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Decathexis

“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello” –The Beatles

I took a week off and lost a friend.

When I last talked with Steve, he was home in bed, waiting for an acquaintance to pick up the remainder of Rousey’s things. Rousey has been Steve’s dog and boon companion. Arranging for a good home for Rousey was Steve’s paramount reason for staying alive. With that task completed, I knew that only a few pages remained in his book of life.

Linda and I had worked almost continuously at our younger son’s restaurant leading up to my last visit with Steve. I told him of our plans to leave shortly for the Adirondacks with our older son’s family. We talked about the adventures we had shared in the ADK’s: kayaking across Racquette Lake to the Marion River, where a pocket of mica sand turned the water gold in our paddle wake. Or the time we drifted down the middle branch of the Moose River, watching a bear swim across to a farther shore. Steve and I hiked Bald Mountain with his Irish setter mix Beckett and enjoyed quiet twilights listening to loons with another of his canine companions (Jonesy — my favorite).

We met while trying to arrange funding for various rail trail projects. Eventually, this work led to the establishment of a county-wide advisory committee on rail trail development: Steve and I were each in turn designated as chair for that group, so our collaboration continued. Primarily, Steve was an artist who worked in ceramics and egg tempera painting. He taught me how to incorporate graphite and iron oxide into my wood finishes. His day jobs included gigs as artist-in-residence at Mohonk Mountain House and the Williams Proctor Munson Art Institute– as well as a stint as curator of the local Trolley Museum. He was an author and an amateur kayak builder; he established a political party (Red Dog Party – named after Beckett) and ran for mayor. He did large scale fabric art installations on local bridges. Steve was a contradiction in terms: a free spirit with an engineer’s discipline.

While we were on vacation, I called twice, but my calls went directly to voicemail (“This is Steve and Rousey…”). Upon returning home, I went to Steve’s loft and found a suitcase on the curb and the doors open. The suitcase belonged to the Hospice worker; Shelley and Mitch (sister and brother-in-law) were inside talking with two of Steve’s friends. Shelley motioned me aside and said I should say a final farewell: Steve was not conscious and had barely made it through the night. I looked at my friend and saw the ravages of cancer – I bid him an easy passage. He died later that day.

Now, in the days leading up to Steve’s rapid decline, I noticed a new behavior – a tendency to distance himself from mutual friends. He would speak very dispassionately about a person – almost dismissively – as if delivering a bored final assessment. This was very much out of character for a guy who was engaged and loyal to a fault. Kubler-Ross has named this pattern of behavior ‘decathexis’. The term derives from a Freudian view of withdrawing libidinous attachment to an object or person. Essentially, it’s a form of disengagement as energy ebbs toward the end of life.

The process of decathexis seems to me to be an indicator of ‘fading to black’ as systems shut down and energy is diverted to essential life support. From Steve’s vantage point, I imagine that things, people, and ideas he once cared about seemed to recede in the distance, layer upon layer as his battery ran down.

I’ve reached that point in life where there are many opportunities to say goodbye. Steve tried to do that in the months leading to his death, before the cancer sapped his life-strength. That’s a lesson learned – say your goodbyes before decathexis.

After Steve passed, about 25 of us sat in a loose circle in the courtyard behind Steve’s reconditioned warehouse and shared stories at his memorial. As Linda pointed out, Steve’s network of friends, was – in a word: diverse. Present were childhood friends from Brooklyn, fellow artists, college buddies, dog-walking companions, civic activists, trolley enthusiasts, and of course, dogs. Many of us did not know one another. I struck up conversations with an ex-professional boxer, a retired communications executive, and a trolley museum volunteer. People around the circle took turns sharing a memory — many laughs and a few tears. It was a bit reminiscent of The Big Chill in that the various facets of Steve’s life were revealed like new discoveries – and that the folks assembled realized that they had reason to like each other as well as their departed friend. I guess that is the secret of living: to balance your goodbyes with new hellos. 

Disconnecting – Moving Forward

After reading Wal’s piece on disconnection I thought about what it has meant in my life.

Like most things in life, I believe there are varying degrees about what disconnection means. At first thought it implied to me, that you’re either in or you’re out —we are friends or not, we either care or don’t care at all. Over the years, black and white thinking has given way to an array of gray tones and the seduction of a simplicity in choosing one way or another gives rise to the reality of just how complex life can be.

Years ago, an aging, close friend and practitioner of black-and-white theory ended our relationship. Previously we had a bump, a disagreement, but unlike all the other times when connection meant more than any issues we might have had between us, he withdrew and then called to say it was over. It was as abrupt and painful outcome but, as I reflect on it, inevitable.

Beyond our individual tipping points, could it be that age, experience, and wisdom contributes to the courage to disconnect from things we did more for others than for ourselves — from people we tolerated for reasons that no longer hold power over us?  Perhaps we are saying “no” more frequently and with less guilt to the things and people who occupy our time in ways that prevent us from spending it in a more meaningful way.

In one of our earlier posts, we shared ideas about relationships and how there seemed to be those that were more situational, those that served a purpose or need during a particular time in our lives, and those that weathered the years and endured. Everything is ever-changing and so are our connections to others.  Sometimes in parallel, sometimes not.  In the ebb and flow of life, it seems to me that how I spend my energy becomes more of a conscious decision-making behavior that faces me each and every day,  As I measure the guesstimate of how I spend my remaining time I realize it no longer appears to provide the luxury of “time to spare.”  It is replaced with, “if not now, when?” As a result, people and things I still care about may no longer fit into my more measured and deliberate schedule.

So, if I appear to be less willing to spend time and energy with someone, it may be less a function of liking them less but more about focusing my time with things that matter more in my limited remaining days.  It also seems to me that while I may be shifting from my previous behaviors, I can seek to do this as kindly and transparently as possible.  In some cases this may already be too late but perhaps I’ll get better at it over time. As I try to write these thoughts I realize they are not clear and succinct but they give me food for thought and opportunities to test them out with others as I travel this life journey.

The Winter of Our Lives

Wally really got me thinking.  The kind of thinking that hangs heavy on your mind.  I recently read a poem about the winter of our lives. Having just reached the 3/4 of a century mark, the snow has begun to fall metaphorically. I have looked around my house and realized what is going to happen to all my STUFF?  The paintings I have collected, the knick knacks and trinkets I had to have, my model railroad equipment, not to mention the family heirlooms I want to pass down to my kids. Unfortunately, much of which they are not interested in. So I have thought perhaps I should start methodically to disengage dispassionately from my stuff. Perhaps, we have to do the same with the people we have collected in our lives.  The relatives, colleagues and friends we had to have during those same years.  Perhaps, like Wally’s friend did, we have to dispassionately, as much as possible, begin to separate from them, simply because holding too tightly would make the separation too impossible to bare as the season ebbs.

I have had two discussions in my life with close friends who were dying. A close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with a deadly stage 4 cancer told me in one of our last discussions very matter of factly, that at least he knew what he was going to die from which is more than most people can say.   My immediate instinct was to minimize the heaviness and deny him that fact because it made me feel better.  The last discussion was over lunch 2 months ago with a friend in his mid eighties who spent the last year running to NYC for chemo and radiation which after a year did not improve his condition. Over a pleasant lunch he told me that he told his doctors that he was done.  He told me he was just going to wait to die now. Again I wanted to assure him it was a long way away because it made me feel better.  He passed away two weeks later. 

I was 12 when my grandmother was dying, my aunts called my dad to come quickly.  It was after midnight and my mom was at work so Dad woke me and we raced over to their apartment.  It was as if she waited for my dad to get there.  When we arrived we bent over her for her to kiss us and she took my dad’s hand. A moment later she passed and I witnessed the most intimate tender thing my father ever did as he gently, lovingly closed her eyes and kissed her. 50 years later, I got a call at the inn from my Aunt Edna that Aunt Eleanor was dying and I needed to be there.  I was 5 hours away but drove like crazy to get to the same apartment my grandma died in.  When I arrived they were preparing her to go in an ambulance to the hospital but she saw me and  whispered my name.  I took her hand and hugged her good bye.  She passed before they left the apartment at the ripe old age of 99.  Both she and my grandmother waited for us before they let go.  I pray for that kind of courage when it is my turn and I’ll want all my friends to know that any distancing I was doing was because it was so hard to say the final good bye to those I loved during my life.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

I don’t often wax nostalgic about my early childhood.  It doesn’t often pop into my mind.  I imagine it was a pretty average childhood for a kid growing up in one of the lesser urban boroughs of NYC.  We played in the streets, walked to school in groups, played Chinese handball at playground time at school, typical stuff!  But every now and then I will be bombarded by one of my senses that will take me back to a specific time, place and who I was with that will warm those cockles of my heart! Not sure what they are but hey, it is a word I can remember when a lot of words are migrating away from my alleged mind!

