24 August 2011
(Deutsche Übersetzung unten)
Today we walked at Forest Hills,
Historic graveyard, well maintained,
Its residents, the living and the dead,
Ignore the charms of nature and of art.
Such pleasures are enjoyed
By those who come to walk.
A perfect day: the sun is warm, the breezes fresh;
No one in sight but for a strolling older couple –
She gives a smile, he glares and grunts –
Would they be first-time visitors,
Admiring statues by the paths
Or searching out a chiseled name?
Familiar with the stony shapes,
We focus on the living:
Below, the mushrooms throng near spruce and oak
Disclosing fairy circles’ secret presence –
After rains, abundant sprouting.
Above, four hawks sail high,
Their circles ominous, their shadows flashing dark
Across our path. And then they vanish,
Invisible within the still-green foliage.
Across Hibiscus Pond we barely see
Three turtles on the rocks,
Heads turned upward, aiming at the sun
Above the water still and green.
They’ve just put poison in,
to kill the vegetation –
before the long-off moment comes
(yet one day irreversible)
when geometric growth could push
a half-full lily-pond
to total suffocation.
We wander on; around the bend
Up on the left-hand hillside
Four muscled riders guide four chomping mowers
In and out among the graves,
Giant insects chew through August grass
Roaring and growling to disturb the dead,
And upset walkers, seeking calm and beauty.
But through the din, a sudden scent of fresh-cut grass –
You’re taken back to early times and places
To homes with spacious lawns where weekend mowers drone.
A glint of childhood safe – and gone.
Beauty in the balance
Between becoming and decline:
Gratitude and bliss
Shot through with mourning.
Ein Spaziergang Ende August auf dem Friedhof Forest Hills
– Übersetzung Rosemarie Wiegel
Wir gingen heut im Forest Hills spazieren,
dem alten, gut gepflegten Friedhof.
Die hier wohnen, lebendig oder tot,
beachten nicht den Zauber von Natur und Kunst.
Nur die hier wandern kennen dies Vergnügen.
Vollkommen ist der Tag,
die Sonne warm und frisch der Wind,
niemand ist in Sicht. Ein ältres Paar nur,
das gemächlich schlendert,
sie lächelt lieb, er glotzt und brummt.
Ob sie zum ersten Male hier sind,
die Statuen am Weg bewundern,
oder einen Namen suchen, der
in Stein gemeißelt ist?
Die steinernen Gestalten kennen wir
und richten unsern Blick auf das, was lebt:
Unten drängen sich die Pilze –
Zeichen von geheimen Hexenringen –
üppig sprießend nach dem Regen
um die Fichten und die Eichen.
Oben ziehn vier Habichte bedrohlich ihre Bahnen,
werfen dunkle Schatten über unsern Weg.
Dann sind sie verschwunden, unsichtbar
In dem noch grünen Laub.
Mitten im Hibiscus Pond, kaum zu erkennen,
drei Schildkröten auf Felsgestein,
die Köpfe hoch gereckt, der Sonne zu
über dem Wasser, still und grün.
Eben hat man Gift hineingetan,
so lesen wir,
die Pflanzen zu vernichten –
rechtzeitig vor dem noch fernen Tag
(doch unumkehrbar irgendwann),
da exponentielles Wachstum
den halb bedeckten Teich
mit Lilien ganz ersticken könnte.
Wir gehen weiter; um die Biegung
oben auf dem Hügel links
lenken muskulöse Reiter
vier beißende, kauende Mäher
zwischen den Gräbern hin und her.
Rieseninsekten fressen sich durch Sommergrass,
dröhnen und brummen, stören die Toten
und ärgern die Vorübergehenden,
die Ruhe hier und Schönheit suchen.
Doch durch den Krach trifft dich ein Duft
von frischgechnittnem Gras,
der dich zurückversetzt
in Zeiten und an Orte,
zu heimatlichen Häusern, weiten Rasen
wo samstags Mähmaschinen friedlich dröhnen.
Kindheit und Geborgenheit – vorbei.
Schönheit in der Schwebe
Zwischen Werden und Vergehn,
Dankbarkeit und Glück
Durchwirkt mit Trauer.
7 August 2011
Do you remember the original? “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” If you recall the quote and who said it, you must be almost as old as the general in question at the time he said it: Douglas MacArthur, 71, in his farewell speech to Congress in 1951 after having been fired by President Truman for speaking out of turn.
I’ve been struck lately by the number of words or phrases that are no longer current, but increasingly jump unbidden to mind. It happens sometimes when I’m talking with Luise and have to explain a meaning; though her English is near-perfect, it doesn’t always extend to obscure American expressions from earlier decades. Are these words now popping up from the recesses of my long-term memory because the other one is getting so short? Another symptom of aging in place?
