Praise the Day

A fewMale_and_Female_mallard_ducks days ago, I saw the duck couple that lives in the creek that runs in back of my house. They’ve been around for as long as I’ve lived here. At least, I like to think so. My husband, a scientist who has devoted his life to avian growth and reproduction, has warned me that ducks do not mate for life. But I choose to ignore him, reveling instead in the way the ducks glide silently along, never leaving each others’ side. They quack and submerge their heads to nibble on the water grass, and sometimes they take flight, suddenly rising above the forsythia branches that line the creek. But they never leave. Not the creek. Not each other.

They remind me of another couple I used to see everyday in my neighborhood, a man and a woman who mustcreek have been in their 80’s. He walked unsteadily for several years, hunched over, possibly from a childhood bout with polio. He and his tiny wife, who must have been only 5 feet tall, walked every day. And here’s the part that threw me. They held hands. Always. And they chatted and laughed with each other. After all those years together, they still listened to each other and responded and laughed. They still needed to touch. I liked how they seemed to be in a perpetual state of wonder:  noting the clouds, the breeze, the forsythia, the duck couple. When they saw me coming, walking home from my teaching job at a nearby university, they broke into exuberant smiles. We were so very pleased to see each other. Some days they were sitting down, resting on the bench on the bridge over the creek near the hopscotch painted on the pavement. “Beautiful day,” they would tell me, sitting close together, their bodies intertwined like two teenagers deeply in love, hands clasped.

I can’t be sure, but I think one day the woman did ask where I worked or why I was walking that way everyday. But we mostly just smiled and praised the day.

After a few years, I noticed he used a cane. About a year later, he used a walker. When he used the walker, his hands were occupied with the arduous business of holding up his unstable body. The couple could no longer hold hands. Instead, the woman lightly touched his forearm, like a dancer being escorted into the ballroom. They still smiled and giggled and paused to check out the blooming oleander. But they began to move very slowly – just a few feet a minute. Some days, they barely seemed able to move at all. One particularly cold winter day, I thought:  Maybe they shouldn’t be out here. They could fall. Do their children know they are here?

I never learned their names or where they lived.

One day, in between getting my kids off to school and the dog fed and sprinting toward campus, I realized I hadn’t seen them in a while. Perhaps they had moved into assisted living. Maybe they passed on. bench

A few days ago, pausing at the empty hopscotch bench, I realized it’s now been five years since I last saw them. I miss the way they lifted my spirit every day, the way they reminded me to make note of the little things. That’s when I saw the duck couple. There they were, floating toward me in the creek that runs under the hopscotch bridge, creating a soft rippling wake in the shape of a V.  Their bodies touched, bobbing against each other as they navigated the autumn leaves beginning to come down. My husband is right. Ducks don’t mate for life. They get together in the fall and court all winter and make babies in the spring. Then the male moves on. But they are a couple, at least for a while. I have no idea if the other couple – the man and woman – were married for many years. For all I know, they had just met when I first saw them. But I doubt it. As I watched the mallards suddenly squawk and take flight over the creek in the fading fall sky, I was glad to have at least paused and considered it — or anything at all.

Comments are off for this post

A murderer. A cripple. A corpse.

Yeah. You recognize this.

Yeah. You recognize this.

When I was 21 my mom was in the hospital for yet another operation. Exploratory surgery. This was before fancy MRIs. This was the dark ages, when surgeons had toopen you up to have a look.” She was cut from her sternum, through her rib cage, to below her belly button. Organs were shuffled and tussled and perhaps even lifted out of her body as doctors searched for the extent of the cancer. I sat by her side in her room as she recovered from surgery.

During those weeks, those days, those hours, she had a roommate, a young woman from a poor neighborhood who had been shot in the spine in a domestic dispute. The girl (I believe her name was Cheryl) shared her story. She had been sitting in a kitchen, talking to a man. The man’s girlfriend burst into the house and accused the two of having an affair. The girlfriend had an automatic gun. Cheryl stood up to flee.  She turned her back on the armed girlfriend. The jealous woman fired.  In one second, Cheryl  became a person who would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of her life.

