Skip to content

Beating the Odds against Granny Pods

Beating the Odds against Granny Pods

Now that it’s no longer fashionable for extended families to live together under one roof, the burning question has become: What do we do with the old folks?  Those with the wherewithal can choose from a variety of options for outsourcing aging relatives. These range from assisted living facilities to “cluster housing,” meaning houses built around a common, communal space.

But the most intriguing new solution calls for parking needy old folks in a MedCottage or “granny pod” built in the backyard.

You read it right.  The granny pods are located behind the main house where the dog house or the servants’ quarters or a storage unit might be located.  Tightly packed, these pods include a bedroom, a handicapped-accessible bath, a cooking area and a living room, all in one 12 by 24 foot area.

A major advantage, as promoters see it, is that the young folks can keep the old folks nearby without having them underfoot.

Or as Stephen Colbert observed recently on The Colbert Report: “Why should seniors spend time in a cold hospital environment far from their families when they could be in a cold hospital environment within sight of these families?”

Among other advantages, these state-of-art cottages feature monitoring devices that allow caregivers to check the occupant’s vital signs from a distance and high-speed computers the old folks can use, assuming they are computer savvy, to communicate with the outside world.  Some granny pods even have cushioned floors so if grandma falls where the monitors are out of reach, she at least will be cozy until someone finds her.

Despite these advantages the Granny Pods are not universally admired.  Many old folks share the opinion expressed by Viola Baez, 88, resident of a Washington, D.C., suburb. Baez told The Washington Post she felt like she was being “thrown out” or “sent to the dog house” when her family invested in a granny pod. Other seniors have compared life in a granny pod to “being put out to pasture.”  One 80-year-old grandfather of four suggested: “Why don’t they just build an electric fence and give us a collar and let us roam around the yard.”

But judging from their steady sales the granny pods have worked for other families.  Originally called MedCottages, the pods were developed by Kenneth J. Dupin, a Methodist minister from Salem, Va., and the founder of N2Care. Dupin worked with the Virginia Tech College of Engineering in designing the MEDCottage

“Today, as 78 million Baby Boomers prepare for their senior years – potentially straining nursing homes and government-funded health care programs – we’ve taken a significant step forward in redefining the role of family in healthcare,” Dupin said in a recent statement.

According to The Post, the AARP Bulletin and other publications, the market is growing for similar homesteads.  Clearly, those of us who feel vulnerable should plan ahead. I have a five-point plot in mind for helping my family to see the light should they ever contemplate a pod for me.

One. Feign enthusiasm initially, saying, “Great, I could celebrate happy hour with you every Friday night.”

Two. Promise to cook their favorite hominy casserole and maraschino cherry layer cake every Sunday and serve these as the young folks watch their favorite Sunday afternoon football games.

Three. Remind them that I belong to a book club, a writing club and a poker group and suggest that when my fellow members visit me they could stroll through the main house and get to know my young family members better.

Four:  Tell them I would become claustrophobic in a pod, especially if spied upon with a webcam.

Five:  Inquire as to whether the $125,000 cost of building a granny pod plus the continuing monthly expenses would be greater than the cost of providing some home care for me.

I’m certain my family would decide that I would fare better in my own home, surrounded by old friends and with access to daily activities in my old community.

Smiling broadly, I would agree with their sapient decision, under these conditions:  that they always return my telephone calls, visit me frequently, invite me to their place occasionally and give the old pod cast to any future thoughts of stashing me away in the back yard.

Gwen Gibson

Coming to Terms with Senior Moments

          Coming to Terms with Senior Moments  

If I remember correctly, the phrase “senior moments” was coined in the mid-1990s and has been overused and misused since to cover memory lapses by people of all ages. The upshot is that it has no value expect as sendup fodder for comedians.

Why don’t we have some junior moments? Or some middle-age mindless minutes? Or at least some meaningful phrases to cover the varying types of mental lapses we old-timers have?  These can range from trivial to minor to major.

Minor mental glitches are those we experience when we forget where we left our car keys or glasses or those times when we race upstairs and ask ourselves “What am I here for?” These moments are usually followed by the Aha! Moment, which, like a book mark in your brain, will kick in and provide the answer in no time.

Rather than triggered by a “senior moment,” these incidents often occur when we are distracted and not fully concentrating on our mission at hand.

Major memory problems, by contrast, are nothing to laugh about. These occur when we forget where we put down the grandbaby or forget to pay the bills until the lights go out or forget where we set down that chilled glass of sauvignon blanc we were just sipping. A far cry from senior moments, these could be signs of a major neurological disorder.

The good news is that we are constantly devising techniques for coping with and even slowing down age-related memory loss. I, for one, drive my family crazy by repeating things—a commonly recommended trick for improving memory (at least that’s my excuse). I also use mnemonic devices to remember the names of my grandchildren and their friends and their pets.

A friend of mine who sometimes gets lost while driving will compensate by simply turning around and changing her destination.

Many of us in the post-fifty AARP set laugh off memory glitches with popular ripostes like: “Nostalgia is not what it used to be” or “I don’t remember being absent minded.”  Musician Golf Brooks responds with his hilarious song titled “Senior Moments, Brain Farts.” You can find this on Youtube.

