There’s a long-known phenomenon among us humans—we know that everybody dies yet we roll merrily along, day after day, feeling exempt.

That would be me. Sigh. I am, herewith, staring myself down. No more ignoring/forgetting/denying it. I am running out of time.

If you proceed with reading this—feel free to maintain your own exempt status, however unfounded your rational self knows that to be. I mean, this is about me, not you, so it doesn’t have to be a downer for you, right?

For me, the Covid stats are a good alarm bell. People who are old old, are the most likely to die if they/WE get it. And there’s the plain old math. I was born in 1933. It is now 2020. I am therefore—to my great astonishment—87. That’s OLD old. Even without a viral push, you don’t get many more years after 87.

Most people that age are already dead, and the ranks grow thinner every day. RBG, born in 1933. A chum in NYC, 87, died in a dementia-care center. Of Covid. My mentor in public relations work (an age peer) tripped on a sidewalk, hit his head and, after weeks in a coma, died.


My exemption-delusion was enhanced by knowing that my head is so hard, I’ve done a sidewalk face plant and suffered nothing but a black eye.

And there’s the matter of the quality of whatever time may be ahead. Another great buddy, only 74, stroked out a few months ago and just got out of rehab. She’s working now on fully understanding the world around her.

Nobody plans on dementia, or a stroke. Or being hit by a falling safe, for that matter. Anything can happen. So every day of mental and physical well-being has to be lived consciously, productively, right?

I did one of those silly online lifestyle tests and got an estimated time of death: 7:03:03 PM, Wednesday, November 18, 2026. I was so charmed by the specificity, I decided to use it as a spur-to-action, no matter how ridiculous that to-the-second time is. I posted it over my desk. I’m looking at it now.

That’s six years and a couple weeks from now, without going into the hours, minutes and seconds that are whizzing past as I write.

I just looked at my schedule for 2014—six years ago. What I was doing then feels like it happened like maybe... last year. And there are notes-to-self for things I still have not done.


I get it. The six years and a few weeks before my possible expiry date are also going to feel like a few months. If I don’t buckle down now, it could be over and I won’t have finished the Important Stuff I want to get done.



That Important Stuff

There’s so much. My English-major mind hears Keats—at a mere 23—fretting, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.” John, my boy, though you wrought wonders with your pen before you did indeed die young, imagine how teeming your brain would have been after almost four times that many years!

I want to finish another book, one I’ve begun on my website. There’s so much more to write, online and maybe then in print, if there’s a publisher that wouldn’t run on the usual glacial schedule. Finishing Building with Christopher Alexander, An Illustrated Memoir, means the world to me, and it’s a bear of a project.

The photo is me and Chris, three years into the five-year process of creating our Pattern Language house.

I want to get people to read the books I’ve already written, Outing the Mermaid, A novel of love, fear & misogyny and Arias, Riffs & Whispers, Words written for voices. There has to be a way, in spite of the novel having a publisher who didn't move the book. I'm now starting over, with a brand new edition, and a marketing budget.

I want to finish writing “What I Know ~ Cake Crumbs in the Forest,” which is in draft and must be completed. Must.

An allied piece is “The Stories.” You know when a relative has life anecdotes that come out at family gatherings, often to not-again groans? Well, I’ve got some doozies, like the one about the Can Lao agent who was copying things on my desk at Viet Nam Presse in Saigon. And the suckling-pig evening in the Belgian Congo. And being in the Press Gallery when the Voting Rights Act was passed. And giving Kurt Vonnegut a thank-you kiss at a New York party. And how we got Chris Alexander to build our house. And and and.

(You know you’re old when places where you’ve worked don’t even exist anymore—Saigon? The Belgian Congo?)

I want to keep writing about what’s going on in this world. There are pieces perking in my head—I have to write about RBG’s approach to persuasion, which needs to be said to the young warriors who think sharp-sticks-in-eyes are the way to go. And about a pre-revolutionary ancestor who turned up in a family tree—Samuel Medlock, Carolina buyer and seller of human beings. And the DNA link to a Black guy who shares Carolina ancestors with me. Cannot let those pass without serious examination.


I want my website to sing, to say, along with the books, that I was here. This is who I am/was and what I have to offer you.

I want to leave such memories for my family and friends that if they think of me they’ll smile, be energized, and get to work on the Important Stuff in their lives.

But how can all that fit into six years?

I’ve been doing major deletes in my world, looking at everything around me and asking myself, “Are you really going to spend some of your time on that?” Here are the deletes—so far—and the ones I’m working on...

