Tag Archives: 60 Plus

We Can’t Drive 55

June 8, 2017 by

I have a little pinback button with a red flag emblazoned with the words “Safety First.” It was produced in 1915 by the Nebraska Safety League, which seems to have been one of a number of grassroots efforts to improve public safety.

This was in response to the nationwide development of a group called the National Council for Industrial Safety, which initially focused on workplace safety, but expanded its scope in the next few years to include traffic and home concerns (changing its name to the National Safety Council).

About that time, Omaha’s city commissioner, John J. Ryder, visited New York and discovered something called the “American Museum of Safety,” which functioned, in part, to instruct school children about street safety. He was enamored with this idea and advocated for a local version.

Both recommendations came at the end of an era of almost unbridled carnage in the streets. To read the newspapers of the era, crossing the street sometimes sounded like a game of Frogger, with pedestrians dodging carriages, streetcars, automobiles, and runaway horses. Auto fatalities had skyrocketed—a total of 54 people had died in crashes in 1900, but by 1915 nearly 7,000 Americans had been killed on the roads.

The first talk of speed limits in Omaha seems to have occurred as far back as 1903, when an automobile ordinance was proposed. There weren’t many car owners in town, and they tended to be wealthy, and tended to get their way as a result. When the ordinance suggested a low speed limit of six-to-eight miles per hour, the car owners rebelled. Included among them was Gurdon Wattles, who made his fortune in transportation. He complained that cars only went two speeds, slow and fast, and slow was too slow to be much good, and fast was too fast for the speed limit. He suggested 12 miles per hour would be satisfactory.

They got their way, but almost immediately advances in auto technology rendered this limit moot. By 1905, cars were speeding around Omaha at 40 miles per hour, and police were complaining it was nearly impossible to enforce the limit—to tell a car’s speed, police had to watch a car travel from one area to the next and count seconds, and then do some quick math. In 1909, there was even a proposal to reduce the speed limit again, back down to six miles per hour, to discourage cars driving at dangerous speeds.

Instead, the speed limit crept upward. By 1911, it was 15 miles per hour. By the 1920s, with the advent of highways built specifically for automobiles, the maximum speed jumped to 25 miles per hour. By 1935, it was 35. And in 1969, speeds on the highways leapt to 60 miles per hour.

So it has been ever since, but for a brief period in the 1970s when, in response to spiking oil prices, there was a national maximum speed limit off 55 miles per hour, which proved unpopular enough for Sammy Hagar to enjoy chart success with a song titled “I Can’t Drive 55.”

The federal limits were repealed in 1995. Currently, the maximum speed limit in Nebraska is 75 miles per hour, a speed that Gurdon Wattles probably would have enjoyed.

This article was printed in the May/June edition of 60 Plus.

Memorial Day Tribute

May 8, 2017 by

Memorial Day is a federal holiday—a day of remembrance for those who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces.

The May/June issue of Omaha Magazine features the stories of several Nebraska veterans and their war experiences. My husband, Raymond Lemke, was drafted to serve in the Korean War. He was somewhat reluctant to talk about his experiences, but he wrote about his service in a memoir. I’ll share some of those experiences here.

His basic training was in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, which had been closed since World War II. When he first got there, it wasn’t even completely open. Today, it remains open and is known by the nickname “Fort Lost In The Woods.”

He trained in engineering—which consisted mainly of building Bailey bridges—and also trained with dynamite, TNT, and other explosives to blow up bridges. After training, he was sent straight to Korea. He was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division’s M114 155 Howitzers, which had nothing to do with his basic training.

He said that Korea was very difficult for him, and he felt that it was a controlled war. He said they would take a hill, back off, then take it again the next day. The loss of life was tremendous.

The winter weather in North Korea was nearly identical to the winter in Nebraska. Growing up dirt poor in rural Nebraska provided the right experience for dealing with Korean winters. By layering newspapers inside his clothes, he was able to stay warmer while so many U.S. troops froze to death.

On top of the constant cold, he was always hungry. He fondly remembered taking a big jar of peanut butter from a resupply group.

After 11 months in the service, he became a staff sergeant. He believed the promotion was because he was still standing.

The American and North Korean forces would shell each other continuously until one knocked the other out. They never thought about ear protection, and the battery fire took its toll. Despite suffering tinnitus since the war, he didn’t complain. “I’m the lucky one—I am still here,” he said. He was discharged on Nov. 6, 1953.

Later, living in Papillion, he was on the Papillion Draft Board. As a protest against the escalation of the Vietnam War, he resigned from the board, refusing to send more boys there.

I am proud of my husband’s service, and I have deep respect for all who have served and sacrificed for our great country—they are truly heroes!

Raymond Lemke

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

A Treasure in Stained Glass

April 16, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sometime around 1904, when Omaha Bishop Richard Scannell visited Europe to invite young men to serve as priests among the German-American members of the Omaha diocese, the Rev. Bernard Sinne was among those who responded.

Sinne was born Dec. 9, 1878, in Elsen, Westphalia. He was ordained to the priesthood May 5, 1904, in Freiburg. The following August, Sinne was appointed pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha. He was 27 years old and served as pastor for 57 years.

Before Sinne left Germany for Omaha, he was told by his bishop that he was “a goat to go to Omaha, where he would have to ride horseback all day and sleep in an Indian tent all night.” Sinne ended up in Omaha doing neither.

What Sinne did do was build and preserve a church that holds the most beautiful stained glass windows in Omaha, windows from the studios of Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

There is no other church in Omaha, no other church in the state of Nebraska, and probably no other church in the United States that has such a fine collection of stained glass as does St. Mary Magdalene at 19th and Dodge streets. This church could be considered the Sistine Chapel of stained glass in the United States.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do, to keep St. Mary Magdalene Church above ground. In the 1920s, the city administration decided to lower Dodge Street because the incline was too great. The church was then “built down” to accommodate the new street level.