More practical advice for maintaining mental health can be found on health related web sites. The trick is to find respected medical centers and health organizations.  I subscribe to the memory bulletins published regularly by the Johns Hopkins Medical School.  In the latest of these Dr. Peter V. Rabins, editor of the bulletin, recommends  eight steps for keeping our mental agility into senility. These, with some of Dr. Rabins’s comments, are as follows:

One. Treat high blood pressure.  “Over time, hypertension can damage brain cells and trigger mini strokes that may impair memory.”

Two. Eat right. “A balanced diet that contains low-fat dairy products and nine servings daily of fruits and vegetables can improve alertness and energy.”

Three. Exercise regularly. “Better fitness translates into better cognitive function.”

Four.  Drink only in moderation. “People who drink excessively are more likely to develop memory problems.”

Five. Check your medicine cabinet. “Many common prescription medications can impair memory.”

Six. Get enough sleep.  “Sleep deprivation stresses the brain.”

Seven. Stay mentally active. “Learn a new language, play chess, take a class, practice the piano—and read.”

Eight. Protect your head from injury.  “Avoid situations in which you are likely to fall.”

The implication here is that we should avoid climbing ladders when we are alone, or chasing squirrels up trees, or taking up tight-rope walking in our eighties.

Dr.Rabins warns that even if we follow all such advice on good mental health our brains will not revert to “whiz kids level.”  But he and other experts agree that if we follow strategies like the above we can improve our memory and general mental health and feel better in the process.

This still leaves open the question of how we can come to terms with “senior moments.” Most people use the expression with a smile, jokingly. But it’s used so often and so ambiguously it can make us old-timers wonder, “Am I really losing it?”

Perhaps in the future when someone tells us we are having a senior moment, we should ask them to explain exactly what they mean. This will put them on the spot and give us time to remember what in the world we were talking about in the first place. It’s a technique I plan to use—if I can remember to do so.

Gwen Gibson



Bring Back the Good Olde Things

Bring Back the Good Olde Things

Coffee shops with jukeboxes. Elevator operators. Hula hoops. Shoe horns. LP records in handsome covers. Pantyhose. Hand-written letters. Slide rules. Real people on telephones. Sing-alongs around the piano. Tuxedo-clad jazz musicians.   Moderate republicans.

These were a few of my favorite things.  Alas, they have become passé and I am left with that “nothing’s ever gonna be the same again” feeling.

As I cope with my nagging nostalgia and withdrawal pains I wonder why we condemn to the graveyard anything that falls out of fashion.  Will I, a “mature” adult, be put on a shelf like an old hat when I become obsolete? Or will I be put out to pasture with a sign across my chest saying “vintage?”

Perhaps not. I do see some rays of hope on the horizon. For one thing, we have preserved a few old serviceable inventions over the years like the at (@) sign. Centuries old, we use this symbol today to connect us on e-mail.  And look at your Qwertyuiop keyboard. Invented in 1873, “Querty” is still widely used on computers and on the most sophisticated smart phones

Meanwhile we are bringing back some Good Olde Things like cassette tapes and the drive-in movie and jeans fastened at the waist. If we can do these things, then surely we can preserve our printed daily newspapers and bring back Louis Armstrong.  It’s a big world after all.

While I enjoy my memories, I am not some dinosaur in the digital age.  I appreciate and use many of the high-tech, high-speed services at our fingertips today. The constantly updated, crowd-sourced news, gossip, research and social media networks on the Internet provide me with the most convenient avenue I’ve ever found for procrastinating.

And I am seriously grateful for the way the web simplifies many tedious steps writers used to take when composing on paper at a typewriter.  With two strokes of the cursor, for instance, my online dictionary will define a word for me while a disembodied voice tells me how to pronounce it correctly.  When not in a rush, however, I prefer the joy of looking words up in the OED, which provides more interesting etymology.

Another gift from my guardian Muse is the instantaneous cut and paste service on my computer. I wonder how many young people realize that not long ago writers actually used scissors to cut their copy (written on paper). Then they carefully moved this copy to a better place and pasted it in with glue or scotch tape. Editors hated the tape because they couldn’t write over it.

I have mixed emotions, however, about the editing tips the Internet offers because my computer, which I call Hubert, has an attitude.  Programmed like an old-time city editor, Hubert can edit copy in a micro-second. Often he will capitalize a letter without even asking me or contest a phrase I use with such certitude I expect to see an emoticon on the screen wagging an index finger at me like a reproachful schoolmarm. But being almost human, Hubert is sometimes dead wrong.

My faithful old IBM Electric typewriter never edited me. It allowed me to make and correct my own mistakes.  I still keep this typewriter in a corner of my office, along with a flashlight and transistor radio, in case of a local or worldwide blackout.

Meanwhile, I’m so active in cyber space that I even have a blog where I can place articles that I once sold to magazines. I started this when magazine readership (and my assignments) began to decline. I still prefer the professional, well-researched stories found in many magazines to the copy popular in cyberspace which is often cherry-picked from printed sources and reproduced with a subjunctive spin.