As I reflect on growing older I’ve also been thinking about the incredible changes wrought by technology. (Wrought? Does that word still exist? Who said, “What hath God wrought?” – another oldster, for sure: after the Bible, it was Samuel Morse in the very first telegraph message, 1844.) Speaking of the telegraph, can anyone else remember a time when a long-distance telephone call from one’s grandparents was a major event that occurred only to report serious illness or announce an impending visit and was short and awkward? Of course, all the new inventions have changed our vocabulary as well as our lives dramatically: cell phone, Internet, iPad, Kindle, email, Google, bit, byte, botnet. Facebook and Twitter: what used to be a name for the high school annual is now an instant path to thousands of friends, and what once referred to a bird’s chatter is now the world’s way of communicating – even revolutions – across borders. Revolutionary! And the changes continue to accelerate with alarming speed: Long-play records ruled the musical living rooms from the 1950’s to the mid-1980’s; then compact discs dominated till the rise of MP3 in the early 2000’s. The span shrank from 30 to 15 years. The VCR was the home media technology of choice from the late 70’s until it was overtaken in the early 2000’s by the DVD, a period of some 20 years. Now, after about half that time, we hear that DVD’s are on the way out in favor of various forms of streaming and downloading to our digital, often hand-held devices. (What would my mother have made of this sentence? A “hand-held device” in her day was a steam iron or a portable mixer.)
More and more expressions are changing meaning or becoming old hat, including “old hat.” (Nowadays one would probably say, “That’s so, like, yesterday.”) So I’ve decided to take up the challenge of preserving such fading bits of linguistic heritage and use them when I can. I regard it as a defense of my culture and identity as a senior citizen and already long-time member of the AARP. Here are a few examples; I’m sure you have many others.
One of my categories is made up of common expressions and exclamations. They seem pretty quaint to me now, and I doubt that I’d use them, having etched more forceful, modern expletives (which I’ll omit here) into my usage. But here are some earlier ways I remember to express astonishment, enthusiasm, anxiety or disapproval:
• “Gee whiz,” “golly gee,” “Holy Moly,” “Holy cow!” (all gleaned from comic books, not to forget the magical “Shazam!” from my favorite, the original Captain Marvel comics of the 1940’s).
• “You’re darn tootin!” (revived in a Boston Globe cartoon a few years back poking fun at George W.’s vocabulary as compared to the eloquence of Tony Blair).
• “My land!” and “Land o’ Goshen!” (from my grandparents’ generation).
• “Goodness gracious,” and “Oh, dear!” (from my parents’ generation).
“Are you nuts?” was a favorite rejoinder of mine at about age 9 or 10, one for which I was repeatedly reprimanded. And the first time I said “damn!” in the presence of my mother (it was at my wedding), she seemed truly horrified: “I never taught you to say that!” She was just beginning to realize how gravely she had failed her eldest daughter.
Words related to gender roles have certainly come a long way. Men and boys used to be taunted with more imaginative names than today’s “wuss”: “pantywaist” and “milquetoast” suggested a certain delicacy as well as effeminacy and weakness; both terms originated in the 1930’s. And remember the “I was an 80-pound weakling” ad on the 1940’s comic page? “Sissy” was about the worst thing a boy could be called in my day. Come to think of it, the basic message has not changed: then as now, males must dissociate themselves from females and their attributes. If anything, the imperative has become stronger.
Girls used to be called “tomboys” and women “housewives,” terms that have virtually dropped out of currency. Now we have the exceptional “stay-at-home-mom,” but the tomboy has vanished into thin air. Nowadays girls can be and do anything they want, as we all know – as long as they maintain their “femininity,” of course. Some words for women seem to have weathered centuries of social and cultural transformation: “bitch” and “whore” are two unfortunate examples. Despite feminist gains, sexist and misogynist attitudes and ideology are alive and well. (The recent wave of “Slut Walks,” however, is evidence that such terms and thinking do not go unchallenged, even if controversially.)
Some fading occupations and professional names evoke a fond image from my childhood. We used to have a “milkman” who left bottles of milk and cream on the porch, and a “breadman” whose horse-drawn (really!) truck brought us Danish pastries as well as our regular white bread. The “paper boy” or girl would spin past on her bike riding no-hands like a circus performer and skillfully toss our newspaper precisely onto the porch. We used to go to our “family doctor,” (later called a general practitioner or g.p.) for shots and all sorts of advice. He (and it was a he) would even make house calls if needed. Nowadays, you’re lucky if your p.c.p. remembers your name – if you’re lucky enough to have such a provider in the first place, that is.
Speaking of medical issues, some formerly serious problems have apparently lost their urgency. “Neuritis and neuralgia” once led the list of painful conditions one needed to treat. Radio and magazine advertising used to warn us against bad breath (“even your best friend won’t tell you”) or b.o. (body odor) lest we lose our place in society. Such ills have been replaced by others, such as depression, E.D. or aging skin, that require more up-to-date and costly remedies. Simple products like Unguentine, Vaseline and Mercurochrome held their respected place in our family medicine chest. Now we are urged to buy antibiotic salves and antibacterial hand-wipes. One former home remedy I definitely don’t miss is the enema our mother would subject us to at the drop of a hat. (Another old-hat expression.) No matter what the ailment, it seemed, out came the enema bag. Its functional relative, the “douche bag,” however, has gained enormous currency among the young as a slang expression indicating sharp disapproval, mostly of a male individual; “douche bag” should perhaps be included in the list of gender terms.
