Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Day at Ground Zero

On this day six years ago, I boarded a bus full of volunteers and headed downtown to the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. The plan was to unload a truck filled with bottles of water and then return to St. Vincent's Hospital. As we neared the disaster site, the glorious color of that perfect fall day faded to ashy gray. You couldn't tell the air from the ground.

After the water was unloaded, I thought I might be of more use, so when the bus headed back uptown, I stayed. The rest of the afternoon I spent offering sandwiches to rescue workers so dusted in ash that they looked as if they'd been rolled in powdered sugar. No one wanted the sandwiches. During breaks the powdered sugar men just sat and stared. Once I realized that I wasn't serving any useful purpose, I began to feel like a voyeur. I hitched a ride back uptown in an ambulance ferrying a couple of firemen to their station.

That was it. I didn't set eyes on The Pile again until there was no pile left, only a hole in the ground. Yet 18 months later, mysterious things started happening. I couldn't breathe and my skin turned the color of cement. I could barely swallow and lost 10 pounds in three weeks. I had to rest in the middle of climbing subway stairs. There was nothing wrong with me, according to the doctors I consulted. Chest x-ray, sonograms, cardiac exams-all came back negative.

Slowly I improved, even gaining back the lost 10 pounds. Then new symptoms developed. I started coughing and clearing my throat every minute or so. This time the doctors came up with a flood of diagnoses - laryngeal reflux, sinusitis, vocal cord dysfunction - followed by a bunch of treatments -- medication, surgery, voice therapy.

Somewhere in there I began to get inklings that the source of my health problems might not be so mysterious after all. Although I was only at the World Trade Center site that one day, it was on Day Two. I began to read reports that the first three days had been the most critical period for exposure to the toxic cloud. (On Day Four the air was washed by rain.) When I asked my doctors if there could be any connection, they deemed it highly unlikely. I had a hard time believing it myself. Still, my constellation of diagnoses was exactly in line with those that first responders were reporting.

Eventually I called the World Trade Center Health Registry at Bellevue, which in September 2003 began tracking the health of people exposed to the collapse of the Twin Towers. I expected to be told that my exposure was too brief to have been significant. Instead, after a 30-minute telephone survey, I became one of the study's enrollees.

I had a follow-up physical a few months ago, and the report was good. My "WTC cough" is mostly gone and I got an A in lung function. Others in the study haven't been so lucky.

I got sick because I was breathing the acutely toxic air of the first days and probably also because I was particularly susceptible. But my exposure to the smoke and dust only lasted a few hours, while rescue workers breathed the contaminated air for months. Many have developed long-lasting, serious illnesses.

A year ago, a major study affirmed a connection between pervasive health problems and the dust at Ground Zero. Last week the New York Times published an article undermining those conclusions. It reported on a continuing debate about how harmful the dust actually was. Critics contend that the study overstated the extent of the ailments by conflating those who reported lower-respiratory problems with others who merely had itchy eyes and runny noses.

Yet even allowing for this statistical error, the study still reveals a strong link between breathing toxins and serious illness. Subtract the workers with runny noses, you are left with nearly 50 percent of rescue workers reporting potentially grave symptoms.

Evidence of a different kind can be found on a message board set up by The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. There ailing policemen and other first responders ask each other questions like, "Has anyone else developed lung nodules?" "What about sarcoidosis?" They trade names of physicians and tell heartbreaking stories about lost vitality. “I was a non-smoker all my life,” writes one, “and was not exposed to toxins with the exception of Ground Zero. I was ALWAYS healthy and very active.” “No one seems all that concerned,” says another, “except that I can't walk up a flight of stairs without taking a rest.”

Like those who lost their lives in the WTC attack, ailing rescue workers are victims of 9/11. They may represent only half of Ground Zero workers, but they deserve support, not skepticism. Now that the projected cost of the World Trade Center memorial has climbed to nearly $1 billion, there is no reason to grudge continuing care for the injured and sick.

The Class of 9/11

In the months after my daughter was born, I was as boring as any new mother. Preoccupied with the arcana of baby care, I readily shared my findings with anyone who cared to listen— mainly other new mothers. To anyone else, I must have seemed like an animatronic theme park figure, intoning product names as if they were prayers. (Desitin? A miracle!)

That was in the daytime. During the long hours of the night, my anxiety over diaper rash was revealed to be merely a cover for what was really on my mind: the terrors of history. Feeling vulnerable as a newborn myself, I became obsessed with reimagining historical atrocities, one after another. It felt like important work, like something a mother should do. Between baby feedings, the killing fields of the 20th century emerged from dark corners of my mind. Dachau. Cambodia. Ypres. Stalingrad. Now I understood what the stakes were, and I was sick with grief and despair. Those things had happened to somebody's children! History was the enemy of mothers; that was certain.

And history always wins. The moment the planes pierced the towers on September 11, 2001, my daughter and her generation of high school seniors came into their collective identity. Just as they were mulling over college application essay topics, they were abruptly handed their lives' true subject, a long-range assignment with no foreseeable due date.

My mother's stories about Pearl Harbor and mine about the Kennedy assassination paled before this new life-defining horror; The "where were you when" question belonged most urgently to my daughter's peers. "Physics lab," Kate will recall for her own children. "I could see the smoke from the window."

At commencement that spring, the speaker didn't exhort the graduates to wear sunscreen or thank their mothers. Instead he spoke about the World Trade Center attack, and reflected on the heavy consequences of that dark event going forward. He dubbed high school graduates of 2001 the "Class of 9/11."

The students didn't like it of course, but now, as the sixth anniversary of the attack nears, it's clearer than ever that the commencement speaker was right. The class of 9/11 faces a grim generational inheritance. We are engaged in an unwinnable war, with more in the offing.

When my daughter and her friends graduated from college a year ago this spring, they were free to make plans that did not include reporting for combat duty. Since there is no draft and since she chose not to enlist, I am spared the sleepless nights of soldiers' mothers. But I watch the war on television, and I know something I didn't quite grasp before my daughter was born: these terrible things are happening to somebody's children.

9/11 Fatigue? A Modest Proposal

As it has been for past five years, the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center was much in the news. This year, though, there is a public debate about whether the time has come to move on. Yes, says Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, who has been pushing the city to let go of its grief. No, says Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security. “Some people ask the question: . . . has the time come to move on? I will tell you that as long as I draw a breath, I will not move on and neither will the . . . people in my department.”

I’m with the mayor. I feel sympathy for the victims’ relatives, and believe they should have fitting ceremonies to commemorate the tragic day. But I don’t think they are well served by perpetually channeling their grief into disputes over how their loved ones will be memorialized. And I don’t think anybody is well served by massive granite monuments dedicated to the 9/11 dead. (In general I think all memorials should either be impermanent or in the form of parks that encourage quiet contemplation.)

The attack on the World Trade Center already has the most affecting memorial I have ever seen anywhere. Every year, during the days surrounding 9/11, twin towers of light are beamed into the sky over New York. Every time I see them they take my breath away and I remember.

I have another idea for a memorial, one that might also help the victims’ families to move on. Instead of funneling huge sums into concrete remembrances, why not use those funds to succor the living, the men and women who risked their lives at Ground Zero and who are now gravely ill. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to those who perished would be to care for the people who tried to save them.

The Favor Bank

Who's on your caseload these days? And whose caseload are you on?

If the answers are no one and no one, you must be holed up in a cave in the Hindu Kush. Because unless you live in total seclusion, you're bound to get asked to lend a hand sometimes -- to write a recommendation, advise on a consumer purchase, pass along the name of a good doctor, suggest a great restaurant, console a lovelorn friend, read a manuscript, and so on. And then sometimes you're the one in need of a favor. That is when you mentally review your friends and acquaintances and decide who's the right one to ask.

Since each of us has our own needs and our own areas of expertise, the help you give may not resemble the help you get. My best friend, for example, is proficient in Tender Loving Care. My strong point is research - no subject too obscure. Just recently I found an acupuncturist in Wollongong, Australia for my friend's daughter, who has developed foot pains during her semester abroad.

Whatever your specialty, it's all part of the same karmic Favor Bank. One year someone advises your child on the process of applying for college; the next year you do the same for someone else's. Sometimes total strangers come around asking for advice.

My husband regularly counsels people who've heard through the grapevine that he succeeded in navigating the bureaucratic maze necessary to claim dual Italian citizenship. (Possible if your father or mother was born before your Italian grandfather was naturalized.)

When I had a rare pregnancy complication, I sought the advice of anyone I could think of. Later, I wrote about it and for years afterwards I heard from women in a similar situation. I was happy to take their calls because people had done the same for me.

Such favors help make the world a gentler place, so you make time for them even when your taxes are late or you're about to leave for a trip or your kitchen's being remodeled.

Last week my case load consisted of: a college friend of my daughter's who's working on a book and wants advice about agents; a friend of a friend who's celebrating a big birthday in New Orleans and asks for a list of the best places to hear music; a work acquaintance needing a doctor for her son who is a student here in New York.

So whose caseload was I on this month? I had to plan a party for 40, and anxious hostess that I am, I needed reassuring guidance. My friend who throws great parties, apparently effortlessly, came through with useful suggestions and general anxiety-soothing. When the day of the party dawned cold and rainy - the only such day all summer - he called to say, never mind the weather, it will be a great party anyway. And it was.

"You Are Soo Good at What You Do"

Of all my many million dollar ideas (which so far have failed to earn a dime), the ones I like best involve patting yourself on the back. We need all the praise we can get. But no matter how much we may prompt our loved ones, even the most devoted among them can't lay it on thick enough. Or often enough. Or in enough specific detail.

My latest variation on this "can't-miss" theme is the Positive Reinforcement Fortune Cookie.

This is more or less the business plan: How great would it be if we could get all the acclaim we need exactly when we need it? From a cookie. Had a hideous day at the job? Been dissed? Been dumped? Our customized Positive Reinforcement Fortune Cookies are there for you.