My mom and I listened to the Cheryl’s story. We listened to her softly weep into the phone as she talked to relatives. Later, when Cheryl was sleeping, my mom (who was half Italian) whispered to me, “If only the girlfriend had been carrying a spaghetti pot instead of a gun.” My mom and I talked about time. That split second. And we talked about logistics:  If only she had slithered under the kitchen table instead of standing and turning around. Mostly, though, we thought about the spaghetti pot. You have to think when swinging an aluminum pot. You would most likely miss with your first swing. Even the second swing. It would be sloppy. There would be time to shout, to scuffle, to perhaps scamper out the door on your hands and knees. There would be time, in fact, to shift your reasoning, to become exhausted, to stop.

A kind of horror comes with the precision and absolute clarity of the gun, the definitive before and after. One second you are one thing. The next second you are something else entirely. A murderer. A cripple. A corpse.

Everyone in America has a gun story – from experience, from the news. Place names of mass murders are burned into our collective psyche: Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Isla Vista. And individual shootings seem as common as pumping gas. I live in the Washington DC area, and in 1994 the district hit an all-time high of 399 murders, nearly 70% of them via a gun. In 2012 the tiny district shaped like a baseball diamond celebrated a historic low of “only” 88 murders.  This year, the rates are climbing.

Everyone in America has a gun story, not all of them, contrary to popular sentiment, involving the poor or young African American men or deranged young white men. A few years ago a university colleague of mine, a woman with a PhD, found herself in a similar Cheryl-type domestic argument. The PhD and her husband were avid assault gun owners and members of the NRA – they owned an arsenal of assault weapons in varying size and caliber. As a fight ensued, they both grabbed guns. The PhD was initially accused of murder, but the trail later revealed that the gun she fired was not the one that killed the husband. Rather, her husband shot himself. The PhD lost her job, was charged with the illegal use of an automatic weapon, went to jail, and was finally deported – back to her native country. She lost everything – her income, her job title and status, he husband, her house.  When the police initially found her, she was covered in blood. That alone would require significant psychological recovery. If only she – and he – had grabbed just about anything instead of guns.

You also recognize this.

You also recognize this.

Cheryl eventually left my mom’s hospital room. I suppose they took her to a long-term physical rehab facility. Mom stayed and continued to struggle. Her abdomen would spasm, causing her to scrunch her face in pain. The dark ages  — cutting people wide open to search for cancer, shooting people in the spine because you’re pissed off.  We have come light years in terms of improving cancer diagnostics and treatment. But, if we watch the news, follow social media, if we absorb all sides of various arguments on the “gun issue,” it would seem we’ve made zero progress in understanding how best to address the problem of humans shooting humans in our society.

Cheryl’s story was my personal introduction to a specifically American horror. I grew up in Missouri and come from a family of hunters. I also married a man from northern Minnesota who grew up hunting. Family members have killed deer, turkeys and rabbits, which we ate. There were a few “bad” outcomes: the time my husband, as a teenager, wandered too far into the woods and tried to  haul a giant buck a few miles on his back; the time our parents served rabbit stew, and my young siblings and I gagged when we thought the black pepper corns were BBs.  Maybe the point is this: not one of  us has ever owned an automatic assault gun, and the rifles, stored separate from the bullets, are always cleaned, locked and hidden in a zipped bag in a dim closet until next hunting season. Maybe the point it this: As an American, despite an early introduction to the rather healthy idea that guns are for hunting meat for dinner and nothing else, I could not escape personal familiarity with the twisted horror of humans shooting humans. Over the past 30 years, I have thought about Cheryl often, my own personal introduction to America’s sorrow, and I hear her softly weep.

Comments are off for this post

Lucky That Way Wins Major Award


(Typing that headline above just cracks me up.) Really. I’ve never won anything, not even a raffle ticket at a Catholic fundraiser. So you can imagine my shock when I found out  that Lucky That Way won an Outstanding Book Prize from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The ASJA is a big deal in journalism circles.  Going to NYC in April for the awards ceremony. Very exciting!

Comments are off for this post

What’s for Dinner? Well Being.

"Mommy was in a punk-folk band in high school. She's such a cut up!"

“Mommy used to slam dance at punk rock concerts.”

Random posts about the lives of teens.

