Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Old Age part 4--Laying down the sabre of personal rectitude

Everyone is born with a certain personality.  As a psychologist I know you can trim the neurotic edges, and make them more adaptable, but you never change them. Whatever personality type they exhibited in their first year-- they will have for the rest of their lives. Therapy can transform people's functionality and perception of self but not their personalities.

Many of us who were given the argumentative type of personality have tried to quell it over the years. Usually there is a lot of pressure to, as my mother said, "tone it down." She repeatedly said, "So you are right, it doesn't matter, just get along. It doesn't matter in the long run."   What planet was she from?

Because hyperactive and other labels weren't  common parlance in the 1950's I was just called "busy, bossy and Irish." All Irish people know the joke, What is  Irish Alzheimer's? You forget everything but the grudges. In my Catholic school everyone was given a nickname. Usually it was a saint we had all prayed to.  for example-- Some forgiving kind boy was called St. Francis.  I, however, defied the saint category and was called Perry Mason (a defence attorney in a 1950's  T.V. courtroom drama) even by the principal.  I used to raise my hand, walk to the front of the class and, with arms behind me, outline why the rules in the playground should be more equitable. (You get the picture.)

I think people are given personalities from somewhere-- God alone, knows where, and then humans develop traits to augment their personality's effectiveness. I have always been really good at arguing. I have a good memory and am good on my feet. I like to organize facts and present them cogently.  Before I went to school, I lined up my dolls to listen to my rules for my swing set. 

This got me nowhere in Catholic school. When I argued about free will (a philosophical enigma I thought I'd solved) I was dubbed a "Doubting Thomas." If I got really inflamed over, say, unfair privileges of the older grade fives, I was called a devil or told to take my forked tongue and slither back to the garden of Eden.

However, by the time I hit high school (no longer Catholic -- we'd had a non-amicable parting of the ways), my methodical recall, clear outline of facts, plus my forceful presentation were admired by some. In fact, I was on the debating team in high school and university. 

That kind of forceful personality works wonders in the workplace as no one wants to go against you, but it can wreak havoc in your personal life. You can outline a totally rational, lengthy argument to your children, and they say things like "I don't care." You can do the same with your husband and he, like Kellyanne Conway, said during a Meet the Press interview, "I have alternative facts."

As the years spin by you realize that holding grudges and spewing facts was not gaining me family peace or personal equanimity. You could win the argument, but lose the war. Plus, grudges take up a huge amount of memory storage that could be more effectively used. 

Therefore, in my forties and fifties, I made all kinds of efforts to change my basic personality style from angry fact spewer (everyone said I was born to be a litigator) to warm acceptor.  I read books from The dance of Anger to Hannah Arendt's The Origin of Totalitarianism, took courses, tried meditation, yoga, and even a Chinese Herbalist.  Nothing worked. Why? : Several reasons. My personality was cut in stone and I was good at it. Cutting through another person's argument with facts and a bit of humour was my raison d'ĂȘtre. Sometimes I would come home very cheerful and my husband would actually say, "Who did you fight with today?"  It is hard to give up something that you enjoy and gives you an endorphin high. 

The one thing that changed me or trimmed my edges was old age.  I was knocked off my pedestal in my seventies. I was no longer so perfect at the art of verbal defence.  I didn't always have facts at my fingertips. I would have to search my brain and sometimes that information would not pop into my head until hours after the debate.  I had lost my sword. Instant recall requires a non-aging memory. Humour takes spontaneity and if you know what you want to say and it is funny, it has to be recalled and said in exactly the right moment. There is a lot that goes into a funny story and slow recall ruins the joke. Split-timing  is the backbone of humour.

So what is there left to do when your major defences, instant recall and humour are compromised? You have no choice. You have to become a different, nicer person, one who listens to others instead of mustering their own opinions. It is amazing what a good listener you can become, if you are not organizing your own argument in your head while they are speaking. 

Parenting, grand-parenting, and marriage are easier since there is nothing to argue about. They say how they want to do things and I agree. It is too hard and fraught with mishap to argue. When a friend tells me something she has done, instead of saying what's wrong with her idiotic decision, I say, "That's what you needed to do. I get it." and I really did get it. Facts are over rated.