To applaud your brilliance, your beauty, your putting prowess, your key lime pie, your wit, your writing. Whatever floats your boat. You choose the appropriate adulatory messages from our prepared list or write your own. We'll bake them into Positive Reinforcement Fortune Cookies, ready to be cracked open whenever you need a boost.

As all bright ideas must these days, the Positive Reinforcement Fortune Cookie has potential for an Internet counterpart. Imagine being able to click on a virtual Fortune Cookie, in the form of an icon on your desktop, and up pops an admiring message.

Here's a start on the list.

I've never heard such an incisive analysis.

My, you are a handsome woman.

That was awesome.

Nice arms!

You are a rock star!

You're much cooler than all the other moms / dads.

How did you raise such a well-mannered child?

You're HOW OLD? I don't believe it!

How DO you do it?!


Any other ideas?

Ann's List

This is the phase of life when, if you’re not careful, you become more like yourself. And not in a good way. You always do this. You never do that. Everyone knows these things; you’re famous for certain quirks:

You never wear hats, they make you look short.

It’s not a vacation unless you head south.

No weird ingredients in the turkey stuffing; stick with the Pepperidge Farm recipe.

Horror fiction? The genre of arrested development.

Kung Fu movies? Forget it.

Crossword puzzles? Could there be a bigger waste of time?

Harmless prejudices all. Why not just indulge them? The clay has been hardening for years, after all, and who cares if you refuse to wear a hat. The problem is that unless you keep shaking yourself up, pretty soon you’re as set in your ways as a toddler who refuses to eat anything but food that is white. So maybe it’s time to rethink the turkey-stuffing thing, add some pine nuts. Rent Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Or whatever.

I've been rethinking my own personal "don't go there" list recently and have come up with a few things I might be willing to reconsider. Here's the short list:

1. Try Sudoku.

Despite urging from family members, I have avoided this craze on the grounds that it looks stupid, boring and hard. And it involves numbers.

2. Cook fish.

I like fish when prepared by others, and am constantly promising myself to put it on the home menu. So why don’t I ever get around to it? Truthfully, I think it’s because it feels too slimy – the rawest of raw ingredients. So I'm on the lookout for unintimidating recipes.

3. Read a Stephen King novel.

Horror fiction would not seem like the ideal reading material for someone who is so squeamish she closes her eyes at any hint of screen violence. (Thus I failed to see much of the final dinner scene in the Sopranos, even though nothing happened.) Yet one of my personal favorite American movies, Dolores Claiborne, was made from a Stephen King novel, so I sense that there may be many Stephen Kings. I'm researching which of his books would be best for a sensitive newbie, given that I’m willing to skim the scariest parts

Lighting our for the Territories

Some people can spend hours browsing through a dictionary or an encyclopedia of medical symptoms or a gardening guide. But when I’m in the mood to curl up with a reference book, I go for an atlas. Leafing through my antique Hammond World Atlas, I never fail to find something new to marvel at, some fascinating geographical feature or relationship that previously had escaped my notice. Look how small Tunisia is compared to Algeria! Is that really where Brunei is – in the middle of the South China Sea? I'd pictured it half a world away, near the Persian Gulf.

Sometimes the poetry of a name draws my eye. The Adaman Islands. (They belong to India, I know, but look how close they are to Thailand.) The Limpopo River. (There's its mouth, in Mozambique!) I can still hear my father intoning in his hammiest voice Kipling's description of “the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo, all set about with fever trees.”

Samarkand has always been my favorite place name. Once a stop on the fabled Silk Road, Samarkand is now part of the Republic of Uzbekistan, and has been recognized as a site worth preserving by the United Nations. The romantic city inspired the Kipling-esque poet J.E. Flecker to write an ode to wanderlust urging travelers to push on, “Always a little further.”

When I finished school, that was my plan. No graduate school for me, I decided. I would travel instead, and mainly to countries that required visas. The idea was that I would work half the year and travel the other half. This worked out fine for a while. My earnings from a hotel job in Germany financed a journey that started with hitchhiking down the coast of Yugoslavia, skirting Albania in a tramp steamer, and sleeping in caves in Crete. (The caves were in a tiny, remote village called Matala, and some years after I visited, I read in Life Magazine that it had become a hippie haven.)

In Istanbul I almost talked myself into joining a Land Rover caravan traveling east to Nepal, but at the last moment I lost my nerve and headed West again, via Syria and Jordan.

Eventually, life intervened -- as it will. I didn't stop traveling, but I was on a shorter tether. Yet all the while I was confining my trips to school vacations, I kept a mental list of the exotic places I would go . . . someday. (I have files of dusty newspaper clippings, now absurdly out of date, on traveling through Kerala in houseboats and the best approach to Angkor Wat.)

Now, the time has come when there's nothing to curb my travel urges -- I could go anywhere. I'd always imagined that when I got to this point I'd feel like I'd been shot out of a cannon. So why am I not on the way to one of my must-see destinations yet? What's holding me back?

As a penny-pinching backpacker, I was convinced that when it came to travel, the more you paid, the less you got. I could see that many memorable experiences eluded those who were bubble-wrapped in luxury, and I vowed that that would never be me. Lighting out for the territories now, so many years later, would mean putting that youthful promise to the test, and confronting how much I have - or haven't -- changed.

Big Brother Scores Again

So the Protect America Act is now law. (What evil genius creates these names? Whoever it is, I hope the White House pays him the fortune he deserves.) It's official. The government can now spy on you pretty much at will. Your cell phone company or Internet Service Provider is under orders to aid the process.

You’re not a suspected terrorist? No problem. They can eavesdrop anyway. Email a friend in London, and you might as well copy the National Security Agency. Call your daughter in Paris? Expect to be listened in on -- no warrant necessary. Not even an after-the-fact, double-secret warrant, signed at midnight in a windowless room in the Justice Department basement.

(Even these infamous rubber stamp warrants, from the secret intelligence court were obtained under false pretenses, the Washington Post reported in March. FBI agents routinely lied in their testimony to the court, according to Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the rubber-stamper-in-chief.)

To guard against potential abuse, the Protect America Act does have an oversight provision. Attorney General and perjurer Alberto Gonzales will design safeguards and submit them for review to a secret national security court.

You couldn't make this up, as they say.

So what voodoo did the Bush White House use to put this one over on a Democratic-controlled Congress? Guess. Or just hit replay.

Imminent terrorist threat. Grave dangers to national security. Secret evidence divulged in closed-door intelligence briefings.

The press release version: Intelligence officials have detected increasing “chatter” among Al Qaeda suspects, much of which is being missed owing to draconian oversight imposed on surveillance efforts. Quick action needed to repair a dangerous situation.

If you believe this, I have some nice “yellow cake” uranium ore to sell you. Amazingly, 57 Democrats did believe it, and just handed the Bush Administration one more victory against civil liberties.

I call these credulous Congressmen the Charlie Brown Democrats. Remember the running football gag in Peanuts? Time after time Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick, and time after time she snatches it away at the last moment, causing Charlie to fly into the air and land flat on his back. Her plausible-sounding patter and creative excuses for failure always persuade him to overcome his well-founded distrust. He comes back for more. And then more. Or, as Lucy, says, "Again, Charlie Brown ... and again, and again and again.”

Here is Lucy conning Charlie Brown (courtesy of the Peanuts Collectors Club*):

"You have to learn to be trusting.”

"The odds now are really in your favor!!

"Don't you trust anyone any more?"

"I give you my bonded word."

Trade George Bush for Lucy, and you pretty much have the Administration arguments. “Trust us,” they say, and the Charlie Brown Democrats fall for it again and again and again. Charlie himself is never going to wise up, of course; he's a cartoon character. But you'd think we might expect more from (Democratic) Congressmen.


Meet My Avatar (Someday)

"Don't criticize what you can't understand." That Dylan lyric was a defiant generational manifesto directed at "Mothers and fathers / Throughout the land." Um, that would now be us. I try to keep this admonition in mind these days. So you won't find me instantly agreeing when somebody else my age denounces Second Life, one of the largest 3-D virtual reality communities, as a colossal waste of time.

Sure, it might seem that way now. So far only one friend that I know of has dabbled on Second Life. It seems that when she tried to give her avatar big boobs, she succeeded only in making her fat. (The typical female avatar, according to my friend, is so buxom as to resemble a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.)

No doubt some of our more technically advanced peers (having mastered the mysterious Second Life user interface) already inhabit fabulous, state-of-the-art Internet personas—dazzling avatars that can be found having acrobatic sex in virtual orgies. Maybe the rest of us will catch up someday, playing out our second acts on Second Life. The "old age commune" people my age imagine may come to pass not here on Earth, but in virtual reality.

Then again, it's possible that Second Life has already peaked, what with presidential candidates, marketers and even colleges turning up in the neighborhood. (The University of New Orleans has just announced that it will open a virtual campus on Second Life, where it can hold classes in the event of another major hurricane.)

All the same, I'm still curious to explore this net netherworld. On a website called "New World Notes," I find the perfect virtual Virgil, in the person of Wagner James Au. Au, who describes himself as an "embedded journalist" in Second Life, bravely posts a photo of himself next to his (handsomer) avatar. He keeps track of Second Life events, and publishes interviews with creators of some of the interesting avatars. As I skim his posts, I find myself more drawn to Second Lifers who present themselves as humans, and less so to the "furries," residents whose avatars look like squirrels or chipmunks.

The first link I click on takes me to an interview with Jason Foo, a wounded Iraq veteran. In "Post-War Reconstruction," Foo, who is unemployed, talks about the real-estate business he has started on Second Life, which earns him real money to supplement his disability pension. He has also created a Veteran Fund that accepts donations for other wounded vets trying to build new lives.

