A New Year! A fresh start, perhaps? Have you made a resolution or two? Like Tom, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions – often my wish exceeds my grasp. But I do believe that how you end the year is emblematic of how you will be in the New Year: history is the best predictor of the future.
So on the last day of the year, I try to sample some behaviors I hope to be doing all year. My list of New Year’s Eve day activities includes:
Being civil. Often I’m impatient to start or finish tasks and my impatience is obvious. While I probably won’t change that condition, I can limit the sphere of toxic Type A behavior.
Prioritizing family time. We’re fortunate to have children and grandchildren close at hand. We will share a dinner this New Year’s Eve and keep the grandkids overnight.
Doing what you love. I will use an hour or two in my shop, finishing a present for one of my sons. Being creative is energizing and carries over to other parts of my life.
Checking in with at least a couple of folks who have had a tough year. We don’t go it alone. I firmly believe that each of us needs to strengthen the ties that bind.
Exercise. I don’t always make time, but miss it when not active. My regimen is to complete a short workout on free weights daily. In a way, it’s a test – a litmus to mark when my body can no longer keep up. (I set the bar very low – no pun intended!)
Mental Acuity: I play solitaire for keeping track of cards and picking order of play. It’s not sudoku or chess, but it’s quick and instructive as a meditation).
Okay that’s mine… what do you do to welcome 2022?
I’m Giving Up Brussels Sprouts
I’m not good at resolutions! As a kid I would resolve to do something I was already doing to guarantee success. It was sort of like what I would give up for Lent. I would give up brussels sprouts or liver, something I hated so that the task would be easy. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to do such a thing! The purpose of these activities is to improve your being, to make you a better person. So failing at such a self imposed task is overwhelmingly a failure of character. I already am good at beating up on myself so I don’t need any catastrophic defeat to emphasize it. So bring on 2022 with no promises or self imposed demands! In fact, if anything has to make resolutions, it is our society. It needs to resolve to come together, to accept people for who they are, to care about the well being of our fellow citizens, to address the real needs of our nation and our world…Too much? Probably! Maybe the country will slip into my old habits and not make any demanding resolutions! Status quo! Maybe Covid will stick around and we’ll do nothing to end the damn thing. Maybe we’ll just let our kids get shot in school, Maybe we’ll keep burning those fossil fuels and continue to burn acres and acres of forests and villages! Hell, it is much easier to do nothing than to actually take a course of action that might improve us. Don’t let those strangers who look different or worship differently come into our perfect country! On second thought, maybe a resolution or two isn’t bad. Give it the old college try and if I succeed DAMN I’ll feel good and it just might improve my family, my neighborhood! And if I fail? Nothing ventured nothing gained! Maybe if we all made one resolution and tried to work it, we will be in a better place! Maybe 2022 will be the year for trying, resolving and acting to make it a better year than the last! We can’t do much worse. What do I have to lose?
Wal invites us to reset and/or confirm our focus for how we wish to welcome the New Year. I agree that while we can do this anytime, there is an emotional and perhaps psychological bonus when we do so at the outset of something new or, as Wal does, set our intentions just before the beginning.
Since I’m writing this after the ball dropped in Time Square, I can tell you what I did do on the last day of 2021 and what I’d like to continue.
I spent the day with friends. We played, laughed, listened to music, enjoyed good food, exchanged thoughtful gifts, and engaged in hours and hours of physical activity. Although I was so exhausted, I didn’t stay awake until midnight, I felt energized, fulfilled, and happy. I ended my year full out, used up, and thrilled to be able to feel so alive.
Spending time with family and friends and people who make me laugh and think and who challenge me is something I will seek to include in my life as much as possible.
Eating healthy foods that I enjoy (even those that take time to prepare) will be more on my mind and on my shopping list.
Giving to others with a full heart and often will be a practice I will increase.
Hiking, biking, Pickle Ball, and other forms of exercise multiple times per week will be written into my daily journal.
I’m thankful to Wal for helping me see the last day of last year as an excellent reminder of how I want to live my life more fully and with intention.
Henry, Wally and I had our weekly Zoom call yesterday morning. Our discussion rambled over several timely topics. We argued politely but nonetheless passionately and ended the discussion with respect for the others’ viewpoints. At least I came away feeling that.
