The love-hate Facebook relationship

A young friend—less than half my age—emailed a question: “What did people do before Facebook?” Her question was neither rhetorical nor sassy. She’s honestly perplexed. She doesn’t like Facebook. I don’t know her reasons; I only know my own. She was inclined to give up her Facebook account, but death, or near-death, intervened.

She and I are members of the Holden Village community, people who are scattered world-wide, whose lives intersected at one time or another at the tiny retreat center in a remote valley of the North Cascade Mountains. There are thousands of us. One is in his final stages of life. (“Cancer sucks,” he posted on Facebook not long ago.) The community has gathered to celebrate his life and immense talent, to pray and sing together, to be with him and bless him. All on Facebook.

I’ve experienced other death-watches on Facebook. It’s a privilege to add my prayers to those who are at the bedside. Our Holden community also gathered on-line recently to offer prayers and condolences when one of us was killed in a vehicle accident. I appreciate being connected with people in this intimate way when they’re thousands of miles away and suffering.

And yet.

The medium, I try to remind myself, is not the message. Because this medium—most of the various social media for that matter—is at times raucous, chaotic, hostile, and yup, offensive. Opening Facebook on my laptop is like walking into the marketplace, a bawdy, noisy free-for-all where people bump into each other, step on toes, point fingers (especially one), and settle arguments by yelling louder and longer. It’s also a place where people ecstatically share their joy, their celebrations, their loves, and their everyday lives. In other words, Facebook is everything that we are.

In the past, my young friend asked, how did people stay in touch when important events like birth and death occurred? There were, of course, telephones and the postal service. Just yesterday, as I was contemplating all this, a family member called to tell me she’s pregnant. I was grateful not to have learned this on Facebook.

But honestly, we can’t call or write everyone. When my husband died ten years ago, I would’ve thought it unseemly to post on Facebook. Yet a friend who lived elsewhere would’ve attended his memorial, if she’d only known. With Facebook we’re more connected with other people than ever. And that’s the rub. Being connected is not always comfortable.

For years I tried to pretend Facebook would fade. It hasn’t. Two billion active users, the site claims. I choose to engage for a limited amount of time each day, and I choose to empathize with each and every post I read. That is, I try to understand, with respect, what others are experiencing, what they’re feeling and needing. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes my attempt to empathize is through gritted teeth. Still, there’s a reason there are two billion of us. We really do want to connect.

Full Circle

Life has a way of coming full circle, as I was reminded while attending a funeral recently. We were celebrating the life of Clara Thorp, who’d represented goodness-on-earth for 92 years.

I met Clara decades ago when I interviewed her for a newspaper story. She was retiring after a sterling career at the local nursing home. A single mom, she’d started as an aide, got her nursing degree, and devoted her life to the elderly, the dying. Hers was one of those stories you relish writing.

As with so many others whose stories I wrote, Clara and I went on to live our separate lives. She reportedly enjoyed her retirement, though she continued to help out at the nursing home when needed. A stone marker was placed in the home’s lawn to honor her. That old building outlived its usefulness and is boarded up now, the stone marker removed. Yet legacies of love outlast even stone.

Full circle, I met up again with Clara late last year. Her final passage in this life was spent at an adult group home, where I visit most days to read aloud to my centenarian friend Elizabeth. Many—not all—of the residents are living with neurological loss: dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc. One of Clara’s daughters had copied that newspaper story from long ago and posted it on the refrigerator at the group home. It served as a daily reminder that Clara, who may’ve been confused and lost in the present, had lived a full and meaningful life of service. It had to impress those caring for Clara to know that she’d once provided the same kind of care for others and did so from her heart.

I, too, was grateful to reread that story, to remind myself of the impressive woman I’d interviewed all those years before. Though still tall and slender, the Clara I re-met was a shadow of herself. Sometimes though, a light glimmered through that shadow. Occasionally, as I read to Elizabeth, Clara would shuffle past, pause, and stoop down to straighten the blanket that covered Elizabeth’s feet.

