Lessons from Uncle Walter

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA/Bill Ingalls

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to Google’s “Doodle” of the day. Today, however, I was touched to notice that the internet search engine was honoring longtime CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Cronkite (1916 to 2009) would have turned 100 today.

I haven’t covered a lot of “straight” journalism in my years as a writer. I write reviews, craft recipes to honor specific foods and occasions, and from time to time venture into opinion. Nevertheless, I think of myself as a journalist. And my hero has always been the reporter known to millions as Uncle Walter.

Cronkite came to prominence as the leader in a generation of broadcast news reporters and anchors who hewed to old-fashioned standards of impartiality. They occasionally ventured into opinion—as his mentor Edward R. Murrow did when addressing issues like poverty and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as Cronkite did himself when he called for an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1968.

By and large, however, they strove for objective truth in reporting, even though I’m sure most of them knew then, as most of us know now, that objectivity is a Platonic ideal rather than anything any of us will ever achieve.

I last saw Cronkite in the early 2000s when he was interviewed onstage at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in New York, where I worked for a few years. Hearing his voice then warmed my heart; it was like hearing the voice of my dead father. Both were warm, smart men who performed work they loved with integrity and lightened life with humor. And both possessed voices that charmed and informed.

If the national election in which we are currently enmired has taught us anything, it is that the ways in which we receive and deal with the news have changed. As a nation and a world we no longer share a few, elite sources of news—and, as the Pew research center has recently pointed out, Americans no longer share many of the “facts” of our political and social life. We have come a long way from aiming for that Platonic ideal of objectivity.

I know that we can’t go back to having one trusted source for news—or even a few. In many ways, that’s a good thing. I don’t necessarily buy the impression of many in this country that Cronkite had a liberal bias—perhaps because I have one myself (and what does liberal mean, really, other than “generous,” an attribute to which we should all aspire?). I do believe that as a human being he was inherently biased in some directions.

We don’t necessarily need an elite to tell us what to do and how to interpret the news. Without that elite, however, we do need to cultivate standards Uncle Walter embodied, as journalists and as human beings. These include committing ourselves to coming as close to objective truth as we can, to growing and learning, and above all to taking our time.

One of Walter Cronkite’s most famous, and most replayed, moments on the air is the one in which he announced the death of John F. Kennedy. He stops several times during his short report, to compose himself but also (it seems to me) to get his reporting right, to give himself and the people watching and listening time to process the information he is reporting.

I’m not good at pausing. In casual conversation I tend to rush in and fill the dead air space between my own sentences and everyone else’s. Remembering Walter Cronkite today and in the days to come, I’m going to try to give myself and everyone else a little more time—time to process, time to deliberate, time to be kind and truthful.

As this crazy election season at last draws to a close I hope other journalists and citizens will do the same.

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Looking Up

Looking Upweb

You do NOT have to wear a hat and gloves in order to look up at the sky. Feel free to wax theatrical, however.

A few weeks ago my friend Cheryl told me that most people forget to look up and view the sky on a regular basis.

I find this hard to believe. I spend a lot of time looking up—not just because I’m short but because I was educated to do so.

One of the joys of my liberal-arts degree from Mount Holyoke was and remains my minor in astronomy. I never wanted to be an astronomer. I loved studying astronomy, however. It grounded me in our world and our universe. It still does.

On clear nights (and we’re having a lot of those lately!) I keep track of the movement of the seasons by charting the progress of the constellations through the sky. The moon’s phases remind me that the month is flying by.

As for the sun … well, the sun’s migration along the horizon is particularly striking here in western Massachusetts.

At the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its southernmost point, the morning light appears outside my bedroom window over a high mountain. That mountain makes the winter sunrise even later than it would ordinarily be at this latitude, around 9:30 in the morning. I have often told our minister that if the church would celebrate a sunrise service at Christmas instead of Easter I might actually manage to get out of bed in time to attend.

Today is the summer solstice—and the sun has moved dramatically to the north. (Yes, I know that technically the earth has moved, not the sun, but life is all about perception.) From my point of view the sun now rises above the barn across the street at Red Top, the home of my neighbors the Gillans. I don’t actually see the sunrise from my window unless I get up to take my dog out around 5:30 and peer northward.

