Aging is Isolating

If These Old Hands Could SpeakAging is isolating. Friends move away, effectively disappear, or die off. Others drift out of the relationship. We spend less time together. The younger ones appropriately have their own agenda. It is their time to take care of themselves. Furthermore, they may have already learned what we have to offer. It’s time for them to move on and build their own life experience. Moreover, things have changed since you and I were their age, in some ways drastically. Consequently, some of the things we have to offer them are less relevant.

So what can we do? How can we address aging? One thing is certain, our time here on Mother Earth is limited. Since that is part of our reality, one thing each of us can do is do our best to take care of ourselves. By doing that we will be less of a burden on others and less of a drain on society’s resources. Another is to pay attention to our limitations. We can’t do everything and certainly not as much as we used to. I can certainly vouch for that.

We can start by admitting to ourselves that we have a finite time left here on earth. Each of us has skills and experience. We can use them to the best of our ability to take care of ourselves and to continue to make a contribution. It is a good time to decide what is important, to figure out what we really want to accomplish in the relatively brief time we have left, and what we would like to be remembered for.

Think seriously about your relationships with others. Do you have any issues with those who are still alive, where by doing or saying something now could make a difference? We can all start by acknowledging our errors. And perhaps saying, “I’m sorry. What I did was inappropriate. I certainly didn’t intend to cause you any pain or harm.” Those are some of the things each of us might consider doing while we are still alive. This is not just good advice for the old, really none of us knows how long we will live.

In that way, when we leave, and trust me we will, our departure will make things easier for those who we leave behind. 8033522652_97090eabda_oAging is part of a larger process called life. If we go through it, we are the lucky ones.

Aging brings along with it some other things. We are less mobile, feebler, more likely to forget and less able to take care of ourselves. That makes us more of a drain on others, on their time and energy. It also makes it harder for us to take care of ourselves. If others choose to devote some of their time and energy to support us, the least we can do is say, “Thank you.” It is important to remember that the care provided in our declining years also places a greater drain on society’s limited resources. For example, it leads to fewer resources being available for children’s education, for developing new ideas, or for anything else. Hopefully, each of us has put enough funds aside to reimburse those for the services they provide.

I find myself sleeping longer, taking more time to do things, and making more errors. How about you? All that takes time away from our limited time — the 24 hours in a day. That includes the time involved in maintaining contact and communicating with others, in maintaining relationships. I realize there may be a time when I can no longer drive. In order to get together, friends must come to see me. That will further limit contact and contributes to the isolation.

It is harder to make new friends. There are simply fewer people around with common experiences. My friend Jeanne is five years older than I. In our phone conversations we treasure the fact we can discuss the “good old times,” including the songs we share. Younger folk often have no recollection of them.

Often us older folks are not familiar with today’s ways of doing things — including the new ways of staying in touch, of communicating. When we grew up we did not have computers, cell phones, iPhones or smartphones. They simply did not exist. When you called someone, either the phone rang and rang; or you got a busy signal; or they answered and you spoke to them saying who you are. You talked to a real person. Today, more than likely, you are talking to a computer. It pretends to be listening and has its own preprogrammed way of doing things. How frustrating and time-consuming that is. It takes away from your limited time and energy, often without successfully accomplishing what you intended, leaving the problem unresolved. Boy, is that frustrating.

Here’s another example. You decide you want to give someone a call. You can’t remember their phone number. The old way of looking it up in the phone book doesn’t work anymore. They’ve moved and kept the old number. The area code tells you they are living in Richmond and you know they live around the corner. Oh, you forgot, they now carry their phone with them. Unlike the old days. Now you know who I am without my saying anything. You know where I am, but I have no idea where you are. Or, the only way some people communicate is by e-mail. That’s no help. You don’t have, or can’t use a computer, an iPhone or a smartphone. Perhaps you call and all you get is their answering service. Apparently they never check it. In any case they never get back to you. Even if you’ve heard about texting, you don’t have the equipment or the know how. It’s all so complicated, so frustrating. From your perspective it is a waste of your time, draining and unproductive. It contributes to the feeling of isolation.alone

Those are just some of the hassles of being an older person living in today’s world. They create obstacles even when you have no infirmities or disabilities. As we get older, as with any other complex machine, the system is likely to breakdown. The longer we hang around, the more likely that becomes. Add that to the mix, and things become even more complicated. It is harder to achieve our objectives or even to take care of one’s self. In fact, that may even become impossible.