It is now 3:30 AM and I have been awake for about an hour and not the least bit sleepy. That will hit around noon today! My mind is racing. Jumping from our zoom call to the darkness, the sound of the rain, house noises- the purr of the furnace, an electric clock motor, the dog’s groan as he changes position and the loneliness creeps in. Is it the darkness or quietness that has let the loneliness creep in and intrude on my rest? My mind is racing, bouncing off unrelated ideas like a ping pong ball. I was going to write about people who entered my life for very brief moments and yet have occupied a corner of my mind for decades. A little girl named Maureen is who came to mind. When I was 4 years old we lived in an old railroad flat on East 23rd St and First Ave. It was an old apartment building, 6 floor walk up. On Thursday’s the dumbwaiter would arrive at our floor, and my mom would open the little door in the kitchen, put our garbage in it and send it up to the roof for incineration and there would be Maureen, peeking over our respective garbage, and waving as her mom added garbage from her side of the dumbwaiter. I never played with her, never even knew her last name, never even heard her voice but for some reason she has been hiding in my brain for over 70 years. That is what I was going to write about this time around but the loneliness tonight overwhelmed me. Sitting in the dark with only the glow of my phone emphasizes that incredible insecurity and hesitancy I experience a lot. And now, here it is staring me down face to face and no one to pat my shoulder or take my hand and offer encouraging words. That’s probably what I miss the most, and this is probably the time I am visited by my worst demons.
I am resting my head on my hands and looking out my living room window into the dark houses and empty rooms of my neighbors. Their houses are as dark as mine and I can’t help but wonder if they have demons that haunt them, too. I figure they probably do but I can’t empathize with them right now cause I am too absorbed in how to deal with mine. Health issues loom among the biggest demons right now. What late life decisions will I be forced to make. Here we are going into Christmas week and I forced myself to decorate just so my daughter wouldn’t worry. After years of large family gatherings, food everywhere, even in our stockings hung by the chimney with care (the stockings were always filled with oranges and walnuts and candy as well as little gifts) we are reduced to just the two of us. My son moved away which left yet another empty chair in my life.
But, a car just passed the house, my hometown will be waking up soon, and even a hint of daylight will break through the darkness. I’ll probably fall asleep for an hour or so thinking how fortunate I am to have friends I can talk to about this! How thankful I am for my kids and my dog. The demons will subside with the daylight, things will make me laugh, the worries will disappear just as the house sounds do and be replaced by the neighborhood awakening. I am sure there will be other nights like this but for now the promise of daylight comforts me as my mind begins to slow down and cry for rest!
Boy, lots of possible rejoinders in this post. George writes about the vulnerability he feels on some nights, when darkness rules and minor issues grow into golems knocking at the door. Hen relates a childhood story about a boa constrictor slithering across ribbed vinyl. Wow – I can imagine that sound –scary!!
While Hen has come to terms with the darkness and embraced the gentile quiet and star-filled panoply of the evening sky, I tend to relate to George’s troubles.
Nightfall signals the time of winding down and reflecting on the day. While I’m active, I make plans for the next day: sticky notes with tasks to be accomplished. That’s all fine until bedtime. Generally, I fall asleep immediately, but wake up 3 hours later. That’s when the troubles can start. Overlooked issues, past mistakes, and seemingly insoluble problems slither up my bedpost like Hen’s boa constrictor.
Sigmund Freud felt that while we are asleep, our consciousness magnifies minor discomforts several-fold. I always assume that some physical discomfort initially wakes me, but once alert, it’s the worries that keep me awake.
Most of the time, I can dismiss the problems. When I can’t, I get up and write down every problem that is the source of anxiety. Funny, but once these issues have been named and recorded, I’m ready for sleep again. However, George’s wonderful description of the aloneness that you can feel at night – the anxiety over what cannot be controlled (which – let’s face it – is a lot), can make you uncomfortably aware of the existential void.
That void may be the real night terror: measuring your life, it’s inevitable ending and underlying meaning aside from the busy-ness of daylight routine. Your wants and fears are more clearly reflected in the dark. That’s why the act of writing down my anxieties and worries frees me up. The items that bother me are so generally pedestrian as to be laughable in the cosmic perspective. So in the end, I wind up reminding myself what a little being I am in this big world. Rather than making me more anxious, it makes me chuckle.
The Power of the Mind
George raises an interesting question about darkness and light and their relationship to how we carry our demons. With the coming of dawn he felt comforted and his mind slowed perhaps enough for him to regain control of what he allowed in, what weight it carried, and how long he would allow it to last.
As a child, I remember being awakened one night by a sound that I was convinced was a huge boa constrictor slithering across the vinyl, slightly ribbed kitchen chairs listening for my heartbeat so as to know where to find me. It was as if everyone in my family disappeared and I was alone in the house with only this giant hungry snake. To this day I have no idea why I conjured it up. At first it was a game and I began to play with the idea knowing full well the noises I heard were likely the oil burner or refrigerator motors. But soon, it was out of control as it took over my mind in the dark and quiet of the night, and try as I might, I couldn’t shut it off. Sometimes the power we give to our mind can evolve into a force of it’s own. Scary!