"The Skin You're In" is a post about Californian Erika Thereian. The "archetypal white girl of the world's dreams," in Au's description, Thereian spent three months on Second Life inhabiting the skin of a black woman. Her reports on the racism she encountered make me think of the famous 1961 book "Black Like Me," in which a white journalist describes his experiences passing for black in the Deep South. Except that Thereian's transformation was accomplished not with skin dye, but with the click of a mouse, and did not in any way endanger her life.

Then there is the link to "Avatars Against the War," a virtual peace demonstration timed to coincide with a real march on Washington, D.C. last January. The avatars appear to be channeling the '60s peace movement, and they have the drill down pretty well. They march on the steps of a virtual Capitol Hill chanting peace slogans and waving signs saying "Make Love Not War." I remember those aviator glasses and the American flag shirt, though not the 4-inch high heels or the black falcon perched on someone's arm. Well, maybe I remember the falcon.

Now that I've had my brief visit to Second Life, I don't plan to go back for a while. I'm nowhere near ready to be measured for my avatar, but when the time comes, I know just what she's going to look like. It will be easy to recognize her because I am going to make her flat-chested. Coming next: "Flat Like Me."

Advice: the Best and the Worst

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” goes the old country song, and I find I have accumulated a considerable store of it. Mine takes the form of memories with refrains like “I should have done this.” “That, on the other hand, was a bad idea.” “I wish I’d paid attention when…” “I’m glad I ignored. . . .” Regrets, of course, are never useful. But there’s nothing wrong with stocktaking – if only to distill hard-won wisdom for the next generation:

Advice I’m Glad I Listened to:

*Don’t get your eyebrows tattooed on.*

My mother’s housekeeper had this done and at the time it looked pretty good. Later I heard that eyebrows shift with age so you can end up with a tattoo in the wrong place.

*Spend all the time you can playing with your baby.*

I used an inheritance from my grandmother to subsidize working part-time for a couple of years after my daughter was born. I’ve never been sorry.

Advice I Didn’t Take But Wish I Had:

*Go ahead and join the Peace Corps. It will change your life.*

I applied and was accepted but chickened out in the end.

*Stand up straight.*

I know you tried, Mom, and I wish I’d paid attention. I tried with my own daughter with the exact same result.

Advice I’m Glad I Didn’t Listen to:

*Marry that law student and move to Pensacola.*

Enough said about that.

*Don't have rotator cuff surgery, the rehab is too painful.*

Yeah, but now I can swim laps and push open a door without wincing.

Advice I Shouldn’t Have Listened to but Did:

*This is the wrong time to buy an apartment.*

Maybe it’s changing now, but in my experience, real estate regret goes only one way: you should have bought and didn’t. Five years earlier, and you’d have made a fortune.

*There will be time to teach table manners later; too much stress at the dinner table can bring on anorexia.*

Some things need to be instilled in children while you are still the absolute boss. Wait until later and you’re in trouble.

Daughter Out the Door

A year after she moved back in, the brainy cocktail waitress is moving out—this time for good.

I hadn't expected her to take up residence in her old bedroom after graduating from college. Following my own graduation, I'd gone directly to Europe, drifting from one youth hostel to the next, working as a chambermaid here, a dog walker there, taking whatever low-paying jobs came my way.

When I came back to the U.S., I stayed with my parents only until they started charging me rent—a matter of weeks, as I recall. Then I moved into a garage apartment—not an apartment over a garage, but the garage itself. It had an overgrown garden with a wooden loading pallet for a deck. A screened-in porch served as the bedroom—not a problem, as the apartment was located in Coconut Grove, Florida. The monthly rent was $60.

Things are different for my daughter. Her newly graduated peers have not wandered off to foreign parts, but have instead searched for career-track jobs or enrolled in professional schools. Nobody's rent is $60 a month. To fund her job and apartment search, Cait did a lucrative stint as a cocktail waitress. Her goal was to find a "real" job, in the "save-the-world" sector of the economy. Now she has one. It comes with regular hours, health insurance, and a salary that's half of what she made serving tequila shooters and pitchers of beer.

Moving out is the next step. It's time. Having finished the grueling marathon that is a New York City apartment hunt, she's more than ready. And so am I, mostly. I look forward to reclaiming her room as a guest room, and have been debating such questions as how long to wait before I can paint over her candy-apple red walls. I'll miss her of course, but the truth is that although technically living at home, she's rarely around the house. And her new place is only a subway ride away.

Something else about her imminent departure is stirring up a storm of feelings. I remember exactly how it felt when I took that step—was it five years ago or thirty? I loved every second of setting up on my own. For the first time I was making choices without reference to the way things were done at home. I was becoming me, writing Chapter One of the life I lead now. Inside my little garage, I was free to do things my way. I might cover a wall in aluminum foil, and I did. I could decide to throw out leftovers right away, instead of storing them carefully in the refrigerator and then throwing them out. I could discover that mushrooms came fresh, as well as in cans. And as I was discovering who I was going to be, my parents were too. Most of the time, I think they took pleasure in watching my adult life unfold, surprises and all.

Last weekend I stood in our storeroom trying to imagine which of our extra belongings would pass muster in Cait's new place. Would the colorful (garish?) rug from Morocco fit in? Or the shower curtain whimsically decorated with a map of the world? What about that old wicker chair that could use repainting? I've always favored furniture that looks like it has been stored in a barn for decades, but my daughter might prefer things with no dents and scratches (patina, to me). I don't know.

It will be interesting to find out. I'm looking forward to it, surprises and all.

Have Connections, Will Share.

n an article in last Sunday's New York Times business section, columnist and lawyer Ben Stein describes a recent first class flight across the Atlantic on British Airways. Unable to fall asleep in his state-of-the-art sleeper bed, he contemplates how he came to be in such luxurious surroundings. For every step of his successful career as a journalist, attorney, presidential speech writer, and television personality, he identifies the family connection that opened the door for him. They are impressive, starting with a father who was Chairman of the Council Economic Advisors. Whatever Stein wanted to pursue next, someone in his circle “knew someone.”

Stein reveals this behind-the-scenes wheel-greasing to make a point: it isn't available to everyone. What if you don't have a well-connected father or mother?” Stein asks. “What if you are a young man or woman who has some talent and ambition but little or no idea of how to get on the ladder?” Why couldn't a cadre of well-off baby boomers mold themselves into an effective mentoring organization, he wonders. They could share their skills and connections, and possibly make a difference in many young lives. Mentoring programs already exist of course, but Stein envisions a national effort, something on the scale of the Peace Corps

Inequality is a huge problem in this country, as Stein points out. But it strikes me that this inequality involves not only money and opportunity. It's also an inequality of imagination. Before you can do something you have to imagine it, to know that it exists as a possibility. To get your foot on the ladder you have to know the ladder is there. That's where mentors can help.

Of course few people have such stellar connections as Ben Stein. My own family's were much more modest, yet they opened a door at just the right time. I was considered for my first professional job at the University of Miami publications office because my father worked in the administration there.

If all of us who ever received such a push were to get behind Stein's mentoring proposal, it would have a lot of backers. Founding this kind of project would take enormous vision and drive, of course (not to mention lots of money), but signing up volunteer mentors should be a snap. The basic idea is simplicity itself. First step: admit how much help you got coming up. Second step: turn around and help someone else. And what should the organization be called? Connections, of course.

The Summers of Love

could tell you about a summer night when I was 13. A screened-in porch at somebody's parents' beach house. Slow dancing. A very cute boy asking me to dance, a high school boy. I remember the song though not his name. I never saw him again, yet that dance was the beginning.

All of a sudden, most likely during a dip turn, I got a sense of what was about to happen in my life. The delicious feeling that enveloped me was going to stick around and be part of my future. I seemed to possess a surprising new power, and it was all going to be fabulous. Interspersed, naturally, with bouts of heartbreak.

The same hormones that prompted my dance floor awakening led in a roundabout way, and after many years had passed, to a different kind of summer love. My daughter was a New Year's baby, so by June she had reached the stage of maximum adorableness. She laughed and pointed and turned pages in her baby books. When she wanted to be picked up, she lifted her arms.

During that first summer of her life, I'd stir each morning with the feeling that I'd just dreamed a wonderful but fleeting dream. Then I'd wake up some more and remember that it was true. I had won the lottery. In the next room was my baby, happily babbling away. And when I appeared at her door, she was going to smile one of her big shiny smiles at me.

I'd never been someone who melted at the sight of other people's babies, and I worried that I lacked maternal feeling. At a party once, I asked a proud new father, What's it like? He told me that he'd expected to love his baby, but he hadn't known he'd have a hopeless crush. A crush? I said. Yes, just like in high school. This was hard to believe. Could he really be doodling his baby's name on scraps of paper?

So the extremes of mother love took me by surprise. I turned into one of those boring new parents always carrying on about their uniquely marvelous babies. I remember once being furious at my daughter's pediatrician when at the end of a well-baby visit he pronounced her "fine." Fine? That's all he could say? I would have switched doctors if my husband hadn't calmed me down.

That's the other part of this love story. My husband did not share my trepidations about becoming a parent. He was thrilled right from the start. His enthusiasm soothed my insecurities and gave me confidence that I could be a good mother.

Our vacation that summer was a week by a lake in upstate New York. For both of us this time felt at least as rapturous as our honeymoon. Each day we conjured something new for our baby girl. She encountered a babbling brook one day. The next day it was grass, then sand. She liked hiking in her backpack perch, but cried during a ride on a carousel.

With parenthood, I realized, had come another surprising new power. We were introducing our daughter to the planet and we felt like gods.

"No End in Sight" See it.

Middle East Conflict Intensifies As Blah Blah Blah, Etc. Etc.’ This headline ran last April in the satirical weekly, The Onion. The story described President Bush’s efforts to boost public support of “whatever the fuck it is he thinks he's doing, [by trotting ] out the same old whoop-de-do you've heard over and over . . . .”