All that, as well as the realization of it, leads to one conclusion, “Aging is isolating.”

Stepping back, however, there is a bigger picture. The fewer relationships we have — that is what isolation is all about — the less of an impact our dying will have on others. By pulling back in the relationship with us now, others are effectively going through part of their grieving process. That is only true, however, when they have already dealt with any “issues” that they have in their relation with us older folks who are still around.

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“In Retirement”

People often ask me, “What have you done in the 30 years since you retired?” My answer is always the same. I tell them that I’m a nominally retired economist.

For the first two years I traveled around the Country in my Ford Aerostar van. I had reconfigured it so I could live in it or out of 5454351244_55150d2b32_oit. During the day the curtains came down so that I wouldn’t miss any of the beautiful scenery much of which was new to me. As an East Coast kid, I was used to seeing the sunrise and the horizon over water. But I had never seen it over land, the spectacular mountains, or the sunset over the ocean. What a majestic experience!

Whenever there was a craft show in the area I’d be there. I gave up on the economics of the health-care system (that’s another long story) and turned to the Economics of Fine Art and Fine Craft. I specialized in the study of the high-end craft market from an economist’s perspective. Among others, I attended the Baltimore American Craft Council Show, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, the New York SOFA show and Wendy Rosen wholesale shows. There I met and became friends with a number of fine craftspersons from all over the country. I studied the market’s characteristics, met and worked with the artists, and lectured on issues that concerned them. They included: ‘Pricing your work’; ‘Choosing your marketing venue’; ‘Functional and aesthetically pleasing vs. solely ornamental’; and ‘Your markets and its submarkets’ .

After two years on the road, I decided it was time to settle down. Initially, I thought I would go back to Chapel Hill. That’s not the way things worked out. I spent part of the two years taking care of my mother. She spent the eleven months before she died at the end of November 1986 in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. (Another long story.) When I wasn’t on the road I lived in her apartment and experienced the hubbub the of the Village.

After her death I needed to get away. I’d been to St. Thomas in the USVI with my ex-wife, many years earlier. (Another long bernieonstjohnstory.) But I had never been to St. John. I decided that it would be the ideal place to go. Never did I know! So my son Paul and I took a trip down there.

St. John turned out to be quiet, peaceful, beautiful, warm, sunny, a tropical island with a saltwater pool they called the ocean. But mostly it was the people, the locals, the St. Johnians who I really liked. They were so friendly, so accepting, so welcoming.
On the boat back to St. Thomas to catch the flight up to the States, I turned to Paul. Before I could say a word he said, “Yes, I know Dad.” Six months later I moved to St. John and never expected to leave. For the 18 years I lived there, every time I took the ferry from Red Hook to Cruz Bay I felt like I was going home. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of my story.

Even as a teenager, when we moved from Queens in New York City to Wonderful Western North Carolina, I was fascinated by relatively isolated communities. I called them ‘island communities’. For me it opened up the question, How were they able to survive, often over generations, given the limited resources that were available and with little contact with the outside world? What was their way of life?  What could we learn from them?

Initially I decided to work on a project I called “The Living History of the Caribbean”.documenting the people, their culture and their crafts and products. During earlier times they made a number of important items locally. They included the boats, dwellings, stonewalls, fish pots, baskets and musical instruments. All were made from local materials using simple tools and their fine skills that they developed over generations.  My intention was to find the skillholders who were still around that knew how to produce them. I wanted them to produce the product so I could document and preserve the techniques of production; showcase the quality of their work; and show how their products contributed to the local economy. That way the process would be preserved for future generations. Once the skillholders were gone their process would be lost with them.

Mr. Herman Prince's, St. John Market Basket.
Mr. Herman Prince’s, St. John Market Basket.