These days I have a different relationship with the dark. The darker my bedroom, the better I sleep. When I lived in the country, I would often go outside at night and gaze at the stars. The darker it was, the more I could see. For me he dark has less to do with triggering my concerns or fears as does more situational things like a conversation, an article, or a distant memory. Yes, from time to time they may keep me from sleep for an hour or two as I puzzle through solutions, next steps, or strategies for letting them go. But most of the time I’m planning how to keep myself entertained with things I want to do and am still able to do which leaves me little time to spend with the demons.
However, I must share a brief story of the power of mind over matter and the influence George seems to have over my thoughts. When the three of us began working together on this blog, he once complained about the aches and pains he felt each morning when he awoke. Although we are the same age, I explained that I hadn’t noticed any such thing when I got up each day. The next morning I paid attention to my body as I woke up, swung my legs to the floor and walked to the door. I was shocked and saddened to realize that my joints were full of aches and pains as well! Every since, I thank my friend George for bringing this reality to my attention, each and every morning! Somehow I had grown accustomed to them and never realized they were there. Of course now I’m afraid to find out what happens tonight when I shut off the light and try to go to sleep. Ugh!
Institutions often set calendar benchmarks for reflection and evaluation. Workers and/or programs are reviewed annually or semi-annually ostensibly to improve performance or productivity. While setting arbitrary anniversaries for such reflections may be more efficient, I wonder if they would be more effective if we measured the time for such experiences based on changes in feelings about the work or an observable indicator from regular monitoring. Such is the case, for me, to review my purpose and performance of these blog posts.
Our first post was on May 21, 2019. Now, 66 posts and some 30+ months later, I’m feeling a need to check in with myself as I recognize that what was once stimulating has become more of a responsibility. I am aware that what works at one point in time may not in another. And while some might say, “ If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” I don’t want to wait until it’s broken before I make the necessary adjustments to keep it healthy. Factor in my recent move and challenging transition to relocating and it feels like the right time to take stock of where I am with my writing, where I want to go, and how to reclaim the energy and vitality I initially had. Of course I am only one third of what makes this all work. I also owe it to my two very patient and supportive blog-mates to check in with myself.
For the last ten years or so I’ve felt a need to pass along my thoughts, feelings, and what I understand to be wisdom to my children. Sparked by a lively conversation sometime in August of 2018 with Wal and George in a bar we once frequented many years before, the idea of sharing written thoughts and opinions about chosen topics was kindled. And so we began this journey, fueled by anticipation of the unknown, a powerful reconnection with former classmates, and the excitement of creating something new from our shared experiences. As I looked back at our early notes, emails, and outlines I found some possible causes for the change in how I bring myself to my writing.
I read less than I did when we began. In the early days there was a flurry of articles shared among us as well as references to books and authors that we discussed and debated. Today I rarely contribute to this process. There are some apparent and some not so obvious reasons for this. However, this is something I can certainly do more of in the coming months.
For a while, I was journaling on an irregular basis but often enough to keep my writing and ideas and experiences fresh and connected. This all but stopped as I began the process of selling my house. Now that I have begun to establish new routines, I have the option of scheduling regular journal entries. I imagine this would not only contribute to my writing but will serve to help me adapt to my current life style.
Being outdoors and getting abundant exercise and fresh air has always been a major source of energy for me. Since my move, this has changed dramatically. Finding ways to do both on a regular basis will take far more effort than in my former setting but I know the benefit will far outweigh the effort.
I am also aware that, for me, new beginnings are easier than sustaining middle ground in any of the projects I’ve undertaken. The struggle has been how to sustain the energy, momentum, and excitement of the work over time. Going back to our beginnings has helped me rediscover my original purpose as well as to recognize the important behaviors that helped propel my work. And while I can and will recommit to some of them starting now, I wonder if there is something else that needs to shift as we close in on three years of posting our blogs. Perhaps so, but for now, I look forward to putting first, the things that helped me in the past. Then, after a short period, I’ll look back to today to see what, if any progress has been made and what I can do differently, moving forward.
Hen’s piece asks us to reflect on writing this blog after 66 posts. Have we strayed from our original goal and have we maintained the same level of enthusiasm?
I guess the answer for me is yes to both questions.
Sure, anything done repetitively can wear thin over time, but I’ve felt that this blog is an evolving enterprise. My original goal was to share advice with my grandkids in mind. After writing a few entries, it seemed to me that my advice is not so cogent – or sufficiently clear — as to spare them the same mistakes I’ve made over time. In addition, it is a slim probability that my skills as a writer will rise to a high level of sophistication. So now what?
