Franklin D. Roosevelt died at the age of sixty-three of a condition that would probably not have taken him today, at least not at such a young age.
After many evenings curled up with our DVR we completed watching the fascinating seven-part, fourteen-hour series, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” by Ken Burns, who has done more than any other contemporary filmmaker to bring alive our nation’s history for viewers like me whose knowledge or memory of that history is on the sketchy side.
We learned much about Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, their complicated family and their complicated lives. The trait the three of them shared more than any other was their determination to triumph in the face of daunting adversity. Among other trials, Teddy lost his wife and mother on the same day. Franklin was struck down by polio in 1921, at the age of thirty-nine. Until then he had been a robust sportsman and bon vivant. I did not remember that he was stricken by polio eleven years before he was first elected president. So well were his infirmities disguised that the public had scant knowledge of the degree of his paralysis. Can you imagine a paralyzed person being elected president today?
Polio has been all but eliminated from our life. But many of us remember the terror of polio in the mid-twentieth century, before the Salk and Sabin vaccines were developed. Our parents struggled to keep us out of harm’s way, especially during the summer months. A cousin, two years older than I, died of the highly contagious disease at the age of sixteen in California. Her aunt, also stricken, did not die but spent her entire adult life in a wheel chair.
The head writer of the Burns series, award-winning historian Geoffrey C. Ward, suffered from polio as a child and still wears braces, which has given him a special empathy with the president. There were times in his narrative segments when his eyes welled up with tears.
Roosevelt did not die of polio, although I had always assumed his death was from complications of nearly a quarter-century struggle with the disease. But that was not the case. He died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage brought on by extremely high blood pressure.
We don’t often think about how recently cures for some of the most deadly conditions affecting humans were developed. Roosevelt’s blood pressure was a respectable 128/82 in 1930 but shot up as high as 230/126 in 1944. A reading, taken moments before he died, was 300/190. And it was interesting to note that in nearly every frame of the documentary, even after his diagnosis, Roosevelt was seen lighting and smoking cigarettes.
Before drugs were developed for hypertension the meager efforts of treatment included strict sodium restriction such as the rice diet; sympathectomy (surgical ablation of parts of the sympathetic nervous system); and pyrogen therapy (injection of substances that caused a fever, indirectly reducing blood pressure).
Not until the 1950s were antihypertensive drugs – the diuretic chlorothiazides, the beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors, any one of which might be in the medicine cabinet of many who are reading this – developed.
We have progressed so far in eliminating diseases that used to be incurable that we’ve forgotten how dangerous and pervasive they were. When I was a child diseases that many living now have never heard of, among them scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and diphtheria, were prevalent and terrifying. Smallpox is but a distant memory, and heaven forbid leprosy whose victims were shunned and placed into separate colonies so ghastly was their condition.
All of these diseases were conquered or greatly reduced, during or after World War II, with the development of vaccines and antibiotics – sulfa drugs, penicillin, and a variety of broad spectrum antibiotics such as Tetracycline and Cipro, and the macrolides Erythromycin, Azithromycin, and Streptomycin, the first cure for tuberculosis. Because of those developments these conditions have become practically non-existent except in certain Third World Countries.
I remember obediently standing in line at Lemington School with my jittery schoolmates waiting to get poked with the needle for my Smallpox vaccination, remnants of which still bear witness on my upper left arm. That was before a militant group of anti-inoculation parents decided that vaccines cause autism and that government bodies shouldn’t force them to have their children vaccinated for anything.
There will be other diseases, yet unheard of, to conquer. At the moment Ebola has us in a state of high anxiety. But it’s only a matter of time before an Ebola vaccine is developed. And what do you want to bet that the same group of anti-vaccination parents will be knocking people down, left and right, to get their children and themselves protected.
We have far to go as new diseases come crashing into our environment, but we have come a mighty long way.
When I was in grade school there was a thriving block of businesses near the school, which included a variety store that sold all kinds of household goods – pots and pans, tools, car wax, and everything else you could think of including candy and gum. We kids stopped there every day on the way home from school to “browse.” We must have been browsing, because we certainly didn’t need most of what they sold. Few of us used rock salt or toilet plungers.
One day, on a whim, I decided to snatch a candy bar from the display near the cash register. Within seconds I noticed the proprietor eyeing me. He came over and asked me if I had taken a candy bar. I lied, “Oh, no!” But I knew that he knew that I had. And from then on I felt peculiar going into his store. That experience rescued me from a life of crime. I decided I’d rather be a piano player than a crook.
My brief foray into petty thievery turned me into the most honest person you’d ever want to know. I wouldn’t pick up a dime from the sidewalk without being sure that whoever dropped it is long gone and won’t be back.
Some people begin lives of crime with simple shoplifting, then progress to more audacious acts of thievery. Perhaps they’ve been taught at home to take all you can get. Looters, who have never learned the lesson of honesty or to “do unto others” proudly flaunt their booty.