No matter how up-to-date I become, there is one Good Olde Thing I’ll never give up: the printed book. The book, especially the paperback, is your personal friend, something you can bend, fold, smell, scribble on, earmark and tuck under your pillow at night, knowing that it will not leave you alone when you push some off button.

In my wildest dream, I will someday tell my great, great grandchildren about a new invention I’ve discovered.  “It’s called a book,” I’ll say. “And it contains wonderful stories. You open it by simply turning the title page. It’s easy to carry, and it requires no wires, batteries or electric circuits.” And in my illusion my great, great grandchildren will say: “Hey. We could open stores and sell books in places where people could discuss them over coffee, instead of always being on their tablets, smartphones, laptops and  mood boards,,,,”

Only one thing could please me more than this pipedream: The introduction of a sophisticated time machine that could recycle me.

Gwen Gibson

The Perennial Pun

Often when the news becomes too depressing and the political debates too boring, I turn to my files of very old and very bad puns for some comic relief. It’s a habit I’ve never outgroan. (Sorry about that.)

Actually, I am not a good punster, but my late husband, Grant Dillman, was stricken with paronomasia, i.e., the nagging urge to engage in wordplay.  A long-time newspaper reporter and editor, Grant coined puns as easily as he created headlines.

I believe he minted the phrase “forgive us our press passes,” but I’m not certain. I am certain that he coined these groaners:

*Is a hockey player who can’t score down on his puck?

*Is a baseball player anti-union if he protests a called strike?

*When a man tiptoes through a whore house, is he pussyfooting around?

And many other pun-ishing phrases.

I started my collection of puns years ago, in self-defense. Today this is filled with puns of all sizes and styles, but each has the requisite double entendre or other semantic incongruity.

The short pun often involves a tongue-in-cheek definition. Here, for instance, is how punsters describe a few things:

  1. A satellite—something you use to find your horse.
  2. Your doctor’s advice–M.D. promises
  3. Your afternoon nap–a matinee idle.
  4. Cereals loaded with sugar—cereal killers.
  5. Politics—something that makes the future moron certain.

The authentic pun can also be long, given the proper dose of wordplay. Allow me to cite two illustrations from my oldest files.

The first concerns a thief who stole several paintings from the Louvre in Paris. He slips by security but is captured when his van runs out of gas just two blocks away. Asked how he could make such a mistake after masterminding such a crime, he said (this really hurts): “I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh.”

The second involves two southern men on a business trip to Boston. They have been advised that in the east the word for “fish of the day” is scrad.  En route by taxi from the airport to their hotel, one man asks, “Where can we find top-of-the-line scrad in Boston.”  Turning around the driver says, “I’ve been asked this question many times, in many ways, but never in the past plu-perfect subjunctive.”

The pun has drifted in and out of fashion through the years. Its most recent surge of popularity occurred in early 2011 following the publication of John Pollack’s book, “The Pun Also Rises.” A former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, Pollack is a paronomaniac himself who won the 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship. The specified subject was “external body parts.”  Pollack’s entry: “I’m going to chinnel my energy into coming up with a new pun.”

His lengthy book, however, is not a compendium of puns. Instead, Pollack traces the history and significance of the pun from its roots in the ancient world, through its glory days in the Shakespearean years into today’s world where it is regarded as an easy and inoffensive way to cope with fears, anxieties and political rhetoric.

“Puns appear so often and in such diverse forms and cultures throughout history that they appear to reflect something fundamental, enduring and perhaps even universal about human experience,” Pollack wrote.

The pun is often criticized for its unbearable triteness of being, but it has also won many notable followers. Shakespeare was a punster. Regard how he opens “Richard III” with a play on son/sun: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Oscar Wilde used the pun to spoof himself with phrases such as, “Work is the ruin of the drinking class.” To Ambrose Pierce the pun was “a form of wit to which wise men stoop and fools aspire.”  Coleridge declared that the pun was harmless “because it never excites envy.”  Leave it to Edgar Allen Poe to write, astutely: “Of puns it has been said that those who most dislike them are least able to utter them.”

Many pun addicts will apologize, half-heartedly, for their linguistic legerdemain, knowing that this produces more groans than grins.  My late husband, Grant, did so occasionally.

“If my practice of turning a felicitous phrase occasionally is annoying, please tell me,” he said once, feigning sincerity.

“I would,” I responded, “but it would be to no avail.”

“Then we have no problems,” he said with a smug grin. “To know avail is to love one.”

Gwen Gibson

Growing Old Is Not for Sourpusses

It’s a foregone conclusion: Laughter is the best medicine, particularly as we grow older. In the opinion of many experts growing old becomes a little easier, less depressing and, yes, funnier when we keep our sense of humor about us.  And it’s generally agreed that we laugh best when we laugh at ourselves.

The good news is that we have a world of old age jokes to choose from when we need a good chuckle. Indeed, so many jokes about old folks crop up on the web, in books, magazines, newspapers and on late-night comedy shows that it makes you wonder if growing old isn’t the funniest thing we do in life.