Well, there are several aspects of this ongoing conversation which I continue to enjoy:
It is an opportunity to sharpen ideas. One of us writes on a subject and the others weigh in with some counterpoint. How else does a person grow in one’s perspective? It’s pure dialectic. Of course, it would also be constructive if readers at large commented with their views as well.
The above only works if folks with different points of view can find common ground — and the respect to actually listen – genuinely participate: that’s what friends do. We started with the premise that each of we three old guys had a distinctly different style and set of life experiences. I believe that we realized pretty quickly that we were more alike than different. In a season characterized by identity politics and differentiation, we are harmoniously diverse. I find the opportunity for relationship building is more satisfying than mining and exploiting differences.
We laugh a lot. We old guys zoom every week to explore ideas and check in on one another. It’s an easy and spontaneous conversation. We start with a plan and invariably devolve into good natured banter. God only knows where our conversation will lead at any given time.
It’s pretty clear that my goals have changed over time. I think that honing ideas will help me express something of significance to my wonderful grandkids… but I’m not in a hurry, because even as I age, my points of view also marinate. Point of view is, after all, a time-slice of opinion.
There are times when I have no clue as to what to write. Yet, words still find their way to the page, mainly guided by references to writers with greater insight and intellect. The motivation to research and synthesize information from these folks fuels my enthusiasm to connect to this blog.
So, yep – I strayed from our original goal, but remain pretty satisfied with where our conversations have taken us three old guys.
I journaled my whole life. Mostly recording places I visited or events that occurred. Early on I used calendar books just to jot down a daily reminder of what occurred. Recently I gave a collection of those books to my daughter so she could read what we were going through in the process of adopting her 50 years ago and how we fell in love with her the moment we were first introduced to her at the Ulster County Office Building, more affectionately known, in the early 70’s, as the Glass Menagerie. Health issues arose and the release papers were withdrawn and we went through an agonizing period for about 7 months when we weren’t sure if she would be released. I wanted her to know how much she was wanted!
Then I moved on to composition books. I loved the way a page looked when I was finished, always writing carefully and always using a favorite fountain pen to do the writing. I just always loved to write! So, when we three old fraternity brothers met at our 50th reunion and the idea was presented I loved it. We had a combined life experience of over 220 years’ worth of life experience. Not having any grandchildren my audience is different than Henry’s and Wally’s. I had gone through some traumatic medical procedures and wanted to share that with folks our age so they wouldn’t have to go into these situations without some encouragement and advice from someone who experienced this kind of stuff. So many scary, new experiences face seniors and it is helpful to maybe hear how someone else made it through!
We certainly each have our own writing styles. Henry and Wally write much more scholarly than I do, quoting experts in many different fields whose books they have read. I read mostly fiction, and quoting Forrest Gump or Holden Caulfield doesn’t carry the same weight as a person with half the alphabet following their names, so my pieces are based only on my own feelings and experiences.
These other 2 old guys helped me survive Covid. They gave me a purpose and the knowledge that every week I’ll get to have human contact either in person or video-ickly just to validate there are still other humans around. Our discussions range from all kinds of things and are always encouraging and thought provoking! Our process has evolved over the course of our 66 publications, and that’s a good thing! Things have to evolve because our thinking evolves and that is good also. Let us know what you think! Share with us your thoughts, disagree with us, yell at us. That’s how we develop and improve. But keep reading us!
Okay, where do you stand on the sliding scale of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” to “The Devil’s in the Details”? Lately, I’m beginning to be aware of the tiny bits that portend larger problems; the marginal items that can trip you up. High School English drummed into our heads the notion of Macbeth’s dilemma: ‘we carry the seeds of our own destruction’. Now I’m wondering what’s in my seed library?
Recently, an older friend decided to step on a cricket. Not a great strategy when you walk with a cane – actually, not a great strategy in general. However, the cricket strolled onto my friend’s living room carpet with a small ‘Squish Me’ sign stuck to its back, so my friend complied. Of course he missed – that was just never going to happen. It ‘sproinged’ and he did a prattfall – and laid there for an hour trying to get up. Small thing, big problem. Was that need to squash a cricket one of the seeds of his own destruction?
We’ve heard the sayings ‘for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost’ (James Baldwin, The Horseshoe Nails) and ‘little things mean a lot’ (eponymous song by Lindeman and Stutz). Well they are true! Mama Cass was undone by a chicken bone; Napoleon was unhorsed by a severe case of hemorrhoids at Waterloo. George got up from his chair and broke his foot – who’s next??