I’m not generally a sunrise kind of girl because I’m not a morning kind of girl. At this time of year, however, I enjoy contemplating the sun as it appears over that barn. (I can, and do, always go back to sleep!)

The sun will start moving to the south again tomorrow. But today it briefly seems to stand still.

Its bright northern light represents all the ripeness that summer offers—daylilies and corn and tomatoes; hours spent chatting with neighbors on the shore or gliding through the clear, cool water; shared stories and songs and sandwiches on the porch.

To top off the thrill of today, tonight we’ll be treated to the Strawberry Moon. That full moon of June celebrates the flavor and significance of my favorite berry. I plan to observe the occasion by consuming at least a pint of strawberries.

I hope you eat them too—and above all I hope you look up! I find that when I’m looking up the world is, too.

Happy Solstice.

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To read more about my astronomy minor, click here.

To read more about the Strawberry Moon, click here.

Over the Hill?

I'm over the hill--but I'm not quite ready to move into the cemetery.

I’m over the hill–but I’m not quite ready to move into the cemetery.

The day before yesterday was National Old Maids’ Day. (Who on earth thinks up these “holidays”?) Learning that it was my special day reminded me of an odd recent experience. A man I didn’t know wanted to friend me on Facebook. I sent him a message asking how we knew each other. He replied that he didn’t know me personally but that he had found me on Facebook and was interested in making friends.

He added that he was actually looking for someone to marry, explaining that he was a widower in the army with two small children.

I am always a little suspicious of men who “find” me on Facebook. I have heard stories about individuals who who say online that they are in search of romance but whose real motives are to worm their way into the confidence and finances of the women they befriend.

This man looked more genuine than most. His timeline featured photos of him with the children, and he sounded nice. (Of course, he would, if he were in the confidence game.)

On the other hand, despite saying that he “liked” me, he obviously hadn’t done a lot of research about me. He asked what I did for a living and whether I had any children; that information isn’t hard to find on my Facebook profile and/or website.

So I compromised. I told him that I wasn’t really interested in getting married, particularly not within the next few months. I agreed to be his Facebook friend, however. Perhaps, I suggested, as I got to know him a little I could find a him a suitable girlfriend.

I didn’t hear back from him, which didn’t bother me—until an odd question occurred to me.

What if this guy was on the level and represented my last chance to get married and have children (albeit stepchildren)?

When I was younger assumed that I would marry and have children someday. It’s fairly certain now—although of course nothing in the world is absolutely certain—that I won’t.

In general, I’m happy with my old-maid existence. I have friends and family whom I love and who love me. I work hard but love my work. I don’t have any romance per se in my life, but, frankly. it has been so long since I was in a romantic relationship that I don’t miss it all that much.

Every once in a while I think it would be nice to have someone to grow old with—or even someone a little taller than I (that category includes most of the adults in the world) to reach things on high shelves in the house.

I’m hardly ever lonely, however. And since I wasn’t really fabulous at the give and take of romance when I was young it’s hard to believe that I would be much better now. I certainly can’t imagine getting involved with a total stranger. My best relationships always started out as friendships.

Still … it’s odd to realize that I will always be an old maid without ever having chosen to be one.

I recognize that I am over the hill. I just don’t remember climbing up.

Saying Goodbye

Truffle on Her Final Afternoon

Truffle’s Final Afternoon

This morning I said goodbye to a loyal companion. My dog Truffle was only 13-1/2 years old, and because she was small I hoped to have her for 20 years or so. Fate doesn’t always fulfill our hopes, however.

I wrote here early in 2014 that Truffle had been diagnosed with Doggy Alzheimer’s Disease. I dealt with this challenge using a combination of medication, observation (some techniques worked better than others!), and patience.

Despite her dementia—and despite her eventual total blindness—Truffle had a lot of fun over the past year and a half. Together we walked, cuddled, shared meals, and entertained guests.