As a starter, after I settled there and developed a friendship with Mr. Herman Prince, St John’s premier basketmaker-teacher, I decided to study St. John baskets.  He said that I couldn’t write about them until I learned how to make them. So taking his advice, I took his class. Not only did I learn how to make the baskets, I learned about the St. John history and culture that made them possible. It led to the article I published in The Clarion: America’s Folk Art Magazine, published by The Museum of American Folk Art entitled, “Basketmaking on the Island of St. John” (Summer, 1990, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 52-59) In it you can see a picture of Mr. Prince. You can also see an image of his fine handiwork in A Measure of the Earth: The Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets by Nicholas R. Bell (p. 144). His basket is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.

Along the way, I put together a collection of 25 baskets. Included are some exceptionally fine baskets made by Mr. Prince, Capt. Victor Sewer and Ms. Louise Sewer. Their other baskets  are more elaborate than Mr. Prince’s St. John Market Basket in the Smithsonian collection. My hope is to create a video that documents the collection and honors the baskets and their basketmakers, all of whom have since died.

Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.
Bernie and his good friend, Mr. Guy H. Benjamin (Benji), who he met while living in the USVI.

Working with the elders revealed that an independent, self-sufficient  free black community had existed on St. John’s East End from the late 1700s. That was 50 years before emancipation! It also led to my twenty-five year friendship with Guy H. Benjamin (Benji). He was acknowledged by all as St. John’s elder statesman. Benji and I spent many, many wonderful hours together until his death in at the age of 98 in 2012. We collaborated on a detailed study of the East End community from the 1790s to 1956. 

I promised not to tell you any long stories but I do have to tell you a short one. I’ll try to keep it as brief as possible. St. John was home. I never intended to leave there. In January 1999 I was in  the “bush” at Cinnamon Bay collecting hoop vine with my friend, Ralph Prince. Ralph has a sideline — basketmaking. For those of you who don’t know, “hoop” is what St. John baskets are made from. We were gathering it for his dad, Herman Prince.

I developed back pain and went to see my chiropractor, Dr. Alex Politis. He didn’t like what he was seeing and suggested that I go to the Clinic — the Myra Keating Smith Clinic. (Be careful Bernie, that’s another long story or two or more, in fact.) The short of it is that Dr. Barrett suspected I was having a heart attack but did not have the enzymes necessary to test for it. So she sent me off to the hospital on St. Thomas. (I had to get in an ambulance, an ambulance boat, then another ambulance before I could get there.) Their conclusion, at about one in the morning, was that I had a liver problem and they sent me home. After taking a taxi to Red Hook, I had to wait for the next ferry to Cruz Bay. It left at six in the morning. The next day I was diaphoretic, so drove myself to the clinic and was sent back to the hospital on St. Thomas. I went through the same routine all over again. This time they put me in intensive care.

I had had a heart attack. When I was released from the hospital, a friend accompanied me to the States. The long story short, at Duke University Hospital I had a CAB4X, a four vessel coronary bypass operation. After recovering I went back to St. John and split my time between there and Chapel Hill for a while. Although I never intended to leave St. John, I eventually decided to move back to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area. The health-care was better there. That’s the short version.

Initially, I intended to continue working on the economics of high-end craft. However, based on my recent experience with the health-care system, I decided to resume my study of it. After returning to the States, I met Erin Coyle, an herbalist, massage therapist, wellness counselor and yoga teacher. Those are just some of her talents, as you will see. We found each other, developed a friendship and a fine working relationship.We decided to work together on a book entitled, “The Imperfect Health-Care Market: Making it work for you”, (remember imperfect markets is my specialty). Along the way we put together a website to let people know what we were doing. Check it out — www.imperfecthealthcaremarket.com.

We soon realized, however, that the health-care system was seriously broken. It was in the control of the stakeholders who had manipulated the legislative process to their benefit. Whatever we had to say would not be heard. So rather than waste our time, we went back to each of our true passion — Art. We have just published “The MiniBook: A Guide to Self Care, Volume I”. It is based on sayings that come from my experience and images to go along with them based on hers. It has been well received. There’s more to come. Volumes II-V are on their way!

Erin also convinced me that I should start “blogging”. My first response was “Blog? What’s a blog?” Obviously, I took to the idea and very much enjoy writing posts and getting feedback from my readers. (Thank you, very much.)

That’s how I spent my first 30 years in retirement. If you’re interested in seeing what I am doing now and planning for the next ?? years, check out my blog post entitled, “At 87”.