After building the church down and turning the basement into the main level, Sinne ordered a new set of windows from the Franz Mayer company for the new main level.

In 1926, Sinne was honored for his work lowering the church and his many years of service at St. Mary Magdalene. At the ceremony, he admitted that the cutting down of Dodge Street’s hill “was the greatest cross that ever visited me. But with your assistance, we have been able to bear the heavy expense [estimated to be $150,000].”

There are other churches in the United States that have stained glass windows from the Franz Mayer studios, but none have two full sets, spanning a generation, that display the work of artisans from Munich so well.

Ironically, representatives of the Franz Mayer company had forgotten about their windows in Omaha. It seems that the destruction brought about by two world wars had devastated the company’s records. It was only after an inquiry was made about the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” window did they search their remaining records. To their surprise, they realized they had shipped stained glass to Omaha in the 1930s.

Of all the windows in the church, the “Good Samaritan on the Battlefield” is probably the most unusual. This window was installed between the two world wars, at a time when German immigrants to Omaha were involved in a difficult question of identity—were they Americans or were they Germans?

With Hitler on the rise in Germany, the question of patriotism took on new meaning for both  Sinne and his many German parishioners. In the battle scene depicted in the Good Samaritan window, we see written in Latin, “Pro Deus et Patria.” For God and Country.

The Good Samaritan window is also significant because, while working with a representative of the present-day Franz Mayer company, the church discovered the original cartoon for the window design.

Other windows in the church also have stories to tell. The window that depicts the Evangelist Luke bears a dedication to the contractor Benno Kunkel, who built the present church for $40,000.

As the German community in Omaha moved west into St. Joseph’s parish and the bishops were working to build St. Cecilia Cathedral, Sinne quietly made St. Mary Magdalene Church into an Omaha artistic treasure. In so doing, he also left us with some mysteries.

Why is there no window depicting the crucifixion at St. Mary Magdalene? Most Catholic churches have a window that shows the crucifixion. Instead, opposite each other in the church, windows depict the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore why in a church named after St. Mary Magdalene, is there no window dedicated to her? Instead, there are two windows dedicated to St. Cecilia.

What will be the future of this Nebraska treasure of stained glass? In a city that often seems dead set on demolishing its past and replacing it with more glass and steel boxes, the future does not look bright for these historic windows or the church.

Many of the windows are now more than 100 years old and are in need of repair. Parts of some windows are missing. The church itself needs extensive repair, and just like a masterpiece by Rembrandt that has an elegant frame around it, so the building that holds these stained glass treasures has to become the elegant frame that holds the windows up.

We owe it to the memory of Sinne that the art treasure he has given Omaha be preserved and restored. Some men build a cathedral on a hill to demonstrate their power, other men build a church (and decorate with windows from the Franz Mayer company) to show their love.

Researching the Windows

The gravel walk to the Douglas County Historical Society is strewn with red maple leaves. It is early in a dry November. Already, the Crook House next door to the society library is decorated with Christmas garlands.

Then Monsignor Sinne had given an interview to the Greater Omaha Historical Society in 1959. The interview was conducted in the rectory at St. Mary Magdalene Church. That tape is now in the possession of the Douglas Historical Society, and I am on my way to hear it. The interview was conducted by the Rev. Henry Casper, S.J., author of the History of the Catholic Church in Nebraska, and an unidentified woman.

The old tape player in the historical society’s listening room is covered in dust. Sinne’s voice, the voice of an older man, sounds dusty, too. He was 83 years old at the time of the interview.

On the tape, which breaks up from time to time, Sinne relates his experiences as a young man and new pastor in Omaha. You can still hear a German accent in his voice. In the interview, he admits that when he came to Omaha his first impression of the city was seeing all the beer signs. When asked about that, he remarked, “Lord in heaven!”

We learn from the tapes that Leo A. Daly was one of the architects of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The Leo A Daly company still works in Omaha today (and maintains its international headquarters in the city). After getting an architect, the monsignor went to Chicago to get a construction firm. He claims, all together, the work on the chapel cost $275,000.

All in all, the taped interview does not reveal much about the windows at St. Mary Magdalene. But the oral history does shed light on the monsignor’s personal background. He came from a wealthy German family. This may account for where the money came from to decorate the church and buy the windows.

It’s disheartening to realize that the interview recording—which lasts more than an hour—does not answer questions we would like to ask Sinne. At the end of the tape, I realize this voice from the past is also a voice from another world.

Then, there comes a surprise. Besides the two cassette tapes, the Historical Society has a manila folder with newspaper clippings about Sinne. Mixed up among the yellowed clippings is a copy of a short article from the World-Herald on Thursday, Aug. 6, 1914. The article says that Sinne had three brothers: Two of them were in the German army, to be posted to Cologne, no doubt preparing to fight in WWI. The third brother was in the United States and “responding to the reserves call.”

The tape rewinds. The monsignor’s voice sounds weary. I pack the laptop and sling my backpack over a shoulder. The old door to the library creeks open as I leave and walk down the wooden steps. I kick at fallen red maple leaves on the way to my car.

Did it happen that Sinne’s brothers fought on different sides during WWI? Could this be the reason for the war memorial window, for the Good Samaritan on the Battlefield? Could it be that Sinne had this window installed to remember his brothers? More unanswered questions.

The late afternoon sunlight is brilliant while casting long shadows. This glow of a dwindling autumn holds not the promise of spring. It lends its light only a short while.

Robert Klein Engler is a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish and works part-time at Joslyn Art Museum. He holds degrees from the University of Illinois-Urbana and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Visit archomaha.org for more information.

