Archive for March, 2010

Dogs and the Art of Grandparenting

Thursday, March 25th, 2010 © by Susan Swartz

It can be a long stretch of time between having your own babies and grandbabies, which is why it’s a good idea to get a dog. Puppies are not only a reminder of how it is to have a vulnerable creature entirely dependent on you, they reintroduce you to sleep deprivation, mushy baby talk and crawling around on the floor on your hands and knees.

This is why I say everything I know about grandbabies I learned from my dog. They have so much in common in their formative stages. They learn fast but take orders only when they feel like it. They insist you be agile, mindful and forgiving, while turning you into willing servants and causing you to fall silly in love.

My husband and I have one dog in the house and two young grandchildren who live nearby. A three and a half year old and a five month old. The dog came first and like all new dog owners we were stunned at how freely we gave over our house, our social schedule and, yes, even our bed to the dog.

She is six years old but I still call her “puppy.” I also call the grandchildren “puppy.” It’s my favorite endearment.

We spoiled the dog. She eats at will, gets walked three times a day even in the rain and is allowed on the furniture. She’s a loveable inconvenience, demanding and often underfoot. So, it was not a big adjustment bringing grandbabies into our house which we do one day a week.

When the dog was tiny we kept elaborate notes on what she ate, when she slept, how much and where she eliminated. We did the same with the first grandbaby and now with her little brother. We are veteran poop reporters.

Everything I know about grandbabies I learned from my dog.

There are major differences, of course, between the two. Babies need to be carried about which makes them harder on your back. You can’t ignore a crying baby like you can a barking dog. On the other hand, a baby outgrows her crying when she starts talking. A dog never stops barking, at least not this one.

Dogs are more mobile. You open the car door and the dog jumps in and that’s it. Getting a child in a car seat requires a manual, two grandparents and a lot of practice. Going for a walk with a dog requires a mere leash and a plastic bag. With a baby, you have to figure out which button pops open the stroller and which straps go under his arms and which ones around his little legs and then what to pull to cinch it all tight. By which time the baby is howling and so is the dog.

Dogs and little kids do make great accessories. You can take them around town and people will smile and sometimes stop to talk. People get to know you by your little companions. But greet them on the street minus your dog or grandbaby and they act like “who, you?”

We made the house dog-proof before we made it baby-proof but it was kind of the same thing. The dog had a playpen, a special bed, gates to keep her from falling off the deck and her own shampoo, the no-more-tears kind. Same with the kids.

Both creatures are adoring and make you feel essential. But they’re fickle and will crawl into just about any lap. Plus they drool. For sure, the house would be a lot quieter and neater without them. But, pretty empty, too.

My So-Called Retirement: Margaritas and Medicare

Monday, March 15th, 2010 © by Susan Swartz

Two friends turned 65 and threw themselves a Medicare birthday party. We drank margaritas, played bocce ball and frolicked long past our bedtimes. It was hard to imagine our friends being 65. Or any of us ageless agile people who all looked gorgeous by candlelight.

But that’s what happens. You look up one day and you’re old enough for Medicare. Which makes being 65 something to shout about. At least loud enough to put your age on a government document and celebrate with sympathetic contemporaries. It means you have made it to the finish line. At least one of them. You can stop worrying about health insurance.

It’s not exactly the same thrill as being old enough to take your driver’s test or vote or order a drink. But it’s a definite rite of passage. Sixty five – the new 21. Bring on the black balloons.

I remember being at a dinner party a few years ago and realizing that our conversation had been dominated by deductibles, COBRA and pre-existing conditions. When did health insurance get to be so sexy, I asked the silver-haired marvel on my right.

Back then we griped about employers switching to health plans that didn’t include our long-time family doctor. We talked about co-pays going up. About sticking with a job just for the benefits. Things weren’t as grim as they are now, but the concern was starting to creep in that something a lot of us had taken for granted all our working lives was eroding.

Sixty five – the new 21. Bring on the black balloons.

Now that health insurance has turned into a huge, slippery pile of lies, threats and insecurity, you can turn 65 and be glad to be over that particular hill. No more worrying that you’ll lose your coverage. And the doctor finds something awful which costs bags of gold to fix. And you have to sell your home and move in with the kids.