Many times my sense of smell will take me right back somewhere.  When I visited my grandfather’s hometown in Italy someone was making sauce in the hotel kitchen and that smell wafting past me brought me right back to my dad’s kitchen, and brought a tear to my eye. When we were looking to buy an inn, we entered one in Vermont and I immediately noticed the same sweet/medicinal smell of my grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania which had been used by my uncle as a tonsillectomy hospital, and we wound up buying it.  Visual memories are easy and frequent but, with the exception of music, which is probably THE strongest memory arouser, sounds don’t often do it.
Which brings me to the point of this rambling walk down memory lane.  Several weeks ago I was walking in my neighborhood, mind not focused on anything in particular, and POW…. It happened.  A loud screeching kind of noise repeated two or three times in quick succession snapped me right back in time.  I recognized the sound immediately and I could smell and see it as if it were right in front of me.  The screeching sound was the sound of my mom hanging a pair of wet pants on the clothesline and pushing the rope out so there was room for the next piece of wet clothing. Mom was there leaning over the railing where the little metal reel was attached to the back of our house.  I was handing her clothespins for her the attach to the cuffs of the pants so that it would dry more easily, then a shirt and I handed her two more pins until the line was full of wet clothes.  And in between each article hanging there was the screech of her sending the wet garment on its way to be dried.  Another way we recycled instead of using more energy! There was a little dirty canvas bag hanging on the line where all the clothespins were stored.  I remember that sound and the feel of the wood clothespins and the sound of mom’s voice as she mused whether the clothes would dry before the rain came! 

I luxuriated in that memory for a while as the screeching continued for a few more minutes as I walked past.   My mind moved to other comforting sounds from my childhood that to this day still bring comforting coziness to my life.  One of the biggest comforters is in the middle of the night when I hear the CSX engines blow their horns as they cross the frighteningly rickety trestle over the Rondout Creek and as it gets closer you actually can hear the wheels of the train on the tracks until the 150 or so cars pass out of ear sound.  It always reminds me of my brother, dad and I setting up the Christmas village with our Lionel trains each year. And there was a particular metallic sound of my back screen door closing as the metal spring did its job to bring that sucker back into position.  I knew my dad was home safely then.  I could go on and on about these memory enhancers like the thunder of a good storm which would scare the living daylights out of me at the time or the milkman closing the lid of our box at 5 AM, but I know you have your own sound memories that I would love to hear about. Please share them with us!

Bird Note

Sound and smell unlock doors to memory – long ago experiences can seem as though they are in the next room. Perhaps you listen to BirdNote on PBS? It’s a two minute program that explores facts about a specific species in each short segment. Here are my three bird notes that bring strong memories:

1. Mourning Doves: I grew up in a house very much like the one I live in now – a one-and-a half storey cape cod. My bedroom had two windows; one facing east overlooking our backyard and one facing south looking down at the small cement patio behind our attached garage. At a regular time each spring, I’d awake to the sound of doves cooing and sunlight filling my room from the eastern window. It was so soothing. The dove calls were clearly magnified by the courtyard formed by the intersection of the garage and the longer wall of the house. The doves must have been happy in their business pecking around the cement patio and calling their mates. But it also made me happy as well: a gentle alarm clock to begin another sunny day.

2. Eastern Thrush: Hands-down my favorite birdcall and most important memory. At twenty-one, I’m in a parking lot, leaning against my Triumph TR4. I’m shaken to my core. The parking lot is adjacent to a doctor’s office – and I’ve stepped outside to get some air and clear my head. In a minute, I’ll go back in to see Linda. It’s an obstetrician’s office: Linda and I have found out that she is pregnant. So many things are going through my head – we’ve no money and the odds are high that the draft will drag me to Viet Nam. It’s overwhelming… but then the trilling sound of a thrush cuts through the morning air. It is so riveting that it could be just the thrush and I alone in the world at that moment. At once, I’m calm. I realize that this is the most significant act a person can perform: to participate in bringing a new life into this world. My life won’t be the same, but my life is not the most important issue anymore. Caring for Linda and our baby is the imperative. Somehow we’ll find a way. I grew into an adult that morning.

Fast forward to the present… our first-born son lives in a wooded area. From his back deck I can enjoy the trees and regularly listen to the thrush in the edge of the nearby forest. My son has no idea of the memories that invokes.

3. Rufous-sided Towhee: Hiking the Shawangunk ridge brings beautiful views and tired feet. We’re on the way to Lake Awosting. Following the Castle Point carriage trail, a high, dry smell of penny royal is prevalent among the small pitch pines. The pines are deceiving – although small, many are over 150 years old. All along the trail, we are accompanied by a towhee, which flits from tree to tree singing its characteristic “drink your tea!”  We imagine that this friendly bird is welcoming us to this beautiful landscape. And we agree with the towhee’s advice to drink our mint tea around the Svea stove later that evening. When I hear this call, it brings those backpacking days back to life!

Sound and Smells of Yesteryear

My childhood memories of sights, sounds, and smells come from living in a newly built suburban neighborhood with lots of open spaces surrounded by acres of untouched woodlands.  We played outdoors at every opportunity and were free to move about between houses and the woods.  The childhood sound that I no longer hear but remember fondly was the ringing of the large brass bell on my back porch when it was time to come home.  It generally carried farther than my mom’s voice and when it rang around 6:00 pm it became a signal for many to hightail it home for supper. It was also a time when the neighbors seemed to collaborate and act as one large parent body.  So, it wasn’t unlikely for an adult to forward the bell ringing message if they saw us so entrenched in our play that we didn’t react accordingly.  So much for “Sorry mom, I’m late because I couldn’t hear the bell!”

The sounds and smell of fresh perked coffee wafted through our house each and every morning.  First came the sound of water just starting to boil in the percolator.  As it increased in speed and volume it brought the water through the tube up into the glass dome in a muted popping sound.  Before long it perked in a regular rhythm obstructed only by the vibration of the entire metal coffee pot gently twitching on the gas burner.  I never enjoyed the taste of coffee until I was in my 40’s but the aroma that greeted us each morning was as pleasing and comforting to me as the satisfaction it gave to those who drank it.  I never realized how the smell permeated my clothing until the morning my friend’s dad, who occasionally drove us to school, asked if my mom brewed fresh coffee each morning.  He could tell, he said, from the aroma each time I climbed into his car.  Several years ago I began making fresh coffee in the same way.  After sipping my coffee on the porch, I’d take Duke out for a walk and was always struck by the flavorful smell as soon as we re-entered the house.

My favorite sound/smell association comes every fall when I listen to the rustle of fallen leaves and the scent they exude after they begin to accumulate in layers.  As a child I had extreme allergic reactions to ragweed.  My hay fever began in mid August and usually lasted until the first frost.  During that time, I was relegated to the indoors as breathing was difficult, sneezing incessant, and my runny noise a dead give away.  When I was finally able to go outdoors fall was upon us and I would spend hours amid the leaves, enjoying their crunching sounds and strong smells without my histamines running amuck.  Delicious memories that continue to this day.

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A Reminder to Self

I have always felt compassion and responsibility for the environment.  As a young teacher, I shared my enthusiasm for our planet and her resources with my students.  The books and chalkboards and overhead projector were often obscured by large and unruly plants, an enormous saltwater fish tank, blooming avocado pits suspended above water cups with multicolored toothpicks, guinea pigs, chicken eggs in incubators, and whatever living things my students brought to school.

Mother Earth was always there for me during challenging times.  A walk in the woods soothed my body and my mind.  The wind, sun, shade, rain, sights, sounds, and smells offered all that I needed to feel nature’s healing presence.  I always recognized the difference she made in my life.

In the early 80’s when we braved long lines for rationed gas, I followed the daily reports of the consequences and impact of our dependence on the remaining finite amount of fossil fuels we readily consumed.  I remember looking for ways to regularly conserve, protect, and respect mother earth.  I also engaged, passionately, in conversation and debate with friends and colleagues who seemed to tolerate my concern but not share it.  Somehow it always seemed to be the responsibility of the oil companies, or big business, or the government to do something about environmental issues.  After all, they would say, if they put things in place for us to be better able to recycle, reduce carbon emissions, and heal the planet, we would!  

But over time, in the hectic pace of life, I too slipped in my efforts and became complacent.  Sure, I recycled when I could and followed standard environmental practices.  But I stopped making the effort to do my best.  It became much easier to take the convenient route and to allow myself to forget that my actions (or inactions) mattered.

 I do hope we get to a place where environmental care is the norm and factored into everything we do.  But in the meantime, rather than blaming, I’ve realized that waiting is no longer an option. 

 I have recommitted to making the health of mother earth front and center as I go through my daily chores and to share the intention of my decisions with friends and family.  Somehow, it feels like I am making a difference when I catch myself throwing a piece of recyclable paper in the trash and take the extra steps to the recycling bin and when I remind myself that it’s a minor inconvenience to raise the temperature one degree above my air conditioning preference.  I can only hope it’s not too late.

This is a reminder to me to do my share and to hopefully be a positive influence to those around me.  At some point, every individual effort will become a contributing factor to that one moment in time when we reach the tipping point and spend more time healing, rather than harming, the only home we have.

Stewardship

Hen’s piece is well written and a good reminder to think in terms of Gaia. It’s easy to forget — or ignore — our dependence on a pretty narrow set of parameters for existing on this planet. Cultural anthropologists will tell us that we have been adapting to our technologies — rather than to our environment — for centuries. 