“The Good Samaritan on the Battlefield”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

On Bread

April 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

It was the story I didn’t want to write—that one about what I call “my malady,” my three episodes of severely restricted eating. The first bout struck when I was 15, when, in response to difficult family circumstances, I limited myself to fewer than 600 calories per day. I calculated and tallied the calories for everything I ate; I chewed and spit out forbidden foods; I stripped down and weighed myself many times a day; I exercised too vigorously and for too long; I awakened in a panic from vivid dreams in which I was devouring doughnuts or pizza; I isolated myself from my friends and no longer ate meals with my family because of the all-consuming nature of my regimen. I lost weight so quickly and recklessly that I stopped menstruating and could barely get out of bed in the morning because of the anemia. But I felt safe and empowered because, through my self-restriction, I’d taken control of my frustrating life and unruly flesh.

Over a decade before Karen Carpenter’s death from anorexia nervosa, the event that awakened many Americans to the dangers of eating disorders, I had never heard of the condition. Apparently, neither had the pediatrician who examined me when I was my thinnest and most unhealthy. He simply told my mother that I needed to eat more, which eventually, I did. When I was 25 and left my family, friends, and hometown for a demanding job in a big faraway city where I knew no one, my malady returned in a less dangerous though more tenacious form. In spite of intensive psychotherapy, this bout of my malady didn’t start abating until three years after it started with the birth of my son.

Most perplexing to me was that when I was deep into middle age, a professor at a state university, the author of five award-winning books, the mother of an adult son and daughter, a homeowner, a church member, and a supporter of various worthy causes, my malady returned. Then, my weight dropped to a number on the scale that I hadn’t seen since middle school, as I whittled down my list of permissible foods until it fit on my thumbnail. Because of age-related changes in my bodymind, the departure of my grown children, and the loss of other significant people in my life, I was heartbroken and anxious. Just as when I was 15 and 25, I tightly restricted what and how much I ate as a way of keeping myself safe from what threatened me. But I couldn’t see what I was doing, much less link it to the two other times when eating too little had been so easy and gratifying. In fact, I didn’t know that I was sick again until my 20-year-old daughter told me that if I didn’t eat more, I was going to die. My blindness to my situation still astonishes and baffles me.

I didn’t want to write the story of an illness that many judge to be a character flaw, a moral failing, nothing but a silly, overzealous diet, or a childish attempt to get attention. I didn’t want to write a story in which I had to admit that I had a condition that usually strikes teenagers and young women. I didn’t want to write a story that would require me to re-enter, through memory and imagination, the dark periods of my life when eating less than my body needed seemed like a logical, fitting response to adversity. I didn’t want to write a story that was an illness narrative and, so, presents a version of the self that isn’t sound or fully functioning.

And yet, I felt compelled to write this story. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion advises us “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” If we don’t, they might “turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” What I had forgotten was the woman in me who sometimes found self-starvation and the taking up of as little space as possible so alluring.

To write the story of my malady, I had to educate myself about eating disorders and disordered eating. Eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder—are clinically defined and diagnosed, according to criteria set forth by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Less well-known to most people is “disordered eating,” which Lauren Reba-Harrelson and the co-authors of a 2009 study define as “unhealthy or maladaptive eating behaviors, such as restricting, binging, purging, or use of other compensatory behaviors, without meeting criteria for an eating disorder.” “Other compensatory behaviors” include the use of laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, or excessive exercise to counteract the calories one has consumed.

I went into my research believing that eating disorders and disordered eating are caused primarily by unhealthy family dynamics and the message from the fashion, entertainment, beauty, and diet industries that nothing you are and nothing you’ve achieved matter as much as being thin. Now I know that those are but the easiest explanations and that they trivialize a complex problem. Aimee Liu, the author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders, compares an eating disorder to a gun: “Genes shape the gun, environment loads it, and stress pulls the trigger.” This felt true to me, so I went to work researching the genetic, environmental, and psychological aspects of eating disorders. From the studies I read by geneticists and neuroscientists, I learned that those with eating disorders and disordered eating can’t trust their brains to tell them the truth about when and when not to eat.

Several studies, for instance, have investigated variations on the gene for serotonin among the eating-disordered, since when people with anorexia severely restrict their caloric intake, their abnormally high levels of serotonin drop, and they report feeling calmer and less anxious; when those with bulimia increase their caloric intake, their low serotonin levels rise, and they report feeling happier. Another study found that those with bulimia and anorexia have an altered response in the insula, a part of the brain involved in appetite regulation, when given tastes of sugar, which means that they don’t accurately perceive signals about their hunger or satiety. Yet another study suggests that increased activity in the dorsal striatum leads to “maladaptive food choices” among restrictors, meaning that they actually prefer the plain rice cake over the Asian pear and smoked gouda panini.

From my reading in psychology, I learned that certain family structures and personality types were more likely to “load the gun” than others. Hilde Bruch, a psychoanalyst and pioneering researcher on eating disorders, studied the connection between disturbed interactions between a child and a domineering or detached mother and the development of anorexia, while psychiatrist Salvador Minuchin studied how “psychosomatic families,” especially those that are “enmeshed,” contribute to the genesis of eating disorders. For a 2004 study, Walter H. Kaye, the director of the Eating Disorders Center for Treatment and Research at the University of California-San Diego, administered standardized tests for anxiety, perfectionism, obsessionality, and eating disorders among individuals with anorexia, bulimia, and both disorders, as well as a control group. He found that 66 percent of the members of the three eating-disordered groups had “one or more lifetime anxiety disorders,” 41 percent had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and 20 percent had a social phobia. The majority of the eating-disordered study participants reported that the onset of their anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social phobia had occurred during childhood, before the symptoms of their eating disorder manifested. Even those who had recovered from an eating disorder and were symptom-free “still tended to be anxious, perfectionistic and harm-avoidant.”