If such a person finds a wallet containing cash, it’s a windfall, their lucky day. It would never occur to them to try to find the owner. Those who are in a rush remove the cash and pitch the wallet into a trash can or gutter from which it is occasionally retrieved, license and credit cards intact, to the relief of the frantic owner.
What started me thinking about all of this was the recent case of a woman from a Pittsburgh suburb – let’s call her Mary Smith – who isn’t a petty thief who steals a candy bar or keeps a found wallet, although she may have started out that way. She has bigger fish to fry. Charged with embezzling $270,000 from her employer by juggling wire transactions, she had been moving money from one account to another from which she had pilfered a grand here and a grand there, thinking that no one would be the wiser.
One of the more astonishing things about her case is that she had just been sentenced to 30 days for stealing $19,000 – she started small – from a local cheerleaders’ organization. That worked until she got caught. But in the meantime she had decided to take it to a higher level.
Working for a CPA firm close to where she lives, she cleverly shuffled thousands of dollars in and out of several accounts including that of a sophisticated Oakland computer data analysis company. When one account was short she’d transfer funds from another account to make up for the shortfall. Obviously the Oakland cyberwizards were too busy analyzing data to keep track of their books. So they had hired a CPA to do it and went back to their analyzing assuming everything would be on the up and up.
If the lady had helped herself to $2700 or even $27,000, that might be a little easier to miss. But $270,000? Somebody was out to lunch.
If you do an Internet search of Mary Smith you will find the following on the web site of The American Directory of Tax Return Professionals and Tax Preparers. “For tax preparation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you can count on Mary Smith.” Really? Seems to me she should be on a different list – The National Directory of Wire Fraud Cheaters and Embezzlers.
When I learn about cases like this I have to wonder how the person thinks he or she is going to get away with it. They do it once, twice, three or four times, and nothing bad happens. Why not five or six times? And then it becomes like a drug. The high wears off more quickly. Bigger doses are needed. The thief is hooked and helpless to stop. And for all we know hundreds of these clerical thieves are getting away with such shenanigans every day.
I also wonder: When a person is hired for a job that requires handling large amounts of money, how closely are they vetted? Is it possible to predict what a seemingly honest person might do when the bills are piling up and a solution seems so close at hand?
According to the report, the money was used for mortgage payments and credit card charges. I don't know what all she was buying, but from a glimpse of her on the evening news, it doesn’t appear that she was spending the money on clothes.
Did Mary Smith begin her life of crime by stealing a candy bar without getting caught and without remorse?
Petty thievery or grand larceny – it all has to do with that little voice inside we call conscience – whether it convinces us to be honest or we ignore it and get away with whatever we can regardless of the pain it might inflict on others or the very real possibility of being discovered.
There are few words in the English language that are more overworked than awesome, except perhaps iconic, whose promiscuous use may soon impel me to leap off the West End Bridge. These words are used so indiscriminately and with such frequency that their original meanings have been lost, their usage reduced to watered-down imitations of the real thing.
But there are developments that, blasé as we are, might legitimately be considered awesome. Here are a few that get my vote:
The microwave oven: It’s been around for so long that it gets no more respect than a toaster. But think about how it has changed our lives. My first microwave, forty years ago, was a premium for opening a CD account at a local bank. Although it didn’t take long for me to realize that the appliance wasn’t going to be the last word in cooking food, it revolutionized my kitchen in terms of heating, reheating, and defrosting food – and making popcorn!
I’ve written before about the dinner party for eight at which the main course was Cornish Hens with Autumn Fruits. Eight little birds fit snugly into a roasting pan, which I placed in the oven for the required hour and a quarter. But when I took them out of the pan they weren’t done!
A year earlier I would have had a disaster on my hands. But in 1984 I simply said, “Oh, dear,” opened another bottle of wine, and encouraged our guests to mix and mingle until, in a matter of minutes, the microwave had performed its magic on each little bird.
Printable business cards: For years I would love to have had business cards to hand to new acquaintances rather than scribbling my information on a paper napkin. I considered having cards printed but, until recently, one had to order business cards from a professional printer, and the smallest number you could order was five hundred. I doubted that I would live long enough to need five-hundred cards. So paper napkins it was. But now when I need business cards I simply buy printable sheets of cards at the local office supply store and design my own. If my information changes or I want a different graphic, I can make the corrections and print up a fresh batch, as few as a dozen at a time.
Google and YouTube: As a musician I’ve written program notes for my own recitals and various chamber music concerts. A trip to the music department of the Main Library in Oakland, with its inevitable parking hassle, used to be obligatory. I would pore over assorted volumes for hours searching for information on composers and their works. Now, without so much as opening the front door, I can find all the information I need, while sitting at my computer in my nightgown, by Googling any composer or work I need to know about. And I can listen to portions of their works on YouTube.