We have heard it over and over. We’ve watched scenes of bloodshed and suffering in Iraq to the point of misery fatigue. So you might suppose that the latest Iraq documentary “No End in Sight,” will meet with viewer resistance – despite having won the Documentary Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

I’m betting otherwise. I’ve already told all my friends that they must go see it. No excuses. Just do it. Strong word-of-mouth, that’s called, and it will propel “No End in Sight” out of any “oh no, not another Iraq documentary” doldrums

“No End in Sight” is a clear-headed and devastating indictment of the foreign policy disaster that is America’s ongoing occupation of Iraq. Like the political science professor he once was, filmmaker Charles Ferguson makes a succinct and tightly reasoned argument that emphasizes analysis over polemic.

But for all its dispassionate, policy wonk rigor, “No End in Sight” will break your heart. It did mine. Never mind what I thought I knew about the Iraq disaster, I left the theater stunned by the devastation we have inflicted on this ancient, traditional civilization.

“No End in Sight” contends that Iraq’s insurgency chaos is a consequence of deliberate policy choices made by a small inner circle: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condelezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld..

Step by persuasive step, Ferguson outlines precisely what happened, how it happened, and who, specifically, is responsible. Then – this is the tragic part -- he makes a compelling case that it could have been different. Would have been different, if not for the criminal arrogance and willful ignorance of the President’s war cabal.

From their secure perch in Washington, these would-be paladins felt free to override the urgent communiques of several Iraq-based generals, the Ambassador, the Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, and anyone else who counseled the need for nation-building.

Ferguson deftly enlists Administration spokesmen to testify against themselves, showing news clip after news clip in which they utter stupefying remarks. Remember Rumsfeld’s “Stuff happens”? In one chilling frame, the chief architects of the war are lined up abreast like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.

Watching the film, I imagined what I would do with these perpetrators if they were my hostages for two hours. I could think of no more fitting punishment than to tie them in chairs and make them watch “No End in Sight.”

Happiness for Dummies

How am I happy? Let me count the ways. Not too often, though. According to happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, people who three times a week wrote down what they were grateful for were than significantly less happy than those who did it only once a week. Lyubomirsky herself doesn’t do it at all. She told a reporter that she had tried counting her own blessings, and found it “hokey.”

This confirms my theory that people who study happiness don’t necessarily follow their own advice. And I would guess that many of the buyers of their books don’t follow it either. I say “buyers” because buying books on happiness-enhancement is not the same as reading them. I, for example, have a pile of such books, unread, on my bookshelf.

I have no reason to be unhappy, and I’m not. But I’m also not one of those cheery, upbeat people whose mood dial always points to warm and sunny. According to the popular “set point” theory, everyone is born with a happiness baseline to which they will return, no matter what life brings them.

This pessimistic finding has not prevented its author, psychologist David Lykken, from making his own contribution to the how-to-be-happier genre. In “Happiness: The Nature and Nurture of Joy and Contentment,” Lykken backpedals on his claim that happiness levels are unchangeable. He has come to believe that “There’s a lot people can do to be happier in life.”

For example? According to the latest happiness research, distilled in last week’s Time Magazine, some proven ways to get happier include: Have lots of sex, listen to music, get exercise, get rich, stay positive, stand up straight, have realistic expectations, and smile.

Reading this, I decided it was time to delve into my pile of happiness books, in the hopes I could glean something I hadn’t already thought of. First, I took a look at the best-selling “Stumbling on Happiness,” by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. Gilbert contends that the happiest people are those who have the greatest control over their lives. Not true in my experience. One of my happiest times in my life was when I had the least control over my days: as a new mother.

I moved on to “Authentic Happiness,” by the guru of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Seligman has distilled his theories into an equation: H = S + C + V. Happiness, he believes, is composed of your Set point, plus your life Circumstances, plus factors under your Voluntary control. In the voluntary part, he includes gratitude, forgiveness and – especially important -- reimagining your past and present to make them come out better. But such sugar coating won’t work for me; it would be a professional liability. Writers need to maintain an unflinching view of the past and present.

I began to wonder if any author of happiness self-help books ever admits entertaining a negative thought. I found the answer on my own bookshelf, in a 1935 book called “The Art of Happiness,” by John Cowper Powys. I don’t recall how I came into possession of this slim volume, but I warmed to it, starting with the title. Powys was a novelist, not a psychology professor, and it was promising that he considered happiness-increasing to be an art, not a science.

Powys’s credentials as a happiness guru include having been unhappy. “To confess the truth,” he wrote, “I have once and again. . . pulled myself out of the Slough of Despond.” This disarming admission made me like him all the more. His counsel includes having a flexible mind and paying heed to whatever floats your boat. “The more conjuring tricks we have in our pilgrim’s wallet the better,” he writes, “and I have no fanatical preference for my favorite magic over all the rest.”

And what should be the goal of following his precepts? He quotes a line from Wordsworth, “the pleasure which there is in life itself.”

Gatsy and Me

have a house on a strange road. The house is a modest-sized 60s ranch and when we bought it, unrenovated, seven years ago there were other, still-more-modest houses down the way. One had been built by its owner, a room at a time, with recycled material from the dump. According to neighborhood lore, no two windows were alike. At the far end of the road were a few big places– at least we thought they were big then -- but nothing that could qualify as a trophy house. Our little road was low-profile and that’s how everyone liked it. One neighbor was outraged when the Highway Department painted a white stripe down the center. She said it was inappropriate for something that’s more country lane than actual road.

But the road fronts on a beautiful view, and over time many of the funkier houses were torn down and replaced by new, much larger places. Still, the people who lived in them seemed to like the low-key character of the road, so the tone didn’t change much.

Then Jay Gatsby moved in. The parallels between our new neighbor and Fitzgerald’s character are striking, from the extreme wealth to the spectacular soirees. A single man in his 30s, he built himself a mansion three times bigger than any of the other houses that we had considered to be mansions.

For his housewarming party, he planned a lavish extravaganza: the party to end all parties (we hoped.) Some 600 people were invited -- attended by a staff of 200. It was to be an Arabian Nights costume party, a surprising theme, I thought, given the conflagrations taking place in that region. The rented tents were not much smaller than the house. For entertainment, there was one contingent of circus performers and another of lightly clad party facilitators whose job was to break the ice. An entire taxi fleet was hired to ferry guests to and from the party. It was said that the whole thing cost nearly $1 million.

Nosy person that I am, on the night of the party I walked down the road to check out the scene. It was interesting. The parking attendants were dressed like shepherds in a school Christmas pageant, and the arriving female guests wore I-Dream-of Jeannie get-ups. There were enough earpiece-wearing security men on hand to guard the President.

I wasn’t happy that such flashy doings had come to our once-quiet road -- especially when the sound blaring from the outdoor speakers rattled our house. But this unabashed display of wealth also ignited a fantasy. Our hedge fund manager neighbor takes in around $60 million a year, so I heard. What might I do if had that kind of income? Give $10 million to a good cause and you’d still have $50 million left (there are no taxes in my fantasy.)

Turns out I can think of a few things. One would be my version of the extravagant party. I’d buy a deserted town out west and turn it into a refuge and eventual retirement community for my friends. Second, I’d build myself a moat. I’ve always dreamed of a house with a moat for swimming. I love to swim but have a low boredom threshold and never like to go back the way I came. So a moat would be perfect. I can picture it–there would be tunnels and grottos and waterfalls and I would swim around it every day.

The Truth About Rudy

New Yorkers have something we want you to know. By New Yorkers, I mean myself, my friends and family, my physical therapist, a Pakistani cab driver, the elderly lady behind me in the supermarket line, the guy at the corner deli, my recent Amtrak seatmate, and the fashionably clad woman who sold me tinted moisturizer at Sephora. Also, the Ground Zero rescue workers I pass the time with at Bellevue Hospital, while we wait to be screened for WTC-related ailments.

We all have two things in common: we were in New York on 9/11, and we are more inclined to diagnose Rudy Guiliani than to suport him.

In the weeks after 9/11, city residents breathed the dust, smelled the smells, and heard the military helicopters overhead. But we also watched television and saw what everyone in the rest of the country saw: New York's mayor excelling in the public arena. He attended as many funerals as could be squeezed into a day and he gave press conferences that helped assuage the collective grief. I remember an occasion when reporters were pressing him hard to estimate the final number of casualties. The mayor declined to speculate, instead saying simply, “However many people it turns out to be, it will be more than any of us can bear.”

Moments like this caused many in the first weeks after the attack to compare Giuliani to Winston Churchill. Oprah called him “America's Mayor,” the equivalent of knighting him. (Later, that honor also came his way.)

Rudy has since milked his public image as an anti-terrorism leader for personal and political gain -- raking in upwards of $100,000 per speech, and now, preposterously, running for president -- and leading the pack for the Republican nomination.

Here in New York, this makes people’s eyes roll. Jimmy Breslin, the dean of New York columnists, has described the former mayor as “seriously miswired,” and also, memorably, “a small man in search of a balcony.” We New Yorkers know that the heroic, tough-on-terrorism Rudy is a fiction, even though it's one that seems to play well out of town. A few particulars:

Fiction: Giuliani is an expert in emergency preparedness.

Fact: The mayor bears some of the blame for the conflagration that took place at Ground Zero. After the 1993 bomb attack on the Twin Towers, he ignored expert advice and located the city's elaborate new emergency operations center in 7 World Trade Center. Thousands of gallons of diesel fuel the city stockpiled there contributed to a fire on 9/11 that consumed the building and rendered the emergency operations center useless.

Fiction: Guiliani championed the 9/11 rescue workers, who consequently revere him.

Fact: Rudy has few fans among NYC firefighters. Last week the head of The International Association of Fire Fighters declared Rudy “unfit to lead.” Union president Steve Cassidy told the New York Post* that his track record as a leader on terrorism “stinks.” Among the firefighters' complaints: the radios they carried were long known to be inadequate but the Giuliani administration never got around to replacing them. Also, the Mayor was well aware that the air at Ground Zero was toxic, yet within days he assured everyone that it was safe to breathe. He has since downplayed the medical problems of ground zero workers. When the WTC dust was clearly linked to serious and sometimes fatal diseases, he responded by urging Congress to limit the city's liability for “toxic torts.”

