for a wonky post at the bottom of the stairs that needs replacing. But the job is essentially done, and if there’s anything we Virgos like, it’s getting things done.

The front porch, on the other hand, is not.

Because the porch is large, I opted to do it piecemeal, beginning with the living room side. After power washing came scraping, puttying and sanding—all the prep work that I hate. Only then could I tackle the job I like: painting. I find a Zen pleasure in brushing on the color and I love how nice it looks when it’s finished. All fresh and clean.

Because the weather got hot around the time I began, I had to work sporadically. Early mornings were best. Trying to accomplish anything later in the day made me a little sun sick. How do professional painters do it?

Next came the monsoons. They slowed me down too. And then I traveled out of town for a few days.

But finally it all came together and that side of the porch looks great now that I’ve reinstalled the furniture and plants. But the other side is begging for attention—and now the weather is even hotter.

Meanwhile, my husband is almost done rebuilding the back porch, but the heat has driven him indoors too. He has turned his attention to the kitchen ceiling, which needs replacing due to a flood a while back in the bathroom upstairs.

So here I am, like it or not, living just as the horoscope predicted, in a muddle of messy, incomplete projects. It’s my fervent hope that at least one of them will be finished in time for my birthday in September—a Virgo wish if there ever was one.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Can you reason with a groundhog?

We Pennsylvanians look kindly on groundhogs, if our affection for Punxsutawney Phil is any indication. But these oversize rodents—largest members of the squirrel family—are easier to love in February, when they are hibernating. In the warm months they can be a royal pain, shamelessly noshing your vegetable garden and flower beds.

We first saw a groundhog in our immediate neighborhood last summer. He was fat and sassy, a self-confident individual with little fear of humans unless you got right up on him and stomped your feet. Yelling from the back door had no effect.

We don’t plant many vegetables—there’s so much fresh, organic produce available locally that it doesn’t seem worth the bother—and the groundhog wasn’t doing much damage to the flowers. So, while my husband muttered darkly about “doing something” about this wily woodchuck, I advised pacifism. Live and let live, right?

This summer, I’m reconsidering. One result of tearing down and rebuilding our back porch was the discovery of a deep, narrow hole below the decking, right in the middle of the porch floor. I wasn’t sure what the hole signified until last week, when I happened to open the back door only to see a furry tail vanish into the void.

I thought it was one of my cats until suddenly, up popped the groundhog. He turned his wedge-shaped face right and left to reconnoiter, but ducked in the hole when he spotted me and disappeared.

We assumed the groundhog lived beneath our neighbor’s barn next door, because that’s where he scooted whenever we chased him out of our yard. It was shocking to find him camping out 5 feet from my kitchen.

In fact, it turns out that groundhogs are master tunnelers. According to National Geographic, their burrows can span 8 to 66 feet and are equipped with multiple exits, multiple levels and multiple chambers—even a separate bathroom.

My husband went out and filled the hole with dirt and big rocks, hoping to keep the groundhog at bay. I feared an Edgar Allan Poe scenario—I wanted to discourage the little fellow, not bury him alive. “The Tell-Tale Heart” came horribly to mind.

I needn’t have worried. A half hour later we found the hole re-excavated, with the new opening slightly to the side of the boulders my husband had levered in. The woodchuck had broken free.

A Google search unearthed many suggestions, both peaceful and violent, for eliminating groundhogs. I’m not ready for a battle royal, like Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.” But I hate the thought of the groundhog tunneling under my house. Am I going to come face-to-face with him in the basement one day?

A friend of mine once caught a rowdy skunk in a Havahart trap and drove him to a remote area where presumably, he’s living happily to this day. My husband is threatening the same for our groundhog. I’m hoping the renovated back porch, now almost completed, will provide enough physical barriers to keep him away from the house.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Which age would you replay if you could?

I used to ask my nephew Matt to steer me toward new music, but lately I’ve given up and just listen to the artists I grew up with—a sure sign of aging, no doubt. So after preordering the “new” Beatles release, “Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” online, I also purchased Bonnie Raitt’s 20th album, “Dig in Deep,” after seeing the singer-songwriter on “The Tavis Smiley Show” last week.

Smiley asked Raitt how the music has changed for her over time—what it’s like to sing a song like “Angel from Montgomery,” first recorded it in 1971, today, at the age of 66.

“There are songs that make me remember the woman I was,” Bonnie replied. “They take on all these different meanings” as you age.