Not long ago, I told a group of teenagers at my dinner table that I had been a member of a band in high school called Niki Knudsen and the No Nos.  My kids and their friends laughed.  Urged on, I explained that we were a punk-folk band. Even more ridiculous, right?  The year was1979 (members fluctuated a bit, and I didn’t actually “join” as a keyboardist until right after high school). I explained how we used to crash weddings. I’d drive the lead singer’s mom’s station wagon, loaded with the four band members and acoustic instruments, and pull into the parking lot of a VFW hall. They would hop out, run into the hall, and play until someone kicked them out. My job was to keep the engine running.           

I can’t recall why, when we were 17, we thought this was so much fun, but the teens at the dinner table were in stitches. I shared the few song titles I could remember:  The MX Missile Song. Oh, I added, “And another song, a ballad, was titled, Mommy Made Me Love You with All Her Whips and Chains.”         

My two teenagers and my husband and I sit down to dinner every night. I like to cook. I like the process. I chop an onion and garlic and throw it into a pan with olive oil (unsure, often, exactly what dish will unfold.)  I place four white plates on the table and line up the napkins, forks, knives, and spoons. My husband usually walks in the door soon after and pours the milk, changes his clothes. He’s the one who calls the kids, who are either in their bedrooms, studying, or in the finished basement, goofing around. If friends are there, as they often are, we invite them to eat.

Apparently, our evening ritual is a good one. Even people without kids are probably familiar with the data that consistently correlates family dinners and well being. I first came across this body of work in 1998 while writing a piece for The Washington Post . I liked the term “well being” right away. It hits all the hot spots – the worries that might keep all of us, with or without children, awake at night. Will I be happy? Am I happy? Am I okay at work? Am I okay at school? Do I have healthy friendships? Do I feel as though I am a member of a community?  Basically, all of the studies (Cambridge University, JAMA Pediatrics, Princeton, and so on) say the same thing:  teens who sit down to dinner with their families consistently show higher levels of well being. According to JAMA, “Family meals offer routine and consistency and provide an opportunity to socialize children and teach them about communication skills,manners, nutrition, and good eating habits.” But that’s not all. Some research further finds that the frequency of family meals is inversely associated with tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use; low-grade point average; depressive symptoms; and suicide involvement.

Could this be possible? Cooking and serving steamed broccoli can save a kid’s life?

The studies do not mention “good” conversation topics.  There are no guidelines for sharing past experiences. Born in 1961, I came of age in the 1970s. My peers and I, for better or worse, have stories. Maybe the key is not to dwell, but to keep the conversation flowing, letting it take its natural course.

During the recent evening with the teens around my table, my husband and I asked about friendships, possible colleges, and school. My son shared a story about the Black Student Union presentation at his high school that day. We talked about the importance of the emergence of black student organizations in the 1970s. And that lead to the topic of my high school punk-folk band. 

My senior year, the band played at the school’s black student talent show.  Niki Knudsen was the only white act in that evening’s line up. The black kids booed and threw wads of paper at the performers. Some girls stood up and shook their fists. “It wasn’t a racial thing,” I explained, eating my salmon. “They hated the band because they were so lousy.”

 If there’s a lesson here, it’s not intentional. If I caused some kind of damage, I regret it. We were just…talking and laughing. After dinner, I half worried that the friends would go home and tell their parents that I was weird.  I half worried I would get a phone call. Crashing weddings? Whips and chains? Are you crazy? 

 All I know is that teenagers are some of my favorite people in the world. And I like to cook. And I like to feed people. The odd times when we don’t sit down to dinner, my day lacks closure, especially as the kids have grown older and have more to add to the conversation.  And if sitting around my table adds even a pinch of foundation to the fragile lives of teens, I’ll keep passing the grilled salmon.


Here’s a salmon recipe similar to mine that teenagers love because, in the words of my 10th grader, “it’s sweet.”  In the winter, bake it in the oven. In warmer months, throw it on the grill.

This piece of fish could save your teen's life.

This piece of fish could save your teen’s life.





Comments are off for this post

My Heart Too

The day after my sister’s open-heart surgery she said to me, through the fog of morphine: “You were crying in your sleep last night.”

My sister (on the left) and me.

My sister (on the left) and me.

I had slept at her house. She had slept in the ICU. Even if I had cried, she certainly could not have heard me.

“I don’t think so,” I said. She nodded and closed her eyes. “You were crying,” she said definitively. “I could hear you.”