Fiction: Guiliani did a good job as mayor of New York.

Fact: His character issues got in the way. Rudy is given to “interminable, bitter, asinine hissy fits," according to a trenchant profile by Michael Wolfe in last month's Vanity Fair. A former congressman describes him as a man with "a deep mean streak." He has a “very, very powerful pathology,” according to Rudy Crew, the Schools Chancellor whom Gulilani ousted and then Swift Boated on the day of his wife's funeral.

So New York's message to the rest of the country is, don't fall for it. On a blog called “America's Madman: New Yorkers Remember Rudy Giuliani,” editorial cartoonist Ted Rall says it best: Rudy Giuliani is no "Rudy Giuliani."

Spies R Us

The CIA last week spilled 30 years worth of closely guarded secrets. “The Family Jewels,” it calls them. The documents are a shocking litany of Agency misdeeds, ranging from mind-control experiments to unauthorized wiretapping of American citizens. I say shocking, but little in the report will surprise anyone who's paid any attention to “left-wing rags” over the years. Or even the New York Times, which in 1974 published Seymour Hersh’s expose of the CIA’s illegal domestic spying.

One new detail jumped out at me, though: long hair. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the CIA mounted Operations CHAOS and MERRIMAC, part of a widespread effort to spy on and infiltrate campus protest movements. According to one of the newly released internal memos, the agents assigned to infiltration duty constantly griped about having to grow their hair long. The CIA also recruited "Americans with exisitng extremist credentials," who presumably already had long hair.

The CIA boasted that their operations were a great success. No foreign involvement was ever identified, but the peace movement was penetrated at the highest levels -- the levels where policy was decided. There have long been rumors that some of these CIA operatives acted as agent provocateurs, urging violent action in order to discredit the movement.

Now these rumors are confirmed. Eventually the names of the undercover agents are likely to come out. We’ll learn who the guilty parties were -- just as East Germans discovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly who among them had been informants. This story will be familiar if you saw the academy-award winning movie, The Lives of Others. It brilliantly portrays the Orwellian impact of the security-obsessed state on individual freedom.

I wonder how long it will be before we see a version of this story set in America, with the CIA playing the role of the Stasi?

On Losing My Looks

When I was a child I knew how to make myself invisible -- especially where it most counted: in class. I called this cellophaning and fervently believed in its magical power to keep me from getting called on. I couldn't cellophane at will, but I was pretty good at deflecting attention. If I didn't want someone to notice me, they didn't.

That had changed by the time I was 16 and went to Italy for a month. I was traveling with two 18-year-old friends, and we happened to arrive in Venice by train the same day the Italian navy sailed in to town.

As my friends and I lugged our suitcases from railway station to pensione, we found ourselves leading a parade of smartly dressed sailors who alternated between swoons of admiration and offers to carry our bags wherever we might be going. My friends were adamantly opposed, but I eventually caved in, and somewhat to my surprise my volunteer porter shook my hand and politely took his leave at the door.

For the next four weeks we were pestered more or less non-stop and we got pretty good at fending off advances before they had a chance to advance. Then, at the end of the month my mother came to meet us and to my shock and horror, she was subjected to the same amorous attentions. What is more, she was flattered by them.

I can remember that in those days, whenever I complained about unwanted male attention, someone would always annoyingly remark that one day I'd miss it.

It's true, sort of. I thought about this watching the scene in Knocked Up in which Leslie Mann’s character Debbie, gorgeous and gorgeously decked out in a spangled dress, is denied entry to a club because she is “too old.”

That moment arrives for different women at different times (who knows when it arrives in Italy) but almost everyone eventually has a moment of revelation. You have become invisible; no one is looking at you. I remember my friend Nancy's observation about visiting China on a tour. “It's interesting,” she said, “when you are with a group of people and there's an ingénue and it's not you.”

So do I miss it? Not the catcalls and whistles, certainly. But I have to admit that genuine admiration is never unwelcome. I don’t expect it, but last summer I received my favorite street compliment ever. It was a sparkling June day, the kind that makes you want to be exactly where you are. I was walking along a very wide boulevard - this may have been a key factor - and coming toward me on the opposite side of the street was a handsome young African-American man. “Nice arms!” he called out. “You've been working out!” And I had. And somebody noticed.

My Embarrassing Father

There were so many things my father did that embarrassed me. Wherever he went, he talked to everyone. Sometimes the comments were chatty and engaging, sometimes angry, sometimes tactless—but always in his foghorn of a voice, mortifyingly loud. At his worst, he could be a lunatic. I remember once another driver cut him off in traffic. He took off in hot pursuit, swearing he would corner the offender and give him a piece of his mind. Only the tearful pleas of his children in the back seat persuaded him to abandon the chase.

Another time at a hotel pool in Key West, he struck up a conversation with a young German couple. They were from Heidelberg, it turned out, a place my father had recently revisited, three decades after the war. He shared with the German tourists his dismay at finding so many of the beautiful parks no longer there, ceded to developers. "Hell," he said, "We might as well have bombed the place!" I was so appalled overhearing this that I pretended I didn't know him. Amazingly, though, the Germans did not seem to mind. In fact, they warmed to Dad, and the three chatted away all afternoon.

I couldn't imagine how he'd gotten away with it. Again. Even when Dad was rebuffed, though, it never stopped him. Talking to strangers is what he did. He also brought them home now and again. I have an excruciating memory of a New Year's Eve when I was 16. We were living in Germany and had gone to Vienna for the holiday. It was snowing, I was already sulking at having to spend the occasion with my parents, and the evening's entertainment, a trip to the opera, had not improved my mood. During the taxi ride back to the hotel, Dad got into a conversation with the driver, a hulking Austrian whose most prominent feature was a menacing scar along one side of his face.

The man fascinated Dad, and at the end of the ride he invited him to join us at our hotel. As always when we traveled, there was a bottle of something in the room. And, conveniently, there were three chairs arranged around a table in the corner. My parents and the driver settled down to talk. As the snow muffled the sounds of revelers outside, Gemütlichkeit suffused the room. This German word, beloved of my father, has no exact English translation but means something like coziness and fellow feeling.

They all had a great time. I was beyond aggravated. This was New Year's Eve and I was spending it with not only my parents but also some stranger (the taxi driver!) my dad had randomly recruited from the street. I did my best to tune out the conversation, scribbling angrily in my journal and trying not to listen.

When I think back on that night, I recognize that something significant took place in our snug hotel room – though at the time I was too much the callow adolescent to let myself feel it. Sitting at the table, Dad and the taxi driver began to open up about their experiences as young soldiers. They had been enemy combatants once, on opposite sides of the same war. Now, as the bottle emptied and midnight neared, they raised their glasses in toast after toast. All were variations on a single theme: zum Frieden; to peace. This was way too heartfelt for me—and it never would have happened without my father's keenness to engage with everybody he met. So now, many years later, I would belatedly like to join in the toast: "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Here's to peace."

Poison on the Menu?

You can’t unbake the cake. That is the message -- both literal and symbolic -- of a recent business story in the New York Times. Headlined “Globalization in Every Loaf,” the story centers on executives at the Sara Lee corporate headquarters, who are concerned about the safety of their cakes, and the rest of their product line. Food processors like Sara Lee increasingly rely on imported additives to bind, stabilize, preserve and thicken their products.

Such ingredients, from hundreds of countries around the globe, now face few barriers to entering the country and finding a place on our grocery shelves. Food imports to the United States have doubled in the past five years, while the number of FDA food import inspectors has fallen by roughly 20 percent, according to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, and the author of the 2003 book “Safe Food.” She criticizes the government’s scattershot approach to food oversight, citing an alphabet soup of bureaucracies, each with pieces of the regulatory action.

Nestle has argued for the creation of a single agency that would be responsible for all aspects of food, from production to consumption. This is not a popular idea among food industry executives. They prefer the “Trust Us” solution. True, it would be bad for business to poison the customer, and companies like Sara Lee are trying to monitor thier international suppliers. David L. Brown, Sara Lee’s vice president for procurement, told the Times that they had started vetting foreign factories and helping them improve food safety standards. But he also noted, “the more variables you enter into, the more risk you have . . . .”

Leaving aside recent debacles like contaminated cat food and toxic toothpaste, is there a way to protect ourselves from further regulatory failings? How can we avoid spooning up counterfeit chemicals at the dinner table? Here’s one idea, originally proposed by Arthur Agatston, the Miami cardiologist who created the South Beach diet. He argues that highly processed food – the kind that comes laden with additives from all nations – is digested too quickly, which leaves us walking around hungry all the times. So eat real food. Process it yourself, in your kitchen and in your stomach. You’ll be safer and possibly even thinner. Then all you will need is a recipe for making your own toothpaste.

You can find one here:

Sicko: See it and Weep

Is there anything so satisfying as being manipulated in the service of a righteous cause? That pleasure was amply mine last night, when I attended a screening of Sicko, Michael Moore's documentary indictment of the U.S. health care system. The film ranges from darkly funny to just dark, as ordinary Americans tell heart-rending stories of being refused necessary treatment. Rapacious HMOs executives and their minions play the villains and you want to hiss whenever they appear. The movie is an emotional workout; I laughed, I cried, and when there was footage of the President, I pointed my finger at the screen and pretended to shoot.

Sicko is an unabashed polemic. Moore wants you to walk out of the theater and agitate for universal health care. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without it, the film repeatedly points out. To underline the failings of our system, Sicko brings us to Canada, England and France, where health care is free and guaranteed. As usual, Moore takes the scenic route, lingering especially in France to digress on the superior quality of life. In France, if you can believe it, the government provides free part-time nannies to new mothers.