Once, many years ago, I had an epiphany sitting around a campfire with friends. In the midst of pleasant conversation it seemed so obvious that we all were proportionally large in our own minds, but so small in relation to our surroundings. We exist on a thin layer of the Earth’s crust — roads and macadam are simply skinny ribbons running on the surface of the beating heart of the planet. Not exactly breakthough thinking, but the impact of the thought/feeling remains remarkably fresh after all this time. We are fortunate to be alive, in this special place, in this special part of the galaxy, where we can see so many stars (if Earth were situated on another plane of the Milky Way, our sky would look impoverished).

Clearly we need to mind our own patch and personally conserve what we can. This is an ethical mandate. However, I think that our biggest contribution as individuals is to create an appetite for environmental stewardship. Hen’s friends who are waiting for public policy to supply answers are not wrong — we need multipliers to lever the large solutions necessary to maintain balance.

I have been a skeptic in regard to electricity as the answer to fossil fuel solutions, even as my workshop contains more and more 220 volt powered tools and battery powered options. After all, what power plants supply the energy — and how about the lithium-ion mining and production — and what do we do with the billions of batteries in landfills?

However, I’m pretty encouraged about the technology that is adapting to the environment. Three areas seem pretty interesting:

Organic battery technology: I’ve been reading about the “Methuselah quinone”, an approach to separating the electrolytic solution from the electrodes to be able to keep greater amounts of potential energy in storage. Cheaper and safer than lithium-ion, the ‘flow’ battery could also extend battery life significantly.

Residential energy storage and conservation: It has been said that 20% of the world’s carbon footprint comes from residential heating. Recycling EV batteries for home energy storage sounds eminently practical. A new Dutch program offers a re-cladding solution for insulating existing houses. This economical approach uses lasers to model the home in 3D CAD rendering for walls, windows, and doors to produce engineered panels which can be installed in a day. The system is integrated with heat pump and solar panels to literally bring energy costs to zero.

Energy Provider Improvements: It’s difficult to trust monolithic utilities, but In New York State, some progress is being made. Energy derived from coal decreased from 16% in 2001 to less than 1% by 2019.  New York actually consumes less energy per capita than any other state, except New Hampshire according to the US Energy Information Administration. Deregulation has separated Utilities providers from energy generation sources, such that they can pick and choose suppliers. Our local energy provider uses almost no suppliers that depend upon fossil fuel (9%). The state as a whole still delivers a significant amount of electrical power originating from fossil fuel (39%), but objectives are in place to reduce such dependence. These objectives can be met with some improvements in both supply capability and transmission line improvements.

My point is that we each need to examine the data to lend our voice to support new programs which can become everyday solutions. Stewardship is both personal and collective.  

Responsibility and Common Sense

Growing up in the 50’s, we didn’t know the word ”recycle.”  It wasn’t that we weren’t concerned about our planet but we lived more practically and used common sense more regularly.  For example, when the polio scare came, we all got vaccinated, stopped going to public swimming pools at the time, and  listened to the medical advice for how to stay safe. Moms immediately cut off our attendance at the public city swimming pools and schools simply required you to get the shot.  There was no great debate, we understood what polio was and didn’t want it to happen to our families so we responded responsibly and did what good citizens should do to prevent its spread!  Common sense and responsibility were words that people understood and tried to live their lives by.   I’m not saying it always worked but it was an underlying principle of our lives. My cousins in Pennsylvania were doing the same thing.

 Recycling was not a word on anyone’s vocabulary list at the time.  But living with what we had back then, practicality was a mainstay of life.  Our parents had come through the depression where rationing was a common practice. Gasoline for your cars was rationed, food stamps were distributed so that there was enough food to go around for our service men, home heating oil and even candles were rationed to guarantee everyone had a fair share. Practicality and responsibility and our primary concern was to do what was good for our country.  We had other serious problems back then but fortunately the war and polio were ended thanks to the hard work of American families chipping in and doing what was needed.

 In actuality we were recycling and didn’t know it.  There was no real awareness as to why we were doing things but we did them because they were for the common good.  My family never bought milk at the store.  It was delivered to a little metal box next to our front door every morning.  Milk, cream, eggs sometimes two quarts were right there on the front porch waiting for our breakfast needs.  And then when we ran out, Mom would leave a note for the milkman for 2 quarts of milk and a dozen eggs.  She’d put the note in the neck of the glass bottle he had delivered the day before, along with the other empty glass bottles and egg cases he had delivered before. That was the original recycling, we just never thought about it. Our soda bottles went back to the store for the 2 cent refund. All the bottles were glass and were cleaned and reused.

 A trip to the grocery store usually entailed a few blocks‘ walk to the nearest grocery store, usually A&P or Bohacks, pulling a grocery cart behind you so you didn’t have to carry everything home.  After we had collected our groceries we’d pick the check out that had the best packer.  The brown paper bags were made a certain size purposely to fit the cereal boxes and detergent boxes so that a minimum of bags were needed. A good packer would always fit everything in neatly saving the need for unnecessary bags. Upon arriving home and putting the groceries away, we neatly folded the bags carefully and stored them away until they were needed to cover the kids’ school books or other necessary purposes always to be reused. Recycling again!

 I’m not sure when the evil plastic bag came into use or the plastic beverage bottles that began to choke our oceans and landfills but  at time they were hailed as the newest modern conveniences that were easy to dispose of.   We kind of forgot our practical ways and our earth unfortunately is now suffering from our waste and disregard for the planet.  Now recycling has had to be a major movement for everyone to do his or her part. Not unlike the vaccine disputes raging, some people disregard the seriousness of caring for the earth.  A little more practicality and responsibility would be a good thing today!

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Thoughts after The All-Star Break

We’ve just had the all-star break in baseball – and if you are a Yankees’ fan, there’s not much to cheer about. The irony of Aroldis Chapman representing the Yankees is hard to fathom. Oh well. Yet, the spirit of the all-star game is meant to recognize the players who have achieved significant results through a good portion of the season. It’s meant to showcase their talents and say ‘steady on!’

It’s got me to thinking that we ought to take the time to celebrate people in other walks of life who have attempted and achieved noteworthy results through this season. Time to pause and give a tip of the cap to everyday people who face hard decisions and have put it on the line.

Who Are Your All-Stars?

So, I’m choosing seven all-stars who have faced tough circumstances with grace. Further, I will try to focus on one quality that each has displayed that is exceptional in my view. They are listed in no particular order: it’s a mix of shortstops and pitchers, outfielders and catchers:

1. George: Bravery is a term that could apply to all my selections, but sums up a feeling that I have about George. Now, I’ve been friends with George for 50 years – and for most of that time I did not realize that he was gay. Clearly, I am tone-deaf – and just as clearly, George is a person who has learned not to show all of his cards. Yet, some years ago, he made a decision to show those cards and come out to all of his family, friends, and colleagues. This takes courage. There was a bit of broken glass and he’s endeavored to repair those shards in the ensuing years.

However, that’s not my main point. We all have proclivities – and I believe we are greater than the sum of all those proclivities. But sometimes, they do set us apart and make life a bit more complicated. I celebrate George for having the gumption to make connections and continue to care about the people in his life during this pandemic. He is a social being who likely had the worst time during our isolation. Through it all, George navigated a long distance relationship and even started (and closed) a business in another state. He keeps bouncing back and I say that takes pluck, even res*l*ence – a word so overused lately that I am ashamed to type it out. Go George!

2. Hen: Fidelity. I like this word! It speaks to ‘ringing true’ and having a clear, bell-shaped tone. It’s better than reliability, regularity or loyalty – it’s about striking a pure note. Hen makes a decision and carries through. In the past year, he’s made a tough decision to relocate. For most people this would be stressful, but after all, it’s just a change of bricks and mortar – right? But rarely do you meet a person who is in such symbiosis with his land as Hen. He has often said that he would have liked to have been a forest ranger. His 23 acres allows him to live that dream, maintaining trails, lean-to’s, and bridges, with Duke tramping along at his side. Leaving this bit of territory is a big deal – I wonder if people realize just how difficult a choice it has been. However, true to form, Hen has weighed his options and concluded that he will continue his life journey in closer proximity to his children. It’s a big jump, but Hen is aimed at seeking the “great perhaps” – and he will make the most of it.

3. OB: Honesty.  In the past year, OB has experienced the kind of grief that most of us would not care to face. Through it all, he has been totally transparent about his feelings and coping with loss. Always the poet laureate of our group, OB has continued to write about strongly held beliefs, always displaying the passion and buoyancy that has been his hallmark – OB leads with his heart. He too, has moved to a new home and started afresh.  I applaud OB for continuing to reach out for new experiences – and sharing with us what he discovers.

4. Jim: Authenticity. Jimmy spent a career restoring historic sites for New York State. Now retired, he devotes his fulltime effort to bringing his 1700’s house to period condition. It’d not enough that he makes his molding plane profiles to match existing trim, the material has to be historic wood, so that the growth rings mimic the 300 year old forest encountered by the original builders. Even the paint is analyzed to recreate vintage formulas. This painstaking labor of love is years from completion – even Jim admits he will likely not live long enough to complete the work. But it is his mission and he does not compromise. He keeps his lifestyle simple: fishing for trout and foraging for mushrooms. Extravagances are few, but he haunts auction sites for Dutch colonial paintings and accoutrements for the house. His discipline is enviable.

The next two individuals have been at the same crossroads, but will likely proceed down different paths.