Recently, I crammed too much into my morning schedule and was in a rush to get to indoor tennis. Even so, I arrived early – too early to enter the facility. So, I thought, okay: I’ll quick stop at Staples and pick up some office supplies for the business. But wait – I forgot my wallet! Alright, well then I’ll change into my tennis sneaks and walk for a bit until it’s time to play. Yikes! I also forgot my sneakers! There’s not enough time to return home and back to the tennis club. Now what? If I play barefoot, I’ll aggravate the Achilles injury… and the doctor that treated that injury plays on the next court – hmmm… dilemmas, dilemmas. (The “solution” was a pair of a half-size too short sneakers in ‘lost and found’). Is hastiness going to be my downfall – or is it crunched feet?
Engineers have a term for all of this: geometric intolerance. That describes the situation where parts that are each slightly off spec, result in much larger failures when combined over multiple connections. Perhaps that’s how it ends: one off-spec cell, one ill-timed decision, one turn left, when you should have juked right. Like Colin Powell used to say, “Check small things”.
Yet the enormity of possibilities and the inability to cover them all is just too consuming. I started this piece with my needle sliding toward ‘devil/details’, but it is now swinging back to ‘not sweat/small stuff’, simply due to inadequate energy and lack of attention span. So I’ve concluded that the best course of action is to let the needle oscillate back and forth on this gauge, somewhere between complacency and craziness.
Now, that may sound weird and perhaps it is. I just don’t think the needle ought to stay in one position on that spectrum. Being simultaneously nimble and meticulous is a tough assignment. Can you actually do both? I’ve seen people who claim it’s simply a matter of balance get consistently stuck in one mode of approach. I’m interested to read what others have to say…
Balance is Askew
I like Wal’s reflective query about where we stand on paying attention to details and how we feel about allowing small things to happen without giving them the diligence they often solicit from us. And while I can see how this can be interpreted as opposing sides of a continuum, I lean more toward seeing them as not so much. Perhaps this comes from how we define “small stuff.” As I think about the issues many of us stress over and talk about daily, by week’s end they are replaced by totally different concerns and challenges. If they can be replaced so quickly, weren’t they “small stuff” to begin with? As we create a passionate story around it to tell our friends and family we deceive ourselves into believing it is significant and until the next bump we encounter it remains in our minds, “big stuff.” until the next bump comes along. However, if I notice that something that signals a potential danger to my health or home (George’s oil burner maintenance for example) I can pay attention to the details of addressing it. To me, this isn’t necessarily small stuff. And, even if it were, I can still take steps to correct it without perseverating and worrying (sweating) about it. What I’m trying to say is, it is possible to not sweat the small stuff and still pay attention to the details of potentially important stuff to prevent them from becoming big stuff.
At the end of his piece, Wal talks about those seeking the balance of being nimble and meticulous as often getting stuck in one mode of approach. I agree. Unlike a level see saw where both sides are of equal weight or one has scooted up or back on the seat to create static equilibrium, I see balance as a range of behaviors that is sometimes a +1 over the midpoint and sometimes a +3. Similarly, the opposing side also fluctuates between a -1 and a -3 to counterbalance. Our lives are complicated enough without us trying to remain in a perfect stasis of “middledom.” To put it another way, imagine the more rigid definition of balance as someone holding out both arms such that they are completely level and in line with each other. Now picture someone holding one arm slightly higher (+1 to +3) and the other arm slightly lower (-1 to -3). Is not this relative balance easier to sustain or aspire to? And isn’t it that we often find ourselves a bit more up or down but still being in balance enough to be productive and even happy? I have accepted this state of being as a guide to living out my days with less stress and more comfort.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
My life has followed Wally’s essential proverbs with one minor exception. Definitely, I prescribe to the “don’t sweat the small stuff,” however, instead of the devil quote, I prefer, “Keep it Simple Stupid.” My dad always said to not sweat the small stuff and lived by it. Unfortunately, he took it literally and ignored the small stuff ‘til it became large. Why service the oil burner? It is working fine……until it isn’t!
Small stuff are the seedlings of BIG stuff! And if addressed as small stuff often the stuff disappears. But that would be too simple! The half full glass people might ignore small annoyances because always anticipating the good in each situation it could deceive and lead to bigger problems…. Just sayin’. Whereas the half empty glass folks, expecting the worst, might conceivably take care of things sooner! Apparently, I fit in the ‘where the hell is the glass?’ people.
My entire life was spent looking for problems, expecting them, and usually finding them, but instead of getting right on it, I procrastinated and ignored to the best of my ability. If you accidentally push it aside it doesn’t exist. Guess I learned that from Dad, too. The difference being that eventually he would deal with the issue with grace and precision as opposed the hysteria it produced in me.