Gifts. I've already notified family and friends that I would no longer be doing birthday presents. The family had already gone to a draw for Christmas, so everybody would get a family gift and we wouldn’t all have to buy, wrap and send dozens of them. I love finding just the right gifts for people. Too bad. Big chunk of time, recovered.

Reading. Stacks of wonderful books have gone out the door to people with the time to read them. Reading for fun, for entertainment, or even because a friend wrote the book, is giving way to the one stack that’s for sure staying: everything I’ve found of interest on the matter of death. (Highly recommend Marcus Aurelius on the subject.) And there’s still a need for information about this world, so I’ve just torn through How the South Won the Civil War, Democracy in Chains, and Downfall. There no doubt will be more reports on the world-as-we-need-to-know-it that will be must-reads.


Making art. The paints and brushes are now with a professional painter. I loved painting and drawing, could spend delicious hours working on a portrait. But that’s not going to be something I do between now and 2026. Gone.

Hundreds of colored art pencils are now being used by a young artist who can’t afford such good ones, the sketchbooks have gone to a boy who lives on the street and draws constantly. A collection of gorgeous beads is with a friend who’s making art with them.


I love making things out of beautiful papers—I’ve given almost all of the paper cache to another artist friend who’s collaging and book-making. Well, almost all. There’s another box of beautiful stuff I keep seeing and imagining the gorgeous things they could become. So yeah, one box is still here.

I did this Virginia Woolf collage for the cover of the program at my coming-out-as-a-poet birthday party when I was a mere 70. Along with the papers, it uses stamps from the beautiful collection that fills two drawers in my office. They seem to be clinging to the sides of the drawers, resisting deletion. So they’re still here too.

Knitting. I’ve made hundreds of hats, scarves, socks, and sweaters, mostly for the gifts that I now don’t do. It’s been my stay-productive-while-watching Netflix activity. One of age’s gifts to me is carpal—a limiting of repetitive things I can do with my hands. In a choice between knitting and writing, I’ll have to take writing.

Tending clothes. Do you ever think about how much time it takes to deal with clothes? Finding the right things in drawers and closets, the putting on, taking off, hanging up, washing, drying, ironing, mending, storing... huge time drain. Piles of shirts and sweaters and dresses I like a lot have gone to people who really need stuff to wear. In this Zoom Meeting Era, I could get by with one good shirt and jacket—no one needs to know the rest is jeans.

A stack is gone of creams and beiges that looked good on the blonde I was for 50 years. I will be one of the many women emerging from lockdown with a new hair color—Covid White. Passing mirrors now, seeing some woman in them who has a cotton ball on her head, is helping me remember the running-out-of-time thing. Back to work, Old Girl.

Thrifting. Major sport in the past. You wouldn’t believe the great things I’ve found in thrift and consignment shops over the years. Lamps, linens, tools... clothes. And there’s the rub. Most of the things packing my closet have been “finds” too good to pass up. A St. Laurent for ten bucks? Of course I’m taking that home. Solution: Don’t even walk in the doors of these treasuries because if I were to see another St. Laurent...


Travel. I’d like to stay in the Mermaid Inn in Sussex. I mean, 600 years! That inn/tavern has to be full up with presences, maybe even some of my own English forebears.

I’d like to see the places my ancestors emigrated from in England and maybe Germany. (Cunegunde Koenig turned up in the family tree one of my sons is building. I do wonder what’s left of the German town where a woman with such a name lived centuries ago.)

I spent a week in San Miguel de Allende, which I’d long wanted to do, but I’ve stopped thinking about finally seeing anything of South America. I went back to Saigon and Hue—found the house I lived in on a tiny street in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. A detour on a business trip to Europe a couple of years ago put me in the Alhambra, something I’ve wanted to do forever. And that’ll have to be it. Getting on airplanes again... no.

Now, I’m even staying out of my car. I love the town where I had an office for 35 years. I’ve moved that office into the house. My commute is up the stairs and down the hall. Town lost. Time gained.


The not-so-easy ones

I’m looking at other things that eat time, things that a deadly serious writer would shove over the side, but I’m balking.

The day job. According to social norms, I should have retired from the Giraffe Heroes Project 22 years ago. But I like that job. I invented it, it suits me, and it’s not like it involves ditch-digging, which I’d find pretty hard to do. For 40 years I’ve been telling the stories of people who stick their necks out for the common good, and I can still do that.