Some people say to me, “You call this ‘retirement’?” And I say, “Yes, it certainly is.” Do you know why? Because my definition of retirement is doing what I want to, when I want to do it. Retirement has given me the opportunity to take care of myself and it keeps me involved and engaged. I particularly enjoy working with the younger generations, sharing experiences, learning from them and using my training and experience to help them understand and cope with the world, their world. What could be better than that?

You Should Have Been an Architect

After reading my blog post about Fieldston, my friend Don wrote, “You should have thought about architecture — you have a keen eye for design, which is a good start, but also a keen mind for function — as in the design of the porches facing south.” That opens up a backstory, or to use the term my friend, Grace Camblos, facilitator of writing workshops taught me — it’s a prompt.

As a teenager I studied, and was enamored with, the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Moreover, I was a Bauhaus kid — Form follows Function. Even at that age I was always designing buildings, laying out floor plans and seeing how to correct the problems in the buildings I was working in and the projects I was involved with. I have always been interested in helping determine ways of utilizing the resources that the environment makes available while still maintaining its potential to do that and in preserving its natural beauty. See my blog post on the cabin I lived in when I was fourteen.

Orthographic of stairs
Orthographic of stairs

In shop, I took up woodturning under Mr. Kent and made a Lazy Susan. I kept it for years, but it never met my standards. Mr. Houghton, who was the head of the shop, taught mechanical drawing. One day he was attempting to explain to one of my classmates what the orthographic of a model he was holding would look like. I’m almost willing to bet my bottom dollar that you don’t know what an orthographic is. Imagine the two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional object — front view, top view and side view — on an 11” x 16” sheet of paper. That is an orthographic. I grabbed a pencil and a sheet of paper and sketched out what the model would look like, including the dotted lines for the edges that were not directly visible. “That’s what it would look like” Mr. Houghton said to the student. He asked me if I would like to take mechanical drawing. “Sure” was my reply.

Now let me introduce you to another concept. Again I’m almost certain you are unaware of it. It is called the “error of enclosure”. You start the mechanical drawing at one corner — for each of the three images — work yourself along the first, second, third and fourth side and if all goes well you are back to the spot where you first started. The distance between where you started and where you actually ended up is called the error of enclosure. For me it was always too large. Although I could easily see what the image should look like, it never came out the way it should. So I gave up on mechanical drawing. I learned later in life than my fine coordination skills are poor.

Let me say that, at the time, the first step on the road to becoming an architect, was as an architect’s apprentice. In that role you were responsible for creating the plans and images of the structures. It was done by using mechanical drawing. Computer assisted graphics did not exist. Need I say more?

Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri
Photo © Timothy Hursley. Paolo Soleri

Later in life I worked with the well-known bellmaker/architect, Paolo Soleri. I traveled with him from his home in Phoenix to Arcosanti, the village he designed, constructed and ran. Both the ideas and the implementation are important. However, they don’t have to come from just one person. It is important to be open to and listen to those of others. I learned from Solari by counterexample that regardless of how creative and imaginative you are, it is very important to incorporate the ideas and suggestions of those who are working along with you. All the answers do not come from the person at the top, even if he/she is in control. You can look up to him/her but they are not God. You are all part of a team.

I also considered set design as a career. After checking around I found there were two schools — Yale and Carnegie Tech. However, at the time, the employment opportunities were very limited. They were either on Broadway or summer theater. There was no TV. I first saw TV on a cathode ray tube at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. However, it did not begin to flourish until the 1950s after World War II. Here again my lack of mechanical aptitude and skills came into play. I did not think I was good enough to make it under those conditions. So I gave up on that as well.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and by structure, function and design. And by the relationship of structures to the land around them, to their environment. In spite of that, I decided not to become an architect. Who knows what would have happened if I had grown up knowing a fine, supportive architect who had taken me under their wing or if we had computer graphics at the time.

So, Don, that is why I didn’t become an architect.

I have been able to use those interests and skills in the field that I have chosen — economics. I also added the fascination and understanding of process — the steps necessary to get things done — that I learned working in manufacturing as a teenager. And then there is my love of the arts; architecture being only one of them. In college, my art history professor, Dr. Clemens Sommer, taught that “Art is a product of the culture”. Since economics is an essential component of the culture,  I have been able to incorporate all of those concepts, interests and skills into my work in economics. See Behind Each Work of Art to learn more about how I have done this.