This applied to all realms of my life. Mechanical things being the worst yet emotional and relationship issues a strong second. My emotional knee jerk reactions can be excused by the Italian influence of my DNA, which I tend to take exceptional pride in! However, with age. All processes tend to slow down, not by choice but due to days on earth and wear and tear on parts. Fortunately for me, it appears to make me look reflective, thoughtful and perhaps even mature. I like that. As for the Keep it Simple part, I aspire to that but have yet to obtain the required tools to utilize the concept.
All in all, these neurotic tendencies I exhibit have not interfered in a surprisingly successful life, two outstanding careers, many exciting experiences and wonderful memories. Sure, maybe the adoption of these beliefs would have amplified the positive results. Woulda, coulda, shoulda! Maybe someday I’ll catch on.
Fairy tales can come true It can happen to you… If you’re young at heart…. For as rich as you are it’s much better by far…..To be young at heart! And if you should survive to a hundred and five… Think of all you derive out of being alive… And here is the best part, you have a head start .. if you are among the very young at heart!!!!* To which I say……Balderdash! Everybody says you should be young at heart! Why? What does it even mean? If you are under 50 it is fine to be young at heart. But after the half-century mark and beyond, being young at heart doesn’t serve us as well. When I was young at heart I had no patience, no empathy, was always in a rush, Life was relatively easy with few heavy life situations. Decisions were easy because we didn’t think much about them and we were resilient. Resiliency allowed us the ability to compensate for a hasty decision. Coronary youthfulness served us all well. But beyond that, we started dealing with situations that require much more than youth can save. The body starts to respond to the length of time on Earth and so should the heart. Physical resilience slowly dissipates. Patience is necessary to deal with the new adventures and tribulations we are faced with. My young heart was impulsive, impetuous, and spontaneous. Sure it was attractive back then. But today, in the 70 plus-year-old body spontaneity doesn’t always serve us well. Impulsivity can actually get a senior in trouble.
At a time in our lives when our world is tending to shrink, rushing in to resolve an issue may be fool hearty! Downsizing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Humans tend to clutter their lives with needless stuff – all kinds of things and then we need to get bigger things to hold all our things. My kids look at my stuff and shake their heads while they collect their own stuff. This causes us to look at our lives and contemplate how to sort and decide the best method of downsizing. The young at heart would rent a dumpster, throw everything in and there, all done, only to miss things later, things perhaps even needed. And it isn’t just about objects. Our lives are being reduced by loss of family and friends and we are even selectively separating from people who never treated us well but we never took the time to evaluate those relationships.
The mature at heart (euphemism for old at heart) contemplates, considers, and fusses over decisions. And, why not? The body is sending signals, important decisions have to be made, friends and family are facing these same situations and experiences. Our world is shrinking, sadness and heaviness enters our lives far more often than we want, causing additional decisions to be made based on careful consideration and consequences, something the young at heart rarely do! So, the mature at heart face a quandary. A balance must be reached between how we spend the rest of our lives. Each one of us is different, reacts differently, grieves differently but we share the fact that time continues to pass and experiences change in consequence and nature. We must learn to adjust, acknowledge, think through and then respond. My youthful heart would respond first, regret or rejoice afterwards depending on how things turned out. I get no joy anymore out of regret and try to act accordingly! I practice and rejoice in being mature at heart for perhaps, practice does make perfect! Or, as near to perfect as an old curmudgeon can get!
*(Songwriter – Ron Heindorf)
Old Age is Not for the Young
Ursula K. LeQuin chimed in with a similar sentiment in her essay Old Age Is Not for Sissies. She wrote this piece when she was 80 and railed against platitudes like ‘you are old as you think you are’ and being ‘young at heart’. She called them placebos.
However, she saved the worst of her ire for a popular poster which showed two buff 70-somethings with the caption ‘Old Age is not for Sissies’. Her point was that old age is for anyone lucky enough to survive to that point, including sissies. Being buff is no defense against the vagaries of physical decline. As a confirmed ‘sissy’, she believes that kidding yourself about the reality of growing old is dangerous. Ursula would change that poster to show several seniors in meaningful conversation with the caption “Old Age Is Not for the Young”.
While I respect George’s (and Ursula’s) point of view, I see it differently. I do agree that with experience, a person is more likely to weigh the consequences of one’s actions – to consider the effects of a decision and determine the means to carry out a plan. That certainly speaks to being less impulsive. On the other hand, have you noticed the decreasing social control demonstrated by many oldsters? Demanding attention, interrupting, or needing to tell their story NOW, whether or not the time is appropriate. On balance, I think consideration and prudence are learned and not simply inherited with old age.