Back home, Moore visits a number of 9/11 responders who have been denied care for illnesses they contracted in the course their rescue work. Sicko contrasts this shameful treatment with the superior medical care afforded the prisoners at Guantanamo. In an inspired piece of political theater, Captain Moore loads some of the ailing 9/11 workers onto boats in Miami, with the ostensible plan of sailing to Guantanamo Bay to seek treatment for them. In the waters just off the base, Moore's bullhorned request is met with an ominous siren. So Moore and his sick passengers retreat to Havana, where they are introduced to the marvels of Cuban health care.

The rescue workers receive sophisticated tests that they could never afford at home. They stock up on medications that sell for hundreds of dollars at U.S. pharmacies but cost less than $10 in Cuba. And they meet sympathetic doctors who formulate detailed treatment plans for them. It's impressive, even allowing for the effect of the rolling cameras.

The finale of the trip comes when Havana firefighters, hearing that the 9/11 rescue workers are in town, request an opportunity to pay them tribute. A scene at the firehouse, where the Cubans first stand at attention and then offer hugs and vows of brotherhood, is a major tear-jerker. I know because I was crying - even as part of me was admiring the sheer humbug. It's not propaganda, I decided, if you're of the same mind.

Sicko, scheduled for release on June 29th, already has mustered an army of supporters. Nurses around the country plan to host 3,000 screenings in their communities. They are calling the release of Sicko a “historic opportunity to turn movie audiences into patient advocates and healthcare reformers.”

The President's Stem Cell Fig Leaf

On Wednesday of last week, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have allowed federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells left over from fertility treatments. A day later, on Thursday, the Sciences Magazine online published a study indicating that the President’s action does not reflect the wishes of infertility patients. Considerably more than half prefer to donate their surplus embryos to stem-cell medical research rather than have them destroyed or passed on to other infertile couples, according to a survey conducted by Anne Drapkin Lyerly of Duke University Medical Center and Ruth Faden of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.

Embryonic stem cells, because they can develop into any type of cell in the human body, offer a uniquely valuable path to developing potentially life-saving cures for millions of people. So how did President Bush first decide to stymie this research?

He turned for advice to a biologist and a professional ethicist, who, in a 1991 meeting provided him with the fig leaf he needed for his “thumbs down.”

The ethicist was Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, an influential bioethics think tank. Reading about the President’s recent veto, I was reminded of the time I heard Dr. Callahan speak at a conference four years ago. He was on a panel called “When Morality and Science Collide – The Case of Stem Cell Research.” Dr. Callahan spoke against Federal funding of stem research.

His position was that the embryos were a form of life and so should be treated with respect. He declined to be specific about what that might mean, though he was sure it didn’t involve making use of them in potentially life-saving research.

Having since read more of Dr. Callahan's views on the issue, I have to wonder if the man has even one foot on the ground. He supports the funding ban partly because many of the diseases stem cell research would target afflict mainly the old, who already have lived long enough, in his opinion. This, despite the fact that the panel’s moderator that day was a young man who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“There is no necessary correlation, he has written, “between a good life and good health: some healthy people are unhappy and some happy people are unhealthy. A long life is desirable, but a short life is not incompatible with a good life.”

So should we not have bothered with penicillin?

Callahan has made one argument I agree with: he believes that the public should be heard on the issue of stem cell research and its opinions taken into account -- especially since taxpayers would be footing the bill.

Now that public opinion shifted so decisively in favor of this research, I wonder whether Dr. Callahan might make one of those tough moral choices he's always urging on others, and change his mind. And whether he'll advise the President to do the same.

What's Cluttering Your Brain

I am a recent convert to crossword puzzles. After reading that they help preserve cognitive function, I stopped thinking of them as a way my husband wastes time and started seeing them as protection against AAMI, otherwise known as Age-Associated Memory Impairment. I measure my progress by days of the week that I have any hope of completing the New York Times crossword, which ascends from easy to hard starting on Monday. I am now up to Wednesday (sometimes). But I can’t say I’m pleased.

The problem is not, as I had imagined, confronting the magnitude of what I don’t know.

The real horror is what I do know. Spiro Agnew? Nixon’s vice president is part of American history so I don’t begrudge him space in my brain. But Ara Parseghian? What’s he doing in there? When he was coaching the Notre Dame football team (the “Fighting Irish,” I somehow recall), I was marching on the Pentagon. I didn’t follow sports then and I don’t now, yet an amazing amount of sports trivia seems to have lodged in my head. It takes up space that could more practically be devoted to remembering my own cell phone number, or the first name of my best friend’s brother.

It seems I am right to resent this useless clutter of mental junk. According to Tuesday’s New York Times, new research suggests that if I were able de-accession worthless (to me) debris like Ara Parseghian’s name and occupation, I’d be better able to recall things that are truly important. Just as I thought. I used to imagine the brain as a bowl of ping-pong balls. At a certain point the bowl gets full and then you need to remove one ball to add another. Now I see the brain as more like a ball of Velcro, indiscriminately picking up lint as it goes along, and eventually losing its stickiness. It is much harder to pick out random bits of lint than a ping pong ball.

Another memory expert, Michael Anderson of the University of Oregon, argues that “forgetting is adaptive, that people actively inhibit some memories to facilitate mental focus.” This may mean that our “senior moments” are actually a sign that the brain is functioning as it should. All well and good. But why can’t I confine my senior moments to items like 41 Across: “Myrna of Love Crazy.” Loy’s name is inexplicably stuck to the Velcro, as is the name of Asta, her movie dog.

Professor Anderson told the Times reporter, “Your head is full of a surprising number of things that you don’t need to know.” It certainly is, as my brief crossword career has so abundantly demonstrated. An ideal memory improvement program, the professor suggests, “would include a course on how to impair your memory.” Would such a course enable me to forget 54 across: Natalie Wood’s 1965 title role, Daisy Clover? If so, please sign me up.

The Haves, the Have Mores and the Have Nots

The person who laid out the front page of the New York Times last Friday must have a dark sense of humor. It can’t be an accident that directly above a teaser for a story about Congress voting to raise the Federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade is another story on the exponentially increasing income gap between the Kings and the Princes of corporate America. As in: a decade ago the chief executive of Office Depot was paid $2.2 million, about double that of his number two. Last year it was $12 million, more than four times the compensation of the second in command.

This income disparity between the Haves and the Have Mores has become a national trend, the Times points out. In the decade after 2005, the top one percent of taxpayers increased their take by 128 percent. During the same period, the income of the top .01 percent quadrupled to an average of $14 million.

Meanwhile, the Federal minimum wage rose not one penny. Until now. The Times story described the bump from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour as “a major victory” for low income workers. (If you are doing the math, you know that this $2.10 increase raised the minimum wage all of 40.5 percent). So, after ten years of going nowhere, how did this spendthrift legislation ever come to a vote? It was attached to the bill authorizing more money for the war in Iraq. Representative John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, objected to putting the measure “on the backs of the military.” It was, he said, “a sneaky way to do business.” He’s right. It’s just a shame that Congress had to resort to piggybacking to marshal the votes needed to pass this long overdue measure.

The Diagnosis That Wasn't

The doctor’s office calls just as I am finishing breakfast. The doctor, her secretary tells me, wants me to come in and “discuss the results.” Not good, I think -- especially since this very busy New York specialist has set the appointment for just three working days from now. (Still, there’s a holiday weekend between now and then so it’s a long time to wait). I hear myself calmly saying to the secretary that since it must be something “of concern,” perhaps the doctor could call me sooner with the headlines.

Lungs or sinus? I’ve just had CT scans done of both, as part of a follow-up study of people who inhaled the dust at Ground Zero. Lungs, I expect. It comes back to me that when I first had a chest scan a couple of years ago, the doctor had mentioned that it showed something that almost certainly was nothing. Still, he said, probably I should have follow-up scan in six months. He sounded pretty unconcerned and I never got around to it. A surprising lapse, considering my tendency to overreact and my late-onset hypochondria.

Will I hear from the doctor today? Probably not, I decide. I mean, worst case scenario, you don’t want to tell someone that she has inoperable lung cancer over the phone. I sternly remind myself that this is just the kind of thought I do not need to be having right now.

So I have five days to get through, including the long weekend. How to make the time pass?

The phone rings again and it’s a neighbor in my co-op apartment house. She’s calling about the divisive issue of whether the building’s window frames should be restored or merely painted. She wishes to grumble about the treachery, short-sightedness and frequent idiocy of the co-op board. This is not a subject I normally have much patience for, but now I am all ears for a good twenty minutes.

Then I have to think of something else to do.

I consider going to the gym and swimming laps until I’m exhausted. This would make me feel virtuous, but would it also give me too much time to think? See a lot of movies? That might work.

I end up cleaning out my office, a job I attack with fierce intensity. In the event that life becomes chaotic, I’ll want an uncluttered office, or so I tell myself. But there’s something else. It comes to me that this is a lightning stocktaking. What to keep? What to discard? Taken together, these countless small decisions help me understand where I am in my life.

Sorting through dusty piles and files, I find: a military dependent ID card from when I was 16 and weighed 111 pounds, or so I claimed; a travel story about going snorkeling in the Maldives; instructions, never used, on the proper way to launder cashmere. Also a Mother’s Day letter from my daughter listing all the things she’s learned from me. This makes me cry, and then I feel better.

I work up the nerve to call the doctor’s office again. My new plan is to ask the secretary if she might possibly squeeze me in for an appointment before the weekend. Instead, the doctor herself comes to the phone. Yes, she can discuss the results right now: Sinus scan, fine; lungs, the same. I take a deep breath; bluebirds sing, bells chime. I can go back to being an ordinary hypochondriac.

The doctor keeps talking but I barely listen. Apparently in the vicinity of my thyroid there is possibly something that almost certainly is nothing. It would be a good idea to have a follow-up scan but there’s absolutely no rush, she says.

