Monday, August 31, 2009

From Candelaria Silva: Technology Connects the Family

Candelaria Silva gave me permission to repost her essay on how the internet has helped her to stay in touch with her grandchildren and enriched her life in innumerable ways.

If you are reading this you are probably internet savvy, but you might have friends or relatives who might benefit from her post. You can learn more about Candelaria at her website at

I have been emailed and IMed. I’ve been “friended” on FaceBook, My Space, Plaxo and Shelfari (my virtual bookcase). I have been Linked In. Couldn’t live without Skype or My Family and Ancestry accounts. I’ve been tested through texting and texted myself – although I still resist twittering. All of this technology has connected my far-flung family especially across the generations. Or rather I should say it has connected those family members who use the computer and its communication, social networking, resource sharing and data/info gathering capabilities

My daughter’s internet search skills uncovered a half-sister I didn’t know I had and found my biological father whom I hadn’t heard from (or even thought was alive) for 40 years. She is the keeper of the family tree on and has gathered photos from relatives via postal-mail that do not have email or computers that she uploads onto the My Family and Ancestry accounts. She has traced the family on her father’s side back into slavery times with the aid of on-line resources. Her activities have gotten some of our computer-phobic relatives to get on board.

On Facebook I have been pleasant surprised by the number of connection requests I've received from many of my children’s childhood friends who remember the special meals, overnights and adventures we shared and reach out to connect to “Miss Silva” as they call me (no matter how many times I told them to say, “Msssss. Silva” because I haven’t “missed” anything).

The webcam and the application Skype have allowed me to reach across the miles and read books to my granddaughter, sing songs with her, watch her as she twirls around and takes a bow, or just plays in the background as my daughter and I have a virtual visit. My granddaughter knows me and is not shy when we see each other face-2-face. I AM HER NOT-SO-DISTANT GRANDMOTHER AFTER ALL! Skype also allows me to look into my drama-prone daughter’s face and see how she is really doing beyond what her words say.

Getting the rest of the family to Skype has not proven easy and I’m talking about the ones who already have computers. You would think I was asking them to fly to the moon. Except for two cousins, who also happen to be sisters, none of the family has gotten on board. We do, however, have an Uncle who forwards every joke and rumor on the internet. He doesn’t write messages or notes himself, rather he passes along jokes. Expecting this I can open them or not. This is his way of staying connected. Before he got a computer, we never heard from him at all. Other relatives will occasionally upload a photo every now and again. Still others are sharing recipes.
In the past year, my siblings have now begun to communicate more regularly via email than they ever did with postal mail. The three of us used email to plan the surprise party we gave my mother and stepfather for their 75th and 81st birthdays, respectively. It was an efficient way to share research, organize the details and update progress.

Technology is neutral; it is we users who determine its value. I have noticed that younger family members and friend play more with technology in ways that seem frivolous and often too revealing to me. I don’t want “ghetto snacks” or “to see what kind of gangsta I am” and other applications on Facebook. I have disconnected with many people who sent too many updates. Most of my family and friends within my age range use technology to communicate longer thoughts and ideas and rarely engage in shorthand statements. I recognize and work with our generational differences. At least we are communicating!

Internet technology is my friend and when it isn’t, I love the fact that it has an off-button that I can use to keep it from encroaching on real interactions in real time. The internet is keeping my family connected and shortens the physical distance that separates us. Before too long, I know that I will have my mother, sister, brother and son on Skype and we will get to see each other’s faces whenever we want and not just the once or twice a year when we are in the same place. I also anticipate it becoming commonplace for us to video conferencing capabilities to share weddings, graduations, and other events when cost and time concerns prevent some of us from getting to special events.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Kennedys, Obama’s Eulogy: What it all means to this aging activist

Watching the film clips about the Kennedys was like re-living my life. I came of age in the 60’s when the world was changing in all kinds of wonderful ways—racial barriers breaking down, patriarchy challenged, opportunities opening for women. The Kennedys were sometimes given credit for the incredible sense of possibility of those days, but the Kennedy brothers were responding to something bubbling up from the ground.

Life was not kind to us 60’s activists. As we entered our middle years with all the inevitable personal disappointments (marriages failing, career goals unrealized), we also had to deal with all those dreams from the 60’s crashing down. The long backlash against the 60’s which began with Nixon turned into a full scale assault with the election of Ronald Reagan, followed by all the disappointments and missed opportunities of the Clinton years and then the eight year horror of George W Bush .

But Ted Kennedy kept fighting the good fight through it all. As the years passed, I grew to respect and value him more and more. His last gift to us was his early support for Barack Obama, who may not have won the primary without it.