I was recently at a funeral of a friend and ran into someone I used to know twenty years ago and I'd forgotten why we lost touch.  I was so happy to see her and we chatted amiably for a long time and agreed to get together. On my way home my husband said he was so happy to see my talking to my old friend and not holding a grudge. He said the "old you" would have cut her dead after she said that rubbish about your memoir."  

I was enraged. I yelled , "Oh my God, I  forgot she did that. I'll never speak to her again." but I'll probably forget and resume the friendship. The deficits  of old age has forced me to drop my sabre. The "collateral damage" is I am a happier, nicer person.


old age part 3 -- a free agent

Although each aspect of old age has it downsides, it  has some major upsides. The best feature by far is  being a free agent. That feature  is  pure Nirvana. You are no longer a machine with parts, you are a complete human.  You are no longer just "tits and ass". You no longer have raging hormones controlling you like your period or PMS or menopause. You no longer have to reproduce and all that is involved with it.  You no longer are on the front line of motherhood-- remember when you felt guilty if you weren't actively parenting? Remember when you came last, after work  ( the deadlines), parenting, (organizing the birthday parties) and being a wife (going to his annual Christmas party, or worse--having to have it.)

 You don’t have to worry about marriage or divorce. That is now a done deal—one way or the other. You no longer have to raise teenagers. You have put in your time with soccer teams, school projects, and hoping that the kids will become solid citizens, or at least self-sufficient. You no longer have to work (in most cases) and have to answer to a boss or the market. 

You don’t even  have to make dinner. If you want popcorn for dinner you can have it. If you have a husband he can share the bowl.  After unending years of responsibility, you are now a free agent.  Bob Dylan’s famous song, Gotta Serve Somebody, should be revised to exclude old people.

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage
 You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage
 You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
 They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief

 But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
 You’re gonna have to serve somebody
 Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
 But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

 If you have your health and enough money to get by on, ( two big ifs)   you are not responsible for or to anyone. For the first time in your life – you are not going to have to serve anyone.

Friday, October 25, 2019

old age part 2 -- Invisibility -- pros and cons

Remember when you were young and the world noticed you – like way too much? I'm 71 and have forgotten most things, but I definitely remember construction workers whistling.  I also remember driving in the family impala convertible with the top down, radio blaring The Temptations, while my long blonde hair flowed in the breeze. I was stopped by the police at least once a month-- "just to check my license ." If you cut out the nostalgia, and really examine what was called “unwanted male attention" in the 50's and 60's, it might now be called harassment. The term didn't exist in the 50's.  It was just "men!" Or my mother would say, "He's a real skirt chaser-- so watch out!"

It's over--invisibility has set in. It started in my fifties, so beware of the transition from the forties. It takes at least a decade to set in.  Mine started when I was 51, when I overheard two construction workers in my kitchen say, "I'll bet she was somethin'."  Did he say "was"? The past tense hit me like a brick had been thrown at my aging face. Now at 71 I've settled into invisibility. I now have fully accepted that I am as invisible as Harvey the Rabbit, but it was a slow meandering journey between 50 and 70.

The other day I was in my local coffee shop that I have visited daily for years. A woman in her twenties was in front of me and the barista said, “Brittany, I missed you yesterday.” He asked plaintively as though he'd been pining, "Where were you?”  When I got to the front of the line, I said "Hi Jose.” I’ve been in Germany for four weeks but I’m back for a latte. He looked up, smiled and said, “Oh, I didn’t notice you were gone. Welcome back!” 

The scene is a lot like the scene in the often cringingly unfunny TV showFrankie and Grace, with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. There is one funny scene where they are ignored by the male convenience store clerk while trying to buy cigarettes. All of his attention is diverted to an 18-year- old girl in a halter top. Eventually Grace screams that they are not invisible. Frankie extracts revenge by stealing the cigarettes, saying if she is invisible why should she pay.

When I was 60 and my invisibility was approaching the levels on the Topper show (if you get that reference you are the right demographic for this article), I was getting ready for a relative's wedding. I tried on high heels and also flats and asked my three sons which looked better. One said, “Mom, just wear what’s comfortable. No one is looking at you.” The other two nodded in sage agreement. This was 10 years ago when I was 60 so I was shocked. I didn’t know I was past looking at. It took my breath away.