Growing up, we shared a bedroom for 17 years. A nearly telepathic intimacy comes from that experience. We understood each others’ fears. Children who share bedrooms learn to comfort, especially in the dark. My sister was a jittery child, easily influenced by that afternoon’s ghost story or seance. Many nights, she asked me, the younger sister, to move into her twin bed. “I’m scared,” she would say in the dark. Other nights, I was the one in need of comfort. The evening our little brother was hospitalized after a serious accident, Barb surprised me later that night when she whispered, “Don’t cry. It’s going to be all right.” I thought I had been concealing my sniffles into my pillow. Sometimes, we both needed comfort. Our mother died when we were in our 20s, and the night of her death Barb and I slept together, again, in one of our old twin beds – with the light on.

A few days before the surgery, I drove eight hours to South Carolina to be with her. She was ill – she could barely breathe. She had survived lymphoma 15 years earlier, and the treatment had scarred her heart.  Still, we managed to visit a friend’s lake house, take a ride on a boat, shop for discounts at her favorite department store. We were trying to have a good time, despite our fears hanging over us like a tarp. It didn’t help that a few days earlier I learned that the realtor who helped me buy my house died right after the same surgery my sister was about to undergo. I didn’t tell Barb this, but she knew the risks. She had asked the doctor if he ever lost patients. Yes, he said. Two. We woke at four in the morning the day of the surgery and drove wordlessly in the dark to the hospital. They were going to remove her heart from her body, replace a valve, replace two arteries, then put the heart back in. When they wheeled her away, I said, “See you in a few hours!” cheerfully, as if she were getting her hair done.

At this point in my life, both of my parents and dozens of relatives had passed on. You get better with death and serious illness the more often you face it. You learn to prepare. You learn to lose.

You even learn to plan a bit. Paperwork must be filed. Houses sometimes must be sold.  At the department store with Barb the day before surgery, I fingered silver bracelets on the jewelry rack and allowed my mind to briefly flutter on a negative outcome – would her 24-year-old son come live with me, up in D.C.? How would I muster strength to comfort him? Who would comfort me? But during the six-hour surgery I slammed the door shut on those questions. I read People magazine. I sang pop songs in my head. I wandered in and out of the building, clutching the pager nurses had given to me – the kind you get at Outback Steakhouse, except you don’t want this one to buzz. My sister’s  friend mercifully showed up and distracted me with chit chat.

You learn to lose, but on this hot summer day in South Carolina I was not ready. I had prepared nothing. I had no plan, other than to fall out on the floor of the cardiac unit and wail like a banshee. I was not ready to lose. Not again. Not this time.

The second day after surgery, Barb was still in the ICU, but more fully awake. I told her, “Yesterday, you told me you could hear me crying in my sleep while you were here in the ICU and I was at your house. Isn’t that bizarre?”

“That wasn’t morphine talking. I swear I heard you,” she said.

Maybe what she heard was just a memory–a little sister sniffling into her pillow–lodged somewhere in her brain, released by anesthesia or stress or the body’s terrified reaction to its blood flowing through a machine rather than its own heart. But I think something more was at work. Despite the adult brave face I had worn in the days, hours, and minutes before surgery (See you in a few hours!) the person I had shared a bedroom with for 17 years must have known:  my heart too was in need of attention.

Comments are off for this post

Better Drive With Two Hands

Random Posts on Aging Parents

“There goes another one,” Dad says, nodding toward the doorway. “Look.”

We’re in his room in assisted living where he is struggling through physical rehab after his stroke. I am staring stubbornly at the blank TV on the wall. I refuse to look. I am not playing his game.

“Look,” he whispers.  “Hurry.”

I look. A woman hunched over in a wheelchair in the hallway moves past the door frame, glances in, then moves on, silently, out of the frame.

“Night of the Living Dead,” he says.

“Let’s get out of here,” I tell him.

I have to think hard about how I might do that — move a partially paralyzed man out of the building.

After dad had a stroke, one of the first things he said to me in the ICU at a hospital in Las Vegas was, “Remember how I taught you to drive a stick shift?” How could I forget? The task requires a subtle, intricate pattern of hand-foot-brain connections. When we drive, especially a stick, we use just about everything we have:  sight, hearing, touch. No matter how many times someone explains it you just have to eventually FEEL it:  one foot gives gas while the other eases off the clutch until you hit the magic spot that makes the car go.