I explored various cultural factors that “load the gun.” Feminist theorists, such as Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolfe, and Susan Bordo, see anorexia as rebellion against or an over-conformity with Western notions of feminine beauty and power. Historians and medievalists weighed the similarities and differences between contemporary anorexia and the prolonged fasting of religious women in Europe in the late Middle Ages who sought worldly power and a deeper union with God through their austerities. Accounts by and about hunger strikers, whether the imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army, the American suffragette movement, or those being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, present their fasts as the ultimate political statement and protest.

Clearly, eating disorders and disordered eating are due to a messy tangle of genetic and biochemical factors, family dynamics, individual psychology, and a wide range of cultural influences. Also clear to me is that my story isn’t unique. Experts say that about 10 percent of those with eating disorders are older women. But, says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, the director of the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina, the percentage is surely higher since most older women with eating disorders disguise or misread their symptoms as being due to a health condition or changes associated with aging, and so they aren’t included in the number of reported cases. In a 2012 study, Danielle Gagne and her research team found that women over 50 are engaged in unhealthy eating behaviors and thinking to the same extent that adolescents are. Most experts that I’ve read see a link between loss, grief, and depression as triggering the onset or return of an eating disorder in women who are middle-aged or older.

The loss and grief triggered by an empty nest, the death or relocation of several others who mattered to me, and an awareness of my own aging caused me to start restricting my diet again in 2011. But of all the factors that loaded the gun, two presented the most daunting challenges to my recovery. The values of hyper-consumerism was one. In “Hunger,” the Canadian writer and human rights activist Maggie Helwig says that it’s no accident that the widespread appearance of eating disorders in the 1960s and the epidemic of the 1970s coincided with the unprecedented growth of the consumer society, which places supreme value on one’s ability to buy goods and services. Helwig, who almost died from anorexia when she was young, observes that by the end of the 1960s, our material consumption had become “very nearly uncontrollable,” resulting in “what is possibly the most emotionally depleted society in history, where the only ‘satisfactions’ seem to be the imaginary ones, the material buy-offs.” Anorexia, then, is the “nightmare of consumerism” played out in the female body. “It is these women,” writes Helwig, “who live through every implication of our consumption and our hunger and our guilt and ambiguity and our awful need for something real to fill us … We have too much; and it is poison.” By not eating, the anorexic tells us that she’d rather be skeletally thin than ingest something that isn’t real or substantial. By not eating, the anorexic causes a cessation in ovulation and menstruation, rendering herself literally unproductive. By not eating, the anorexic refuses to be consumed by the act of consumption. Such self-denial in a culture of plenty is an audacious, radically countercultural act and statement. I extend Helwig’s metaphor to include binge-eating disorder (rapid, uncontrolled consumption with no “compensatory behaviors”) and bulimia (a refusal to complete the act of consumption by hurling out what one has just taken in) as responses to unrestrained consumerism.

The things, services, and diversions that money can buy can’t fill a hungry heart or lessen the pain one feels from a lack of meaning or purpose. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, what we’re truly hungry for can’t be bought. And what I was craving when my malady returned for the third time were a renewed sense of purpose and deep nourishing relationships to “replace” those that I’d lost.

This was easier said than done. The rise of consumerist culture has been accompanied by a decline in the number of close relationships among Americans of all ages. Instead of visiting and confiding in each other, we spend more and more of our time working and, in our leisure time, gazing at screens. Consequently, finding others with the time and desire for new friendships was challenging and at times, disheartening. But with prayer and persistence, I eventually found people who share my values and who enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs.

The other factor that made recovery during the third bout of my malady so challenging was that in my early 50s, I had become acutely aware of the effects of ageism. Because the master narrative our culture imparts about aging is that late midlife and beyond is a time of inexorable decline, marked by deterioration, powerlessness, dependency, irrelevance, and obsolescence, it is the fear of aging and even more, of ageism, that is the inciting force that triggers disordered eating in some women. I didn’t want to think about aging—my aging—and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. Yet, address it I must. In a 2011 study, a team of Australian researchers found that a group of women ages 30 to 60 with disordered eating who participated in just eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy focused on “midlife themes” were still doing better in terms of “body image, disordered eating, and risk factors” at the follow-up six months later than a control group that had not had the opportunity to explore these themes in a therapeutic setting. To counter the effects of ageism in my life, I now collect resistance narratives from women, role models, really, who live their later years with passion and purpose and on their own terms—Jane Goodall, Maria Lassnig, Gloria Steinem, Helen Mirren, Isabel Allende, and others, both famous and not.

Although I was reluctant to write this story, I did find pleasure in crafting Bread. And the act of writing was filled with many moments of self-revelation and one grand epiphany: that there are aspects of my malady that are within my control (how I respond to ageist, hyper-consumerist, and patriarchal values) and some that are not (genetics and brain chemistry: my hard-wiring). Now, I know what I can fight and what I must gracefully accept.

When people asked me what I was working on as I was writing Bread, I reluctantly told them about the story that I didn’t want to write. I found that most were not only interested, but they wanted to tell me their stories about being in the grip of something beyond their control that lead them to eat too much or too little, about feeling shamed or misunderstood because of this, about the familial tensions or social costs or the ill physical effects that resulted from their unhealthy relationship with food and self. Some told triumphant stories about the residential treatment, the counseling, the spiritual practice, the religious conversion, or the supportive loved ones that saved them. But some were in the thick of it. Many were grateful to be given a name—disordered eating—for what they were experiencing and to know that this could afflict anyone of any age and circumstance.