Gradually by age 70, I had done a complete turnaround and found relief in my invisibility. I cut my hair so I didn’t need to blow it dry and let it go white, threw out my high heels, and only bought shoes that had support and were comfortable. I hate shopping so I gave it up. Now I wear hiking gear or exercise suits. With no one looking I gave up expensive cosmetics and facials. On a good day, I just wash my face and I wear makeup from the drug store – but only for major occasions. If I want dessert, I eat it.  If I get an invitation for a dinner or wedding and it says “formal attire,” I just wear what I wore to the last formal occasion, because no one will notice I am wearing it again.  I no longer feel I have something to prove. Invisibility is freeing while simultaneously being relaxing. When designer Karl Lagerfeld said "Sweatpants are a sign of defeat," I thought they were a sign of heroic independence. I was no longer dependent on Karl Lagerfeld for low cut, short shirt, high-heeled fashion advice. 

Invisibility also aids in relationships with the opposite sex. For example, when a man asked for directions when I was a 20-year-old 5'8" willowy blonde with waist length hair, chances are he had another agenda. It was, as Darwin said, the jungle of sexual selection. It was up to me to figure out who was a predator and who was not. It was a nerve-wracking procedure which led to tumultuous feelings swinging from  naivetĂ© and paranoia. Now, since mating is essentially over, I have lots of male friends of all ages that I never could have had when I was young. It would have been too risky. 

Now when a man asks me for directions, I know he is actually lost.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Old Age-Part 1 On the road with Selective Attention Deficit.

Aging can creep up on you ( see cartoon). I have been ensconced in my home writing my book,  Good Morning Monster, for the last five years-- which takes me from 66-71 years of age. As a writer, you do the same routine everyday; as long as you stay in your deeply dug groove from home to Starbucks, you don't notice any mental deterioration in your small world.   The book I was writing is about my 25 years as a psychologist.  The information I needed was not new and I could recall it as easy as falling off a log. Therefore I didn't have to contend with new learning.

Now with the book finished, Penguin said it was  time for me to go out  in the big world and market the book.  I was booked all over and I had nary a worry. I jaunted about about without a qualm because I feel I have always been 'good on my feet' .

I hit the wall on my first gig in front of over a hundred people. Old people have trouble with selective attention. It is a little like a geriatric version of ADD. When I was alone in my 3rd floor study writing with no one ever disturbing me I had no idea I was now prone to distraction-- enough to knock me off my game. I wasn't  used to it.

I was in the middle of my  new speech since this was the first stop on my media tour.  A member of the audience  was late and flounced down the aisle and collapsed in a chair in the first row.   I looked up focusing on her for a fraction of a second and then lost  track of what I was saying. This had never happened to me before in my entire life. If it did happen, I recovered before anyone noticed. Suddenly, I  had every public speakers worst nightmare. I totally lost the plot. I felt my face get hot and my heart pounded as hundreds of eyes were upon me.

A lot can go through your mind in a few seconds. I thought, I could fake it-- but it would be a stretch-- or I could confess -- a little too Catholic;  or I could make a joke-- too Chris Rock. I decided since I am a lapsed Catholic who enjoys humour-- I'd opt for honesty, humour  and draw in the audience.

I looked out at a tsunami of grey hair said, "Thank God you are mostly women of a certain age.  Where was I before the late arrival from Beelzebub?" I said  comically glaring at the late arrival.  "Remember  Hillary said, "'it takes a village'."  What would I do if you weren't here-- probably wander home in a daze and when the police stopped me I'd say I was Melania Trump." Everyone laughed and one or two people yelled out what I had been talking about. I said, "What about the rest of you? Distracted?" Everyone laughed and we moved on. It set a relaxed pace for the rest of the talk. I felt the audience was with me or as they say 'had my back'.

I came upon this solution spontaneously, but  I wanted to share it with other old people. Just be relaxed and honest. Throw in some humour if you can.  The axiom is people respond to the mood of the speaker, not the words.  If you are humiliated by memory loss, the audience will be as well. If you are relaxed and act like it is one of the routine  bumps of old age, they will feel that way as well.