5. Don: Endurance. A stand-out collegiate wrestler, Don had instant success in the pharmaceutical industry. Way too early in his journey, he got up-close and personal with cancer. As his condition worsened, Don sought out new treatment trials. An experimental trial proved to be a godsend. Not an easy path, however – and others in his cohort did not survive. Don fought hard to maintain a level of health and quiet positivity: he never complains. After two years, he is about to be declared well. All thanks to a new treatment approach and a young donor from Germany. When I last talked with Don, he was about to learn the name of his donor – can you imagine that connection?

6. Steve: Acceptance. Steve also was diagnosed with cancer – a metastasized form of prostate cancer. He progressed through radiation and chemotherapy until his quality of life began to suffer. Steve is an accomplished artist and inveterate hiker. He has cared for three rescue dogs who became VIP’s in his life and the lives of his friends. Steve has often said that these dogs rescued him, not the other way around. Many an adventure have we had with Beckett, Jonesy, and Rousey. In fact, I have a portrait of Beckett done by Steve hanging in our Adirondack camp. Steve has made it clear that life is worth living only if there is the possibility of living fully. Chemo was a half-life for him, so he has decided to forego additional treatment. He is at peace with what will come.

7. Stephanos: Gratitude. His name is really Steve, but his birth father is Greek Cypriot. He has had an unusual life and made some questionable choices early on… choices which presented options of prison or drug rehabilitation. Steve rebounded in rehab and became a certified counselor. Now he spends time daily in meditation and exploring new philosophies of living. I met Steve while working in our restaurant and have been taken by his desire to choose gratitude for his life. While some may talk the talk, Steve walks the walk, even in difficult situations. Constantly singing and joking, his good cheer is catching. He would say (quoting the Dalai Lama) “ Be kind whenever possible —  and it’s always possible”. Steve reminds me that all of us search for the same state of being, but follow many different paths to that destination. Walk on! A paragraph or two does not do justice to the many all-stars in our network of friends and acquaintances. However, I’m not skilled enough to tell their stories. But I am thankful to know such individuals – and more – who deserve appreciation. Perhaps you have more nominees!

All Stars

When Wally wrote his All Stars I was speechless to have been on his list and incredibly flattered and humbled!  I realized that I had  equal admiration for Wally and Henry. We’d known each other for 50 plus years . During those years our lives would collide every now and  then as Wally and I lived in the same town and Henry was farther away. But not to make this response an admiration society I’ll state from the “get go” I have admired both of them for as long as I’ve known them. Wally was to me the abject professional, an upstanding adult.  Henry, bordering on Peter Pan in the most positive sense was always independent and there was nothing he couldn’t do. Their qualities were characteristics I wish I possessed but fell far short!

So who are my All Stars?  I came up with a few celebrities who I admired and then that night around 3AM it dawned on me that the real All Stars are your average men and women who you deal with day in and day out. I wound up with a rather large list and as the night wore on sleeplessly, I honed my list down to 3.

I taught school for 35 years!  As much as I hope I had a positive effect on my students I realized several of them had quite an effect on me.  

All Star #1 is a girl who was in my class for 2 years.  She was a wonderful kid whose parents were going through a divorce and she was struggling. Her desk was right in front of mine and she would crawl under her desk and then tie my shoe laces together. I always knew when she was doing it but I would act surprised when I got up.  I will always remember that. Her mom told me how much she appreciated the time and attention I gave her at a difficult time in her life.  This young woman went on to college, became a teacher, did graduate work and became a principal and got her PhD.   All of this after becoming a hot air balloon pilot. How she balanced all this is miraculous. She is the living definition of adventurous.  I so admire that in her.   A few years back, she and her brother spent a month on a freighter in the Antarctic.  She even swam in the frigid waters.  That is pretty amazing in my book.  I followed her Antarctic journey as well as her weekend hot air balloon flights on Facebook.  Yes, at times I lived vicariously! Shortly I believe she leaves for Iceland. Oh, for an ounce of that adventurous confidence.  I owe her a drink and hope to see her soon.

All Star #2 is my Aunt Eleanor. She was a month away from her 99th birthday when she passed and did it with dignity and grace even though signs of dementia were creeping in.  Her outstanding trait was her devotion to her religion.  She was a devout Catholic, in the true sense of the word.  She didn’t proselytize, or condemn but relied on it for her serenity and comfort.  For 70 years she would hit up all the family to make a donation to an orphanage that she had visited in Pompei when she was a child.   She believed that it was our responsibility to help.  I envied her for that compassion and determination. As she coped with life her rosary was her tool to calm herself.  She had many funny stories about places she worked.  Her first job was as a tatter in a sweat shop in the garment district and later in life she worked in the offices of Horn and Hardart.  They had a Christmas party one year and everyone brought a dish.  She brought her beloved Ricotta Cheese cake and  the next day Mr Hardart came to her and wanted to buy the recipe! No amount of pleading or coercing could get her to give it up!  She was also famous for having a Manhattan after dinner so she would be too “light headed” to do the dishes at Sunday meals! I was fortunate to have three aunts all of whom were my unconditional love sources!

All Star #3 is a friend I made about 25 years ago.  We actually met on line and began a friendship that has lasted all these years.  His name isn’t well known but his All Star trait is. He invented a new language for an award winning movie that  is soon to have sequels in the theaters.   I was in awe of his intelligence.  He majored in mathematics in school and taught at the college level but had an aptitude for foreign languages. He speaks 6, I think plus the one he invented.  How the hell fo you invent an entire language, I once asked, my mouth hanging open in amazement.  I figured you could develop a vocabulary but he explained it was much more than vocabulary.  Not only did he invent the spoken language but the written language as well. Idioms, expressions, parts of speech, grammatical features. Now he communicates with people all over the world who communicate solely through this made for tv(movie) language because it is the only language they all share.  He is incredibly intelligent, funny, not full of himself, and an all around nice guy!  We have become good friends and communicate regularly in English.  I loved the movie but never learned the language.  I speak English and Pig Latin and athay Isay Itay!

Our Public All Stars

It’s just like Wal to put others first and to celebrate the qualities he sees in those of us who have the pleasure and honor of knowing him.  He is a man of faith dedicated to service.  Part Polymath and part Renaissance man, Wal sees his mission as helping others, period.  He enriches my life not only with his ability to fix things, but also with his compassion and insight.

And George, my former roommate, reminds me over and over again why we were so close in college.  He is kind and gentle.  He has the gift of storytelling and can dig deep into his collection to find just the right one that fits into nearly every conversation.  He is a man who brings humor to any situation and smiles to the faces of those whom he embraces. 

I appreciate these men and the conversations we share more than I can say.

I also want to shout out to those who make everyday encounters a joyful event. 

Cheers to the check out woman at Adams supermarket who always has a smile, a moment to listen, the dedication to find or direct me to what I couldn’t find, and the ability to send me on my way feeling lighter, connected, and appreciative.

Bravo to the two women at Town Hall who cheerfully pulled up my property survey, shared my options for getting copies, and all with laughter and good will.  They did this for me despite my walking into their office minutes before closing, with no appointment, and before I even completed the appropriate paperwork.  I left feeling gratitude for the respect and kindness they showed me when they had every reason to ask me to come back another day.

Hats off to the owner of my local sandwich shop who goes out of his way to say hello to me regardless of how long it’s been since I stopped in.  He is always cheerful and genuinely wants to know how I’m doing.  He cares about his food and his customer’s satisfaction and makes his daily work a joyful, social experience.   I always leave feeling nourished by his sandwiches and his smile.

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Too Soon Oldt

I’m sitting here on a sweltering hot Sunday afternoon. Old age has given me the right to review my life, and look back on it trying to honestly evaluate it and how successful I was inside of it! My mom, a native Pennsylvanian, always used to quote an old Pennsylvania Dutch expression that has stayed in my mind all these years, “We grow too soon oldt, and too late smart!”  These old world sayings carry a lot of truth in them.  People were more basic back then and didn’t mince words, just told it like it is. Perhaps now, a month before the big 75, I earned my degree. That’s my life degree not my scholastic degree.  The day’s topic is LOVE!  There are different kinds of love.  It starts with your love for your parents and siblings, although sibling Iove is a rough and rugged road! We love some of our toys, and as we age those toys just get bigger and more expensive.  BUT that Is easy love cause they aren’t expected to love you back.  The tricky part is loving someone who chooses to love you in return.  We can’t omit the love of our pets.  Probably the truest form of love, given to you purely because you feed them and are kind to them!  Then of course is the love for your own progeny. They adjust to your quirks and learn to love you in spite of them. But on this hot steamy Sunday my reflection has wandered to romantic love- a whole other ballgame!


Unconditional love


I knew I was different at a very young age-just didn’t know what to call it. Jr High gym classes where we changed in locker rooms helped me clarify my difference.  All through high school and college I pretended.  I didn’t know anyone else was like me.  But I knew what was expected of me and I learned to suppress the longings and urges I was experiencing.  And I fell in love with a wonderful woman and for quite a while had a very loving relationship. Many years passed and life was getting in the way.  My older brother came out to the family and that was a very emotional and motivating moment for me. Our marriage was struggling by then and we separated. I came out everywhere- to my kids, to my school, friends, everywhere and over time met another person to love. I retired and moved out of state to fulfill his dream.  And so it goes.  Now at the 3/4 Century mark do I have the right to experience the courtship, love, excitement, and yes, arousal that such activity brings?  Can I really go through dating again at this point?  At this age what do I have to offer other than arms to cuddle, ears to listen and comfort another with.  And with all the baggage I drag around with me is it even reasonable to ask another to share the rough road ahead? Am I willing to soothe, comfort and console his future through difficult times ahead?   I think I am, to experience one more time the excitement of getting to know a person, explore his body, laugh and cry at appropriate times and just know someone is on your side.  It is a gamble but I guess I am willing to risk it one last time. God willing, I’m ready to chance it.