The bad news is that, unlike humans, geezer jokes never die, they just get recycled. Thus, some 90 percent of jokes about “the golden age” are groaners retrieved from the past and reissued with an up-to-date twist.

For instance, twenty years ago a popular joke concerned the doctor who asks his 60-year-old patient, “When did sex stop for you?” And the patients answers, “About 3 a.m. this morning.” In today’s version, the doctor asks his 80-year-old patient, “When did sex stop for you?” And the answer is the same.

As a public service to my fellow “mature adults” I have scoured the web and my own cache of recycled jokes to produce a list of popular and palatable jokes that are easy to recast, or plagiarize.

One standard joke opens with: How do you know when you’re getting old?

Some common  responses include: You know you’re getting old when (1) happy hour is a nap (2) “getting lucky” means you stayed awake late enough to catch the Charlie Rose show (3) you begin to look like your driver’s license photo (4) you feel nostalgic but can’t remember why (5) you can’t remember being absent-minded  (6) you sing along with the elevator music (7) the porn movie you bring home is “Debbie Does Dialysis (8) your children start asking if you want to be buried, cremated or bronzed (9) you stoop to tie your shoe and can’t remember why you’re down there. (10) Your companion says, “Let’s go upstairs and make love” and you reply, “Pick one. I can’t do both.”

Jokes about sex and aging have always been good fodder for the comics among us. One perennial consists of this exchange between two elderly women in a nursing home.

Q. “Do you and your husband still have sex?”

A. “Yes.”

Q. “Do you have mutual orgasms?”

A. “No, we’re with Prudential.”

The jokes we make about the advantages of aging are even more facetious. They include: (1) your health insurance begins to kick in (2) your children begin to ignore you (3) you’re credited with virtues you never had. My favorite response in this category was voiced by a 104-year-old woman in Arvada, Colorado. When asked the advantages of aging, she replied: “Less peer pressure.”

Some “sick” jokes in our storehouse of old-age humor can be hard to take. These poke fun at our infirmaries—our diminishing eyesight and hearing or the way hip and knee replacements can accidentally open someone’s garage door or set off alarms in airport security.  Psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint once justified these by saying, “The negative aspects of growing old have to be placed in perspective for the positive aspects to emerge.”

In other words:  Life is better with laughter than without it, whatever our state of health. Or, as one old comic quipped: “Don’t let old age get you down; it’s too damned hard to get up again.”

Gwen Gibson


Huge Exhibit Paints Artist Joan Miro in New Light

A massive exhibition of the works of Joan Miró is shattering many preconceived notions about the life, times, paintings and politics of this iconic Spanish artist.  Titled “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape,” this hugely popular exhibit is currently on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., its only venue in the United States.

More than a retrospective, the exhibit also emphasizes a little known side of Miró as an artist of his times whose works reflected his unshakeable political commitments. Miró’s political persuasions have been largely overshadowed by his diverse and varying reputation as a modernist, a daring surrealist, a poet of few words, a pragmatist, a lyrical abstractionist and, to at least some in the U.S., as Jackson Pollack’s guru.

Miró was born in Barcelona, capital of his beloved Catalonia, in 1893 and lived until 1983. (His name, Joan, is a variant of  “John” in English and sounds like “Sho-an” in Spanish.) During his 90 years, Miró witnessed two World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the rise and fall of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. The some 120 paintings in “The Ladder of Escape” span his 65-year career and reflect his responses to these turbulent times.

On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I toured the Miró exhibit three times, on three different days, always following well-trained NGA guides through the five galleries needed to properly display this landmark show. Virtually every Miró painting has its own special history, legend or folk tale. But none has a more intriguing past than Miró’s “The Farm” or “La Masia” in Catalan.  One of Miró’s most celebrated paintings, “The Farm” was owned for years–and somewhat squirreled away–by Ernest Hemmingway and at least two of his wives.

The painting depicts Miró’s own family farm in the Catalan village of Montroig (red mountain in Catalan). He started painting this nostalgic piece in1921 while living in Paris and continued to refine it for years. The painting, as described in the NGA catalog, “contains elements of cubism, abstraction and primitivism.” Miró called it his “painting poem.” But back then art dealers in Spain and France refused to exhibit such a “controversial” work.

Enter Hemmingway. In 1925, Hemmingway, then the struggling young writer, saw this painting by a fellow struggling artist, and fell in love with it. Although almost penniless, he managed to buy “The Farm” for a paltry 3,500 francs (about $175) and take it home with him, via taxi.

Hemmingway kept Miró’s beloved painting for years in the Paris apartment he shared with his first wife, Hadley. After they divorced, Hadley remarried and took “The Farm” to America with her. In 1936, Hemmingway, then living in Key West, “borrowed” the painting from Hadley and never gave it back. Instead he took it with him to Havana. In 1959, concerned about violence in Cuba, he loaned the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

After Hemmingway’s suicide two years later, Mary—his fourth wife–took possession of “The Farm” from MoMA and bequeathed the painting to the National Gallery of Art in her will. The NGA finally got the picture (pardon the pun) in 1987. It is featured today on the entry wall of the NGA exhibition.