Digital video recording: Gone are the days when you would miss your favorite TV show if you had to leave the house. Your only recourse was to catch it in reruns. Now you can schedule it to be recorded by your digital video recorder – mine is TiVo – where it is saved for you to watch whenever you’re ready. And if the phone rings while it’s playing you can hit the Pause button, have your conversation, and not miss a second of the program. And best of all, you can fast forward through all of the commercials.
GPS: How much time and gasoline have we wasted getting lost? How many gas stations have we visited and local residents have we flagged down trying to find our way to some obscure destination. Then along comes GPS, the global positioning system, “which uses, at any one time, three from among a group of thirty-one satellites in earth orbit that transmit precise signals, allowing GPS receivers to calculate and display accurate location, speed, and time information to the user.”*
When I’m using my GPS, there are times when I would like to strangle the voice I call “Little Missy” who taunts me with her “re-CAL-culating” if I make a wrong turn. Some day I expect her to burst through the tiny screen, grab me by the throat and scream, “Are you STUPID?” I probably am. I really do believe that Spell Check makes us lazy and GPS makes us stupid.
Regardless of Little Missy’s somewhat surly attitude, to have her telling me, turn by turn, how to get where I’m going makes it worth putting up with her guff.
To young people these developments seem no more remarkable than the kitchen faucet. But to those of us who have circled the track a few times these gee whiz gizmos seem like magic, and we wonder what our grandmothers would think. I even wonder what my father would think, and he’s only been gone for thirty years.
Our smartphones and iPads, touchscreens and video streaming, and assorted other cutting edge developments truly are awesome, awe-inspiring to the degree that we can’t quite believe the breadth of functionality at our fingertips and are helpless to resist while we neglect our houses – and sometimes our spouses – as we text one another, Google one more celebrity’s birth date, or become mired in the worlds of Candy Crush and Angry Birds.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about bucket lists. When the film “The Bucket list” came out in 2007, I had no idea what a bucket list was but soon learned that it’s a list of wishes one would like to fulfill before “kicking the bucket.” A little morbid, actually.
But, if we live long enough we eventually have to acknowledge that we’re not going to be around forever and that if there are things we’ve fantasized about doing, we’d better get busy.
I haven't thought much about making a bucket list. I’ve traveled just about everywhere, and the places I haven’t visited such as the Galapagos and Pompeii I would visit, at this point in my arthritic life, only if I could be taken there in a sedan chair. My feet and left hip tell me that my schlepping days are pretty much over.
I’m not an adventurer. I don’t want to climb Mount Everest or circumnavigate the globe in a kayak or walk across the United States just to see if I can or for a worthy charity.
When I mentioned to a friend recently that I don’t have a bucket list she was genuinely surprised since she carries hers around in her smartphone. A person standing nearby overhearing our conversation, asked me, “Wouldn’t you like to go to a rodeo?” Well frankly, sir, no. I would much rather be pilloried in the town square than go to a rodeo, or a bullfight, or a NASCAR race.
What got me thinking about all of this is that I recently did something I’ve been wanting to do for several years. Although it’s trivial compared to swimming the English Channel, riding a Segway would qualify to be on my bucket list. A recent article in the Sunday paper about the many interesting diversions Pittsburgh has to offer included a feature on Segway tours offered by “Segway in Paradise” operated out of Station Square. I went straight to my computer to sign up for this little adventure.
In case you’re scratching your head, the Segway is described as a “two-wheeled human transporter” that you ride standing up. I was fascinated when I first saw one demonstrated on Good Morning America in 2001. It looked like such fun. And it is indeed fun, although at one point during my tour, to borrow a phrase from Catch 22, I zigged when I should have zagged and nearly crashed into a car.
The Segway is operated by “a motor instead of muscles, a collection of microprocessors instead of a brain, and a set of sophisticated tilt sensors instead of an inner-ear balancing system.” My primary sensation while riding the Segway was, “Whee!”
Having completed one item on my nascent bucket list, I decided to find out what might be on that of a few friends. Many of their desires are predictable – traveling to Machu Pichu, riding the Orient Express, going on safari. None of them expressed a wish to jump out of an airplane or drive at breakneck speed on a race track the way Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s characters did, but a few wanted to do things that are out of the ordinary but not dangerous.
Decorating the White House Christmas tree is on one friend’s list. An intriguing wish to be sure although its realization is pretty unlikely. But I admire her confidence and hope she finds an inside track to those in charge of such things in order to save us a few tax dollars.
Another of her wishes, equally surprising, to me at least, is to go on a retreat in a monastery. She doesn’t say how long she’d like to stay, but knowing her I think a weekend would be good for starters. Considering how hard it is for most of us to sit still for five minutes without checking our smartphones, it would be courageous of her to try.