All Wool and a Yard Wide

Okay – two anecdotes before I get to the point of my rejoinder:

  1. Two nonagenarians are currently building a 10,000 sq. ft. retreat near where we vacation in the Adirondacks. The structure is being built in British Columbia of Sitka spruce, deconstructed and shipped to its new location. It will require oversized trailers to ship the pieces. The trucks and trailer are too big to turn around, so they need to be backed down two miles of a narrow dirt road. The inside completion involves many contractors and the specifications call for a great deal of custom work. Will these folks live to see the completion of this project?
  2. A 95 year-old friend needs a new vehicle. His 22 year old truck has rusted out, such that the structural integrity is in jeopardy. He wants to buy a new truck and won’t consider either a used or leased vehicle. Is this a good business plan?

Both of these stories underscore the life’s buoyancy. Why should these folks settle for something that will disappoint, even if there is a strong probability of limited use? There’s an old saying (since George is into that) “All Wool and a yard wide”. It’s meant to indicate something of high quality. Why shouldn’t life be ‘all wool and a yard wide’? I submit that our need to search for joy does not diminish with age, even if what brings joy might change over time.

And what brings more joy than intimacy? What is more life affirming than expressing or receiving love – whether physical or otherwise? So, I say to George and Hen – Go for It!

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

George raises some fundamental questions as he/we face our final years.  Have we lived successful lives? Do we have the right, desire, or inclination to love anew or perhaps, rekindle former love?  As with all things in life, there are only the answers we chose for ourselves.

As for the former question, I feel good about how I’ve lived my life and seek to continue to do so with renewed vigor.

And then there’s the question of love at 75!  How fortunate we are to even be able to entertain the question.  To find myself relatively fit and healthy, not having to worry about the basic necessities, and with a multitude of ways to meet and be with others, it is a gift to be able to focus on such a musing.

When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I remember thinking of single people in their 70’s as incapable of romantic interests and focused happily on remaining friends and family as enough to fulfill their need for love.  What was I thinking???

Today I’m in the midst of packing up my home and moving closer to my children and grandchildren.  The love I’ve always had for them and felt from them is compelling enough for me to want to spend the rest of my days in closer contact with them and their friends.  Of that I’m clear.  I look forward to creating new memories, embarking on new adventures, and enjoying more in person time with those who were once part of my daily life.

Of course the need for a more intimate companionship and romantic feelings is not dead.  And while I recently set them aside and redirected my focus from finding the person to fill these needs to accepting the role of single Pop Pop integrating into his children’s families, the desire remained.  There is an old saying, “Good things come to those who wait.” As has happened in my life many times, when I stop trying so hard to make something work and move on with something else, what I once sought seems to find it’s way to me.  Sometimes, it comes directly at me, in just the way I had originally expected.  Other times, I needed to rewrite my story and put aside former ways of thinking about what I wanted in order for it to become a reality.  And, in this time of great change in my life, so it was that I have rethought how I might enjoy the gifts and joys of a new kind of relationship with my former partner by creating a way to live more fully in the present and use the wisdom of older age to speak, as George puts it, more basically without mincing words.  Time will tell if this new construct works for us as we each prepare to move to more distant and separate locations.  Perhaps, as we seek ways to reclaim what was once good and reframe how we look at what appeared to be unsolvable challenges, more in our lives can be resurrected that bring us joy and connection, and love.  As a rampant optimist, I am looking forward to our journey.  

As Francois Rabelais once said, “I go to seek a great perhaps!”

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A Letter to My 85 Year Old Self

Good Morning, Hen!

Happy 85!  Remember when you were 74 and you were beginning to recognize the benefits and limitations of aging?  Remember being home in the Hudson Valley for more than a year during the great pandemic?  Remember coming to the conclusion that enough had changed in your life that it was time to make a major shift and sell your house and property and move close enough to the children and grandchildren?  I’m betting that now, in retrospect, it was the right move.  I’m guessing that not only were you able to spend more time with your family but that you were able to be helpful to them in more ways than you even imagined.

Remember when you were worried that letting go of all those hiking trails and all the physical work that your property required would limit your access to, and motivation for, movement and exercise?  Well, I’ll bet you were surprised by how well you adapted.  Maybe now that you’re 85 you’re thinking that being a couch potato is not such a bad idea.  But up until now, I’m sure you’re still giving those young whippersnappers a run…um, fast walk for their money!  Way to go!

And, in the off chance that you’re not as mobile as I thought you’d still be, I know you likely found a way to counter that with lots of other ways to generate good energy, laughter, and happiness.

Remember, 85 is just a number.  Perhaps today you’d like to write to your 95 year old self and wonder, on paper, or computer, or whatever new technology that will exist then, what it might be like for him.

Cheers!

Hen

P.S.  Remember, you’re as young as you’ll ever be and as old as you’ve ever been!

Winter is Coming

Hey old Wal,

Hope you are having a wonderful day… it’s good to be alive and experience the joy of simple pleasures that each day brings. Celebrate, because you have exceeded expectations! Who knew we’d live this long?

For the longest time you and I operated on a plateau of reasonable health and function. This last dozen years have brought accelerating challenges. You have experienced diminishment and loss that causes Current Wal a great deal of anxiety and heartbreak to consider. You have lived through difficult periods in the lives of those who you love so much. And yet you have found the strength in that which remains.

If the flames of youth are gone, well, the glowing coals still provide steady warmth to you and the circle of friends and family that gather close. That’s your mission: bring cheer to those you love – and more! Cherish the love of your life. Heart is more important than brain, but keep that sharp as well! Don’t stand still – keep exploring, keep creating. I know you will.

I am jealous of the interesting new discoveries that you have found – and the knowledge of how our grandkids and kids have developed their life stories. I’ll bet you could share some fine news – so be sure to write back to me!

We’ll never figure out whether this dance of energy, frequency, and matter is transitional or has some timeless component, but act as if we have faith in the outcome. We both know winter is coming — let’s show the world how a good man meets his end of days.

Dear Old Curmudgeon

Henry’s topic gave me pause to contemplate some serious issues.  A letter to me 10 years from now left me wondering would there be anyone there to read it!  Perhaps “address unknown” or “return to sender“ might apply.  Not sure there is a post office in the options available.  It made me ponder some scary but rational concepts.  How many more Christmas trees do I have left to decorate?  How many birthday candles, mine or others, are left to blow out?  Will I have the breath to blow them out?  Will I be mobile enough to get around? Will my care worker secretly beat me when no one is looking? How many more car registrations can I arrange? How many presidential elections? How many friends are left to talk to and laugh with and cry with? How many dog licks left?  Well you get my drift and probably can come up with other significant how many mores! But let’s suppose I make it to my 85th birthday.  My letter might be something like this…

 Dear You old Curmudgeon, You,

 Surprised this letter reached you, huh? You did it, you son of a gun!  I know you like to say whatever is on your mind regardless how it may come out!
That glass should be pretty full by now though for most of your life you saw a lot of glass cause it protected you from disappointment!  Political correctness is old news now. You’ve got the scars that allow you to speak whatever is on your mind!  I bet secretly, you are thanking whatever force has helped you through the last ten years. And look, you are still upright, your license has not expired and I think I saw you doing the lindy with the bathroom door knob as your partner! Ok, yes I have been known to do the lindy with various doors when the oldies play.

 I hear your prayers at night and the appreciation comes through loud are clear.  Your appreciation of two careers that you loved, the love of your kids that you experienced, and the world you created with you, your friends and loved ones shared is quite admirable!  It is ok to feel proud of what you accomplished. Former students acknowledged your impact on their lives.  Your humor made people laugh, your sensitivity and empathy for others less fortunate than you have been comfort to others. And remember all that silly stuff you used to worry about- what a waste of time and effort that all was but in retrospect, maybe that was what made you the compassionate, caring person you became.  You love yourself now, don’t you, you old softee? You finally got it!  The world, or at least the part that you occupied over the years,  is a better place because you were in it!  You didn’t hear your friends when they told you that but now, at 85 you can take it in and acknowledge it.  Hey, I love you.

Sincerely,
 You

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Drive

Recently, I made a trip to say goodbye to a close friend – he is moving south. It’s likely the last time we’ll visit face-to-face, so it was a bittersweet episode. But as the time approached to traverse the 85 miles to his house, I found myself becoming apprehensive in a manner that had no connection to our farewell visit. In fact, it felt like the day of a high school or collegiate wrestling match, where I’d turn inward to steel myself for the upcoming contest. Why?