In death, Clara left behind a large and loving family, a crowd of friends who turned out for her memorial, and something else. A vision of heaven. I usually eschew descriptions that  mere mortals try to offer of heaven or the after-life. Eternity is a promise and a mystery. I’m willing to wait for that mystery to unfold. And yet Jack Schneider, who officiated at Clara’s memorial, offered a vision that I embrace. He reflected on the people whom Clara had tended as they approached death’s door: the many—the frail and perhaps the fearful—whom she’d comforted at the end. What a crowd of hands there are, ready to lovingly welcome Clara home, Jack concluded.

And will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by?

Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

Omak Mountain hulks behind the haze of wildfire smoke

The Okanogan Valley, where I live, took a deep, collective breath yesterday and probably exhaled with a sigh. It was our first day of smoke-free air in weeks, a classic summer day, high in the 80s, blue sky, gentle breeze. Besides that, it was the day after the Omak Stampede, which informally serves as the apex of summer hilarity around here. After Stampede, we get back to business. The return to school, work, harvest, and the county fair are coming at us all too soon. The smoke was forecast to return, too.

Stampede is a mixed bag of community celebration with a professional rodeo and controversial horse race at its heart. There’s so much more—from art shows to the colorful and exotic Indian encampment, from swilling suds in a totally unglamorous beer garden to singing hymns at the Sunday morning cowboy worship service, from tubing the lazy Okanogan River to partaking of dizzying carnival rides. It’s too much for some of the citizenry, who leave town to escape the dust, crowds and craziness.

I agreed this year to volunteer for a few hours at a voter registration booth in the Indian encampment. I told a friend what I’d be doing, and she made a comment that shocked me. I know she thought she was saying something funny. What I heard was racist. I gasped and mildly chastised her.

Later, I regretted my response because I’m pretty sure she thought—if she thought about it all—that I was objecting on the basis of political correctness. I’d failed to tell her how I felt. I felt sad—sad because her comment reflected an unfair stereotype of Native Americans, sad because those stereotypes negate possibilities for compassion and connection, sad because I didn’t want to be in a position of judging or thinking less of a friend whom I admire.

Today the haze has returned to our valley, smoke from the myriad fires in British Columbia and in our own Pasayten Wilderness  to the north. A different kind of haze lies all across our country after the events in Charleston, Virginia—yet another episode in our confused desperation over our national legacy of racism. It’s a dense, smoky cloud that strangles us as we struggle to find ways to clear the air.

Yes, it matters what the President and all our leaders say from their bully pulpits. More important to me, however, is what I say. And what you say. I might have said to my friend, “Your comment was painful for me to hear. Could we talk about it so that I can understand how you truly feel?” I’ll try to remember that next time. And there will be a next time—probably not with this friend, but comments and attitudes are out there all around me. To work our way out of the blinding haze of racism—and all aspects of discrimination—will require each of us addressing it, one by one by one.

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.

From Millionaire to Medicaid

With official escort, John (in wheelchair under the red shade umbrella) leads a parade across the mile-long Grand Coulee Dam spillway

If my late husband could’ve written his memoir, the title might have been “From Millionaire to Medicaid in One Not-so-easy Stroke.” Some twenty percent of U.S. citizens access health care through Medicaid, the government program for the elderly, disabled and poor. John certainly never expected to be one of them. He was a successful, small-town newspaper publisher when he was paralyzed by a brain stem stroke at age 61. Diagnosed with “Locked-In Syndrome,” John’s fully functioning brain was locked inside a body that could not move, speak or eat.

He required skilled and vigilant care 24/7. He was fed through a stomach tube. A tracheotomy tube protected his airways. He communicated by blinking his eyes, using a simple alphabet code. We were determined that he would live at home, not in a facility. We had good insurance, but insurance doesn’t cover everything and eventually benefits run out.

We sold our newspaper—the beloved business that had brought us together and been our shared life—for a million dollars and change. I spent it all. I spent it on paid caregivers, reducing my caregiving load to only 80 or 90 hours a week. I spent it on assistive devices—everything from a talking computer to a specially designed shower chair. I spent it on physical, occupational and speech therapy. Daily therapy motivated John to live.