The first two rooms of this exciting show trace Miró’s career during the 1920s when so many of his works were rooted in Catalonia. Included are scenes of his parents’ farmhouse, the village church and the tilled fields of the Catalan countryside. Look around and you see Miro changing from a young sentimentalist into a budding surrealist.

His five paintings here on the theme of the peasant reduce the principal figure to abstract symbols—showing only the traditional red cap of the Catalan peasant, a wispy beard and a pair of eyes. Also here are pictures capturing Miró’s “ladder of escape” motif in which he connects earth and heaven with an element of playfulness.

The rich “Dog Barking at the Moon,” painted in 1926, is among the most striking of these. On the left hand side of this whimsical sketch a tall ladder stretches into a pitch-black sky but seems to go nowhere. On the right a dog is barking at the moon which looks down as though saying, “I don’t give a damn.”

As the exhibit unfolds, Miró’s paintings become more surreal, provocative and angry. The third gallery is devoted to the terrible years of the Spanish Civil War and its repressive after math (1936-1939). Miró, his new wife and young daughter spent most of these years in exile in Paris, until approaching Nazi troops force them back to Spain in 1940.

Miró’s paintings in this period depict the horrors of war and violence through distorted images of twisted bodies crying out in anguish, fleeing from fire and raising their arms in defiant protest. In one famous work, “Aidez l’Espagne (Help Spain), he overtly states his support for the Republican government in Spain by depicting a Catalan peasant raising a clenched fist in a Loyalist salute. Miró created the scene in bright yellow and red, in support of the Spanish and Catalan flags.

The last two galleries cover Miró’s career from the 1940s to the final years of Franco’s dictatorship (which ended in 1975).  Displayed prominently here are some 40 small works on paper, known as the Constellations, which Miró created in the 1940s. In these, he uses political caricatures to condemn tyranny and dictatorship. The Constellations were exhibited in New York in 1945, securing Miró’s fame in the U.S.  Some argue that they also provided a powerful counterpart to Picasso’s “Guernica.”

Just beyond these are some of Miró’s most explosive and monumental works. They include his famous “Fireworks” triptych which he created by throwing a bucket of paint on to the canvases. In another nearby work, commemorating the student protests of 1968, Miró has used splashed paint and hand prints and graffiti-like improvisation.

The show stopper is called “Burnt Canvasses.” Miró created this dramatic piece by splashing paint onto a canvas, torching it, then walking across the surface in an attempt to harness “the inventive force of fire.”

All of these exotic works stand in sharp contrast to Miró’s quiet, bourgeois life style. He was never into drugs or booze. He was not a womanizer like many of his contemporaries, especially Pablo Picasso, his slightly older friend. He preferred the Catalan countryside to the plush life of Paris and stayed married to his one wife for 54 years.

Miro’s father was a successful jeweler who wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Miro was determined from an early age to devote his life to art. He never deviated although, like many artists, he often struggled to make ends meet. In his late years Miró was finally recognized as one of the leading artists of his time. In 1980, he received Spain’s highest cultural honor, the Gold Medal for Fine Arts.

Miro’s style has always been difficult to categorize. Critics have described his works as everything from poetic to “a toy box for the unconscious mind.” Rather than pin down his style, the new Miro exhibit has simply added a new phrase to the terms used to capture the “true” Miro—“painter and patroit.”

Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art, added the coda. Beyond Miró’s “innocent style,” said Powell, “lies a profound concern for humanity and a sense of personal identity.”

The Miró show was displayed at the Tate Modern museum in London from April to September, 2011. It played at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona from October to March 2012 before moving to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in May. It closes here August 12, 2012, but it will leave the many thousands who saw it or read about it with a deeper understanding of Miró’s life and work.

Gwen Gibson

Growing Old Is Not for Dummies

The old adage holds that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. If you believe this I have a moon colony I want to sell you.  The truth is we must continue to learn as we grow old or be left behind pleading pathetically for help from our younger friends and family.

Fortunately, a wealth of low-cost, continuing education courses are offered to “mature” adults these days. Located in many major cities, these help those of us over 50 to cope with a rapidly changing world while making new friends, re-charging our brains and proving to ourselves and others that we are not obsolete. Or, as I tell my granddaughter, Cogito ergo sum, sweetheart.

Subjects offered in these courses range from college algebra and computer skills to dance, drama, history, languages, literature, photography, science and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll. One cooking class, designed for widowers, is delightfully titled “One foot in the gravy.”

Some of the best courses are found in university towns. In Austin, where I live, the University of Texas offers five different courses to “seasoned adults” through its Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Tuitions range from $195 to $305 a year.

A similar organization, the Lifetime Learning Institute (LLI), has been operating in Austin since 1977 with the sponsorship of AARP. I am taking an advanced Spanish class through LLI for $20 per semester. Most of my classmates are retired or semi-retired professionals with college degrees.  Many have advance degrees. But like so many seniors they seem to think that to stop learning would be like jumping off a moving train.