Many were grateful to learn that the reasons they were stuffing or starving were more complex and nuanced than their having played with Barbie dolls as children or having conflicted relationships with their mothers.

The deep story I’ve heard in each of these testimonies concerns the tellers’ hunger for wholeness and fullness. Now, I encourage those who tell me their stories to ask themselves a difficult question—What am I truly hungry for? —and then answer it with courage and honesty. I’m hungry for companionship. I’m hungry for solitude. I’m hungry for reconciliation. I’m hungry for meaningful work. I’m hungry for less busyness or the opportunity to paint or dance or fight for social justice. Then, I urge them to bring that source of nourishment and sustenance into their lives. Some women thanked me for writing Bread before they’d even read it.

When I consider how frankly confessional my story is and how controversial some will find my interpretations of the research, I squirm and second-guess myself. But then I remember that I am safer from relapse because I understand what I can and can’t control and because I’m far less likely to forget, as Didion says, “the things [I] thought [I] could never forget.” And, too, I feel full knowing that people are finding self-knowledge, nourishment, hope, and strength in the story that I didn’t want to tell.

Lisa Knopp, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s English Department. Her recent book, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, was published by the University of Missouri Press in 2016. Visit lisaknopp.com for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Uber and Lyft

March 26, 2017 by
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

With the post-millennial rise of ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, a generation weaned on digital technology could suddenly tap a smartphone app, summon a private car driven by the owner, and pay for the fare electronically. Easy peasy.

Uber and Lyft can thank their younger demographics for pushing revenue into the billions of dollars.

But guess what? Both transportation companies have figured out that profitable fruit doesn’t only come from young trees. The push to make ride-hailing easier for retired Americans looms on the horizon, and that horizon can’t come into focus soon enough.

“Transportation has always been one of our greatest challenges,” says Erin Endress, director of sales and marketing at Remington Heights, a retirement community in Omaha. “We have vans, but getting residents to and from medical appointments takes priority, which it should. That leaves little opportunity for trips just for fun. We could definitely use a transportation alternative, as long as it’s safe.”

And for those who still live at home but whose eyesight or reflexes may not be the best?

“Personally, I think Uber and Lyft are going to make a huge difference for folks as they stop driving or don’t drive as much, or as far, on their own,”  says Cynthia Brammeier, administrator of the Nebraska State Unit on Aging. “I’m looking forward to getting to that point. It’s awesome!” she exclaims, having personally experienced the buzz surrounding Uber while visiting another state.

Nebraska came late to the party, approving Uber and Lyft operations in July 2015, which may explain a lack of awareness among Omahans in general.

The necessity of a smartphone to summon a ride excludes many seniors from ride-hailing apps. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of those 65 and older don’t own a smartphone, instead preferring cheaper, old-fashioned flip phones with limited data capabilities.

One segment of the senior population did benefit immediately from having the transportation alternatives in Omaha: drivers.

“I’ve been with Lyft for over a year. It’s my only job now, “ says Dave*, 68, who prefers to remain anonymous. Working about four hours a night, the Dundee resident brings home “between $400 and $500 a week working the entertainment district and trips to the airport. But that’s not counting my car payment, gas, and insurance.”

The insurance question explains why Dave doesn’t want to be identified. Both Uber and Lyft have up to $1 million in liability coverage. But if a driver gets into an accident on the way to pick up a passenger, how much his or her personal insurance carrier will pay out becomes murky, since the driver uses the car for profit.

The advantages of ride-hailing services, previously called ridesharing, seem pretty clear.

“We’re half the cost of a cab,” Dave says. “We pick up passengers within five to 10 minutes. The cars are newer, clean, and have to be four-door. No cash exchanges hands, unless the passenger tips me in cash.”

The advantages for Dave include setting his own work schedule, meeting “wonderful people,” and showing off his hometown to visitors. “I love Omaha and I consider myself an ambassador for this city,” he says. “Nearly all my passengers say how friendly we are here.”

But why would someone in their 80s summon a stranger to their home to pick them up?

“[The companies] check us out pretty good,” Dave assures. Both Uber and Lyft conduct extensive background, criminal, and DMV checks. Lyft sent an employee to inspect Dave’s Toyota. “Believe me, we’re safe.”

The opportunity for seniors without smartphones to utilize Uber or Lyft as passengers depends greatly on a “no app required” platform. One such service recently appeared on a list of transportation options compiled by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.

“It’s called GoGoGrandparent,” says Taylor Armstrong of the ENOA. “We’re told you don’t have to use a smartphone. People just call a number.”

The brainchild of a California man whose grandmother couldn’t tool around San Diego anymore, GoGoGrandparent uses a toll-free hotline to connect seniors with an operator, who then summons an Uber car for them.

“We’re not recommending this service over all the other transportation options ENOA offers,” cautions Jeff Reinhardt of the public affairs division. “We haven’t gotten any feedback yet on GoGoGrandparent.”

Lyft’s contribution to creating easier access involves senior-friendly Jitterbug cell phones and smartphones. When paired with a 24/7 health care provider, a registered user simply dials “0” on the Jitterbug phone and books a ride through the operator. This pilot program has yet to find its way to Omaha.

“We’re going to be top-heavy in seniors in the next 10 to 20 years,” Endress says. “There’s a huge need for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in someone’s life.”

As evidenced by the rapidly changing technology that grants the gift of mobility, the difference-makers have arrived.

Visit uber.com, lyft.com, and

gogograndparent.com for more information.

* Dave is not the driver’s real name.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Colonoscopy Cocktail

February 24, 2017 by

Gary Kropf, 62, spent the entire evening reading Wine Spectator magazine cover to cover.

On the toilet.