We reverse roles in aging-parent land. Our parents who coached us to hold a cup to our lips without spilling – to SENSE it– often now need similar instructions. I remember reading about this role-reversal, but it takes you by surprise when it’s there in front of you.

I push his wheelchair down the hall, unsure if we can accomplish this or if someone will stop me or if an alarm will go off.  He hasn’t left the building since an ambulance brought him there a few weeks earlier. Like so many people my age with ailing parents, you suddenly find yourself standing on the edge of a new frontier. You wing it.

I park him out front, get my car and pull up near the front door. I come around and open the passenger side car door. I position the chair as close as I can get it.

“Maybe we better get help,” he says, then adds, “Do we know how to do this?”

I tell him to put his right hand, his good hand, on top of the open door. “Pull yourself up,” I tell him and grab the waist of his pants from behind. He stands.

“Okay. Pivot. Right foot. Left foot.” We chant together. He moves until his back side faces the seat.

“Now bend your knees.” He bends them. “Watch your head,” I tell him and place my palm on top so he doesn’t hit it. I realize I have never touched the top of my father’s oddly tender head. I swing in his legs. He looks up at me, clearly surprised. “Not bad at all.”

We shake hands like two business partners closing the deal.

I ease the car away from the building.  It feels illegal. I have kidnapped an invalid.

He gazes at the blue sky. “Let’s just high-tail it for Mexico,” he says.

I want to tell my sister we have managed a new skill. I rummage in my purse for my cell phone, holding the wheel with my left. I see Dad eye balling me. Dad, the man who taught me to check the oil, change the air filter, to turn your body around when backing up (“you’ve got to FEEL the car”).  I see him eye balling me. And then I know he is going to say it. He was going to say the thing, the old-school thing,  the thing that used to drive me nuts, the thing that makes me feel better than anything else that day.

Dad says, “Better drive with two hands, babe.”

As we make our way onto the endless highway I think about how far he’s come since the ICU. I think about motor skills, and motors, and the blustery afternoon when he taught me to drive, the gut-wrenching grinding of gears. As the sun began to set that day, he got out of the car and said, “You’re ready to go it alone.” I remember finally, finally getting to the top of the hill in my “vintage” 1972 powder blue Volkswagon Beetle, the first car I ever bought, turning the car around triumphantly and seeing Dad at the bottom of the hill, in his flannel jacket – winter was coming – clapping his hands.


Comments are off for this post

On Going Gray

Bloody Mary, anyone?

I’m at the beauty parlor (when did we start calling it a “hair salon?”) with my 11-year-old daughter and am confronted with a long row of seated women draped in plastic getting their hair colored. They range in age from 18 to 70, and they chat amicably with the stylists, also women, who stand behind them and paint pieces of hair with acrid paste, wrap them in foil, and move on to the next section as rapidly, efficiently as women in Central America making tortillas.

I’m there for a simple cut.

I am lazy. I am impatient. I am an epic fail. I have chosen to let my hair go gray.

The gray started when I was 26. A few weeks after my mother died I was standing in a smoke-filled, packed bar in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a guy, no one I knew, exclaimed, “My God! You’ve got a gray hair!” “Get it,” I told him, and he plucked it out. I thought the stress of my mother’s death was the culprit, but the gray persisted, and over the next decade I stood in front of the bathroom mirror every morning and plucked gray hairs, right along with brushing my teeth. Surely, I would eventually lose this battle.

Ten years later, I was sharing a beach house Thanksgiving weekend with my husband, two-year-old son and four friends. After a second martini, my friends convinced me to let them color my hair. We went to the drug store. “This one?” I asked Patrick, holding up a dark mousy brown that I thought matched my color exactly.

“No,” he said. “Way too dark. Everyone secretly wants to be blond or thinks of themselves as blond on some level, so the marketers name the colors to sound lighter than they really are. If it says ‘Honey Blond,’ you really are getting a very light brown.”

On some level, this was my first discomfort – the first of a series of inherent untruths.

He picked Toasted Honey Almond.

The results were stunning.

Until I realized a month later I had to do it all over again, and Patrick and the martinis were several hours away in Philadelphia.