Two friends’ lists include the wish to learn to speak French fluently. And an intrepid California friend who has been struggling with Italian for years and not lost her determination or sense of humor despite all obstacles says, “I yearn to unlock the mystery of several Italian verb conjugations. Like, why in the name of all that's good and holy do they even exist?” In her frustration it comforts her to contemplate how difficult it must be for someone new to the English language to learn to say: "I would have been there if I had known you were going to be needing me." Imagine how tough that would be if your native language is Chinese.*
Three items remain on my little bucket list, one laughingly simple: to rent a bike and pedal along the Ohio River trail where I observe bikers leisurely gliding, on level ground, as I speed along the Parkway East to Oakland and points beyond.
And the others: to dine at a Michelin-star restaurant as often as possible, possibly at someone else’s expense and, in line with the wish of my most optimistic correspondents, “To live as long as Methuselah.” May we all do so – and in good health.
*If learning a new language is on your list, instead of forking out hundreds of dollars for Rosetta Stone, check out Duolingo.com. It’s fun – and it’s free!
My husband Charles Johnson and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary on July 27th. During thirty years of wedded bliss I have never used his last name, except on our income tax return, for a couple of reasons not the least of which is that the name Johnson is so common. But more importantly, by 1984 I had become pretty well known around town by my current name and didn’t think I needed to shake things up by changing it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken aback when, during the cocktail hour at a recent dinner party, a first-time guest suddenly asked, “Are you guys really married?” I can’t be sure from what recesses of his psyche this inquiry bubbled up when it did, or how long he had been wondering about this, but everyone at the table was as surprised as Charlie and I were by his tactlessness. They didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp.
But it has occurred to me that there probably are a few people who wonder, because I don’t use his last name, if my husband and I really are married. The fact that we’re different races doesn’t help. On a group tour a few years ago a lady asked Charlie if I was his caretaker. I am, but not in the sense she had in mind. And the difference in our “look” isn’t helped by the fact that he’s fifteen years older than I am. Even so, time and again people have remarked, “You two are such a perfect match.” Yet even so, after all these years there will still be some who harbor seeds of doubt.
Nobody thinks much about celebrity couples using different last names, but when it comes to the people who live next door, many find it peculiar in our Judeo-Christian “love, honor, and obey” culture.
A woman retired from local media, whose name would be familiar to many of you, has been married four times. But she is known to everyone by the last name of her second husband. She arrived in Pittsburgh using that name and will use that name for the rest of her life.
My harpist friend Paula Page has kept her maiden name, except when her children were small, for several reasons: she is a prominent musician – recently retired as principal harpist of the Houston Symphony; her father, Robert Page, is a nationally-known Grammy Award-winning conductor; her married name, Fay, wasn’t especially attractive; and her first name and maiden name are nicely alliterative, which gives her name zing and makes it easy to remember.
Paula and I don’t pretend to be in the exalted category of Caroline Kennedy, but does anyone even know her married name? How many people could come up with it in a man-on-the-street interview? Not many. And in case you’ve forgotten or never knew, it’s Schlossberg.
Some women don’t use their husband’s name for reasons other than because of the way they sound or because they’re well known. These are the feminists who do not wish to have their identity subsumed into that of their spouse, to be an appendage, secondary to the Master of the House.
Certainly there are husbands who would be highly offended if their wives didn’t wish to adopt their surname. But others are proud of their wives’ accomplishments and feel that the marriage, regardless of what name is used, reflects positively on them.
When Bill Clinton was campaigning to become president in 1992, I seem to recall that Hillary was known as Hillary Rodham. She had been prominent in her own right for many years before stepping onto the public stage. But the culture warriors wore her down until she surrendered, became Hillary Rodham Clinton and eventually plain old Hillary Clinton, although she could have done worse than to share a last name with the President of the United States.
Our last name arrangement has been an amusing source of befuddlement to those wishing to address an envelope to us. They’re not sure if “Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Johnson” will do it. After all, “Are those guys really married?”
We’ve gotten envelopes addressed to “Patricia Jennings and Charles Johnson.” He’s received mail addressed to “Charles Jennings,” and we’ve gotten at least one envelope addressed simply to Pat and Charlie – no last name – but the address and ZIP Code got it to our mailbox. It doesn’t really matter to us if our mail is addressed to “Resident.” As long as the address is right, we’ll get it.
And while I’m on the subject of my name, I’ve kept my maiden name as part of my identity because my father, like Paula Page’s father, was a well-known figure. He had neither sons nor brothers, so there’s no one but me to keep the name alive.
Jennings was the name of my late, first husband. I haven’t kept the name in tribute to him although he was a perfectly nice man. But you might agree that Jennings is more interesting than Johnson – unless it’s preceded by Lyndon or Howard – although if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “Jenkins” since 1969, the year of my first marriage, I could feed a homeless person for a year.