The Fieldston Years

EthicalCultureLet me tell you about the advantages of a good high school education and the importance of one’s experiences during those formative years. I was a 1930’s kid. I entered The Ethical Culture Fieldston School in September 1941 as a Third Former, a high school freshman. Fieldston is an educational arm of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. It is the granddaddy of the humanistic movement. It was founded by Felix Adler in the 1880s.

Three months later, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we were into World War II. The war ended in August four years later, shortly after our Class of ’45 graduated. Of the seventy-six students in the class, fifty were girls. Many, if not most, had been together since kindergarten, either at Downtown Ethical or at Fieldston Lower and Middle School. I was the only Queens kid.

My previous school experience was in traditional Queens public schools — PS 48, 23, 21 and 20. In fact, I was accepted by Fieldston directly from 8A. Consequently, I never finished the eighth grade and never graduated from elementary school.

We lived in Flushing, a mile away from the end of the No. 7 IRT subway. It took you to Times Square. From there you picked up the Broadway Subway and traveled to the end of the line at 242nd Street and hiked up the hill to Fieldson. To avoid the long, daily two-way commute during the week I boarded with three local families over the next four years. Being away from home during the week helped me learn how to take care of myself. Continue reading “The Fieldston Years”

The House I Grew up in

bernie's houseAbout a month ago Grace Camblos, a biographer, photographer, and author, invited me to participate in a four week memoir writing class.  One of the “prompts” she gave to us was to write about, “The house I grew up in.”

I remember it well. The address was 144-15 33rd Ave., Flushing, Long Island, NY. We moved there in about 1938. It was a two-story house with a finished attic and basement and was the third of three houses on the block. They were the first of many, built by Abraham Levitt, who went on to develop Levittown on Long Island and in Pennsylvania.

I was 14 in September of 1942 and I just got back from eight weeks at Camp Man, the Queens County summer Boy Scout camp, at Ten Mile River in upstate New York. It was a Monday morning and the High Holidays had just begun.  My grandmother’s room was just next to mine at the head of the stairs. I got dressed and was heading off to school — to Fieldston. As I passed my Mema’s room, her full-time nurse came out and said, “I can’t revive her.” We went into her room and turned her over so she was face down with her head to the side. I climbed on top of her and rhythmically pressed down on her rib cage administering artificial respiration 1940’s style, that I learned how to do as a Boy Scout.There was no resistance, no push back. Her body did not respond to the pressure. I could not revive her. Reality struck. I felt the difference between life and death. I felt it in my hands.

Continue reading “The House I Grew up in”

The Cabin

Photos by Grace Camblos

The Cabin
The Cabin

My first trip to the South was during spring break in 1942, at age 14. I took the Southern Crescent from Penn Station in New York to Spartanburg, SC. An employee of my father’s picked me up there, and we drove first to Hendersonville, NC, and then another 10 miles west toward Penrose along Kanuga Road. It turned into Crab Creek Road once you got to the top of Jump Off Mountain.

It was a bright and sunny spring day, with the Carolina blue sky above and mountains to the left and to the right. As we negotiated the dirt road along Crab Creek, we finally got to what eventually became Shoals Falls Farm. There was a broad expanse of bottomland to our left that rose into the hillside and the mountain. It was spotted with small houses and shacks. In the distance stood a small wooden barn.

Shoals Creek
Shoals Creek

Just past a largish house on the left — it turned out to be the Patterson’s house — we turned left onto an even narrower dirt road, crossed over one rickety bridge over Crab Creek, another bridge over Shoals Creek, and passed two houses on the left. I later learned that the first and smaller one was called the Little house, and the larger one the Jack Newton house. Along with my Dad, he had just purchased some property there. Just beyond the houses, past the wooden barn on the left, the road took a jog to the left and then the right, right on up the mountain.

A short distance up the road there was another one that cut back to the left. There were two stone pillars, with the gate between them swung open. Passing through the gate, the road dipped down toward Shoals Creek, then fanned out into a parking area that butted up against the creek, with an old-fashioned gasoline pump standing to one side.  The roads were so shrouded in trees that you couldn’t see the sky. Continue reading “The Cabin”