It was the anticipation of the drive. This is peculiar, because my friend’s house is on the route I used to follow for my work commute. I have literally logged over two hundred thousand miles along this track and can recite every facet of the trip – from the blinding sun at mile 6 on Bulls Head Road to the inevitable traffic pile-up at Golden’s Bridge. My commuting trips usually started at 5AM and brought me sightings of coyotes and bobcat that I never would have otherwise seen. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets and plenty of flowering trees in season.

But, there also is the high speed choreography of flocks of commuting cars and trucks. In good weather I choose the Taconic Parkway, just to break the monotony, starting in an easygoing manner with a clear road ahead. Smooth sailing to Baird Park. However, cars start to pass me and I find myself pressing the accelerator a bit harder, while watching the abrupt merging opportunities from side streets. The shoulders are minimal and road banking is nonexistent, so focus heightens. The truth is, I have avoided rush hour commuting for two decades and a good part of my apprehension is loss of confidence.

By the time I reach the former gas station in the center island ten miles from route 84, I’m driving faster than I’d like, but not as fast as I will be traveling on route 84. The exit from the Taconic to route 84 merges at the bottom of a long hill. This is not traffic genius, because trucks have built up rolling speed and usually stick to the right hand lane in preparation for the steep uphill climb after the merge. In short, you need to time your merge and punch the gas to avoid the behemoths bearing down on you.

By the top of the next rise, everyone is doing at least 75mph at close quarters. My adrenaline is pumping and I’m looking for a bit of breathing room in the crowded field. I’m beginning to get an idea of how sockeye salmon feel on the upstream journey. All of a sudden, the whole experience becomes automatic, plugged in. I’m gliding in and out of clusters of commuters piloted by my autonomic nervous system. “See, I can still do this”, my left brain says. “But, do I want to?” my right brain replies.

The turn south on rt. 684 brings me in sight of the old Pepsi Cola headquarters with its I.M Pei glass pyramids floating on top of its bricks and mortar. Once upon a time, long after Pepsi departed, I had an office on the 4th floor overlooking the southbound traffic on 684. I would have been in my office by 7:30AM, so I say hello to imaginary me watching real-time me speed past. I never was turned on by a “need for speed”, but did respond to a “need to succeed”. Those were the days when my prime focus was work and I was an absentee family member. This drive brings back the guilt I feel for missing so much relationship time.

As usual, Golden’s Bridge slows the rolling hordes down to 10mph and I pass three cars in the median, the product of vehicular Darwinism. There’s no visible damage, so I assume a three car fender bender has taken place. One guy standing by his van is on the phone, no doubt explaining why he will be late to his job. I’m convinced that most accidents on rt. 684 (and maybe most highways?) do not occur at speed, but from inattention during stop-and go intervals. I exit at rt. 35 and breathe a sigh of relief – ‘what was I worried about, anyway?’ True, I’ve experienced worse on the LIE, Chicago, and Atlanta, not to mention California. Yet, none of those drives has the repeated history of travel as does this route. Sometimes I feel like I’ve played the odds too long and a reckoning is nigh. However, now, in the stolid company of landscaper trucks fanning out to Pound Ridge and New Canaan – usually with no sense of hurry – I can relax and coast the rest of the way. A curious fact, I never see any people in their manicured, spacious grounds and large homes – just landscapers. My fantasy circuit kicks in and I wonder if the residents are being held hostage by their groundskeepers – or maybe the groundskeepers now live in the mansions, the elder rich people having passed away unnoticed? Probably, that’s just survivor endorphins talking – it won’t last: I have to think about the return drive.

The Rush!

I just read Wal’s piece about the feelings evoked as he retraced his car tracks along his former commuting route.  The timing of this couldn’t be more perfect as I just finished three days of work in Rye, NY and, during commuting hours, covered many of the roads Wal referenced. 

I left early for my appointment, feeling good about the amount of extra time I allotted for any delays that I might encounter during the predicted one hour and thirty-two minute drive.  This was not normally the case when I was working full time and entering the daily commuter race with hopes and prayers and a belief that I deserved clear sailing and to be at work on time!  This time I was relaxed, and was prepared to stay so throughout my ride.  However, as soon as I entered the Taconic Parkway I soon realized that going 5 miles above the speed limit in the right lane would put me well behind the flow and would make me an obstacle for others to either swerve to avoid or tailgate in hopes I would go faster.  Eckhart Tolle once told a story about his stay in Manhattan.  He awoke and decided to go for a leisurely stroll down some of the many famous avenues.  Much to his surprise, almost everyone was walking at a fast or frenzied clip and walking slowly became a chore rather than a soothing way to spend the morning.  So, rather than quit or bemoan the fact that his plan wasn’t working, he simply picked up the pace and joined the wave of people traveling at a New York City tempo.  And so did I.  Rather than fixate on what I couldn’t do, I matched speed with the flow and continued.  And while it admittedly raised the intensity of my attention as well as my concern to sustain the pace safely it was less stressful and I eventually arrived without incident.

This experience was not unique in my traveling during commuter hours as a senior citizen.  A couple of years ago I was caught up in a similar scenario and I was surprised by the zigzagging and frenetic maneuvers of the cars around me.  I commented to my daughter on the phone one evening about how bad this was and while I couldn’t see her gentle smile, she paused and reminded me of how I used to navigate the daily commute when I was a younger pup.  Gulp!  She was right.  I was just like the people I was now criticizing.  I had forgotten how easy it was to get caught up in “the rush” never making the time to see how I might have looked to a retired senior or someone who had mastered their inner calm.  And while this reminder didn’t make the act of driving during rush hour any easier, it allowed me to better accept it.

Driving Me Crazy

I didn’t get my driver’s license til late.  Growing up in the suburbs of NYC no one had his license before graduation and the public high schools didn’t offer Driver’s Ed or anything like that.  I didn’t get my license til I student taught when I was 21.  Now as a senior citizen I can’t help but think about the day when I have to surrender that license and my mobility and independence comes to an abrupt end.

5 years ago I had a scare. Rushed to Albany by ambulance and 2 stents placed in clogged arteries. I was out of the hospital the next day, sent home, scared to death and my confidence in normal everyday living shot to hell.  But time passed, my life normalized thanks to the care of my daughter, but the confidence needed to drive anywhere longer than a ten minute trip to the grocery store didn’t return so easily.  It was a year before I could even get up the nerve to drive to Albany for a checkup. But it happened and I slowly regained my confidence.   Then, for two years just before Covid struck, I began running back and forth to Vermont every weekend- a two and a half hour trip to my antique store.  It was an easy trip because there was no traffic if I left at the right time.   Part of it was thruway driving and the rest a heavily traveled Rt 4.  In addition to the concerns of an old man losing his mobility, there are other issues that enter the picture.   I would break my journey down into laps.  The first lap was from Ulster County to exit 24 on the NY State Thruway. Like Wally I would experience a dread, well more of an anxiety, about the journey ahead. I would leave at just the right moment to avoid the traffic jam at the end of lap 2- the stretch of outlet stores in Glens Falls just off exit 20 of the Northway.  The logic behind the definition of the laps was each lap ended right near a public restroom. Another age related blow to one’s confidence. The final lap was relatively easy across the state border on Rt 4 into Vermont.  In the last lap the speed was controlled and slower, the intensity of driving was diminished and the road was curvy and hilly so I had to be attentive but even so I was more relaxed. The first two laps I set my cruise control to assure my heavy foot didn’t over step the legal limit.  I always felt a sigh of relief when the second lap was complete and I was no longer on a 4 or 6 lane highway traveling well over 70.  The thruway is 2 lanes in each direction, full of tractor trailers and speeding sedans, and once you’re on the Northway those four lanes expand to 6, with lower speed limits and fewer people following them.  I could just feel the tenseness in my shoulders release as I passed The Log Jam restaurant at the beginning of Rt 149.  It was soothing from there on in to Vermont.  Rolling hills and pasture lands, garage sales and mom and pop restaurants. As soon as I got to Vermont and shut the car off I took a breath, closed my eyes and reaffirmed to myself that I was capable of doing this.  The return trip had to be later in the day to avoid the traffic at the outlet stores, the only place where backups and traffic jams occur.  Timing was everything.  But the anxiety of the trip still loomed ahead of me. God forbid there was snow. That would be enough to drive me crazy!  Covid ended all that.  I didn’t have to buy gas for weeks, and my oil changes became few and far between.  Life has definitely changed!  That anxiety I felt every time I began the Vermont sojourn I no longer experience.  It will probably return as life becomes more and more normal again.

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Manana is Good Enough for Me – NOT

Since Covid, no-since childhood, I have procrastinated. I put things off til the last possible minute.  If something had to be done by Monday morning, I did it Sunday night. That has been the story of my life.  My dad called me lazy when he would get exasperated with me cause I needed his help at the last minute.  All through my life I was guilty of such practices. As a young father I have Often felt like a hypocrite when I would chide my kids about waiting til the last minute to do things. They were smart enough to know I should practice what I preach but they never threw it up in my face!  In spite of this I had two very successful careers. Perhaps I had fine tuned my skills enough that they prevented my discovery as a fraud.  Every day in my classroom I expected the principal to come in and say, 

“Aha!   You are not a teacher!”  I always felt deficient!