 Practical Remedy
What to do about selective attention deficit ( getting distracted).? Prepare to lose your train of thought sometimes. Now when I give a speech I have the key word in each  each paragraph highlighted in yellow. I keep my finger on it till I move to the next paragraph. That way if someone interrupts me,  I have a grounding. When people from the audience ask questions and I give a long discursive answer,  I have learned  to ask before moving on to another question, "Did I answer your question?"

All old age mental deficits  have a down side, but they all have an upside.
Sure, we all agree that it can shake your confidence to have lost  some concentration. However, the upside is that I am old enough to remember things that are now historical. In the content of my talk I  describe patients I have almost half a century ago. For example,  Danny, the native patient in my book, was a  child trapper before school was mandatory. He was taken out of the Tundra to go to  Residential school.  He was my patient in the early 80's and I was able to hear first hand what happened to him when he was taken from his family. I could report details that  few people are alive to tell.  When I gave a talk to a high school they all knew of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, but were fascinated to hear my details of the past told in a present tense.

You know your old when...
 I found my 1950's childhood memoir, Too Close to the Falls, in the history section at Indigo. I informed the salesman I was still alive and perhaps he should move it to the memoir section. He looked at me and said with a certain amount of doubt. "Yup.  I guess you're still alive."

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The yin and yang of Leipzig

         I am here in Leipzig, East Germany to tag along to my husband’s medical convention of 5000 international radiologists. (They all look perilously alike. They all share one trait. They wanted to be doctors but never see patients.( Picture a town flooded with said individuals.) I am an historical artifact called the The-wife-traveling-with-her-working-husband. I am actually old enough to remember fifty years ago when they used to have a "wives program" at doctors' conventions. While the men went to the conference, a social coordinator  arranged activities for the wives, like a day trip down the Rhine. Now the idea of the wives’ program is completely dead in the water. It is a quaint relic.  Nearly half of the radiologists under forty are women and the wives of male radiologists have their own jobs and can’t be tagging along on their husbands’ coattails. I am a writer and can do my work anywhere so, to my husband's chagrin, I accompanied him. 

         I was interested to see what has actually happened in East Germany since the wall fell. Not many people visit it and instead focus on Berlin and the West. I was a psychologist in a previous lifetime, before I ran out of empathy, and what interests me more than the modernization of East Germany is their cultural psyches. My one week as a cultural sleuth revealed the following. The Germans are a mass of contradictions. While on the one hand they are totally rule oriented to the point of anal retention, on the one hand, they do things that even in North America would be considered wild or at least edgy. As Freud says the tighter you are wound the more you have to break out. Let’s start with the tighter and then loosen up.

         My husband was administered a giant badge the size of legal paper on a rope to wear around his neck to prove he was registered at the conference. The badge is so large it looks like a tag you would put on a child with his name on it if you sent him alone to an unknown city. The convention literature says you must wear your badge at all time and you may not lose it; they will not be replaced and you will not be admitted without it. If you do lose your badge, the committee advises you not come to the desk for a replacement. Result: 5000 radiologists have not lost their badges and wear them at all times even though they look a bit slow travelling around town with giant name tags that blow in the wind.

Cups at our hotel
         In the morning you can buy a breakfast which has horrible sausage and other animal organs drooping off trays. I skipped the whole animal fest and went to the connecting lounge where they have free coffee and tea in the morning and then I waited to eat lunch at a restaurant  where I was not chained to some strange derma. They have paper cups for the lobby and real china cups for the breakfast room. In reality, it is all one big room. I took a china cup and filled it  with tea from the free drinks in the lobby. It was almost noon and the breakfast had been closed for hours.  A waitress came dashing over saying that I could not use a china cup from that end of the lobby since I missed breakfast. I apologized and said I would use paper in the future if I didn’t buy breakfast. As I settled down to have my tea and to puruse the Leipziger Newspaper, she continued to loom over me. Finally, I looked up and said, “yes?”  Then she went and got a paper cup and poured my tea from the china cup to the paper cup saying, “I am only doing my job.”