Our instructor, Lynne Lemley, earned her PhD in Spanish at UT. A dedicated teacher she uses her impish sense of humor to remind us that we do not get dispensation from homework because we’re old. Al contrario.

Our Spanish class runs for two hours every Monday morning and students are expected to teach the class during the first hour.  One student presents a Spanish verb in all its conjugations, meanings and usages then takes questions. Two other students give well-researched papers, in Spanish, on pertinent topics. Subjects covered this semester have ranged from heroes of the Mexican revolution to dolphins of the Amazon River, the aqueduct of Padre Tembleque near Hidalgo, Mexico (a UNESCO world heritage site), the Massai of Tanzania and Kenya, the history of Saint Valentine’s day and a humorous treatise on the phases of life.

Our instructor, Lynne, conducts the class during the second hour as we critique the Spanish novels we have elected to read. Funny but firm, Lynne grills us to the nth degree not only about the Spanish idioms in the novel but also about the author’s style, effectiveness, character development and methodology.

Classes geared to older people have been on the increase since the 1970s when we discovered that there’s life after 50 and that people past 65 don’t automatically go out to pasture. The Lifetime Learning Institute first opened classes in Austin in October, 1977, with 173 students and eight teachers.  Today thousands of students and hundreds of low-paid teachers participate in LLI’s Austin classes. Here, as in other towns, space for these classes is offered by churches, temples, libraries, recreation centers and retirement facilities.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) has established classes at some 120 colleges and universities around the country since 2001. These are funded by the 30-year-old Osher Foundation, established by Bernard Osher, American businessman and philanthropist, to support higher education and the arts.

Many other universities and cultural institutions operate their own continuing education programs.  Google  “lifetime learning” or “continuing education” and you’ll see how courses for “seasoned seniors” have mushroomed in recent years.

These courses are especially popular with the “young old”—people in their 50s and 60s. But geezers (like me) in their 70s and 80s–are also going back to school and finding that it’s more rewarding the second time around. They call us “le troisiéme áge,” a phrase I love since it’s the only thing that makes old age sound sexy.

The jury is still out on whether we delay dementia, or even Alzheimer’s, by continuing to study. But other benefits behoove us to keep our books and minds open. At the same time, we should hold on to our cherished memories since recalling past events is also a healthy mental activity. And who knows?  Someday our grandchildren might want us to tell them about the good old days of LPs and CDs and newspapers and books and snail mail and how we communicated before the social network was invented.

If you believe that then I have another colony on Mars that I want to sell you. The truth is, we should continue to study for our own enlightenment and the help this gives us in remaining independent

As another old adage holds: There’s nothing like learning to keep you in the prime of senility.

Gwen Gibson

Healthy Foods and Fat Chances

Is coffee good for you? Does dark chocolate lower blood pressure? Does red wine reduce your chances of a heart attack? Do vegetarians have better sex lives? Does eating arugula make your ears grow bigger?

That last one was a trick question, to see if you were paying attention. The answer to the other questions—like the answer to so many questions about what foods we should eat–is a frustrating, “Yes, but…”

Robert J. Davis, a noted health journalist, admits as much in his new book, “Coffee Is Good for You,” published by the Penguin Group.  The constantly changing and contradictory advice disseminated by the media, the government, health groups and food companies about what we should and should not eat “is enough to give anyone indigestion,” Davis writes in his introduction.

Davis says these medical muddles develop because scientists are constantly learning more about nutrition and then releasing their studies at random.

But he cuts through the fat, in his readable book, to help us understand what the experts are currently saying.

Addressing the coffee question, Davis notes that this popular beverage had an unhealthy reputation for years due to its suspected link to heart disease and cancer. But early studies failed to account for all those cigarettes that coffee lovers used to smoke with their java, he says. More recent studies show that coffee, when consumed in moderation and sans cigarettes, does not increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes or cancer, but actually decreases the risk of these and other diseases.  “What’s more,” Davis writes, “coffee drinkers appear to live just as long as abstainers—and maybe even slightly longer.”

The “yes, but” here is that some people who drink more than three cups of caffeinated coffee a day can suffer from jitters, insomnia or stomach upset. Research has also linked heavy coffee consumption to bone fractures among women who get too little calcium.

Like coffee, dark chocolate has emerged from a shady past to become known for potential health benefits.  Davis reports on recent, short term studies—many funded by the chocolate industry—which show that dark chocolate can lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function, reduce inflammation in arteries and make blood less likely to clot.

But he has two caveats. One: To be effective, the chocolate must be processed properly. Two: To reap full benefits the chocolate lover must eat 500 calories worth of dark chocolate a day and put on extra pounds in the process, “hardly a formula for better health,” Davis warns.

Davis’s sobering remarks regarding red wine show how convoluted health advice can get. He starts by quoting “consistent evidence from numerous studies” which show that red wine, like other forms of alcohol, “is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and premature death.” Then he warns that red wine, like all alcohol, can increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer, “though scientists aren’t sure why.

“One thing we know for certain,” he writes, “is that binge or heavy drinking is harmful. What’s more, red wine isn’t medicine, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to drink it.”

