Detracted Driving

IMG_4133I was behind the wheel when my phone vibrated with an incoming text. It was the day before Washington state’s new, stringent “distracted driving” law (or DUIE—Driving Under the Influence of Electronics) went into effect. From now on, we can get a hefty fine for just holding our cell phone, never mind looking at it. Other distractions, like eating or taking a sip from our latte, can result in a thirty dollar “secondary” fine. This in the home state of Starbucks!

Feeling a little rebellious, I read the text, and I took a swig from my thermos. The message said, in effect, “Hope you’re feeling grounded today.” It referred to a conversation the sender and I’d had the day before. Grounded? Very much so. I was sitting in an automated carwash that had engulfed my vehicle with sudsy water, then inexplicably stopped. No rinse. No blow-dry. Just soap suds slowly drying all over my car.

I should’ve known this was not going to go well. At the get-go, when I pulled up to the automatic payment machine and inserted my credit card, it was rejected. “Network error,” beeped the LED display, which I could not read because the sun was in my eyes. On my knees, in hopes of reading the LED, I inserted a crisp, new twenty dollar bill, then a wrinkled, ripped bill, both of which were spit back as if the machine were sticking out its tongue.

This was becoming a battle of wits with Artificial Intelligence. I won’t say which of us was employing AI. Finally, my debit card was accepted. I got the green light to enter the tunnel of suds.

When the machine quit working, I waited to be certain I wouldn’t get inundated with rinse water, then got out of the car to phone the emergency service number posted on the wall. By now, several vehicles were lined up, waiting. A guy emerged from the car immediately behind me and walked into the wash bay, asking in a surprised voice, “Mary?” Bob! Hadn’t seen him in years. We chatted for a few minutes, catching up, ‘cuz that’s what you do in a small town. Then we remembered the cars in line, everyone waiting patiently, no one honking, ‘cuz that’s NOT what you do in a small town.

I called the service number and the guy wearily asked, “Are you in neutral?” Ah, I’d forgotten that. I’d automatically shifted to park.

“There are sensors that can tell when you’re not in neutral,” he said. That, it seems to me, is carrying AI a bit far.

Later, I texted my friend about the “grounding” carwash incident. She sent an emoticon of a lop-sided smile. I’m skeptical of emoticons. Seems to me that with 171,476 English words at our disposal (says the Oxford English Dictionary), we don’t need goofy little icons to say what we mean. But she chose just the right two words to go with the smiley face: “Rueful laughter.”

The Paradox of Age

Friend and colleague Elizabeth Widel celebrates her hundredth birthday

If you’re like me, you want two things that don’t match up: you want a long life, but you don’t want to grow old. This is especially true in America’s youth-adoring culture: “60 is the new 50,” “you don’t look a day over …,” “young at heart,” etc.

Confronting old age is like staring at the horizon while driving on a long, flat road. The horizon never gets any closer. I’m getting old-er, but I assure myself that I have yet to reach the horizon of being old. I’ve developed a new definition for middle age. When I look at the newspaper obituary page, I notice that half the deceased are younger than I and the other half are older. That makes me middle-aged, right?

I wonder when old begins. And why is it such a pejorative word? A thirty-year-old friend recently sent me a link to an article entitled, “How Acting Like an Old Person Actually Makes You Happy.” The article was based on a study reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology that concluded: “Comparison of age cohorts using polynomial regression suggested a possible accelerated deterioration in physical and cognitive functioning, averaging 1.5 to 2 standard deviations over the adult lifespan. In contrast, there appeared to be a linear improvement of about 1 standard deviation in various attributes of mental health over the same life period.”

Did you get that? My cognitive functioning may be deteriorating, but I think it says that while our bodies and minds may decline as we age, we get happier. The article suggests we embrace our “inner oldie:” live in the present, have a positive outlook, never stop growing, and develop fewer but deeper friendships. Honestly? That stuff automatically comes with age?

When I turned seventy, I figured this decade would be pretty much like my sixties. A friend who is eight years older warned I was in for major changes. She may be right. Things keep disappearing, like my eyebrows, my chin and my abdominal muscles.

A recent article in The New Yorker magazine quoted Eric Verdin, C.E.O. of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, saying “if you just kept aging at the rate you age between twenty and thirty, you’d live to a thousand. At thirty, everything starts to change.” The article continues with the dreary news that from thirty on, our risk of mortality doubles every seven years.

This weekend we celebrated the hundredth birthday of my longtime friend and colleague, Elizabeth Widel, who still writes a weekly newspaper column. In her usual self-effacing manner, Elizabeth dismissed the “awful lot of fuss. All I had to do was stick around.” She’s done more than that. She always has and continues to live a full and rich life. She teaches by example.

As each day dawns, I recognize I’m another day closer to dying. That may sound dismal. In fact, it’s motivating. I know I’d better make it a damn good day.

An Irony of Goodness

Families gather in the park at dusk for the “Butterfly Release” ceremony to remember loved ones

I went to watch butterflies being released. It’s an annual ceremony sponsored by our home health and hospice agency as a memorial to those who’ve died. Tiny Monarch butterflies flew free as a symbol of life’s transcendence. The ceremony was beautiful, yet I kept thinking: the irony of it all.

The event was held in our city’s newest park, a memorial to the pioneer Dalton-Klessig family. The park exists solely due to the vision of a now elderly woman named Mary, who is still very much alive but well into her journey of dementia.

Butterflies fly free

In the ’90s, two long-term care facilities for the elderly were built on the north edge of town in an area landscaped with sagebrush, tumbleweed and sand. Mary dreamed of a park designed especially for senior citizens, one with shade trees and grass, a paved pathway for wheelchairs and walkers, a gazebo, a water fountain for the disabled, even a playground for visiting grandchildren. Always a generous donor to community causes, even Mary didn’t have enough funds to buy the land and develop the park.

Pretty much out of the blue (some would recognize it as God’s hand at work), Mary was contacted by descendants of the Dalton-Klessig family. None of them live here any longer, but they wanted to donate toward a memorial to their forebears. Did Mary have a project for them!

A toddler tracks the butterflies’ flight

It wasn’t easy. There was the political hurdle, convincing the city to accept yet another park that will require ongoing upkeep and insurance. Our city is small but blessed with numerous “nuisance” parks, as one city official described the little green areas that dot our neighborhoods. In the past, the city council had refused to accept an offer of yet one more park.

Mary’s longtime service on various boards and commissions was legendary. She had political pull and prevailed. She oversaw the complexities of land purchase, planning, construction, landscaping, plus a myriad details. She invited my late husband, a wheelchair user, to inaugurate the asphalt trail.

Now Mary lives across the street from her park in an assisted-living facility. She was not at the ceremony. Whenever I talk with her about her park, she smiles vacantly, not understanding. Her inability to enjoy the fruits of her labor is, for me, salt in the bitter wound of dementia. Yet I have to consider that we all do good things, large and small. Sometimes we leave a legacy of good without even knowing it. That would be good in its truest form.