There’s a medical myth that stroke survivors “plateau” or stop recovering anywhere from six months to two years after the event. Seven years after his stroke, John was finally able to steer his electric wheelchair, leading a parade of friends and family across the mile-long spillway of Grand Coulee Dam. It was a publicity stunt to dramatize the importance of long-term therapy for stroke survivors. John’s determination drew national media attention.

Ultimately our money ran out. It’s been well established that medical bills are the chief reason for family bankruptcy in the United States. I knew of broken-hearted spouses who were forced into so-called “Medicaid divorces,” the only way they could get care for their loved ones. We escaped both bankruptcy and divorce with the help of an adept attorney. When I expressed embarrassment to a social worker about receiving state aid, she contrasted what we were receiving to what it would cost to put John in a nursing home, where nearly two-thirds of Medicaid patients live.

“The state’s getting a bargain,” she said.

Nearly fourteen years after his stroke, John died of respiratory failure. He did not leave a wealthy widow, but those fourteen years were the richest time of my life.

Because of today’s political climate, Medicaid cutbacks are apparently inevitable. Under proposed legislation, they won’t be immediate. It’s more like the proverbial frog who sits calmly in warm water on the stove. When the water ultimately gets too hot, it’ll be too late. We’re all going to feel it in when we reduce what is already minimal care for our poor, disabled and elderly.

Hot and tired, John and Sadie after the Grand Coulee Dam publicity stunt

Park It Here

RV Park in Clear Lake, Iowa. No extra charge for Sunday services.

Like a turtle, I drive across the country within the shell of my abode. At the end of the day, I have to hunker down somewhere in my camper/van. I have yet to hang out with other RVs in a Wal-Mart parking lot. That’s called dry camping — relying on your vehicle for power and water. My vehicle has the capacity, but I lack the audacity. I prefer snuggling up with other rigs in the tight quarters of an RV park just so I can plug into that lifeline that RVers call “shore power.”

I’ve paid anywhere from zero to $49 for an overnight stay. The latter sounds like a lot, but RVers in those big fancy rigs expect a lot in addition to basic water, power and sewer: wi-fi, a full spectrum of TV channels, swimming pool, game room, miniature golf, laundry, etc. Some parks won’t accept rigs older than 10 years. Mine is a 1996 Dodge — usually the oldest and smallest outfit in the park. I’ve never been turned away, because—explained one park employee—I stay only one night.

At the high end are the KOAs—the Holiday Inn Express for RVs. You always know what to expect at a KOA. There’ve been a few long days of driving when I’ve been darned glad to land at a KOA. More often, I look forward to a certain element of surprise that independent parks offer. Why else bother to travel?

I rely quite a bit on the RV community, which reviews parks at various sites online. The reviews often tell as much about the reviewer as the park. I’m amused by RVers who want easy access to the park but in the next sentence complain about freeway noise. If I end up near a freeway, I just close my eyes at night and pretend the roar of vehicles is the pounding of surf on an ocean beach.

One of my favorite places this trip was an old park with new owners in Waco, Nebraska. It’s a mom and pop operation—a couple in their 30s or so. They bought the place, said the dad, “because the location was right, the price was right and it was so terrible I wouldn’t let my own family stay here.” They’re well along in fixing it up. They assigned me a spot where I drank in the view of pond and neighboring golf course while sitting in one of several old-fashioned, wooden porch swings that the owner and his dad made.

The most iconoclastic find was Oakwood RV Park in Clear Lake, Iowa, where amenities included a country church, built in 1890 and still active. I wasn’t there on a Sunday, but the park brochure informed me services are held at 9 a.m. Park brochures list various rules, usually about quiet hours and keeping dogs on leash. This one added, “Please don’t feed the chickens.”

Last night I pulled into my favorite park of all. After 5,063 miles, it’s good to be home.

Traveling Companions

Tawny (left) and Daphne at our campsite on the bank of the Ohio River

“Oh, you have dogs!” the woman exclaimed with a combined tone of relief and comprehension. She’d been walking purposefully toward my campsite in a crowded RV park when she spotted my dogs, Daphne, the aging black lab mix, and Tawny, the adolescent every-breed mix.