The sneeze
One day in the lobby I sneezed a few times and the clerk at the desk said, “Gesundheit.”  I said to her and to anyone in the lobby who could hear me, “Isn’t it weird that Gesundheit is a universal term for sneezing. Why would that one German word be used all over the world for sneezing? She looked at me for a long moment and then said, “That is not my job. I am to help you with  directions.” The other people in the lobby just busied themselves with their devices acting as though I was either  thought disordered or demanding. 

Elevator at the art gallery
         I was in an art gallery —no one does modern grotesque like the Germans.  They can really capture psychological terror.(See picture below.) This is only part of a much larger sculpture of hanging people.) I was in a huge elevator with an entire class of seven year olds. One chubby boy said to me in a thick accent, “Hello woman!” and the others giggled. The teacher shook her head in horror as  though he’d brandished a gun. When they got off the elevator quietly in orderly fashion, a woman next to me, who clearly worked at the Gallery, said by way of apology for such profound rudeness, “Children do not behave as they once did.” I was shocked as I thought they were perfectly behaved and said so. I said, “You should see children in North America. She said, "Really!" she could not imagine worse than what she'd witnessed. I felt like mailing her in a crate to New York school for a day. 

There were numerous incidents like this all day long. Just when I was convinced that the East Germans were trapped in elaborate rules, I saw the other end of the spectrum of equally wild, adventurous behaviour--things that would be edgy even in North America.

         Dinner in the dark
         I went to a restaurant called Mondshein by our hotel to scope  it out for dinner while my husband was still at his conference. The woman spoke English. ((Very few people speak English in the East German city of Leipzig— unlike West Germany, especially Berlin where nearly everyone speaks it.) I was desperate for someone to talk to so we started chatting. She said their restaurant was only for people who want to eat in the dark. I had to enter the pitch-black dining room by putting my arm on her shoulder and then we stumbled into darkness. You could not even see a shadow. All the waiters were blind. The first thing I asked was, “Does this have to do with sex?” Then I added in order to normalize myself, “Probably everyone asks that.”  She said, “You are the first ever to ask that.” (Oops. I was weird yet again.) When I asked the point of the darkness, she said it was a new movement to enhance taste by cutting out the other senses. You have no idea what you are eating. They present a four-course meal. After the meal you go into a lighted lounge and tell the hostess what you thought you ate. She said usually people are way off. They have no idea how to pair their tastes to the actual dish. Literally they don’t know fish from fowl. Apparently, when you have to block some senses, the others are enhanced and the food taste is augmented. She said that there are several “dark” restaurants in Germany and a few in Berlin (of course). When I asked what kind of person comes to such a  restaurant she said they are average people of all classes and all ages (20s to 70s).  I told her my husband of 48 years would never buy into dark dining. When he got back from his conference, and I told him about it he said, “Let’s go!” Guess I don’t know him very well!

         Our hotel lacks common amenities such as a concierge, a phone, and a restaurant that does not include body organs,  but is replete with a sink that lights up in green and a bathtub that also lights up in green and is a spike heel in the middle of our room. I kid you not.

A hotel near us that I checked out on line is, in my humble opinion, the Wurst hotel ever. It is all based on a sausage theme and the restaurant has  every imaginable, and unimaginable sausage. The pillows alone are a derma nightmare.

Wonderland 13 Wicked Wear
         ‘Naughty' clothing stores are everywhere. In Wonderland 13 Wicked Wear the clothing didn’t look that edgy to me. It resembled peasant blouses with laced bustiers and dirndls in red and black. They have high heeled red shoes that lace up with open toes. In reality it you bought into this ’naughty’ clothing you’d look like a waitress at any one of the Hungarian restaurants in Toronto. The website says “expressions of your lifestyle with a wink" I told the proprietor I didn’t get it and she said only, “You’re not German.”  She had that right.