His take on the sex lives of vegetarians suggests that the jury is still out.

“There is no direct evidence that vegetarians have superior sex lives,” he writes. “As for the claim by PETA and others that going meatless is more healthful, it does have merit—sort of.”

Rationalizing, Davis says that vegetarians tend to live longer than those who eat a standard western diet, “but they don’t outlive health-conscious people who are not vegetarians.”  Go figure.

Scores of other tricky health questions ranging from whether bagged salads should be washed (yes) to whether fiber prevents colon cancer (no) are addressed in Davis’s book. Some of his conclusions are surprising. He finds, for instance, that despite all of Popeye’s lyrical claims, spinach is not the healthiest food in the world.

“That’s because spinach is high in oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and can inhibit absorption,” he writes. “Other leafy green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and turnip greens contain less oxalic acid and thus are better sources of calcium.”

In another surprising verdict, Davis gives high marks to the once lowly peanut and its fellow nuts. “Nutty as it may seem,” he writes, studies have shown that nut eaters—“especially those who indulged five or more times a week”—were less likely to suffer heart attacks than people who consumed nuts rarely or never.

Davis does not address all the current controversies swirling around prescribed medications.  That calls for another book entirely. But anyone who has heard the commercials or read the labels knows that the drugs which help you today can harm you tomorrow.

This adds up to tough choices for people needing medications.  To a much lesser degree, those of us seeking good nutrition also face tough choices. And the confusion is not apt to end soon. Davis warns that some of the advice in his book “will undoubtedly be superseded by new information in the future” as scientific knowledge evolves.

“Don’t let that frustrate you,” he writes. “Instead embrace the change and alter your eating habits accordingly.”

Other experts advise us to simply listen to our bodies.  I vote for that. When I listen to my body it says things like, “Go ahead, have that extra wine” or “Hey, let’s have ice cream and chocolate cake for dessert tonight.”  That, you have to admit, is advice to die for.

Gwen Gibson


Lady Bird Wildflower CenterGrowth Plans in Full Bloom at Lady Bird Wildflower Center

They’re thinking outside the flower box at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with plans for new attractions that could increase attendance by up to 50 percent. The events coincide with the 100th anniversary of Mrs. Johnson’s birth and are seen as a tribute to her legacy.

One new attraction–a $1.4 million, 16-acre arboretum–is under construction and scheduled for completion this spring. Called the Mollie Steves Zachry Texas Arboretum in honor of a major supporter of the Center, this will provide a show case for the vast diversity of native Texas trees, including the 53 species of oak trees that are native to this state. Descendants of trees that helped shape Texas history will be displayed in a “Hall of Texas Heroes.” Standing their ground here, for instance, will be off springs of the Alamo Live Oak, Austin’s Treaty Oak and the Sam Houston Kissing Bur Oak.

More venturesome is the planned $5 million, 4.5 acre children’s garden now on the boards and scheduled to open in 2013. The Center has not offered a playground for children heretofore for fear of endangering its plant collections. In the new playground children will be able to run, play, jump, dance and climb, in an open space of their own, while learning about biology, botany, ecology and more.

Lady Bird Johnson founded the Wildflower Center in 1982 with actress Helen Hayes, on a small site near the old Mueller airport. She called it “my gift to the nation.” The center moved to its present site in 1995. In 1997 it was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. In 2006 it became a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin. Today the center’s research and education arm is internationally known.

Mrs. Johnson was born December 22, 1912, in the small east Texas town of Karnack and was always captivated by nature. During LBJ’s tumultuous years in the White House, 1963-1969, Mrs. Johnson became known as the “Environmental First Lady.” Not only did she put environment on the political agenda, she also campaigned successfully for the passage of scores of bills that called for “beautifying” America’s highways, creating scores of new national parks and protecting native plants throughout all of North America. She often argued that using native plants was good “for the soul and the pocketbook.”

With all that’s “coming up” here, the Lady Bird Wildflower Center is still a restful place where you can find quiet niches for meditation. The buildings and gardens sit quietly on the grounds still looking, as Mrs. Johnson wanted, “as though God put them there.”

NOTE: This is just a heads-up for my friends. My story on the Wildflower Center will appear in the spring issue of Home magazine. For more information, meanwhile, you can visit This is chock full of news.


Gridiron Club to Political VIPs: Grin and Bear It

By Gwen Gibson

The Gridiron Club of Washington, D.C.—composed of 65 prominent journalists–has existed for 126 years, with one overriding objective–to lampoon the sitting president of the United States and other notable VIPs at its annual white tie dinner and satirical show. How and why this exclusive club survives and even thrives while newspapers struggle to stay alive is a curiosity worth exploring.

Granted, the club has lost a bit of its clout in recent years. President Obama skipped the club’s big spring dinner in 2009 and again in 2010, becoming the first president since Grover Cleveland to miss the first Gridiron dinner of his presidency. When he finally appeared and addressed the some 650 guests at the Gridiron’s 2011 spring dinner, held March 13, Obama delighted in poking fun at the club for clinging to old-time traditions.