Of course, I say. Just as soon as I’m ready to be reminded again about being mortal.

TechnoFear Trounced

Even if I have to drag myself to it kicking and screaming, I refuse to give up on making new technology part of my life. I've learned that it's all too easy to end up looking pathetic. I saw this happen to someone ten years ago. It was at the height of the internet boom and the Author's Guild was conducting a panel on the impact of technology on literary endeavor. Something like that.

The technology-isn't-necessarily-evil position was taken by my husband, at the time a technology editor. Representing the “con” side was a prominent critic, a lovely and literate man, who spoke so eloquently that I was almost swayed. Until he revealed in answer to a question that he still wrote on a typewriter. Game over, I thought. It was like being told that sex is overrated by someone who's never experienced an orgasm.

So now my motto is to at least try. A while ago, when I figured I was ready for some further adventures in personal computing, I signed up for lessons from a pro. Unfortunately the computer tutor and I were incompatible. He had trouble masking his horror over my document-storage practices, and he believed that there could be no higher goal than an uncluttered desktop. I called the employment office of my local university and tried again.

This time I ended up hiring a charming film student from West Virgina. A freshman. He was perfectly happy to help me master personal-computing essentials that were exactly my speed, such as how to change the background color on your screen. (“Master” might be too strong a word, as I don't remember it now.) And in his gentle, understated way, he made a very important contribution to my technical education: he cured my phobia of consulting “help” screens.

It turns out that they are not, as I had feared, the computer equivalent of my utterly opaque, 320-page cell phone manual. They do not whisper to me, “you are stupid . . . you are stupid . . . you are stupid.” They help, exactly as advertised. Who knew?

Today's takeaways:

1. If you need to learn something, hire a kid.

2. Try the Help pages. They help.

No Wretched Refuse, Please. We're Americans.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Tired? Poor? Homeless and tempest-tossed? Don’t even think about it. That's over. Those famous words carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty? We're sending someone next week to chisel them off.

Emma Lazarus's sonnet was fine for welcoming our grandparents, but the situation has changed. We're no longer accepting “wretched refuse,” thank you. True, our forbears were immigrants, but they were honest, hard-working men and women trying to make a better life for their families. Not like the grifters and layabouts of today.

When I hear such prejudices spewing from talk radio these days, I always think about a boatload of Haitians, most of whom drowned within sight of shore. One of the few survivors told a reporter that in preparation for landing in America, “We were putting on our best clothes.”

New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg is one who doesn't hold with the prevailing nativism. Speaking after a Memorial Day parade, he pointed out the practical implications for baby boomers of restricting immigration: who's going to finance our Social Security? He also urged lawmakers to look to their own history and realize that under the proposed curbs their grandparents never would have made it out of the Old Country. Or if they did, it would be on a round trip ticket.

I have a proposal. As the debate on the immigration bill heats up, lets all wear buttons proclaiming where our families started out. Mayor Mike's would say Poland. Mine would say Wales; my husband's Sicily. The only buttons that would say, “Here” would be worn by the lone group who can truly claim to be natives: Native Americans.

The Warren Report: Yes, No or Who Cares?

Type “Kennedy assassination” into the search box at and you get 7,308 books. Recently, the genre's total has risen by two, with the publication of a pair of new investigative books by well-credentialed writers. They arrive at completely opposite conclusions.

Voting to reject the conclusions of the Warren Commission is David Talbot, founder of His “Brothers,” focuses on Bobby Kennedy's sub rosa efforts to solve the assassination and theorizes that Bobby may have been the victim of the same conspirators he suspected of murdering his brother.

The case for acquittal is made by Vincent Bugliosi, author of Helter Skelter, a book on the Charles Manson case, which he prosecuted. In “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” he defends the conclusions of the Warren report. There was, in other words, no conspiracy.

Bugliosi was motivated to write the book, he told a New York Times reporter, because polls show that 75 percent of Americans now believe there was some kind of conspiracy behind the assassination - even though they probably have not even read the Warren Report!

Count me among them. I've never read the Warren Report, nor am I planning to read Bugliosi's 1,612 page, six-pound opus. In fact, I try to avoid the black hole of JFK conspiracy theory, a twilight zone in which many have lost reputations and what might otherwise have been productive lives. Gary Trudeau hit the Zeitgeist on the head as usual when Doonesbury spoofed the “30th Annual JFK Assassination Conspiracy Fest.”

So I don't want to hear about arcane matters such as acoustic signatures or suspicious figures on the grassy knoll. I have just two words to say to Warren Commission defenders: Jack Ruby. A Mob-connected nightclub owner murders Lee Harvey Oswald on national television solely out of misguided patriotic zeal? How likely is that?

According to David Talbot, “Commission investigators credulously accepted the word of a Chicago hood named Lenny Patrick that Ruby had no underworld ties, when in fact it was Patrick himself who had run Ruby out of town for stepping on his gambling turf.”

You don't have to be a Sopranos fan to see that as a rock worth looking under.

Of course, there's another question: does it still matter? To me it does, and I suspect that a lot of my non-tinfoil-beanie-wearing peers feel the same way. For many of us the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the defining political event of our early years, as perhaps Pearl Harbor was for our parents. Like the eternal flame that burns at JFK's grave, our youthful outrage over the murder of the country's youngest-ever president has yet to be extinguished.

Who Was My Mother?

You don't usually think of someone who dies at the age of 77 as having been cruelly cut down in the prime of life, but that is how I felt about my mother. Widowed for less than a year after a long stretch of caring for my semi-invalided father, she'd been making plans for a different kind of life. It had been her turn. Finally. Among the papers left sitting on her desk were a treatise on clay-making techniques, because she'd taken up ceramics; brochures for cottages to rent in Wales, for a visit to relatives there; instructions for computer French lessons, in preparation for a trip to Provence.

Stunned by Mom's unexpected death, I greedily sifted through this evidence searching for answers to a persistent mystery: who was my mother when she wasn't being my mother? While my father was alive, alternately raging and joking and generally chewing the scenery, Mom devoted much of her energy to soothing his temper and serving as a buffer between him and his prickly daughters. By the terms of this unspoken family deal, she tended to keep her troubles to herself. I'd told myself there would be time later to forge a different kind of relationship; to come to know my mother outside the all-consuming aura of my father.

Now all I had to go on was her things, and I ransacked them with a detective's zeal. Desperate for clues, I pored over her final "To Do" list; I sorted out drawers and emptied closets. I checked pockets and rifled through purses. Prying into my mother's possessions had been a favorite childhood pastime, and now I was free to indulge it at will.

There were poignant surprises. Despite relentless family pressure, Mom had defiantly refused to quit smoking, so we'd thought. Yet tucked away in a bottom drawer I came across: a package of prescription nicotine gum and a book called The No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Way Guide to Quitting Smoking. So she had tried, after all. Apparently, she'd found it easier to withstand our reproaches than to endure the shame of admitting failure.

Forgotten childhood artifacts surfaced as I dug. I was touched to discover that Mom had saved for several decades and through a dozen moves the plaid cocktail napkins I'd sewn and fringed. In the same drawer, I uncovered relics of another sewing project: a set of intricate felt appliques—each symbolizing a different holiday—that she had fashioned for my tenth birthday along with a red felt circle skirt.

On fancy dress occasions as the year progressed, the appropriate applique would be snapped onto the skirt. I wore it decorated according to the season with: a pink birthday cake sprouting white candles and frosting flowers; a Thanksgiving turkey; a green leprechaun hat with a white shamrock; a mortarboard with a real silk tassel; a bough of cherries; an Easter bunny with pink ears and string whiskers; or a valentine that said "I love you."

Overall, my mother's attentions to my wardrobe were spotty, and on many days I left the house wearing mismatched outfits with missing buttons. But there was no denying that my holiday skirt had been magnificent, and I was glad to come across the surviving evidence of it.

Discoveries like these made me feel closer to my mother. But I was in dangerous territory, and I knew it. Snoopers find whatever they find, after all, and it's generally thought to serve them right. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling of shock and betrayal: what was the framed 19th century etching of the Royal Treasury at Petra doing stashed in the back of a closet?

It had been my last present to my mother, intended to memorialize a dream fulfilled. On her 75th birthday, she had traveled by camel to the remote archaeological site in Jordan. She had sent my daughter a postcard saying, "I've longed to come here since I was your age and it's everything I'd hoped—and more." In my Wanderlust, I was my mother's daughter, and I'd been certain she would love the memento of her far-flung travels. So why had she banished it from sight?

Mom had been on the road the very day before her death, completing a solo 3,000 mile car trip across the south. Not knowing she was going to die, she'd failed to call me when she returned, and that missed conversation, that last silence, rippled through my life. As evidence of her elusiveness, this was more than I could bear, and what she couldn't give, I'd set out to steal. In the end, for all my rummaging, I came up empty-handed. Who was my mother when I wasn't watching? Why was my present face down on the shelf? The hardest thing of all was to accept that I would never know.

Ebay Addict in Recovery

I have a guilty secret—one that I suspect I share with millions of computer-owning Americans, possibly even some on this website. I am addicted to eBay. Or I was, anyway. I tried cutting back and when that didn't work, I went cold turkey. Needless to say, I was a buyer, not a seller. Selling things on eBay is a form of honest toil, and an answer to under-employment, like taking in boarders during the Great Depression. For buyers, eBay is a vast and intriguing bazaar, its self-declared mission to "help practically anyone trade practically anything on Earth." In other words, whatever you've got, some damn fool will buy it. Me, for example.

I started out browsing the "Antiques" category, where I often found things for much less than they would sell for in a store. Brass gooseneck lamps from the early 1900s, for example. A steal! Never mind that they needed rewiring and industrial-strength polishing and also the shades were dented. Heavy old convent sheets from France, too scratchy to ever sleep on but useful for . . . something. And a Mexican ex voto, a captioned devotional painting thanking a patron saint for help in a sticky situation. When my ex voto arrived, after I'd won it in a fierce bidding war, it looked somewhat new for an antique. But I found the story it told irresistible; the painting had been commissioned by a mother in thanks for her daughter's recovery from a broken heart.