         So there you have it. The yin and yang of the German psyche.  However if you simply focus on the German psyche alone, you will miss what is amazing about Leipzig. The German people are talented and just looking at the history of Leipzig you get a taste of it.  Unlike Toronto where I am from, in Leipzig you have written history dating back to the 10th century. Musical genius alone claims Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn-- all living in Leipzig! Leipzig University started in 1409. In 1519 Luther started the reformation and in 1539 the people of Leipzig became Lutheran.
          We went to a service where Johann Sebastian Bach was music director from 1723 until his death in 1750.  He was ‘directed' to come up with new music every week for the service and he composed  it  weekly for years on end! It was like my husband's conference badges, there was no way to object! 
         We had a great time going to an underground restaurant called the Auerbach Kellor. Goethe, the great writer, was a regular at the cellar while studying at the university from 1765 to 1768. He saw a wood block hanging in the restaurant on the wall of Faust causing an uproar rolling on a barrel. This woodcut inspired Goethe to write Faust. The basement tavern has all kinds of frescoes from scenes of Goethe’s Faust

When I was taking the picture below of Faust, it was behind a table of Japanese male  students who were at a computer conference. They wanted to know why they all had to get up so I could take the picture. I explained why Goethe was famous and the  figure in red in the picture was the devil. I asked them if it's a good idea to sell your soul for eternal youth and worldly  goods as  Faust  had done. One earnest, black suited, be-speckled  twenty-year-old looked at me and said he’d sell his youth today for middle age and prestige and all the others agreed.  I was surpised by his response but  admired his honestly. 

During the war the restaurant was used as a bomb shelter and after the war it was used by the authorities to hand out food stamps. 

The fall of the wall began in a church in Leipzig, with peaceful protest. Everyone was shocked that  the wall came down without  violence as the cold  war began to thaw.  I remember Walter Cronkite showing the crumbling wall on CBS News in  1991. We all  wondered what  these East Germans, who have  been walled  off  from  the west, would  be  like  when they emerged from their dreary soviet block buildings.  I  noticed that whenever  I talked to a German on this trip, they dated things  by 'before' and 'after'  the  wall.  None of the irony was lost on me that now,  nearly thirty years  later, we in the west,  discuss  "walls"  daily in the news.

 Like every other city I have been to in Germany, there is a Holocaust museum or memorial. Germans have done an amazing job covering what happened to the Jews during the war. You could never say they have buried that history. In fact it is in your face in every city and it is always done well. The memorial in Leipzig is simple but effective. It is called 140 Empty Chairs. Each chair stands for 100 Jews who used to pray in this spot where their synagogue used to stand. 14,000 Jews from Leipzig were sent to Buchanwald concentration camp and killed. The memorial is not in a tourist area but in a plain neighbourhood of apartment buildings so that whenever anyone of a thousand people open their shades they see it. Here is a picture taken from someone renting a 6th floor apartment. 

 As I look around me, I realized that almost no one now has  lived through the war. You’d have to be in your middle 80’s’.  It’s gone from current event to history in my life time.  I remember when I came here in my 20’s, fifty years ago, you saw wounded retired soldiers limping around every town square in leather shoes and vests. Now fifty years later you see everyone in Nikes with a cell phone.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Writing an Historical Novel :the Underground Railroad

I am having a new experience. That alone is a joy at the age 70. I am writing an historical novel! (One of my sons said I am so old my three memoirs are now historical.) It’s a big undertaking but it keeps my mind alive.
 I did, in fact, already write somewhat of a historical novel in 1985 called SEDUCTION about Darwin and Freud. Although it was placed in a modern setting, it explored Darwin and Freud through their letters and writings. In this novel it is truly historical as it is about the Underground Railroad and takes place years 1815-1860.
 I don’t have a title yet. I was thinking of UNDERGROUND since it works for everyone in the novel—both slaves and abolitionists. We all have feelings that have gone underground as in unconscious things and secrets that we won’t reveal as well as the actual Underground Railroad. So that title would work on many levels.
I have wanted to write this book since I was a little girl. I grew up in Lewiston, New York, which was one of the hubs for the Underground Railroad since it is a border town on the Niagara River. It was the last stop on the Underground Railway since it was on the American border.  All that was left was to row across the river to freedom in Canada. I could see Canada from my U.S. home when I was a child.
New York State has dedicated a statue to Lewiston’s work on the Underground Railroad and placed it at the spot where the slaves crossed the River to freedom. This statue is one block from where I grew up. (See the picture below of me standing in front of the statue on the riverbank.)