I would fight this war solo.

Throughout that winter, every few months I noticed my roots, sighed, and–completely sober–pulled out the bottle of color, squeezed my hands into the plastic gloves, and went to work until my arms ached.

Second discomfort:  The following summer I learned I could no longer swim laps in chlorinated water without washing out the color or (worse!) making it turn a hue of rust. I whined to women friends as we bobbed in the heat with our faces and hair, foolishly, above water, moving our arms and legs in some semblance of exercise.  According to “Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters,” about 65 percent of women over 40 color their hair. Clairol says it’s higher — 71 percent. My bobbing girlfriends accepted their fate with grace. All in the name of beauty. Not me. I was pissed.

Third discomfort:  I realized over the years that as my skin aged a bit and my face shifted, the color began to look tinny. And it made my complexion look funny. Like a corpse. I had become a member of the undead with Toasted Honey Almond hair.

Next phase: highlights/lowlights. Done professionally. All of my girlfriends swore by this. Looks natural. Lasts longer. More chlorine friendly. Three hours in a chair. $100. I could not stop squirming. I nearly blew a gasket. I had a panic attack thinking of my short life here on this earth and everything else I could be doing that afternoon: writing a novel, hiking Sugarloaf Mountain, drinking a Bloody Mary with my husband on a sunny deck somewhere. I suffered through it maybe three times until one day, looking in the mirror, approaching 50, I pointed at myself at asked, “What kind of woman do you want to be?”

“Gray,” I began to warn my family and friends. “I’m choosing to go gray.”  Just Say No to Foil Wrap.  Women in France were doing it.  Kate Moss was doing it. Smart, cool women like Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovits had always done it.

What kind of woman did I want to be? Me. I wanted to be me. This past summer, my first at going gray, I experienced euphoria (Seriously. Every. Day.) from swimming laps. No more bobbing in the shallow end. And my Saturday mornings were free from bottles of color and plastic gloves and arm aches.

At the beauty parlor I watch my daughter eye the rows of women. “What is that on their heads?” my daughter whispers. I laugh, but then I sigh. Oh, the choices she will have to make, the pressure she will endure. Color versus gray. Heels versus flats. To eat or not eat. She adds, “They look a little like aliens.”

But we don’t discuss it for long. After all, with just a cut, we are out of there in 15 minutes. As we scramble off to do something fun, I think:  If every woman in the world would just agree to not color, we could end this discussion–and gossip/stress over more important things, like whose gray is the prettiest?

Comments are off for this post

What We Keep

SculptureI stand in the yard and stare at the sculpture. Yes, the wood will need a new coat of red paint this spring. Somehow, four years have passed since we moved Dad into assisted living and I uprooted the sculpture from his front lawn near the beach in South Carolina, rented a U-haul, lugged the sculpture eight hours up I-95, and planted it in my back yard in the DC area. The edges are peeling.


He made the sculpture as a tribute to my mother. When she died at age 56 after a five-year battle with cancer, he immediately went to work.  He emptied the house, grieving heavily, tossing out debris from a 35-year marriage:  Old ice skates, Tupperware, winter coats from the 1940s, angel food cake recipes clipped out of McCall’s magazine, July 1955 issue. Mom was a saver; Dad was not.

He kept busy. He purged. One day, he paused. He found dozens of laminated, hand-made book marks in Mom’s sewing drawer in the desk in the attic. Each strip contained words, in my mom’s cursive handwriting, of a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:   “I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”


“I didn’t know she read poetry,” Dad told me on the phone. “How the hell can you be married to someone for that many years and not know something like that?”  In response, he made the eight-foot tall sculpture – geometric, in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright – painted it cherry red, etched the quote into glass, and fitted the glass into the piece.


At his house at the beach for 18 years the poem “floated” in nature. If you sat on the ground beneath it, the cotton-puff clouds drifting in the azure southern sky formed a living backdrop to the words. Walt Whitman (and Wright) would have liked that.