About my age, Joan from Pennsylvania had spotted me an hour earlier as I was checking into the park. She and her sister were traveling cross-country in a camper van the same size as mine but much newer. She immediately wanted to know how an older woman dared to be on the road by herself. When she saw the dogs, she quickly understood.

It’s true that the dogs provide a sense of security, both at home and on the road. They’re friendly, yet they have loud barks that might ward off danger. Their companionship is far more valuable than just the warning bark. A person who lives alone, and especially a person who travels alone, is in danger of becoming totally self-absorbed. Tending to dogs doesn’t allow that. Their needs have to be addressed first thing when I get up in the morning, last thing before I go to bed and throughout the day. On the road, when I’m tempted to pass up rest stops so I can clock more miles, I know they need the break, so I stop. In truth, I probably need the break more than they.

Today as I drove, I managed to find a public radio station amidst the FM static and heard a report about a new study that determined dog owners in their 60s and older walk more than non-dog owners. Another study by the American Heart Association concludes dog ownership probably leads to a lower risk of Cardio Vascular Disease.

Most of all, dogs are bridge builders. They inevitably spark conversations with strangers who want to pet them and know more about them, who want to tell you about their dogs. The other morning, in a crowded campground, a toddler had his first opportunity in his short life to pet a dog. He fondled Tawny’s silken ear, to the delight of them both.

Driving, living, eating, and sleeping in an 18-by-8 foot space with two large dogs does not make for a pristine environment. Both dogs shed. I could sweep and vacuum on a daily basis, but I’ve given up. I’ve adjusted to the fact that I’m privileged to be traveling in a four-wheeled dog kennel with air conditioning, running water and canine companions.


Driving through the Badlands on paved roads–almost too easy.

If you want to get to the Badlands of South Dakota in the worst way, I can tell you how. First, however, I must say that the Badlands are badly named. The designation apparently originated with natives, because the harsh environment was not favorable to subsistence living. For the 21st century traveler, however, venturing through the massive, wind sculpted formations with their brilliant coloring is like entering a grand cathedral, hand-designed by the Creator.

But I digress, and because as a traveller I am prone to digression, I also get lost—at least once a day. My GPS voice has adopted an exasperated and sometimes irritated tone as it instructs, “Make a u-turn …”

I favor roads less traveled by and that, as Robert Frost advised, makes all the difference. In my case, the difference between smooth sailing from Point A to Point B at 70 mph on the Interstate, as opposed to rumbling across gravel, washboard roads while choking on dust at 15 mph tops. That’s the worst way to get to the Badlands.

I’ve driven through the Badlands in the past. This trip I wanted more time and fewer crowds. I consulted a map—never a good idea—and found a two-lane highway that would take me into Badlands National Park from the rear. Not only that, I spotted a gravel road that would cut off a number of miles. You can always count on a shortcut to extend travel time. The road was so rough, everything inside my van shook. The vehicle has been quivering ever since. When I finally reached blacktop, I wanted to jump out, get on me knees and kiss it.

My proclivity for misdirection landed me onto another gravel road in Indiana. I was headed for Harmonie State Park, only I wasn’t. One of my problems is an inability to cut my losses. When I’m on the wrong road, I stubbornly stick with it until I can’t go any further. In this case, I ended up in someone’s backyard. I was turning around, being careful not to hit the owner’s truck when I heard a bang. I’d knocked over a portable basketball hoop that was in my blind spot.

The owner came charging out of his house followed by his wife. He immediately pointed out that the post was rusted at the bottom, had long been a goner, his grandkids hadn’t used it in years, and was my van OK. Then we had a long chat about their visit to Washington state a few years back and various other topics. Do you want my insurance information, I asked. He guffawed at the idea and waved me back up the gravel road to the park, which had a paved road.

They were the first two people I met in Indiana, and they surely gave me a grand welcome to their state. If I hadn’t been lost, I would’ve missed it.