Storytelling actually goes back a bit longer than that—my kindergarten teacher told my mom that I was taking over the class to tell stories. A few years ago, I created Stan Tall & Bea Tall, twin giraffes who tell heroes’ stories to kindergarteners, a way for me to take over the class, again.

The work helps answer the call I still hear to do public service. The pull between public and private writing has long felt schizy. So I’ll just stay schizy, racing to finish the personal work, while still telling Giraffe Heroes’ stories in social media, and writing “thought pieces” about public affairs.


Family. I have a lot of friends who have almost no relatives, while I’m blessed with a clan so big, I couldn’t keep up with all the birthdays. I may not be doing gifts, but spending time with them is wonderful, even if it’s masked and yards apart. This is just some of them, on our last camping trip. Every one of them is interesting.

Writing on public affairs. What’s going on right now is crucial to what the world will be like for decades to come and I can’t ignore that just because I won’t be here, so I’ve been writing those thought pieces, helping on a friend’s campaign, sending small checks to candidates all over the country, writing postcards to voters, posting political comments, and keeping up with the news.

Friends. I’ve been talking to them more rather than less. Checking in, making sure they’re OK. We have to help each other through these stunningly hard times. It’s good refueling for me too; I know some pretty wonderful people and talking with them is a delight.

Cooking. More damn fun. Improvising, testing, tasting... always something new to learn. I made piroshkis and spanakopita for the first time, and Lo! they were wonderful. But I have cut back. JAG has taken on making dinner every other evening, and I’m buying delivery for some of the dinners I’m on for. But when I come upon an intriguing recipe, I’ll probably head for the kitchen to give it a try.


Kaizening. Constant improvement. If you can see how things around you could be better with just this change or that one, you have to do it, right?

I live in a work of art, the Pattern Language house I’m writing about. We moved into it unfinished, no interior doors, no floorboards upstairs, no colors on the walls. And day-by-day we’ve been finishing it. Every. Day. Since 1988.

The most recent major thing was tiling the fireplace, a massive kaizen that was a joy to accomplish. Now doesn’t that look better?

The small fixes are still almost daily. Maybe hourly. A picture to move, a gift to incorporate, a tool to add to the kitchen devices. I know I’m not going to stop making this small piece of the world more beautiful, more comfortable, more user-friendly.

Looking good. Yeah. I have to admit that the closet is far from emptied out, probably because I haven’t stopped being vain, which I remember as an amusing thing about my great grandmother in her 80s, still with polished nails, coiffed hair, and lovely clothes, even though my teen-aged self thought that was charmingly silly of her. Now I claim the right to be charmingly silly. (That great-grandmother joined the US Navy in WWI and, after being married over 50 years, did one year as a widow then married a guy young enough to be her kid. Talk about interesting relatives!)

I’m so vain (sound track here) I even engaged Janet Spangler, a friend whose business is revving up people’s “look.” I asked her how I could rock this new white-haired thing, and she had great answers. So every morning I figure out a fine outfit, choosing colors and textures and styles Janet figured out. I “put on my face,” as my mom would say. Earrings. A bracelet. A scarf. Working at home alone, this is for no one but me and that’s just fine. I pass mirrors and don’t think the white-haired person is a homeless bag lady (a recurring nightmare-fate).

Keeping up your spirits in lockdown is a good thing, whatever it takes.

Social media. Yes, a time-suck and an introverted writer’s heaven. I read and comment and post and have a grand old time. Love the conversations with people all over the world, especially now that the in-person world has disappeared.

And I watched The Social Dilemma, which you really must do. It’s led me to making and keeping a restricted SM schedule. But I won’t stop going online. Communicating is my thing and I’ll still use the incredible reach of the internet to communicate with as many people as I can.

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Evenings with JAG. Post-dinner movie-watching with John Albert Graham, my ace-mountaineer spouse, is “unproductive,” not accomplishing a single Important Thing on my list. But it’s time shared with this guy who’s getting used to not living with a blonde, the person who’s my biggest fan and enCourager, pushing me to get my thoughts out to the world.

As we get close to 40 years of being two writers living together (we met in a New York writers’ group) we just achieved something we’ve never been able to do before—we wrote a thought piece we agreed is Important, together. “Thinking the Unthinkable —A Fascist Takeover of the United States.”

Seeing us mesh our deeply disparate styles to get it done convinced me that impossible things can be achieved, even the preposterous idea of getting all the Important Stuff done before 7:03:31 PM, Wednesday, November 18, 2026.

Here, hold my beer.