I pick at a piece of the peeling paint. The truth is, the sculpture looked better in his yard, nestled among the thin, tall columns of the loblolly pines, the chubby palmettos, the fuchsia crepe myrtle blooms. Here, in the cramped quarters of a major metropolitan area, I’m afraid the best backdrop I can give it is the wall of my neighbor’s 1927 brick garage. But it lives on–through every season, cloaked in snow, buried in leaves, a streak of red on a summer’s day. Both parents are gone, now, their lives marked by a headstone in a graveyard in St. Louis, 874 miles away, that I rarely have the chance to visit.  I hold the fleck of paint in my palm.
Comments are off for this post

Men and The Future of Assisted Living

My most recent story in The Washington Post. LOVE the art work!

Assisted living facilities may be wise to appeal more to men

– By Pamela Gerhardt, Published: August 1, The Washington Post

I noted the doilies and chintz while searching for a suitable assisted living facility for my father. Right away, I knew I was up against a powerful force.

The female problem.

Art by Michael Byers for Wash. Post

Art by Michael Byers for Wash. Post

Every place I visited, I was overwhelmed by potpourri and teddy bears with bows. A typical day’s activity? “Manicure afternoons.” I was reminded of my son’s experiences with elementary schools, where teachers ask antsy boys to sit at desks and read books about ponies.

It strikes me that we don’t have a good model for taking care of men.

Where is poker night? Where’s the movie night featuring “Saving Private Ryan” or “Master and Commander”?

Where’s the bar?

“Someone needs to open an all-male physical rehab place,” I tell my friend.

She thinks about this idea and says, “They could call it He-hab.”

It’s tough to fit any individual into an institution. And we navigate dangerous waters when we start generalizing about certain “types” of individuals — men, women — and their collective needs. But this much is clear: We need to think harder about men’s needs as they age and their numbers increase.

Enter the baby boomers. Last year, the first wave of boomers turned 65. According to Census Bureau figures, 22 of every 100 Americans is now 65 or older. The National Forum on the Future of Aging at April’s colossal annual Aging in America Conference stated that over the next several decades the number of Americans over age 60 will increase by 70 percent.

“We certainly can seek ways to make facilities more gender-friendly,” says Steve French, managing partner of Natural Marketing Institute and a frequent speaker on aging.

Boomers, as expected, are making plans. The Aging in America Conference included 600 workshops, 100 posters, 3,000 participants. One popular topic: creating non-generic, non-institutionalized care environments for specific groups of aging boomers. Gay boomers. Green boomers. Korean boomers. You get the idea. Some of the buzzwords are “aging in place” and “the village movement” — caregiving communities, rather than institutions, that allow folks to live independently among like-minded people.

“We found that 90 percent of boomers say they want to stay at home when they age,” says French. “But 48 percent have no idea what they want to do when they are no longer able to stay at home.”

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau finds that 6.5 million older people need assistance with daily living, and experts predict that number to double by 2020.

So what, specifically, do men want? Forgive a few generalizations, but men, according to experts, are tough customers.

The interiors of most facilities — built under standards known as universal design — are “not always aesthetically pleasing,” says Maddy Dychtwald, the author of three books on aging and a co-founder of AgeWave, a consulting firm on population aging. Universal design produces buildings, products and environments accessible to people with and without disabilities.

“Women tend to just go with it. Men don’t. It’s that same old story with doctors.” Women will continue to see a doctor they might not like. Men won’t. They’ll find another. Or they just won’t go at all. “Men tend to go into assisted living kicking and screaming. They don’t like to utilize the system. Women are more likely to say, ‘I can see how this place is helpful to me.’ ”

“It’s the same reason men won’t ask for driving directions or won’t consult the manual when putting together a barbecue grill,” says French. They resist. “For men, the assisted living issue is most complex in terms of attraction rather than retention. It’s easier to develop plans for a guy once he is in the facility than it is to convince him he has to go.”

The upside: Men, according to studies, benefit significantly from “the system” once they agree to use it. “At home, men are more likely than women to live a solitary, lonely existence. In a facility, they become socially engaged and benefit quite dramatically,” says French.

The challenge is to make these places more attractive to men, experts say. Floral window treatments won’t cut it. First and foremost, “men tend to gather in places where they feel physically comfortable,” says Adler. Second, we probably need to think more about how this generation of men grew up immersed in media and became savvy consumers who took their first bite of the marketing pie by singing advertising jingles along with Howdy Doody (whose show was created, in part, to sell color TVs).

“We have to change the name,” says Dychtwald. “Assisted living? There must be something else we can call it.”