“It was a busy day,” Kropf recalls. A powder laxative mixed in 64 ounces of Gatorade helped clear his gastrointestinal tract for inspection.

He doesn’t regret a single minute. It wasn’t a fun day, but it was easier to drink the dreaded “colonoscopy cocktail” than die.

What his doctor discovered after Kropf had the procedure were two polyps, or growths in the intestine, which could develop into cancer. Kropf didn’t panic since he went through a procedure to remove polyps five years before. This time, however, one polyp flattened out and couldn’t be removed. His biopsy tests came back as slightly abnormal. Kropf sought a specialist.

“Gary, I’ve seen a lot of these. I bet it will turn into cancer,” colon and rectal surgeon Sean Langenfeld informed him.

Kropf understood the impact of those words more than most. His first wife died of uterine cancer. He had seen firsthand how fast cancer could take a life.

Unfortunately, Langenfeld was correct. Tests came back positive for cancer.

“I’m not a betting man. I don’t like the odds,” Kropf says.

In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men and women. However, almost 59 percent of those 50 and older—the recommended age for testing—do not get tested.

Most, Langenfeld believes, do not get the colonoscopy procedure because it is embarrassing.

Geraldine Russmann, 80, had a laparoscopic colon resection after discovering cancer last year. Russmann, also a breast cancer survivor, has trouble talking people into having a colonoscopy because they think cancer won’t ever happen to them.

“It’s a day out of your life that will save your life,”
she says.

Preventive screening seems to be key to a longer life since many times there are no symptoms, as was the case with both Kropf and Russmann.

Excluding family and personal history, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years to identify polyps and cancers in patients before they have symptoms or the cancer spreads.

Kropf is remarried, and he is urging his second wife to get checked (she can’t stomach the idea of going through the pre-bowel prep experience).

But Langenfeld says the chalky cocktail is now “less miserable and tastes better.” The day of the procedure, the patient is sedated. The surgeon uses a colonscope with a tiny camera at the tip to see a visual of the colon and removes any polyps if necessary. It typically takes about 30 minutes.

“It can change your life to not wearing a bag or getting really sick,” Kropf adds.

Kropf had much anxiety in those dark days, but felt confident in Langenfeld’s abilities. Langenfeld, a five-year University of Nebraska Medicine veteran, has seen many of these cases. He knows if a polyp gets out of hand, a person can die. He has seen these red or pink masses become so huge they “block the road.” The biggest was the size of a football, while others were like softballs.

As of December, Kropf’s blood work came back favorable.

How did he celebrate?

“I had a nice glass of wine,” Kropf says.

Visit cancer.org for more infomation.

Micrographs show what colon cancer looks like under a microscope.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of 60 Plus.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

December 26, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The rat-a-tat-tat of tap shoes resonates throughout the studio. A big out-of-town gig looms less than 24 hours away, and the troupe is working to perfect the pitter-patter steps of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number from the film Gold Diggers of 1935. Never mind that the company’s oldest hoofer was already in junior high when the film premiered. And never mind that arthritis and bum knees have perhaps taken a bit of a toll on the gams of even the leggiest members of this troupe—the Dancing Grannies won’t rest until the curtain call of 
tomorrow’s performance.

“I love dancing, and it’s just a fabulous feeling to be out there in front of all those smiling faces,” says 73-year-old Linda Hall. “But the Dancing Grannies is more than just dancing. We practice together, we travel together, and we perform together. The camaraderie among us is important, and we’re a very close-knit bunch of girls.”

“And we love the crowds and all the energy we get from them,” adds Katie DiBaise. Spending any amount of time with DiBaise leads one to guess that she was probably the class clown back when the Palmer Method was being taught for writing lessons on Big Chief tablets. Her sense of humor serves her well as the cracking-wise emcee at Dancing Grannies events. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a serious bone or two in her 78-year-old body.

“When I’m out there dancing,” DiBaise muses in one of her more reflective moments, “all I can think of is just…just…‘Wow!’”

Now in their fifth decade of grannie glitz and glam, the troupe originally formed in the late ’70s as the Camelot Steppers before later adopting the Dancing Grannies name. Assisted living centers occupy a number of dates on their schedule, but you may have seen them everywhere from high-stepping through halftime at CenturyLink Center sporting events to country line-dancing through countless area festivals and just about anyplace else where 
crowds gather.

Patricia Chase, Katie DiBaise, Jean Granlund, and Linda Hall

Patricia Chase, Katie DiBaise, Jean Granlund, and Linda Hall

Road trips can be full of surprises for the still-adventurous women who refer to each other simply as “the girls.” When the company made a refreshment stop at the retro soda fountain of Springfield Drug in the community of the same name south of Omaha, the scene seemed to practically beg for an equally retro, impromptu performance.

“The soda jerks asked us about our costumes, and one thing led to another,” explains 76-year-old Patricia Chase. “Let’s just say that there were free root beer floats involved.”

Assisted living performances remain a favorite for many of the women. “They see our costumes, and the music starts, and their faces just light up,” says Chase.

“And those hands start swaying, and those toes start tapping,” adds 81-year-old Jean Granlund, who has been with the group for more than 25 years. “They always tell us afterward that they’d be right up there dancing with us if only they could.” Granlund and Chase are the de facto leaders of the otherwise loosely organized group.

The minimum age for membership is 50 and the oldest member is now a still-spry 89. Bringing in new recruits can be something of a challenge for a group that, by definition, is limited to women of a certain age. Prospective members generally lead much more active lives than did women in the earlier days of the company, but all, Granlund explains, are welcome to check them out by visiting a rehearsal.

Like all “the girls,” she shares a lifelong love of dance.