Smiley then mentioned a teaser question a friend had posed at a dinner party: If you could go back to any age of your life, what age would it be?

Smiley, who is 51, said he considered reprising 26, 35 and 42—all significant years for him, for unspecified reasons. But as he thought about it, he realized he preferred to stay where he is. “I’ve finally gotten comfortable with the fact that aging is cool,” he said. “Every day offers a new opportunity.”

How about you? Would you, like Tavis, stay put? If not, what year would you choose to replay?

The age when you fell in love or got married? Maybe, but not if the relationship ended or the marriage failed.

The age when your child was born? Perhaps—but would you really want to revisit the sleepless nights and diapers?

It would be great to return to an age when everyone you loved was still alive—for me, that would mean pre-1975, to include my father. But would I then have to relive the subsequent years of death and assorted debacles—literally déjà vu all over again?

Also, in retrospect I tend to be disapproving of my younger self’s behavior. If I went back, would I still be as impatient, impulsive and self-absorbed? It’s taken me years of effort (not to mention therapy) to work through some of my many character flaws. Could I go back to an earlier time in my life while preserving these hard-won fruits of maturity?

Taking the game at its simplest and assuming I could return in an uncomplicated way to a particular time of my life with no negative consequences, after some consideration I settled on 25. That’s how old I was when I spent a year in Europe with my first husband.

We quit our jobs, stored our possessions and flew to Amsterdam to begin 12 months of travel and cultural immersion. As winter crept in we headed south, ending up in a tiny apartment in Malaga, Spain, for five months. I took Spanish lessons; shopped daily, string bag in hand, for whatever was fresh in the market; learned to dismember and cook a squid; and gawked at the Mediterranean from a bougainvillea-draped patio.

Bonnie Raitt, meanwhile, agreed with Smiley that she prefers her life today over fantasies of previous ages. Her father, the musical-comedy star John Raitt, had told her to enjoy her 60s. “My dad said if I could go back, I’d be 60 again,” Raitt laughed.

Maybe these really are the good old days.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?

“The best friends are old friends.” So said the caption on a Facebook photo from a mini-high school reunion I went to a couple of weeks ago in Rhode Island.

My classmates are reunioneers. Aside from the traditional decade parties, there are yearly get-togethers on the anniversary of commencement, June 10, and pop-up reunions whenever a distant classmate comes to town. The event I attended came together because Mariette had driven in from Nebraska, Lu was home from Florida and Jane had arrived from Arizona.

Some of my best high school pals didn’t make it, but no matter. It was a noisy, happy group, and I felt a kinship even with those I barely knew in school. Years later, all that shared history counts.

The school years might be as good as it gets when it comes to making friends. Research suggests that it’s harder to forge new connections as you age. I Googled “trouble making friends when older,” expecting articles about friendships over 50. Instead I found links geared toward thirtysomethings, floundering after the chummy college years.

A supportive social circle is key to health and happiness. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Friendship decreases blood pressure and stress, reduces the risk of depression and increases longevity, in large part because someone is watching out for us.”

Of course, there are friends and there are friends.

Not counting the online world, where we may connect with hundreds of people in a new, 21st century type of friendship, the typical social circle—kith and kin—is 100 to 200 people, says U.K. researcher Robin Dunbar. He pegs 150 as the number of relationships our brains are wired to manage.

Of those 150, about 15 emerge as the most important individuals in our circles. Drilling down even further, a handful of people are the very closest—friends of the heart, those with whom you feel completely accepted and can share any intimacy. Dunbar’s research suggests that “you need between three and five of them for optimal well-being,” says a Time magazine report.

It’s not a static circle. Friends are constantly coming and going in our lives. And when someone in that BFF category reenters your world, it’s cause for rejoicing.

Doris and I became best buds 30 years ago when she bought the log cabin down the lane from me in Dingmans Ferry. We just clicked. We were both single and we started hanging out. We had many adventures together, shared many meals, went through boyfriends and breakups, and earned the nickname “the Snoop Sisters” from an antiques dealer whose shop we frequented.

In time, Doris moved away and embarked on a career as a house flipper. She ultimately wound up in Florida, where my husband and I visited her a few years back.

This year she began thinking about buying a second home. And amazingly, she ended up with what used to be my cottage in Dingmans, which by a twist of fate had just come on the market.

Life will be a lot more fun with my friend back where she belongs.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
  • Blog Authors

    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
  • Categories

  • Archives