He-hab, anyone?
To please the guys …
•Lose the chintz. Ditto the crystal chandeliers and fleur-de-lis wallpaper. Think man cave: deep reds, midnight blues.
•Can the canned music. The Big Band-era music piped into the dining room was “awful,” said my 80-year-old father. “I had a life beyond 1945.” Maybe Bob Dylan, Seal , Leo Kottke. Or silence.
• Create a “sports bar” dining spot. If they can’t offer booze to guys on meds, could they at least set aside a small dining area that looks like a bar? ESPN on large-screen TVs? Baskets of hot wings?
• Nourish the inner bro. Many assisted living facilities have a “game room”; why not make it more like a club? Possible amen-ities: dark wood paneling, a few leather easy chairs, poker tables.
• Remove all art involving pastel sunsets. My dad, a high school art teacher, suggested prints of bold, modern/abstract art classics: Mondrian, Rothko.


Gerhardt recently completed a memoir about her father’s stroke.

Comments are off for this post

Got to Feed God Children

Untitled, Ernie Gerhardt, 1990

I was a VISTA volunteer for the entire year of 1990 and never told my father. I lived in a tiny, white farm house in rural South Carolina near a small town, population 1,000:   500 whites on one side, 500 blacks on the other. I taught illiterate adults how to read and write, mostly older African American women who had dropped out of school around 4th grade—to work the fields, to wipe the butts of white babies, to wash dishes for white women in town.

Dad and I saw each other often that year, not long after mom died. He was living as a bachelor in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, and my farm house was on the other side of Charleston, just down the road, as they say. We visited sunlit art galleries in Charleston, devoured fresh seafood at restaurant tables surrounded by swaying palmetto trees. We were thin, tan, transplants from a decaying city in the Midwest. We were survivors of a great loss. We were migrants from the dark.  We drank cocktails on his screened porch, debated the merits of cubism, but we never talked about my students, my volunteerism.  I told him, simply, I was “teaching” and left it at that.

Why? I relished my time with my students and feared he would spoil it for me. A social conservative in the art world, he was a rarity. He would call my service “ideal” or “liberal.” Best to keep it to myself.  Friends my age have told similar stories, hiding information from their fathers. I wonder if there is something about this generation of fathers: who grew up during the Depression; who fought the great war and returned and married and moved to the suburbs and worked and saved enough cash to buy, of all things, a washer, dryer and television; who watched, a bit dumb struck, as cultural events of the ‘60s and ‘70s twisted everything backwards or sideways.

They learned to proceed with caution. We learned to withhold.

One day, we met in Charleston for the annual, internationally acclaimed Spoleto arts festival. Artists had installed site-specific projects all over the city, many of them profoundly moving, highlighting the city’s rich, violent, sorrowful ties to slavery.  Late in the day we trudged in the 95-degree humidity up the spiral staircase to the top floor of the old Middleton-Pinckney House to see the exhibit “Honey in the Rock (Got to Feed God Children)” by Elizabeth Newman. The exhibit featured the complicated relationships between black nursemaids and the white children. Through the center of the nursery a doll dressed as a black “dah” (called “mammy” in other parts of the south) walked a tight rope above a floor dusted with baby powder. In the adjacent closet? Hundreds of tiny photos of black babies, tucked away, hidden. Old, pain-ridden, pleading spirituals played on a gramophone in the diaper-changing area. Dad was so moved by the exhibit he had to sit down on the spiral steps and catch his breath.

Later, we headed to the beach and walked in the fading pink glow of sunlight. “Who took care of the black babies?” Dad asked, looking out over the water. “What prompted humans to believe any of that was okay?” After a while, he took a photo of me.  I went home to my farm house. He went home to his beach house. He began immediately on a successful series of paintings, based on the photo, one of which became “Girl with Green Hair in Landscape” (which is now the title of my book and this blog).


I never told him about the year I volunteered, living on a small stipend, to teach poor, rural, black women to read and write. I think about what we withhold. And why. And the difference any of it makes. Some days, it feels like a lot.


Note: The title of the site specific art comes from Psalm 81:16
I believe there is a song called “Honey in The Rock,” but I can’t find it on the Internet.  I did find an a-capella group called Honey in the Rock singing a spiritual similar to the one we heard that day.
Comments are off for this post