The house I grew up in was built soon after the revolutionary war and billeted soldiers in the war of 1812. My relatives lived there for over 200 years and were active in the Underground Railroad in its heyday.  On some of the timber beams in the basement people, presumably slaves, who were hidden there, have etched their initials. I grew up with these stories and their embellishments that have turned into Lewiston legends.
When I started the book I had no idea how hard it was to write an historical novel. In my memoirs I could write almost everything from memory. (My husband calls me an idiot savant since I can remember what I wore to my 8th birthday party but not my present cell number.) Remembering the local and national politics was a piece of cake since I lived through them from the 50’s to the present.
My protagonist, named Lydia, is going to run the Frontier House Tavern and hotel in Lewiston as a cover for her Underground Railroad work. She is a partner with a black woman named Hazelon. One is the cook, the other works the bar and together they own the hotel.
Lewiston, now a sleepy town, was bigger than Niagara Falls and Buffalo in the 1800’s. So anyone who was anyone (as my mother would have said) who wanted to see Niagara Falls had to stay in Lewiston at the Frontier House. (See picture of Frontier House. The records show Mark Twain, Dickens, De witt Clinton, Lafayette, Henry Clay all stayed there—and the who’s who goes on.) James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Spy in Lewiston and included the Lewiston barmaid as a character. It is a daunting but fascinating task for me to find a way to tie all this history into one novel. (The Frontier House was built in  1824 and is still standing. See picture. This is only the upper half.)

As I began writing I realized –oh my God these people at the bar have to have conversation! What will they talk about? I had to read history books to know what happened in the antebellum era.  In order to have chatter at the bar and to reveal the characters in the town, I had to know this history enough to make banter. That means I had to know it as though I’d lived through it.  America grew to four times it size, slavery was debated, Indians were run off their land and “Jacksonian Democracy” (ironic term since it didn’t include women, blacks natives, or landless whites) took over.
Also how did people get around? Does my protagonist jump on a horse or what? In 1830 she took a stage coach, by 1840 their were no stage coaches and she took a train.
What did she wear? I have had to go to costume museums and study what undergarments were worn and what was in style and what was out of style.  If you want to describe someone as out of date in their apparel, you have to know what year men stopped wearing breeches. I know exactly what the 1980's shoulder pads looked like but the corsets of the 1830’s threw me. I had to learn women couldn’t take deep breaths in them and had to pant shallowly so their breasts would flutter.  With the smallest exertion you could feel faint. You had to carry smelling salts in small vials that were covered with the same fabric as the dress.
In my ignorance, I, As Blanche said in A Street Car Named Desire, I had to “count on the kindness of strangers.” I went to Lewiston nearly sixty years after I left there (I now live in Toronto) and knocked on the door of the Tryon House that was the most famous station on the Underground Railroad. It is located on the steep bank of the river and there are three hidden basements that go down to the river’s edge where slaves were hidden.  Often run-aways were hidden for months until the ice broke on the lake. Remember there were whirlpools and strong currents as it was not that far from the falls. It was less than a kilometer to get across and only fourteen miles away in St. Catherine’s lived Harriet Tubman. (See picture below of back of the house with all the basements to the river.)

This is the first time I have had to collaborate. I have probably lived in my own head for way too long. (Only child writes in her Third floor garret for 50 years. Picture a white haired loony like Mr. Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre.)  Three things shocked me in this collaboration. I was surprised by how much information there is on every tiny thing that ever happened in the past and how much controversy there is over every historical event. Secondly, I was taken aback by how many people are fascinated by local history. For example one amateur historian has sent me all kinds of information on trains used to get up the steep escarpment. Another couple dressed in period attire and enacted a short play with abolitionist dialogue for me down by the river. Thirdly, I am bowled over by how kind people are in the donating of their time. People have opened their historical homes, their minds and have given unflinchingly of their time and copy machines. The local historians have researched all the transportation for me, and the town council members and history volunteers have unearthed reams of data. The Lewiston Librarian knows every pertinent document available from the 1800’s. When I arrived she had it all packaged for me. She even has the deeds to the original family homes. People who have lived in the village for generations have passed down tales to their children and their children have gotten wind of my  project emailed their lore to me.
I think Hillary Clinton was right when she said, “It takes a Village.”