From antiques I moved on to jewelry. For a time I became a patron of a young woman who gave her name as Jade Bible, and who made luminous glass bracelets, like none I'd ever seen. I bought a bunch of them for myself and for gifts and in the process of emailing back and forth got to know a little about Jade. She lived on a hilltop in Kentucky, I learned, and when her mother-in-law was unavailable she had babysitter problems. My picture of her as part of a traditional, church-going family was jolted one day she when said she was getting a divorce and would not be able to get to her studio for a while. After that, she vanished completely, owing me a bracelet. (Jade, if you're out there . . .)

Despite this disappointment, what helped draw me to eBay, was the diversity of characters I encountered. In the early days, especially, sellers would tell stories as a way of establishing the provenance of their goods: some old glass cabinet pulls were for sale because "my husband is renovating our early 1900s Victorian house in San Francisco to make way for a larger kitchen."

For a long time, I justified my obsession with eBay on anthropological grounds. The thousands of sellers were contributors to a sort of a collective autobiography, which I found fascinating. But that rationalization wore thin and in the end I had to face the truth. It was time to call my immoderate eBay usage for what it really was: compulsive shopping.

Seabiscuit to the Rescue or How and Audiobook Saved My Marriage

Should you ever get stuck in a five-hour traffic jam with a grouchy spouse who SAID you should have left earlier, you will need a powerful distraction to preserve any semblance of harmony. You will need the audiobook of Seabiscuit. That was my experience, anyway. Listening to the incredible story of the little-race-horse-that-could was simply more compelling than discussing just whose fault this was.

That experience sold me on audiobooks, and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. Especially for night-time car trips, which fly by when you’re sitting in the dark listening to someone with an evocative voice tell a story. It has to be the right kind of story, though. Not every good book works when read aloud. And some books that you wouldn’t want to curl up with make great listens.

Here are a few things I’ve figured out:

The book has to be well-written. An airport page-turner that I’d happily take on a long flight doesn’t work as an audiobook. You can’t skim; bad writing seems worse.

Unabridged, if possible. You make an emotional investment in the story, so why cut it short? Also, just try following the plot of a John Le Carre novel that has been abridged. Those seemingly extraneous passages contain vital information.

The reader’s voice can’t be annoying. This is obvious, and it’s a recommendation for buying through an online service like iTunes or Audible, where you can listen to a snippet before you buy.

Whatever the format, audiobooks can be expensive, and they’re something you only use once. So I also look for them at yard sales and library exchanges. Ebay is another good source.

We’ve had some misses in our quest for good audiobooks, but we’ve struck gold too – sometimes in the most unexpected places. The audiobooks recommended below are a pretty random list, but each entertained us for many hours. Any additions to the list?

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I’d never have had the patience to sit down and read Michael Chabon’s novel about comic-book artists and golems and amazing, magical feats, but it was enthralling to listen to.

The Killer Angels

A Civil War buff I’m not, but the audiobook of Michael Shaara’s novel brings the familiar cast of characters vividly to life. You can almost smell the gunpowder.

Samuel Pepys Diary

Don’t be put off if you encountered a version of this in high school; probably it left out the racy parts. Pepys’s trenchant observations about life in seventeenth-century London are hilarious, especially in Kenneth Branaugh’s marvelous reading.


Listening to Jeremy Irons’s Humbert Humbert made me understand Lolita better than I had when I read the book. Although the novel is narrated by a supremely charming and articulate pedophile, the author makes it abundantly clear in the end just how despicable a character he is.

Rocket Boys

This one’s a real sleeper, though it was made into the movie October Sky. I’m not even sure why I picked up Homer Hickam Jr.’s memoir of small-town life in Coalville, West Virginia, but it’s a unanimous favorite, one of those stories you wish would go on forever. There is nothing like the profound relaxation that comes over you when you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

And, of course, Seabiscuit.

The Last Move is the Hardest

fter nearly ten years of indecision, my parents moved into a retirement community a few miles from their home in Miami. I'd been pushing for the move and not only for the selfish reason that it would spare me worry. I love the place. Possibly this is because it reminds me of the Army posts where I grew up, complete with sentry gate at the entrance. Residents live in their own units, but there is a lovely common garden and grounds for walking and basking in the sun. East Ridge has its own ceramics studio, woodworking shop, and library. There are regular exercise classes, including yoga, which, to my amazement, attracted my retired Colonel father. My mother decided that 50 years of fixing dinner was enough, and opted for the group meals. They both found like-minded companions, especially among the many University of Miami faculty members who have retired there, and every evening they join friends at a cocktail hour before dinner. Mom is even able to travel, knowing that my father, who is growing somewhat infirm, would be cared for in her absence.

As much as my parents loved East Ridge, it took a lot to get them there. They lived in the perfect Florida house, complete with a mango tree in the back yard, and a huge screened-in patio where they spent most of their time. Even as housekeeping became a burden, they resisted the idea of moving. In the way of adult children, I thought I knew what was best for them, and didn't hesitate to say so. They, for their part, didn't like being pushed. Eventually I got the message and stopped bringing up the subject. When they finally came around, the choice was all theirs.

My sister and I did what we could to make the move easier. We each flew in for a week to help weed possessions and pack. Jane organized a giant yard sale that doubled as a goodbye party for the neighborhood. Mom and Dad were reluctant to spend money on the new place, but we encouraged them to do any renovations that would make it feel more like home.

Once my parents were settled in, my husband and I threw them a housewarming party. No one at East Ridge had ever done this before, it turned out, and the staff was excited about the prospect. The subliminal message was, this is a place people come to live, not to die. The party was a great success, as my parents' old friends got to see them in their new surroundings, and their new acquaintances got to know them a little better.

Moving to a retirement community is not the right decision for everyone, but it was for my parents, and they ended up wishing they'd done it earlier. My husband's parents have come to the stage where they are reluctant to make a move that everyone else thinks they should. Now, though, there is an established cadre of professionals to assist in the transition. Their professional organization is the National Association of Senior Move Managers and they have an extensive provider list.

Million Dollar Ideas

How many Million Dollar Ideas have I had in my life? Oh, a dozen, maybe two, possibly more. I've forgotten most, though my husband may have a better memory of them. Because when I come up with a Million Dollar Idea I don't shut up about it for at least a month.

I know every family has stories about how some distant relation came up with a Million Dollar Idea, failed to act on it, and then someone else came along with the exact same idea and made a fortune. That is not the case with me. My ideas are all still up for grabs.*

The Refrigerator Hat, for example. The idea is simple: you take a regular baseball cap and sew in a little pouch on the top of the crown part. Then you take one of those flexible ice packs and put it in the freezer over a round head-shaped form. Then when the ice pack is frozen slip it into the little pouch on the hat's crown, and behold -- the Refrigerator Hat!

Not everyone would want one. But I believe that the Refrigerator Hat could be very useful for those who spend long periods of time in non-temperature-controlled environments, such as bone fishermen, migrant grape pickers and Southern Conference football fans. Also anyone whose car air conditioning has been broken for two years and they can't fix it because it's a Volvo and once the air conditioning goes, that's it.

I'm realistic about the prospects for the Refrigerator Hat; I don't expect any late-night TV entrepreneurs read this and pounce. But my friend Leslie had a Million Dollar Idea for a piece of kid equipment that I still think has real commercial potential.

She actually had a prototype made for her own use, which I admired. It looked like a big a bucket with legs, and the idea was that a child could stand in the bucket and be at kitchen counter height. So while mom was fixing dinner the kid could be at her side making playdough pizzas or racing Matchbook Cars. Anyone who has ever tried to cook and entertain a three-year-old at the same time will appreciate the brilliance of this. (If any venture capitalists out there want to get in touch with Leslie, I'll be happy to pass along a message.)

Many people are reluctant to share their Million Dollar Ideas on the grounds that someone will come along and steal them. I no longer feel that way because I've figured out something over the years: Million Dollar ideas are a dime a dozen. The hard thing is actually doing something with them.

Naming Your Baby

I had two great-aunts, Hazel and Maud. Their sister, my grandmother, was named Blanche. I remember as a kid feeling sorry for them that they had such passé, fuddy-duddy first names. They were lively, forward-thinking women but their names made them seem so old fashioned. Would this ever happen to me? My mother assured me that it would not. She had chosen the simplest names she could think of for her daughters, Ann and Jane. These were classics, unlike her own hated first name, Isabel. It turns out, though, that if she had called me after herself I would have a much more modern sounding name. Isabel is now enjoying a vogue, after a slow period from the 1930s to the 1980s. In 2005, it was the 89th most popular name for girls. By comparison, in the same year Ann came in 650th (in the decade my mother named me, it was the 37th most popular.) And I was right about my aunts' names; Maud peaked at 130 around the turn of the last century and by 1930 it was undetectable.

When it came time to choose a name for my own daughter, I in turn fell victim to fashion. At the time she was born in 1984, Caitlin's name was 87th in popularity, but it's been on a downward slide ever since, to 193rd in 2005.

I learned all this from a fascinating chart called The Baby NameVoyager which tracks baby-name frequency over time, from the 1880s to 2005. If you won't be naming any babies soon, or any characters in novels, this website may not have any practical application. But I found it interesting to contemplate that, as with so many other things, I seem to have repeated my mother's mistake. Specifically, in giving my daughter a name that apparently is going out of style. And that is the same mistake Maud and Hazel and Blanche's mother made in naming them.

The Zeitgeist is hard to escape. I've heard so many stories of people giving their kids names they believed were not part of the latest trend, only to discover that a half-dozen others answered to the same name in the sandbox. Inevitably, these are the names that come to seem dated with time. Has this happened to you? Or not happened? If you had it to do over again, would you still choose the same names for your children?