That’s another story for another blog.  But I digress!  Since Covid, I have been doing a lot of introspection.  I have also been doing a lot of buying stuff on line. I needed a printer/copier and ordered a great wireless one through Amazon.  It sits in the box on my living room floor. I needed a light over my bed so I could read at night and found a nice sconce to hang on my wall. It sits in the box next to my bed. Through Wayfair I ordered a Mid Century TV stand.  It sits in its box in front of my tv.  Then, of course, there is my office, desk piled high, bills begging, pleading to be filed neatly away in their respective folders, tabletops piled high with mail and hearing aid proposals and return address labels from every organization I ever donated to(never end a sentence with a preposition!)  So what is the point of all this?  I said that I have been doing a lot of self reflection.

I sat in my house one day and saw all the boxes, saw the pile of stuff in my office and scratched my head.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Those boxes have been there for months, the office has been this way since the fall. Enough, tomorrow I will get to work on these projects.  But I didn’t expect to be up half the night trying to figure out why I do this.  After running it silently through my head a million times the pattern and the motive became clear.  I wasn’t lazy or afraid of doing the work.  I was afraid of starting the project.  But why?  And suddenly, like the flashing neon lights from the motel across the street, came the reason –  loud and clear.  I was afraid I wouldn’t succeed.  I feared I couldn’t do what had to be done.  I am not mechanically inclined, don’t know how to use all but the basic tools!  By putting it off, I am avoiding the truth about myself as I know it! My confidence is shot!  Actually, I never had confidence in the “manly” world of building things. Put me in a social setting and I have no hesitation to succeed. The realization was miraculous, and it only took 60 plus years to identify what has me frozen.  I am  proud to say I have a beautiful new tv stand, a light over my bed and an office that smells of lemon wax and cleanliness. There are still a few jobs left but I can put those off til tomorrow!

Fear of Fixing

Well, George could have been writing about me – end of (as the British say)! Well maybe not actually end of story, because I have a hypothesis: procrastination = learned helplessness. Yes, I think it’s learned.

When I was a kid, I idolized my Dad – he could do anything! I watched him cut a perfect archway in a blank plaster wall, armed only with a handsaw. Now c’mon, if I tried that it would be an episode of Polyhedrons Gone Bad. I watched him bring a listing brick chimney back in line with the house. There didn’t seem anything he was afraid to tackle by himself.

He had time to teach me baseball, boxing, archery, golf, chess, and all kinds of card games; there was lots of praise and lots of shared laughter during those activities. But repair was a different story – it was dead serious and not an instructable. I was the kid who always handed him the wrong wrench and shone the flashlight in the wrong place. Repair always seemed like an out of body experience for me. My younger brother initially felt the same way – but more about that in a second.

My Dad grew up without a father and worked from an early age. He had no paternal guide, but also no one told him he couldn’t do something, so he fearlessly jumped in. I think that’s important.

Back to my brother. Rich found a group of friends that liked to revamp bicycles and build model rockets. He became a hands-on guy. Somehow that street cred worked for Dad and they both had their heads under cars every weekend. I looked on and just gave up the possibility of being initiated into these mysteries. Truthfully, I did not miss it.

However, the net result was that for years I’d shy away from tasks I did not think I could do well. This was unfortunate, because my father set the example of doing everything himself, so I also felt the failure of not being up to the task. Faced with the choice of attempting something I ought to do, but did not have the confidence to do – or hiring a skilled person to do that task – I would do neither. Lots of procrastination. What was it that Henry Ford said: “If you think you can do a thing or think that you can’t, you are right?” Interestingly, because I didn’t put a high expectation for “fixing” on my kids, both turned out to be amazingly capable of fixing anything. Just like my father!

It took years for me to realize the methods for breaking down a task into bite-size elements – I nudge things to death — that’s my approach these days. Plus, there’s a YouTube for every problem. I’ve also relaxed the standards by which I judge my work. All of that seems to lower the barriers to moving forward with projects.  And the bonus is that I can also call my wizard kids for advice!  

Putting Things Off

Yup!  Guilty!

In my work, as in my life, I learned the value of doing what needs to be done in a timely fashion.  In addition, addressing those things that are most difficult and challenging should take precedence over those that are easier.  However, understanding these important principles and consistently acting on them are not necessarily synonymous: at least in my personal experience.

For me, motivation plays a big role in whether I address and complete things in a manner that allows for interruptions, accidents, or unanticipated obstacles.  If I need to get my house ready for an upcoming home inspection I’m good at planning ahead, targeting a completion date days before it’s needed, and then addressing all those things I didn’t account for in the extra time allotted.  And, I’m getting better at making those difficult phone calls sooner rather than later or never.  But, rest assured, I don’t often identify such things as “important” enough to take care of them when I should.  Take this blog entry, for example.  I am fortunate to be working with two of the most supportive and understanding men I know.  Consistently being the last one to submit my blog original or blog rejoinder, I know they will sincerely accept my delay without question.  But why do I put off my writing?  Sure, I’m going through the process of selling my house and looking for a new primary residence.  But each of them is also, at any given time, going through challenging times and yet continue to provide their entries on or closer to our target dates.  

I’m not sure I understand my procrastination.  Yes, reading their pieces before I respond often inspires me.  Yes, I know they will not pressure me or say anything to cause me to feel guilty.  Yes, I do feel this is not only important but one of the few things over the last few years that has offered me a sense of community, a sense of value, and a source of learning.  And yet, I continue to take a laid back approach to getting my piece done in an equitable and timely fashion.

This is one example of many for me.  And, since I don’t feel particularly good about putting off those things that matter, it’s time to do something about it.  Stephen Covey wrote, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” 

Perhaps it’s time to change up some thinking and some poor habits.  Of course this necessitates starting immediately rather than after the sale of my house or after I get some rest or …you know the drill.

George and Wal, get ready for Hen’s new and improved, on-time blog delivery system!

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To Give or Not to Give

One of the constants in my life has been the request of others for me to donate money.  An endless list of charities find their way to my email box asking for me to donate to a cause.  Usually, via some internet magic, the requesting agencies are in line with my interests, beliefs, and passions.  More recently, political entities ask for me to support candidates who promise to further the causes I believe in.  Sometimes, I pass people who appear to be either homeless or hungry and ask me directly for a handout. Today, one television commercial showed me starving, mistreated dogs and another, the plight of elephants with babies in tow.  Their messages tugged at my heart and my purse strings.

The quest for financial resources is endless but, since I don’t have an endless supply of “extra” cash, making decisions about what to give is a dilemma.  Even after I develop a process and or guideline for who to give and how much, the question of trust arises.  How do I know if these requests are legitimate and how do I know if the funds are going to the intended recipients and if they are, what percentage may be going for administrative costs? 

Over the years, I’ve asked friends how they make decisions about donating.  As you might guess, it varies from person to person but none have an absolute, clear-cut formula with one exception.  In this case, if he’s asked, he gives. If he encounters a person who is sitting or walking on the street and they make a request for cash, he gives with no exception.  He has chosen to completely accept that if they are asking, they are needy and he gives them money unconditionally.  If they chose to spend it on liquor or drugs or food or clothing, he contends that is their choice.  He is only responsible for responding to the act of one human asking for help, not to bother himself in the affairs of how the individual choses to use the help given.  It reminds me of our conversation about labels and judgments.  I might find it irresponsible to enable someone who is intoxicated to use my money to buy more alcohol so I would likely not give them money. Of course, in that case, I’ll never know whether this was a moment when this person may have chosen to use my contribution in another way to help themselves; all because I speculated that I knew better.  Who is to say?  In the end, if giving this person money that I didn’t need, money that wouldn’t negatively impact my life, might the feeling of giving with the hope of helping, add value to my life?

I enjoy helping others but still hesitate to give out my “hard-earned” money to strangers who may not have “worked hard” and who are “deserving” of charity.  But as I grow older, I am re-examining those old beliefs and am reconsidering the idea of unconditional giving.  I look forward to seeing my own reaction the next time I pass a person who asks me for money.

Giving is a Function of Trust

I’d argue that giving money or donations to others is the same as the decision to place love or trust in a relationship. In a perfect world, the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ would be limitless. In practice, there is always a part of me that wishes to hold something back — whether it’s trust or donations, is immaterial — but that’s my quirk.

However, one thing is clear to me: I won’t donate without some level of trust having been established. Hen raises the point that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the recipient uses the gift in a manner in which you approve. After all, ‘help’ is defined by the receiver. And yet… remember a few years ago, when the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, and the Breast Cancer Society were accused of diverting $187 million dollars to lavish salaries, trips, and perks? In fact it was alleged that only 3% of the donations actually made its way toward cancer research. (NB: these groups are not affiliated with the American Cancer Society). Even in respected charities, the CEO may earn penthouse-level compensation. Charities are big business – and somehow this seems like an oxymoron to me. Ah, there’s me being distrustful! 

We all feel better when we give of our resources. Sharing is an essential part of living with others. It is a recognition of another’s need and our ability to nurture those in need. However, many of us also give as an antidote to guilt. The paid advertisements Hen described certainly appeal to that motivation. Such appeals feel like manipulation and I won’t have it.

My giving formula boils down to this: I will give generously to those I know and love, even if they do not use the resources as I would. I will give regularly to community institutions that are local and I have seen their good works. I will take a chance on giving to an individual I don’t know, if a connection is made that doesn’t tingle my distrust. I will not give to a suspected liar – or to most national fundraising organizations. In other words, I mind my patch and invest in my community, trusting that the investment will help others. 