“My mother was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland,” Granlund says. “She was a traditional Highland dancer, so dance has always been a part of my life. Later in my mother’s life when she was in assisted living, they didn’t do the sorts of entertainment programs that are common now. I always picture it as if my mother is out there in the audience every time I dance and especially when we perform in assisted living facilities. I know she would be very proud of me.”

To learn more about membership and bookings with the Dancing Grannies, contact Jean Granlund at 402-392-0497.

Dressing for the Holidays

November 21, 2013 by
Photography by Jim Scholz

‘Tis the season to celebrate the holidays! A time to decorate your home, your office, even your car with personal style. Then comes you, wondering what’s best to wear for your own family feasts and to holiday parties of all kinds.

When I was a child, dressing up for the holidays was very important in my family. We wore dressy clothes for family dinners and parties, and we dressed the table and the house according to the theme of the season. I loved the holidays and was impressed by what a difference dressing up for them made.

The holidays are no time to be lazy about what you wear. Three common events during the holidays are family gatherings, office parties, and glitzy celebrations. You want to be well dressed for all of them, and that requires special attention to detail.

For Family Gatherings

Dress to show respect for the event and each other. Remember, if your host says the event is casual, it doesn’t mean warm-ups and pilled, fleece sportswear. It can mean jeans, but only clean and fashionable ones worn with shirts and sweaters that are several notches above what you wear to relax on weekends. Even in your own home, a family celebration that shows effort and style will have a nicer feel for all if everyone is well dressed and well groomed.

For Office Parties

Office and company parties can present a quandary. Pay attention to the invitation and to the location of the party. Sometimes the invitation specifies the attire. Respect that and remember that you’re with co-workers and executives. It’s not your time to dress hot and sexy. Low cut and very short dresses do not belong. Too much cleavage and leg is taboo even for a beautiful 30-year-old. Tasteful is the way you want to present yourself.

When an invitation suggests business attire, it means, for men, a suit or a sport jacket with dress pants, a dress shirt, necktie, and dress shoes. A woman should wear a suit or a coordinating skirt and jacket, or pants and jacket with a pressed blouse or sweater. A sweater set with pants or a skirt also qualifies. A dress that looks professional does too. Accessories, shoes or boots (not sandals), and bags should coordinate with the clothing.

Casual is a word that confuses almost everyone. It means that whether you’re a man or a woman, the sportswear you choose should be neat, clean, pressed, well fitting, and coordinated. If the invite says dressy casual, that means guys wear a sport jacket too.

For Fancy Celebrations

New Year’s Eve is the party night that for many is the dressiest of the year. It’s the one night I actually think pajama parties are fun, but for most it’s black-tie-party time. That means the guys are to wear winter tuxedos, with the proper tux shoes and accessories. Women have options. They can wear a long gown, a tuxedo, elegant silk or tuxedo pants, classy tops, or cocktail dresses. Accessorize with your best jewelry for evening.

Cocktail means that guys wear a dark suit, with a dress shirt, a necktie, and a pocket scarf. Polished leather dress shoes are a must. For women, it’s easy. Wear a cocktail dress or suit, a stylish pantsuit, or pants with a chic top. Add jewelry, too. Your purse and shoes are very important. Only elegant ones are appropriate. The height of the heel doesn’t matter; it’s the style and finish of the shoe that does.

If you’re still in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask your host what to wear and dress accordingly.

Mary Anne Vaccaro is a clothing and product designer and an image consultant to businesses and individuals. www.maryannevaccaro.com She is also a sales consultant for Carlisle and Per Se, New York. www.carlislecollection.com

Train Collecting

November 13, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha area owes much to the railroad industry. The city’s history, and indeed, the entire history of the railroad are spiked with significant links throughout.

It comes as no surprise then that the Omaha area has a thriving culture of railroad enthusiasts. They collect model trains, meet regularly to share stories, memories, and swap items.

Some even enjoy what is called “rail fanning,” which is going out on location to see actual train operations in action or going to a train museum. “Rail fanning is watching trains,” says John Moore of Omaha. Moore adds, “The Omaha-Council Bluffs area is just as good as Kansas City for rail fanning.”

Says Moore: “…the UP Main Line by the Durham [the old Union and Burlington Stations] is always a great place. There are so many great places to rail fan throughout the metro. Millard along Industrial and Bob Boozer is one of my favorites, good chance to see loaned power from Norfolk Southern, CSX, and even the Kansas City Southern. Fremont, Blair, Ashland, Missouri Valley, and Gretna each have much going on or through. Don’t forget about all the great museums and train stores! BNSF’s Havelock Shops and Dobson Yard are a short drive down to Lincoln and never disappoint.”

Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Moore goes rail fanning with fellow members of The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders. They are one of the area’s most active clubs for railroad enthusiasts. It has about 110 members of all ages and backgrounds. A member-at-large, Moore says, “Our members range in age from 7 to 80. The membership is mostly older, although some are in their forties, and we have some teenage guys, too. Some members bring their grandkids to the meetings.”

The Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders have a 5,500-square-foot train room inside Mall of the Bluffs. It features 10 large, model railroad layouts of various scales. The train room is open to the public on Saturdays from 11-4 p.m. On Saturdays, members are on site to operate the model trains, help visitors with questions about trains, or just socialize. In addition to other activities, they hold monthly meetings and an annual train show in June.

Omaha’s Train Hobby Shops

Rod Lilley started Train Time Hobby in 2005. Located on South 84th Street in LaVista, Train Time Hobby caters to modelers of all ages, with its selection of trains from wooden Thomas the Train sets (young children enjoy these) to realistic scale 
electric models.

Lilley says the train collecting culture is “strong in Omaha with Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. A lot of guys are still active or retired employees.”