The fun had just about come to an end, however. Truffle’s unhappy moments each day increased, and her happy ones dwindled. In the past few weeks her nighttime fear and aggression worsened. And she started having trouble sleeping. She panted and paced on the bed, not certain where she was or what was going on.

Believing that her life was no longer a good one, I made an appointment to take her to the vet today. The prospect was daunting, particularly since I had never had to go through this process alone before. I reminded myself that my mother had managed alone several times with previous pets—in large part to spare the rest of us the pain of having to witness the death of an important family member. I tried to view her courage as a challenge.

I was with Truffle when she died. It wasn’t easy. The blindness and the dementia made her nervous although the vet, his dear assistant Robin, and I did our best to reassure her. It’s a good thing my current nutritional cleanse requires me to drink a gallon of water a day. My tear ducts need replenishing.

My friend Michael Collins accompanied me to my biweekly television appearance on Wednesday; he is a chef and made a dish on the air with me. Michael and his partner Tony recently had to say goodbye to their dog Spotty (a friend of Truffle).

I told Michael that Truffle’s time was coming, and he observed wisely that taking care of our elderly pets—and then saying goodbye to them—is the price we pay for the short but full lifetime of love they share with us. Truffle certainly fulfilled her part of that bargain. I tried to repay her with comfort and love as she left me.

We enjoyed a last outing together yesterday afternoon at the Dam, where Truffle spent many glorious summer afternoons sitting and swimming with my late mother.

With My Mother in Happier Days

With My Mother in Happier Days

Truffle no longer swam, but she waded into the water yesterday afternoon and lifted her nose to smell the grass and feel the breeze. For a minute or two, her blindness and dementia didn’t matter. She found herself in a familiar environment, in what my neighbor Ruth calls a person’s (or a dog’s) “happy place.”

The Dam is my happy place as well. I did swim, and the experience was refreshing. Gliding through the water, I saw birds swoop down to take a drink. Wading to shore, I noted that the tadpoles were getting bigger. And so I was reminded that life goes on.

I have taken final swims at the Dam with beloved dogs in the past, and with luck I will swim there again someday with another dog. Yesterday the experience helped both Truffle and me reconnect with nature and with each other.

I think it helped me get through today’s ordeal, to say goodbye to my old friend as gracefully and generously as I could. Predictably, Truffle was as sweet in dying as she was in living.

Truffle with heartweb

Turning Five

I'm not sure how old I was in this photo--but it can't be a lot more than five!

I’m not sure how old I was in this photo–but it can’t be a lot more than five!

Tears flooded my pillow on the eve of my fifth birthday.

Lying in my bed on Lawn Ridge Road in Orange, New Jersey, I couldn’t stop thinking about the milestone to come. First I would be five, I reasoned. And then I would be twenty. And then I would be old. My life was almost over.

In vain my mother reassured me that five year olds all over the world appeared happy with their lot—and that I had quite a few years to go before my life ended. I refused to believe her. It was hours before I fell asleep, exhausted with worry.

I repeated the pattern when I turned ten. My mother, who had spent many years as an elementary school teacher, tried to convince me that ten was one of the best ages a person could turn.

In retrospect, I realize that she was right. Ten is a golden year, when children are secure and knowledgeable and coordinated, and their hormones haven’t kicked in to confuse things. At nine years and 364 days, however, I was convinced that the next day I would have one foot in the grave. Maybe even a foot and a half.

Over the years, I learned to handle my fear of aging. Having noticed that the numbers divisible by five seemed the most daunting, I decided at the age of 20 never to reach one of those numbers again. When the calendar wanted me to turn 25, I turned 24 for the second time. The next year I went straight to 26. I stayed there for a while; 26 seemed like a good age.

Eventually, I stopped changing ages altogether. I still celebrated my birthday—who doesn’t love a birthday party?—but I eventually established a practice of turning 39 year after year after year. If it was good enough for Jack Benny, it was good enough for me.

I could probably find a therapist to explain and treat my fear of aging. I’m no dummy, however, and I’m pretty sure I understand the cause of this phobia. I was very smart at a very early age. As a consequence, for the first 20 years or so of my life I was generally the youngest person in my social set to enter a grade in school or play a role in a play or read a “grownup” book or learn a mathematical skill.