I never thought I would live long enough to see the election of an African- American president. I was an early Obama. supporter, although I didn’t come out of the closet until after Iowa. (As a NOW chapter president it was a little dicey.) Ted Kennedy and Carolyn Kennedy’s early support gave me (and no doubt many others) hope that Obama could make it.

With Obama’s election, I experienced for the first time in many long years that sense of social possibility I had not felt since the 60’s. (Granted that optimism is tempered by the enormity of the problems Obama inherited.)

And that sense of social possibility includes gender equality as well as racial equality. Watching all those film clips of Jacqueline Kennedy, I could not help but think of the dramatic contrast with Michelle Obama. Jacqueline Kennedy was beautiful in an almost unreal fashion model sense, but a deferential wife with her wispy little girl voice, silently enduring her husband's serial philandering. Michelle Obama is beautiful in a strong, athletic real woman sense, a Harvard trained lawyer with a confident voice, in a marriage which is clearly a loving partnership.

We have come a really long way. The long backlash against the 60’s appears to be finally over. Sure we have the crazy birthers and the tea-baggers. There are enough of them to create a lot of noise, but not enough to muster an electoral majority.

There is so much work to be done. It’s tragic that that Kennedy did not live long enough to see national health care passed. Let’s hope that his memory inspires others.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reflections of another 60 something gardener

From my good friend Fran Waksler:

My first serious gardening took place in a tiny plot behind our rented apartment. It didn’t allow for much scope but gave me a place to practice gardening. When we bought our house in Cambridge, MA, room for a garden was essential and we managed to get a place two house lots big. The yard, however, was a disaster. As I was looking at it and deliberating over where to begin, my friend and contractor came up and said, “You know what this yard needs?” “What?” “An old car on cement blocks.” He was right, that was the condition of the yard.

The back yard is now pretty much the way I want it—lawn, ferns, trees (a birch, a redbud, a crabapple), clematis gone wild, phlox, beach plums and grape vines (for jelly)--no longer suitable for an old car on cement blocks.

One of my many first projects, and one with which I am particularly pleased, was the narrow path on the north side of the house. It was overgrown with tangles of tall weeds. There was scraggly grass down the middle, impossible to mow because of limited space, sharing the path with moss. I finally decided that I would get rid of the grass and encourage the moss. It took a few years of weeding the moss of grass—fortunately I find weeding relaxing and rewarding—but now the path needs only minimal work. The heat has been hard on it this year, and I’m always walking on it, but rain—and an occasional application of sour milk--eventually brings it back.

The Concord grapevine grew from cuttings from a vine in the back yard that I threw on the north side to compost and then forgot about. Neglect can be a wonderful friend. The vine now has its own arched trellis and provides even more grapes for jelly. It fights with the wisteria but with pitiless pruning both behave themselves. And the ferns need little care, just an occasional curb to their enthusiasm.

I’ve never seen chaos in Karen’s garden, just lush abundance. Unlike Karen, however, who “wants to pack in as many plants as possible”, I think of myself as a minimalist. I like lots of green, even if the dogs playing means that I never have quite as much lawn as I’d like. Fortunately the volunteers (phlox, petunias, and—lucky me—clematis) in the back and front yards work to counteract my somewhat bland inclinations.

What has been most useful to me as I garden on in my 60s? A chiropractor, a homeopath, 3 days a week at the gym, a battery-operated lawnmower, a kneeling pad, sharp pruning sheers, and a realization that I’ll always be running behind and that’s ok.

I never had the ambitious garden that Karen had so I’ve stayed with some flowers but lots of green—grass, ferns, moss. I still do some things the old way (in line with my still drying clothes on a line instead of in a dryer).

My current project is handweeding the lawn—labor intensive but very rewarding. I thought it might be a crazy thing to do, but my arborist, who is in his 80s, said that’s how they always did it in the old days. No weed killer and lots of compost if I get to the weeds before they seed.

It’s been 36 years now and I’m still hoping to get caught up. Every year I fall short of what I hope to accomplish. Still, when I sit in the yard in the morning with my coffee I try to refuse the impulse to take stock of what needs doing and appreciate what’s doing thriving. I’ll try to take Karen’s advice: accept imperfection.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

More reflections of a 60 something gardener

My gardening ideal: The English Cottage Garden

Supposedly one of the consolations of getting older is that people get less neurotic as they age. I don’t know if I’m less neurotic in general, but I sure am less neurotic as a gardener.