Bad economic times color one’s perspective on many things. Suddenly it’s not so bad to be getting older. The worst recession in 80 years can make a person grateful to have lived long enough to climb into one or two life boats. Medicare and Social Security may be leaking but at least you’ve got a seat.

Well, at least for the time being. The relief could be brief, because there are mighty forces trying to torpedo the life boats. Opponents of Social Security and Medicare would like to undo both, leave it to individuals to find their own best deals. Critics, including members of Congress, sneer at these government guarantees like they’re some kind of public assistance. They call them entitlements. But wait a minute. Social Security and Medicare are no more entitlements than members of Congress get with their own socialized health insurance, made in the USA.

For us regular people, they’re a return on our long-time investments. We’ve had money taken from our pay checks for Medicare and Social Security ever since we started working. It’s been our deal with the government, that there’d be this sure thing when we needed it.

Not that it’s enough. You have to buy a supplement if you want more than bare bones Medicare. And Social Security is a nice allowance but you can’t live on it. Most people expect to also rely on their greater savings, investments and pension. But look what’s happened to them. No sure thing there, either. Plenty of retirees turn around and go back to work.

When I asked in a bookstore for books on retirement the clerk, in gray ponytail and Birkenstocks, said, “Who can afford to retire?” I’m starting to worry that he might be right. Maybe we need to change the lyrics in the song from, “I hope I die before I get old,” to “I hope I die before I go broke.”

Susan Swartz is an author and journalist in Sebastopol. You can also read her at and hear her Another Voice commentary on KRCB-FM radio on Fridays. Email is

The Oscar Party – Super Bowl Plus Book Club

Thursday, March 4th, 2010 © by Susan Swartz

Hollywood award shows are my guilty pleasure, a dip into the world of gossip and glitz, like reading People magazine at the hair salon.

I know much of the real world is suffering while we sit there celebrating people who have no worry keeping their homes (plural) and likely have good health care. And I know that those gorgeous dresses and stunning baubles are likely borrowed for the evening. And a lot of these perfect bodies include fake parts and are enhanced by hair extensions and spray-on tans plus a Botox booster for the night. But I still like looking at them.

The man in my house avoids Hollywood award shows. He likes movies, fine, and pays some attention to who is nominated for what. And it’s not like he didn’t notice when Al Pacino started dying his hair.

But he really can’t stand the hoopla. He calls them cringers – garish and embarrassing. He’d rather watch a ball game or “The Pianist” on DVD for the fifth time. I point out that the Oscars are a healthy diversion from the news shows we watch every night and I’d rather hear Alec Baldwin tell dumb jokes than some of those actors in Washington who keep mouthing the same rehearsed rant. I bet even Rachel Maddow sneaks a peek at the Oscars.

But you don’t want to sit alone and feel guilty about indulging in three hours of Hollywood jabber, which is why someone invented Oscar parties. Restaurants and bars throw Academy Award events, encouraging participants to dress like their favorite star. I prefer the at-home parties at a friend’s house which is kind of a combination Super Bowl party and book club meeting. Food, drink, people talking over each other and yelling back at the television.

You can count on someone to have done her research and to intelligently debate, with references, the artistic relevance of “Avatar” versus “The Hurt Locker.” I’m not as intellectual. To me, the choice is simple. I’d much rather mingle with blue people than watch soldiers explode.

And can we talk about which guy over 50 in a hit film – Alec or Jeff -showed the bigger bare beer belly?

Movie award shows bring America together. Liberals and conservatives. Old and young. We all have different tastes, but we all watch movies. For one night MSNBC and Fox News types tune into the same channel. We might never agree on off-shore oil drilling but we might find common ground in Meryl Streep.

Another reason I like film award shows is because I know the players. I feel like I’m part of the culture. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t happen with music award shows which make me ask “who are these people?”

Plus you never know when actors are going to depart from the teleprompter and say something political or roll their eyes over the competition or forget to thank their mothers. And act like, you know, real folk.

The guy who doesn’t like the Oscars objects to the crude jokes, the silly talk about fashion, the extravagant display of wealth and celebrity.

I could remind him that George Clooney helps raise money for Darfur.