Lilley says, “Many collectors started when they were younger. As you get older, you have more time on your hands, and you’re looking for a new hobby. I get a lot of guys who come in here who need a hobby. They’re ready to do something they remember from 
their childhood.”

20130926_bs_4126

John Moore, member of Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders

Across town at 81st and Maple streets in Omaha, David Mrsny owns and operates House of Trains. Mrsny along with his brother Richard, bought the business from his father Leonard, who founded it in 1938 as Kenwood Model Railroad Supply.

“Omaha is one of the bigger markets anywhere,” Mrsny says, and goes on to list about a half-dozen clubs devoted to the hobby, not to mention about the same number of annual train shows in the area.

In the late 1990s, Burt Reynolds walked into the House of Trains. Says Mrsny, “A Lincoln Town Car pulled up, and he got out wearing sunglasses, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat.” Mrsny cites several other model train hobbyist celebrities, including James Joseph “Jim” Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart are also known to have collected train models.

Mrsny started collecting trains as a youngster. “When I was little you had a 4’x8’ layout. If you were really in to it, you had two.” Mrsny says nowadays, collectors are not satisfied with having a small railroad collection—they want more trains!

Collection of a Lifetime

One of these zealous collectors, Ron Bond of Bellevue, has an entire train layout room in his home’s finished lower level. A hallway leading to the 1,100-square-foot room is flanked by custom-built display cases holding some of Bond’s showpiece models.

Bond’s wife Suzanne shows patience and understanding for his hobby, as she herself is a collector (although she enjoys vintage glassware instead of model trains).

Bond’s massive layout comes to life with realistic backgrounds and scenery modeled after his hometown of Downingtown, Pa. “It took 13 years to build the layout,” says Bond. “Most of it was done three years ago. Two guys in the [Nebraska-Iowa Railroaders] club helped out, Francis McGovern and Larry Galkowski. Danny Botos did the wiring.”

As Bond operates the trains, reaching across an array of controls, he has the timing of a modern DJ. He hopes at some point to upgrade his system “before his Social Security runs out,” he says with a laugh.

A framed picture hangs on the wall of Bond’s home; a child’s drawing of a locomotive pulling several cars. “I drew that picture in second grade, 1943-1944,” he says with a proud smile. A rail fan for a lifetime.

Managing Osteoarthritis

November 10, 2013 by

It might start simply with a few nagging aches and pains. Your knees are hurting more; your shoulders are bothering you; your back is aching. Perhaps these pains have even caused you to cut back on some of your hobbies or affected how you spend your free time: Maybe you’re gardening less or your golf swing’s not as good.

Osteoarthritis, also known as degenerative arthritis, can and will eventually affect everyone. That sounds rather ominous. “Degenerative arthritis is a term that is generally used and obviously differs from rheumatoid arthritis, which is an auto-immune disease,” explains Dr. Michael Morrison of Omaha Orthopedic Clinic and Sports Medicine. “But degenerative arthritis is the same as wear and tear and is associated, just simply, with the aging process.”

Dr. Morrison says that, generally, people in their 50s and 60s will start to feel the aggravating pains and experience the swelling of joints, though these symptoms can occur much later. He shares that some people may experience an accelerated condition 
due to genetics.

While the aging process as a whole leads to the aches and pains we experience, how we choose to exercise can affect the condition as well. High-impact activities, such as running and jumping, are hard on the joints. “Most people believe that if they start to get some aches in their joints, they can just exercise through them, but that probably irritates it more,” says Dr. Morrision. While exercise is always recommended for good health, he suggests lower to no-impact activities, such as swimming, bicycling, or even using 
elliptical machines.

To combat the pain that you already may be feeling, Dr. Randall Neumann of OrthoWest recommends starting out with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory remedies, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to lessen the pain. Dr. Morrison also recommends herbal supplements as a good addition to the OTC regimen: “I’m a big believer in it.” He suggests trying glucosamine MSM. Glucosamine is found naturally in the body and helps with keeping joints healthy. He also recommends SAM-e and drinking cherry juice.

“I’ve seen them help many patients,” Dr. Morrison says. “But what works for one person might not work for another, so you are going to have to experiment with those and see what can give you the most relief.”

If OTC medicines are not providing enough relief, your physician can prescribe an anti-inflammatory that has a somewhat stronger dosage. However, Dr. Neumann cautions against medicating too liberally. “You can take pain pills, but we like the non-narcotic pain medication, such as Tramadol,” he says. “Most physicians are going to shy away from anything as far as narcotic for pain because they all have addicting potential.”

Physician-administered injections into the problem joint are also an option: Cortizone shots work as an anti-inflammatory and hyaluronic acid injected into the joint acts 
as a lubricant.

Finally, joint replacement surgery is an option for those who have end-stage disease, says Dr. Neumann. “These people are hurting, they have pain everyday, and their function is down. They have a hard time working, walking, going up and down stairs, and just having a miserable time in life.” The joint replacement procedure involves replacing the natural joint with a metal and plastic device. “You could still have some soft-tissue pain around there, but usually the pain from wear and tear arthritis is because bone is rubbing on bone there, and it causes an 
inflammatory response.”

Generally, says Dr. Morrison, the time frame for surgery, healing, and rehab is between four to six weeks. Knee replacements tend to involve a little more intensive rehab than hip replacements.

Osteoarthritis can affect joints in the upper extremities (such as shoulders, wrists, elbows) as well, but “is not usually brought on as quickly as in the weight-bearing joints,” Dr. Morrison clarifies.

“The decision to progress with anything surgical is strictly based on the patient’s inability to manage their pain, despite all conservative measure, and their quality of life is significantly hindered,” adds Dr. Morrison. “It is not based on what an x-ray looks like; it is based on the symptoms presented by the patient.”