Monday, March 19, 2018


If you think you have nothing left to learn at age seventy-—think again. I learned two invaluable lessons this week while vacationing in Mexico. It took an emergency for me to absorb them.For the last three years we have opted to find housing through airbnb in our trips to San Miguel, Mexico. Each year it has worked beautifully. Until this year.
Two days ago we jumped across the dog crap on the sidewalk and entered our rental apartment for the first time  that was misportrayed on line. The pictures were totally deceiving. In fact it was not that much cheaper than the near palace we had last year. We were sent the keys by mail. We discovered the place was tiny, dirty and  had no essentials like toilet paper, towels, hair dryer, front door that closed, and storage space (nearly all the cupboards were  padlocked) we tried to find a phone number. Finally we found one on a dirty scrap of paper affixed to the fridge. When we called we found out we were talking to a person in California who was not the owner. She leases for the season and has sublet to us. (She rents for six months and our two weeks of high season is paying for her whole stay!) The real owner owns sixty apartments and is a slum landlord who lives in San Miguel. He does not answer his phone.( Of course.) The sublet person blamed all the problems on the cleaning lady who was non existnet.
The person who sublet to us  demanded all the money up front for our two week stay. The owner is a big conglomerate and big conglomerates have big lawyers. We were screwed. We came face to face with the downside of Airbnb. Suddenly a hotel sounded perfect but it was too late. Everything for a fifty miles radius was full. You think this is bad. just wait!
The next day I was in my underwear (sorry for T.M.I. but a necessary part of the story) reading in bed. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion and a whooshing sound like standing next to Niagara Falls and then the room was engulfed with the smell of gas. My husband, fully clothed and reading in the living room, screamed, “Gas explosion. Major gas leak, Get out now!” My husband who is never melodramatic (that is my department) screamed, “Now, now, it is going to blow up any second and we could die!” As he was thundering down the stairs and gas was buzzing in my ears and filling my lungs I was struck with a dilemma. Did I want to die in this gas explosion or run out in the busiest street in San Miguel at the age of seventy in my white underpants and bra. Of course everyone over fifty knows the choice in this dilemma. I chose Death.  As the gas filled the room and I had trouble breathing, I donned my blouse, pants and even my shoes. I skipped lipstick since it was an emergency.
My husband was on the street screaming “gas explosion” and clearing the busy street. It was my job to run into the posh hotel across the street and call the equivalent of 911. I ran in so fast I did not notice that there were glass doors as they were clean ( unlike our place) and had no wire grate. I ran into the doors full speed and bounced back on the street. (Everyday I was there the doorman imitated me bouncing off the closed door when I walked past.) I still have a black and blue mark on my forehead.
The gas men came in trucks with screaming sirens and with my husband  cleared the street and evacuated all apartments near ours. Gas-emergency-Men in masks ran up and down the street yelling in Spanish. (see picture with my husband, Michael, who knows nothing about gas leaks, is directing) Finally a gas emergency man donned in an explosion proof blow-up suit that made him look like the Michelin tire man. He fought his way through the gas to the roof and found that someone had jerry-rigged the gas tank valve with their own repair of plastic to cover a leak. This particular day was hot and the gas expanded in the tank and blew the jerry-rigged cap off and gas filled the house. 
The gas men said these giant tanks are only good for ten years and it was now thirty years old and had had makeshift repairs over the years and they insisted we needed a new tank.  We said we would leave if the owner didn’t put in a new tank. The spokesman for the owner said ‘Adios Amigos.” They still have the money from the renter. We were the sublet. I’ll spare you the entire story but let it be known that the landlord paid no attention to the written order. They jerry-rigged it  yet again, and the owner refused to buy a new water tank. We are helpless unless we wanted to fly home and give up all we have spent on round-trip tickets, etc.
 I got a real taste of what people feel like who are helpless with nowhere to go (everything for miles around was full) and had to settle for a substandard domain and a cruel, selfish prick of a landlord can rule your life. I’m lucky I don’t live with it every day.
The other lesson I learned was more complicated. It was not really a lesson but a message I’d absorbed about body image. During emergencies people react with their gut-- not their mind. As an older woman I know society says, “Your body is totally done by fifty. Don’t under any circumstances, including risk of death, show it publically. When you think about it, when was the last time you saw an older woman’s nude body on television or in a movie. You see every other combination of body and sexuality. All those taboos have been broken but not this one. I’d learned my lesson well.