In addition, being ‘young at heart’ for me means approaching life with a sense of wonder. In order to do that, we have to cultivate a supple and malleable mindset, even as our sinews shrink and our joints hurt. I picture the Dali Lama when seeing the phrase ‘being young at heart’. It’s the gift of juxtaposition and humor that lets us keep a light touch on the serious business of growing old.
While I was certainly not feeling young at heart when I wrote my last post, I am feeling much better physically and emotionally. The time spent in recent weeks has been filled with family and loving friends and has allowed me to return to a more balanced and positive place.
My colleagues present interesting takes on the way we look at being young at heart. If it means thinking and acting like young people it can, like most things, be a beneficial asset or a dooming liability. One of the outcomes of my aging has been an increased awareness seeing not only both sides of a statement or argument but blended interpretations as well. My thoughts on George’s topic are many but most lean toward the joy of being eternally child-like.
Wal talks about the wonder of things. The child who sees, understands, and/or feels something new for the first time energizes me. I love their physical reactions and their request for more. It propels me to move beyond the knowledge I’ve acquired with age to the quest for something new that will surprise me or cause me to want to learn more.
I like playful people, regardless of age. Playing games, sports, or hide and seek keeps me laughing, competitive, and active. And while we attribute these activities to youth, I find I can adapt them to my diminished abilities and still enjoy their benefits. Most of the time, I can count on my wiser self to choose cautiously before leaping into a match with my athletic grandchildren. However, this is not always the case. This morning I climbed a tree and realized it was easier going up than finding my way down! (The nickname of Peter Pan has lasted from my college years and still rings true as I just hit the three-quarter century mark.)
I agree that we need to curb our impulsivity to make measured and cautious decisions, and to call upon our years of experience to keep us safe and secure. I also don’t want to save the special candles for another day only to have my children find them boxed and unused or to keep saving my money out of habit when I could have used it to enjoy a special experience with family or friends. It’s all about balance, my mother used to say.
I realize I’m growing older and closer to the day when the management of my mental and physical abilities will be relegated to others. But while I have the ability to choose how to think about my current status, I choose to blend my maturity and wisdom with child-like behaviors and thoughts and to keep an attitude of playfulness for as long as I can.
I spend very little time with things that trigger pain, upset, anger, or loss. I often measure it against how much better off I am than most of the people in the world and I move on. Friends and family will confirm my discomfort with negative talk, self-pity, and complaints about things that are, in my mind, relatively insignificant in the scheme of what’s really important in life. As I enter the winter season of my life, this has become even more emblematic of my social interactions. And, for the most part, this has worked for me. I am surrounded with mostly happy, up beat, positive friends and I spend most of my waking days feeling grateful and happy.
However, I am slowly learning that while this is who I am and how I wish to be, there are trade-offs to my pattern. There are subtle side-affects that can impact me in not so subtle ways. I have often been told by those close to me that in my eagerness to be happy and positive, I rush through significant life events in a rather controlling and biased process and without the time necessary to actually feel, adequately address, and meaningfully absorb the experience. As a result, there are likely unfinished, incomplete, and festering emotions lying just below my consciousness and doing its thing without my awareness. While I understood this was something that could be accurately applied to others and possibly to me I was convinced my positivity was so strong and helpful that I was least likely to be included in this logic…that is, until now.
Moving is big change. Depending on which source you use for the top 3 to 5 stressors in life, moving comes up more often than not. Tether that to an injury or illness and your body is subject to all of the ill effects caused by stress.
So it was for me as I finally sold my home, moved to one place for a few days, then my daughter’s home for 5 weeks, then to an apartment with only my bed for two weeks before receiving the rest of my furniture. In the interim, a simple tooth extraction turned into severe complications that required two weeks of multiple antibiotics that cured/prevented infection but messed with the rest of my body. Of course, I argued, it’s all just temporary and temporary doesn’t need to affect how I feel.
Well, I have felt like shit for the last few weeks and it ain’t over yet! And while I know, the physical pain and discomfort from my dental surgery is a factor, and the lasting side-affects of the antibiotics have been significant, I believe the loss of my connection to my home and the land and friends I so loved has been the largest contributor.
As usual, when I made up my mind to sell and move, I convinced myself that it was all for the better and being closer to family was more than enough to bring me the joy and happiness I was leaving behind. With nary a thought or look over the shoulder I focused on the tasks at hand, pushed through the cleaning out of much of what I had accumulated over the years at Brookside, and jumped full throttle into the unknown. When friends would ask how I felt about leaving, I smiled and assured them I had enjoyed my home for 21 years and that the hiking trails, the peace and quiet of the front porch, and the unending beauty of the landscape had provided all that I needed during good times and bad and that it was time to move on. And while all of that was true, I didn’t stop to really ask myself how I felt. I didn’t allow myself to spend time or words alone or with friends, acknowledging the depth of the connection I had with this place I called home. I didn’t make the time to mourn the loss that I’m convinced I now feel.