For one thing I don’t obsess about dead plants. My guess is that I’ve lost about one third of what I’ve planted. From my unscientific survey of other gardeners, this seems to be par for the course. I’ve accepted the fact that some plants (like some people) sicken and die before their time. It happens.

Also, I can deal with the fact that some of my friends think my garden is a chaotic mess. I’m more likely to get a negative reaction to my front garden since I eliminated the lawn several years ago. I get comments like, “this is a jungle!” or "this garden has no rhyme nor reason!” I really did try to plan the front garden with a restrained color scheme and repeated groupings of plants, but sometimes my friends just see chaos.

I’m the kind of gardener who wants to pack in as many plants as possible. Whereas some see a jungle, I see a wondrous profusion or (for all you English majors out there) what my husband refers to as “Uncorrupted Nature's omnipollent benefaction.”

Austere Japanese gardens have always left me cold; I love the colorful jumble of an English cottage garden. If my attempts to recreate an English cottage garden in my back yard fall short, so be it. I enjoy every minute playing around in my imperfect garden.

And those imperfections include the holes slugs chew in my hosta leaves, black spot on the roses, and powdery mildew on the phlox. I don’t use pesticides. There have been quite a few times when I’ve had a particularly bad infestation and I decided I'd had enough of this organic gardening.

I’d go to a garden center and came home with some toxic substance, but then I would lose my nerve. Sure I wanted to get rid of the thrips on my glads, but I didn’t want to harm all the birds and butterflies.

This pattern of buying deadly poisons and then shrinking from actually using them has been repeated many times. I now have a cabinet filled with really toxic stuff that I need to figure out how to safely dispose of. But I am no longer tempted to seek a final solution for my garden pests and don’t expect to be buying deadly poison again!

So my garden tips: accept imperfection. Plants will die and gardens will sometimes get out of control despite your best efforts. A chewed leaf or two is worth it to keep the birds, butterflies and beneficial insects happy!

It took me a lot longer than it should have to get to this state of acceptance, but I think I’m there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gardening in one’s 60’s

Rudbeckia, an indestructible perennial which blooms for about 6 weeks

Phlox, another indestructible perennial which blooms for about 6 weeks

In my early 40’s I developed a passion for gardening. Unfortunately, my gardening mania developed after my husband and I bought a house with a tiny backyard. We liked the house, which was certainly big enough, but the yard was a postage stamp. I longed for more space. Container gardening just doesn’t do it for me.

So 17 years ago we bought a house with a large lot. Like true Philadephians, we moved just a few blocks. Philly folks tend to hunker down in a neighborhood and stay there for life. I love my Mt. Airy neighborhood and have lived here for almost all my adult life. This was my dream come true--a big Mt. Airy garden.

The lot had an overgrown perennial garden. Maybe it would be more accurate to call the flower beds weed patches with a few perennials as accents. The perennials that survived were the real tough customers—-Siberian iris, perennial geraniums, phlox, rudbeckia, orange daylilies. And many of them are still in the garden (even some of the orange daylilies providing easy care, dependable color). At this stage in my life, I am so glad I did not get rid of them and replace them with fussy, demanding, over-hybridized plants.

I thought a lot about maintaining the garden as I got older and decided to replace many of the perennials with shrubs. You can get a lot of flower power from shrubs and some like hydrangeas bloom much longer than any perennial. And, unlike perennials, shrubs don't have to be dug up and divided every few years.

For late winter I have witch hazel and fragrant honeysuckle (an ugly shrub but with fragrant flowers to die for and in February no less.) I have quince in March, purple sand cherry in early April, lilacs and azalea in late April and early May, rhodies and viburnum in mid-May, mountain laurel in June, lots of hydrangeas which begin in mid June through late August, crape myrtle in late summer, camellia in late October.

They are all easy care (except for the camellia). And unlike perennials, they don't die back to the ground every winter. Instead of bare ground, I have all these woody plants, plus lots of hollies with glossy green leaves and berries most of the winter.

So what’s the downside? Here I am—-a mature gardener surrounded by all these mature shrubs. But my energy is waning and they are all (thanks to all the compost I’ve added to the soil over the years) flourishing. The shrubs are getting enormous and crowding the remaining perennials.

I control for size by cutting back. This is easier than digging and dividing perennials, and it helps to have a male friend or family member around.

My husband doesn’t share my passion for gardening, but he really enjoys hacking away at the over grown shrubs. When my son comes to visit, the only garden work I can get him to do is chopping down branches. They both always look happy and energized when they are chopping away at the shrubs. (This is the garden chore I like least.) I'm convinced there’s a gender difference here.