The Act of Giving

Lately, I have been generously giving contributions to people on the street who ask.  I figure I can afford to donate a ten-dollar bill to someone down on his or her luck.  I know it could be a total
sham but I figure if by chance it is legitimate I could contribute to someone’s getting a meal or paying a bill and that would make their day and mine as well. Of course you just never know.  When I was going to Vermont every weekend I used to see the guys with signs in the entrance to the shopping malls.  The signs usually indicated the guy was an out of work veteran who was hungry, many times small children were holding the guy’s pant leg or something for an additional emotional tug.  The Rutland Journal did a report and followed one guy and found out that he raised over $100,000 in a year’s time.  When you think about it, it is hard work and probably won’t get you a pass at the Pearly Gates!  Sometimes I think I often give to people out of guilt.  How come I had the wherewithal to have spare cash while others can barely make it day to day?

A year ago Christmas I was especially tender for many reasons and watched the shivering puppies chained to an old fence and became a monthly “Guardian” with the SPCA.  I can’t stand to see animals suffering because of human cruelty!  And the next commercial was of St Jude’s Children Hospital and became a “Guardian” there as well.  I chose to believe that most of my monthly contribution goes to helping animals and children but I just have to have naive faith about that!  Don’t burst my bubble please.

But donating money was never a problem for me.  Both my kids worked in restaurants and taught me to give hefty tips as well. However, my shortcoming is giving of my time.  I have never contributed a few minutes to talk to the guy begging on the street or actually going with him and buying him a meal.  The nursing homes are full of lonely people abandoned who would love to have a conversation or a hug.  I realized that this year as the isolation overwhelmed me. People in these facilities live like that from year to year and not because of Covid.  Perhaps it is the sadness factor that stops me. My tears come much more easily now and I’m not sure I can deal with the sadness I would see around me.  I actually feel terrible admitting to this but it has always been a shortcoming of mine.   I should know better, I was that outcast kid in school for several years and knew how it felt.  I need to be as generous with my time as I am with money.  Maybe then the Pearly Gates will open for me!

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Russell’s Teapot

Maundy Thursday is a profoundly sad day. It reminds me of our unfailing default behavior of cruelty and self-service. It doesn’t take much to see how that behavior is still present in our DNA. Perhaps it is a collateral requirement for survival that we can justify any action which assuages our fears.

This is a day when I confront my beliefs about faith. After all, faith is about hope – hope that there is a better version of myself and all of us; something timeless and clear, synchronized to a cosmic truth. That’s why I’m thinking of Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

If you missed it, Bertrand Russell stated his reluctance to believe in God and placed the onus on religion to prove that God existed. He put forward an analogy: what if he stated as a firm belief that there was an undetectable celestial teapot traveling in an elliptical orbit in space? Who could prove him wrong? Russell’s argument is that the burden of proof does not fall upon the skeptics, but rather the proponents.

Rare Sighting of Russell’s Teapot

At first glimpse, this seems like a reasonable assertion. It is always a good idea to examine the basis for your own assumptions; what you cannot prove should be placed in that Box of Uncertainties. And yet… that box of uncertainties is pretty large. Sometimes, planks in that box are needed to bridge gaps in understanding how the world works – or how you should work within the world. As you construct your personal bridge, some of the planks are less than solid. So, do you stop your journey, turnaround, or continue on?

I’m reminded of that 1970’s bestseller Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. This was the first in series of books which chronicled the socialization of an anthropologist into the world of a Native American shaman. Don Juan recalibrated the perception of the young anthropologist to identify strong forces at work in the world; how to use that power; and how to identify ‘witches’. Objective proof: doubtful. By the end of the books – which were the basis of the anthropologist’s doctoral dissertation – Carlos Castenada had absorbed the shaman’s worldview to reflect a philosophy which was compelling enough to attract a number of fans. Could it be possible that today’s mysticism is tomorrow’s science?

Every journey requires some degree of faith in assumptions that cannot be proven. The need for proponents to prove their case is only necessary if they attempt to press their assumptions onto others – and I accept that this is pretty common in day-to-day life. Yet, the tyranny of Russell’s teapot argument is that it precludes ‘possibilities’.

If I were to counsel my grandchildren, it would be to rename the uncertainty box as the ‘Box of Possibilities’ and use some of those planks in their bridge construction. I think it’s better to be open to a broad vision when facts don’t connect the dots.

Not A Religious Man

I was never religious.  I always questioned it and asked for proof which I never got.  I considered myself spiritual.  I was raised Catholic, my mom was Congregational, but I went to Mass every Sunday with my dad. That lasted until they dropped the Latin and started saying Mass in English.  My dad stopped going because he said now that he understood what was being said he couldn’t sleep through it!   We still did the no meat on Friday thing, always having macaroni or spaghetti (I never heard the word PASTA til I was married). On Good Friday my brother and I couldn’t play outside or watch TV between noon and 3.  It seemed more like superstition than religion.  My Aunt Eleanor was the only one who was really into Catholicism. She said the rosary every day of her life until her death at 99.  It gave her comfort and serenity and I wanted that for myself but couldn’t find it through religion.

I guess I always believed in God but didn’t subscribe to the rigors and routines of Catholicism.   As my sexuality developed it estranged me even more from organized religion but I didn’t want to give up the promise that a spiritual life provided and I kept questioning and praying that the “All Mighty” would show me, give evidence to me that it truly existed.  Then I kind of gave up the search.  Life was busy and exciting and I stopped questioning and searching. College, marriage, family, buying houses all got in the way and there was no space for my search. 

When all that calmed down I began experiencing things that I couldn’t explain.   My wife and I divorced and she moved out. I think it was the first night I slept alone.  I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, scared, and crying.   I felt as if I was cradled in someone’s arms and it soothed me.  I heard inside my head a voice that said, “It is going to be okay, everything is going to be ok!”  I woke up in the morning feeling secure, knowing something had happened that I could not explain.  It was years before I ever told anyone about that, even admitting I thought it was Jesus who rocked me. Many years later, after retiring, I experienced two other events that helped me answer my questioning.  My partner and I were traveling through England visiting friends we had met in Italy.  They wanted to take us to the place where paganism and Christianity was supposed to have met.  It was a little island they referred to as Holy Island, but is named Lindesfarne.  We traveled to Northumberland in northern England.  You can only reach the Island at low tide so you have to know in order to get off the island before the tide comes back in.  On that island is the ruin of an old Cathedral where they ancient saints, Saint Cuthbert and St Aidan tried to convert the pagans.  Upon entering that sacred space, every hair on my arms and back stood straight up and a cold rush went through my body. My partner was Jewish and he experienced the same thing.  We prayed at what was left of the altar and escaped the island just before the tide returned.  It was spiritual, eerie and freaky.  I had never experienced anything like that before and never expected to again!  Wrong! Several years later on a trip to Italy, promising my aunts to go to Assisi, we stopped there and visited the churches of St Clara and St Francis only to be disappointed by the touristy nature of the city. We spoke to a local shop keeper who told us if we really wanted to experience St Francis we should go to a little mountain town named LaVerna not far away.  The next day we drove up the mountain and parked outside the little town with the Franciscan monastery.  We discovered that St Francis slept there in the caves and that was where he experienced the stigmata.  I didn’t even know what that meant but it was explained that it was where he bled from his wrists and feet from where the nails held Jesus to the cross. We headed into the caves and without realizing what cave we were in, once again I experienced that sensation of cold rushing through me as all the hair on my arms and back stood on end.  My partner also was experiencing it as well. The guide told us that it was on that rock in front of us St Francis experienced the stigmata. It was a very special experience that I hope to experience once again.  I sure could use that voice telling me everything will be all right once again!

Beliefs Re-examined

Wal begins his piece by confronting his beliefs.  I love the notion that while we can accept who we are, it can be healthy and helpful to challenge what we have learned to believe.  For me, time can lull me into complacency about viewpoints that I’ve adapted and practiced.  As I tell my stories, I inevitably reinforce those perceptions and they become a baseline or context from which I live my life.  But, as Wal mentions in his post, he questions his beliefs in hopes that he can become a better person.  As I think about some of the things I “knew” to be true when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I realize that my thinking wasn’t as broad or open as it is today and some of those beliefs have given way to very different notions.

As I examine and re-examine long held ideas I find I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.  Years ago I needed to know.  The answer was important.  Right and wrong were clear-cut and necessary.  Today, like my hair, I find life is much more grey than black and white.  I more often understand multiple sides to an issue or belief and recognize how often I missed opportunities for connection by holding fast to one side or another. 

There is also value in strong beliefs.  To feel passionate about faith, religion, or some form of source energy gives us a foundation from which to make decisions and guidelines for how to live and what to teach our children.  However, even within this commitment to our faith, I believe there is added value to re-examine and question what we hear, read, and practice.  This self-reflection can help us confirm, adjust, or re-align what matters and prevent us from blindly following the wrong path just because it is so well worn.

As I grow older and recognize that each day matters more to me now than it did when I was younger and invulnerable, I look forward to attempting conversations with my grandchildren about what we believe and what we assume, and what limitless possibilities exist for them as they make choices and the importance for them to continue to challenge those choices.