I defined myself by my youth. Any threat to that youth—and the calendar is the ultimate threat to youth—seemed to threaten my essence.

I spent most of my life worrying about aging. When at the age of 27 I saw the first gray hairs glinting on my head in the rearview mirror of my car I almost ran the car off the road in panic.

I called my mother to tell her about this incident. At the time she was in her 60s and still had NO gray hair. (I inherited my father’s hair; he looked like a brillo pad for much of his life.) “Is the car all right?” she asked.

I was indignant. “Your daughter’s hair is turning gray, and all you care about is a mechanical device?” I huffed into the phone.

I soon found that l’Oreal could help me with the gray hair—but not with the aging.

I often identified with a line near the end of Richard II in which the doomed king muses, “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”

A couple of years ago, my fear of aging began to abate.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)--but happy.

A recent photo. DEFINITELY old(er)–but happy.

I had just finished Pulling Taffy, my memoir about caring for my mother in her last years when she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. I spoke at women’s clubs, church groups, and senior centers about the strategies I had developed over time for caring for her and the lessons we had learned together.

One evening during the question-and-answer session that followed one of my talks a woman thanked me for the knowledge I was sharing, noting that she would put it to good use.

It suddenly hit me that the most valuable part of my talks—and indeed the most valuable part of me—was the experience and knowledge I had developed over the years.

I would no longer be the youngest in most of the circles I would frequent. But I could try to be one of the wisest, I realized.

Now I believe that I haven’t wasted time. I have invested it. My wrinkles aren’t signs of decay. They are signs of life.

I have to admit that I’m still officially 39. And I’m not allowing my hair to go gray. One has one’s standards to uphold.

I no longer get upset if someone accidentally looks at my driver’s license and discovers my birth year, however. I have too many things to do, too many new things to learn, and too many lessons to share.

When I REALLY become old (in 30 years or so), I’ll be awesome.

Meanwhile, I have come to appreciate age everywhere, particularly in fiction, where older characters often have some much more … well … character than youthful heroes and heroines.

Don’t most people, secretly, prefer Endora to Samantha in Bewitched? I certainly do. She’s much more colorful, much more dramatic, much more fun. And she’s not afraid of her own powers….

endoraweb

Another Birthday

My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

Stasis and Movement

perfectwaterweb

Now that spring is bumping its way into view I long for summer. I think part of us (part of me, anyway) never loses the Platonic ideal of that season we developed when we were children. When I think of summer I think of long, sunny days in which I have nothing to do but please myself and grow—days of swimming and dreaming and playing with friends.

In reality as an adult I juggle work and social obligations daily during the summer months. Still, I try to spend at least a few minutes of each afternoon sitting at my neighbors’ magical dam. I let my mind wander and soak up the joys of sun and water.

The dam today doesn’t look much different from the dam of my youth. The sound of the water flowing toward and over it is the eternal sound of my childhood. Resting by the dam, or gliding through the water with a breaststroke, I feel as though time has stood still.

Of course, time—like the water—is always moving. It’s one of life’s paradoxes that even when we think we are at rest, as I believe I am now typing this into my laptop with my dog Truffle snoozing at my side, humans and the cosmos are moving in myriad ways. Our globe spins on its axis and rotates around the sun. The sun and its solar system move around the Milky Way. Everything in the universe expands every second.

Similarly, the dam, which I think of as always the same, is transformed from instant to instant as thousands of drops of water whiz by. The very sound that symbolizes eternity for me—the sound of water flowing—is the sound of change.

Maybe change is the point. Perhaps the reason I so love the dam and summer is not because they are always the same but because they are, like life, always on the move. They breathe with me … nourish me … play with me. They remind me that we are most centered when we are busiest.

Come to think of it, I don’t have to wait until summer to regain the feeling of childhood. All I have to do is strive to be more aware of the ways in which stasis and movement coexist—and the spirit of youth, of learning and play and dreaming, will fill me.

I won’t tell Truffle about this just now, however. She is enjoying the illusion that she is at rest while napping.

Let sleeping dogs lie.

Let sleeping dogs lie.