So my garden advice for anyone getting on in years (or anyone who wants a low maintenance garden) plant the tough customers and plant lots of shrubs in your perennial beds. Any more ideas from other sixty something gardeners out there?

Stay tuned: More old age gardening tips to come!

Monday, August 17, 2009

The cicadas are singing a different song this year

The cicadas are singing a different song this year!

My friend Fran Waksler sent a long, very interesting comment which may get lost in the comments section so I’m posting it as a separate blog post.

Her response to the cicadas was very similar to mine. Every August I felt they were taunting me with their song that I heard as: “You have to go back to work. You have to go back to work.” Like Fran, this year I am hearing a different song.

From Fran:

I’ve just read all the posts on your blog/website and found them fascinating. It led me to consider my retirement so I’m sending along some thoughts which you sparked.

Every year the cicadas start singing on August 1. They always made me sad because it meant the summer was over and it was time to go back to school. I actually enjoyed the teaching itself, but increasingly the administrative oppression got to me. This year I happily looked forward to the cicadas and their signaling my new-found freedom, but, perversely, the cicadas made me wait. Finally they started on August 11. What a restful sound.

Retirement is both a pleasure and a relief. Although I was at the same college for many years, in some sense I was always an outsider in terms of the faculty (not, fortunately, in the view of students.) My stress level has decreased markedly since I retired in December.

A newly-retired friend described my feelings exactly when she said, “I wonder how I ever had time to go to work.” I’ve been writing, reading gardening, dog training., and going to the gym 3 days a week.

I was able to write an article reflecting on the visit of first graders to a college sociology class (a yearly event for 13 years), get a philosophical/sociology book off to publishers, also sent out to publishers a children’s book I wrote, am looking for a publisher for a friend’s autobiography of her abusive childhood which I helped her write, am almost finished with another sociology article, and have a long list of next projects. I always found time to write but never found time to tackle the job of finding publishers and the process that my husband describes as sending out “applications for rejection.” Now, however, I’m determined to find homes for my writing.

I too categorize my reading: theoretical works in philosophy and sociology that push me and that I have a tendency to get lazy about tackling; an odd assortment of nonfiction that includes semipopular scientific accounts, e.g., evolution, scientific frauds, antipsychology rants, gardening, dogs and dog training; and right now lots of mystery stories, my particular weakness.

The only thing I’ve found difficult is that there still doesn’t seem to be enough time for everything. I thought I’d have lots of uninterrupted time, but life continues to bring interruptions. Fortunately there is always tomorrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.

I’ve been making up my list of must reads and weighing the merits of rereading old favorites vs. reading new books. In a similar vein, my husband and I have been making lists of places we want to revisit and places we have never been to. When you’re in your 60’s, there are no longer limitless expanses of time; choices have to be made. Will some of the old favorite vacation spots disappoint just as some of those once beloved books fell short?

I can’t imagine ever saying to myself, “I don’t know what I ever saw in Paris or Rome, or Provence or Tuscany. There are places I’ve got to go back to and am sure won’t disappoint. (Affording them is another matter.)

I have had a travel experience similar to my disappointment with books I fell in love with when young. Several years ago, my husband and I went to Argentina and Santiago de Chile. I fell in love with Chile (or rather with the sense of social possibility I found there) when I spent about 5 weeks there in 1972. I spent a lot of time with young activists who supported the Allende government. We spent our evenings going to coffee houses to hear La Cancion Nueva—a hauntingly beautiful hybrid of Spanish and Andean folk music.

When the Allende government was overturned in a brutal coup on September 11, 1973, I was stunned. Everyone I met was pro-Allende. How could this have happened? Some of the idealistic young people I met probably wound up tortured and killed by Pinochet.

Off and on over the years, I listened to the music (the Parra family, Victor Jara, Inti-Illimani) and was thrilled when Michelle Bachelet (who was one of Pinochet’s victims) was elected president.

I went back in search of the remnants of that culture. The coffee houses were gone (and despite the election of Michelle Bachelet) there seemed to be no trace of the once vibrant Chilean left. I thought I must be looking in all the wrong places, but a sociology professor I met in Buenos Aires confirmed that that there was in fact not much left. “The repression was total,” as he put it.

One of my guide books mentioned “a human rights legacy tour.” It was a very expensive tour and I thought it might be too left wing for my husband, but he was willing, so we signed up despite the steep price.

We were the only people on the tour and when the guide,a woman in her late 20’s picked us up, she apologized profusely that the Pinochet Center was not open that day. I was confused—the Pinochet Center??? But this is a human rights tour! Her reply: “We want to make sure this is a balanced tour and we present both sides.”