“Look at this getup!” Obama said with a laugh as he looked down at his white tie attire. “Forget about winning the future. How about entering the present?”

The tribulations of all journalists were acknowledged later, with biting humor, at the Gridiron’s 2011 Winter Dinner, held December 3, when Susan Page, of USA Today and the 2011 Gridiron president, told the guests:

“We might as well admit it: We are the one percent. That is, the one percent of journalists who still have jobs.”

The Gridiron’s winter dinner, a black tie affair much smaller than the spring show, is given for members, their spouses and special guests. But “the mighty Gridiron chorus” performs skits—some repeats, some tryouts for the next spring show.

In one skit, a Hillary Clinton impersonator put new lyrics to an old familiar George
Gershwin song to announce

          I’m BIDEN my time

          ‘Cause that’s the kind of pol I’m

          While Joe gets in a tizzy

          I’ll be busy

          BIDEN my time….

Another member turned Lady Gaga’s song “I Was Born This Way” into a spoof of Mitt Romney, singing

          I used to be pro-choice

          But I’m pro-life today

          I’m on the right track, baby

          I can go both ways….

Traditionally, two prominent politicians, one Republican, one Democratic—address the winter dinner and spoof whomever they wish. The “honors” in 2011 went to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Newark, N.J. mayor Cory Booker.

Pawlenty gave the type of speech the Gridiron relishes, kidding himself and his own party. A former GOP presidential aspirant, the soft-spoken Pawlenty told the dinner guests that he dropped out of the race after Michele Bachman won the Iowa straw poll last August. “It bothers me a little to be beaten by Sarah Palin’s stunt double,” he confessed.

Since dropping out, he added, he has supported Mitt Romney, “because standing next to him, I’m the charismatic one.” In still another laugh line, he suggested that if Newt Gingrich wins the White House, “‘Hail to the Chief’ could be replaced by ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’.”

Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party, talked of how he differs from President Obama.  “He went to Harvard, I went to Yale. He was born in the USA, I was born in Washington, D.C.,” Booker said, taking a swipe at the District of Columbia’s lack of equal representation in Congress.

The Gridiron Club was formed in 1885 by Washington correspondents representing newspapers around the nation. From the start it was a social club created to spoof itself and lighten political tensions with humor that “singes but never burns.”

The first formal dinner was held Feb. 28, 1885, but President-elect  Grover Cleveland, who had icy relations with the press, did not attend this or any other Gridiron dinner while president.

In 1892, Benjamin Harrison, who enjoyed sparring with the press, became the first sitting president to attend a Gridiron dinner. Every president since Harrison has attended the spring dinner at least once while still in office. Some whom the press razzed relentlessly became loyal fans. Ronald Reagan attended the Gridiron spring dinner eight years in a row although he complained that he had to “sit on my keister” too long during the four-hour long dinner shows. George W. Bush attended the Gridiron six times. In 2008, at his last Gridiron appearance, W. slipped out of his head table seat and joined the Gridiron chorus on stage singing Auld Lang Syne.

Musical accompaniment for the Gridiron shows has been provided since the days of John Philip Sousa by the incredible Marine Band, “the President’s own,” thereby improving immeasurably the quality of the skits. The Gridiron has never used original music for its skits. The theory is that putting lyrics to popular songs of the day gives them more punch.

This certainly worked in 2007 when a Dick Cheney double sang “It’s Not Easy Being Mean” to Kermit’s song from the Muppets.

And it worked just as well back in 1962 when the Gridiron chorus serenaded the popular and articulate President John F. Kennedy with

His wild Irish prose

It sparkles as it glows

And make no mistake

There’s nothing can take

The bloom from that wild Irish prose….

 Lyndon B. Johnson was spoofed at a Gridiron show shortly after being photographed on his ranch lifting his dog by its ears. LBJ had mixed feelings about the club but he laughed when the chorus sang     

          Brown and white beagles

          With big floppy ears

          Depletion allowances, and prize winning steers

          Speed boats and barbecues, Texas oil kings

These are a few of his favorite things….

On rare occasions, tempers can flare at Gridiron shows. In a famous incident, at the 1933 dinner, President Roosevelt gobsmacked columnist H.L. Mencken, the opposition speaker, for his “most extreme and attention-getting opinions.” Mencken later wrote to friends: “I got in a bout with a High Personage at the dinner and was put to death with great barbarity. Fortunately, I revived immediately and am still full of sin.”

Normally, the skits by the club and speeches by the guests are received as harmless political parodies that help to relieve tensions when politics gets too strident.

At the 1975 dinner, President Gerald R. Ford, told the 600 guests that since moving into the White House he had learned “how much of a life-saving medicine a little laughter is for presidents.” He added: “If a fine evening of fun and friendship like this is good for Presidents, it must also be good for America.”

In his speech at the 2011 spring dinner, President Obama also supported the club and the media in general. But he took a different tack, suggesting they are necessary nuisances.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in positions of power may have our gripes about how the media covers us,” Obama said, “but it’s only because your job is to hold us accountable. And none of us would want to live in a country without that fail safe.”

You can be certain the members and guests drank a toast to that one.