Then there are words that refer to objects or items of clothing belonging to bygone eras: the phonograph or record player and its once-treasured LPs and 45’s would fall into this category, as do such old-hat has-beens as the dust mop, dustbin, mucilage, crinolines, girdles, and patent leather shoes, aka Mary Janes.
Gosh, so many treasures lost in the dustbin of time! Nothing to do but cry “Shazam!” and return as Mary Marvel to the fabled world of milkmen and enemas. – Or not.
29 June 2011
They say you’re only as old as you feel. But it’s increasingly hard to ignore one’s senior status given all the subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that come one’s way these days.
My first shock came when Luise and I consulted a contractor about updating our kitchen. The back-story involves a mouse with a strong sense of entitlement, which had settled in behind our stove and emerged every evening to dash through the living room while we watched “Without A Trace.” The weeks of battle with the little invader involved an array of 18 traps of varying design and sophistication as well as scented repellents and poison bait-boxes, and dragged on without success. At last we decided on a truly radical solution: we would replace the old stove and drive the mouse out of its hiding place. And while we were at it, why not get rid of the ancient, energy-gobbling refrigerator? A dishwasher might also be nice. Hence the contractor, who came highly recommended by friends.
“Hank” was eager to respond to our needs, which he immediately identified as remodeling in such a way that we could “age in place,” rather than moving to a nursing home or similar facility. Doors and kitchen areas wide enough for a wheel chair would be necessary. Moreover, our house really lacked a bedroom and full bath on the first floor, he said, important in case one or both of us became unable to climb the stairs. We appreciated “Hank’s” concern for our future, although we were sobered by his assumption that such grave infirmities lay just around the corner for us. Sobered also by the projected cost of such improvements, we decided to put off “aging in place.” Besides, the mouse had finally succumbed to its last nibble of peanut-butter-on-trap.
But the contractor’s vision has raised the specter of gradual decline, and his perspective is reinforced by other elements of our environment. For one thing, we know that we are not alone. Our evening television viewing is peppered with commercials informing us of the growing number of ailments and conditions we and our contemporaries might soon share, from dangerous cholesterol levels to incontinence to COPD (whatever that is), not to mention the male-specific but no longer shameful or inevitable E.D. Apparently, only the elderly watch the evening news.
Hardly do I begin to fret over the likelihood that my forgetfulness is a sign of early Alzheimer’s than a ray of hope shines through the gray of the woman in the tv ad suffering from depression: all she has to do is ask her doctor if “Abilify” (or some other miraculous drug) is right for her. Of course, she must watch for the multitude of potential side-effects that are hurriedly recited and almost always include death. But if her doctor does declare it’s right for her she is on her way to renewed happiness in her garden or with her adorable grandchildren, or holding hands in twin bathtubs with her Viagra-infused mate. The message seems to be: you’re old, you’re sick, get over it – with our product.
But even if I try to ignore the ads or turn off the television, I’m assaulted by my increasingly age-appropriate mail. The AARP sends regular warnings of my need for insurance, either to supplement Medicare or to pay for long-term care, accompanied by an offer to sign up before it’s too late. I am also very popular with companies offering hearing tests, hearing aids, programs to detect stroke and heart-attack risk, and invitations to participate in studies of “healthy aging.” Offers of reverse mortgages or to put my house on the market have started coming in, as well as ads for retirement communities and assisted living facilities. And a growing number of educational institutions and charities write wondering if I will consider them in my estate plan.
But last week I received the starkest notice yet that old age, even death would soon be knocking at the door. An official-looking piece of mail arrived bearing the label: “IMPORTANT NON-GOVERNMENTAL DOCUMENT ENCLOSED: OPEN IMMEDIATELY – DO NOT DELAY.” Inside, I discovered that I may qualify for the “Funeral Advantage Program.” If I act quickly I could receive assistance in paying for my funeral and other final expenses. But if I delay, I may not receive the necessary information in a timely manner.
Feeling the need for an abilifying nap to help me cope with the ever heavier burdens of age, I hobble upstairs to my support mattress and pillow. I drip artificial tears into my eyes and settle back, recalling the issues I must deal with in the next months: a colonoscopy, trips to the ophthalmologist, dentist and dermatologist; I do hope my stiff joints and constipation will leave me in peace. I have just slipped into a drowsy, somewhat anxious haze when the telephone rings. “This is the Diabetes Society,” a woman’s voice announces, then asks, “Do you have diabetes?” When I say no the voice hangs up. I wonder what hope she might have held out to me had I said yes.
I try to turn my thoughts in a positive direction. Age has its benefits too, after all. You get a discount at the movies and on the T. You get a bigger income tax deduction. People don’t expect as much of you. You have more memories, if only you could remember them.
In place or out of place, aging seems here to stay.
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