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the tour turned out to be worth it because of the driver. He was obviously a well-educated man who spoke several languages and knew a great deal about history and the arts. We guessed that he had probably been an academic—-a man of the left who lost his job in the aftermath of the coup. Those Allende supporters lucky enough to escape with their lives usually lost their jobs.

Part of the tour involved a trip to the cemetery to see Allende’s huge, impressive tomb. I asked our driver about Violeta Parra whose music had so much influence on La Cancion Nueva. To my amazement, he said, “She was a friend of mine and I can take you to her grave." The cemetery was enormous and finding an individual tomb was quite a feat. It was a relatively modest tomb and there were some flowers indicating that she was remembered.

He told us the tragic story of her death. Violeta fell in love with a much younger man who left her for a younger woman. She committed suicide. I was familiar with her story but did not know what happened to the man who abandoned her. According to our driver, he married the young woman and they had several children, a very happy marriage, and both were still alive and well. That was not exactly what I wanted to hear.

I asked our driver if folksinger Victor Jara, who had been brutally murdered by the Pinochet government, was buried in the cemetery. He said I can take you to his grave. We went to a much poorer part of the cemetery and there was just a little box with Victor Jara’s ashes and no sign that he was remembered. (I later learned that at least the justice system remembered him; one of the men involved in his murder was recently captured.)

Now what were the chances of our signing sign up for tour with a driver who could take us to Violeta Parra’s and Victor Jara’s grave sites???

One more amazing coincidence occurred. We signed up for an overpriced wine tour. A meal at a tourist trap restaurant was included in the price. As we settled down to a not very good meal, a man in his mid to late 60’s walked in with his guitar. He had a long gray ponytail, shabby clothes and looked like a down on his luck 60’s hippie.

But then he started to sing “Rin del Angelito ” one of Violeta Parra’s most famous songs. His voice was powerful, expressive—probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard. (Hear Violetta sing it at

After all my failed searches for remnants of the Chilean left, I finally stumbled on it in this unlikely venue. I wanted to ask him to sing more Violeta Parra songs, but decided against it. It was clear he was there to earn spare change from tourists and singing more of Violeta’s mournful songs would probably not help him. (One of her most famous songs “Gracias a la Vida, popularized by Joan Baez can be heard at

Despite the election of Michelle Bachelet, the Chile I remembered was dead. Santiago was filled with ugly high rise apartment buildings, but the ring of shanty towns surrounding the city was still there--although the poverty did not seem quite as horrendous as I remembered it. There probably has been some trickle down.

Anyway, the trip to Santiago was much more of a disappointment than my rereads of Russian classics. The moral (if any): of the story: Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vacation Reading or how many trips to Block Island will it take before I finish re-reading War and Peace?

A friend of mine said, “There’s no such thing as vacation reading for you now that you're retired. Now you’re always on vacation.”

Well, not exactly. All my life I’ve kind of divided reading into 2 groups: work and pleasure. There was overlap; books I read for pleasure sometimes wound up in my courses.

Bur despite the blurred boundaries, there was always this divide. Now that I am retired, I have my history of second wave feminism in Philly in the work category (more about that later) and the books I cart to the beach in the pleasure box.

The pleasure reading is in two categories: books I want to re-read before I check out and books I’ve never read. For some reason, I’ve been drawn to the re-reading category.

A few years ago I started with Dostoyevsky. I spent my adolescence devouring 19th century Russian novels. Sad to say, re-reading Crime and Punishment was a horrible disappointment. I barely got though it.

Next, I tried Anna Karenina. Reading it through a feminist lens was a very different experience than reading it as a teenager in the early 60’s. And I found Levin (the Tolstoy alter-ego character) insufferable.

Then I decided to tackle the highlight of my teenage years and brought War and Peace to Block Island last year (It’s not that I had such great literary taste as a teen. I also loved Gone with the Wind. I was drawn to big books with tons of characters.)

War and Peace worked out better than my other Russian re-reads. I’m in awe of Tolstoy's skill at portraying his characters’ mixed motives and the contradictory ideas they manage to hold in their heads at the same time. But despite my admiration for his genius, I only got through about ¼ of the book. When I got home I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for a year. And this was the book I once stayed up all night reading!

I brought War and Peace to Block Island again this summer and got to about the mid-point. I enjoyed it even more this summer but haven’t picked up the book since I returned. How many trips Block Island will it take before I finish re-reading War and Peace?

Anyone have experiences re-reading beloved books? Did they stand up to the memories???