Today I sit looking out of my newly built apartment 4 hours from Brookside. Duke and I are on the top floor of a three-story complex across the street from a self-storage company and around the corner from a 24-hour, 7 day a week, trucking company. Noise abounds and is in harsh contrast to the consistent peace and quiet of my former home. Save for the migrating geese, there is no familiar wildlife to see, and my morning cup of coffee on the porch with Duke curled up next to me on my wicker couch is now on my 100 square foot balcony overlooking commercial buildings, road ways, and apartments. I now live among large numbers of people and their pets and though they remind me of the friends I’ve left behind my new neighbors seem too busy to pause and connect. And while I am basically healthy, have ample resources, have more amenities than I had before, and am thrilled to be close to my children, I need to make the time to recognize that this comes at a cost. I need to spend more time than I am comfortable with to honor my loss.
I look daily for my future home and know that, in time, I will find the right house and property and friends. And, in time, it will fill my needs in ways that Brookside couldn’t. But it will never be Brookside. Yes, Brookside was unique because of its water features, rolling hills, and diverse ecosystems, but it was made all the more special because of the friends who brought their energy and love with each visit. And I know now, that is a loss that can’t be replaced.
For some reason, “Paradise Lost” was the first association I had when reading Hen’s piece about leaving his former home. If you have visited Hen’s Brookside, you’d agree that it has been a perfect match of a person and a place. Hen and Duke were in daily communion the land and its trails. He knew this plat like Aldo Leopold (Sand County Almanac) and Wendell Berry (The Way of Ignorance) knew their territories. Leaving Brookside is a bit like the process of disconnecting we wrote about in the last blog piece.
Mix in dental pain and a distinctly new and changing living regime and it seems like the triple witching hour. So let’s hope it abates after Halloween!
It seems to me that Hen’s discomfort contains a little bit of mourning for the loss of a comfortable symbiosis of hearth and home. Mourning needs to be recognized and honored. Consider it an injury that needs as much healing as the dental issues and reaction to medication. Mourning a loss is a prerequisite for dealing with change. In fact, Hen reported that he might have titled his piece ‘On Loss’ as easily as “On Change’.
We each have a bit of paradise lost in our lives. For George, it may have been the Woodstock Inn. I don’t really miss any of my previous abodes, but after living in one place for almost 50 years, I certainly would dread the project of moving! If there were one place whose loss I would mourn, it would be the loss of our camp in the Adirondacks, which has been so restorative.
In any event, given Hen’s positive approach to life, there’s no doubt that he will reconcile the part of change that is loss and embrace the part of change that is opportunity. As Ecclesiastes says: there is a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to uproot and a time to plant. Here’s to happy planting!
Lost and Found
I read somewhere that the average person lives in 12 homes in a lifetime. Not counting my dorm at college and a half year in an apartment after I retired, I am on home number 8. Each one of those homes left a distinct impression on me with fond memories. As a kid it provided cherished crevices to hide in and surprise my brother from an attack with a pillow or something less cushioned. The main house I grew up in in NYC had this great radiator in the kitchen for the maid to keep food warm before serving it through the pantry to the dining room table. It was a regular hot water radiator but instead of vertical ribs that heated it had 4 horizontal shelves stacked upon each other to keep trays of food warm. We obviously didn’t have maid service but I used to climb to the top shelf while my dad cooked. My head could touch the tin ceiling and I could be toasty warm in my jammies! But leaving that house wasn’t traumatic cause I was heading off to college the year they sold to developers who tore down block after block of old Victorian homes and built attached two families up and down the streets.
Flash forward, married – into first house as an adult. Lived there two years and then moved into the big city of Kingston, NY. We bought a beautiful old Sears Roebuck kit house with chestnut woodwork. There for 13 years. Started our family there and had great memories. When we moved from there to Woodstock, NY I felt no separation anxiety. However for a period of 4 months we did own two houses which was pretty scary. The anxiety would come later as I aged, and the spirit of adventure ebbed slightly. Another 18 years in Woodstock, NY and with retirement facing me I decided to buy a Bed and Breakfast in Vermont. Was I nuts? Probably, but that is the home I lived in for 13 years and today after having sold it 6 years ago still pulls my heart strings and has a hold over me that at times still aches. The 1830 Farmhouse held all kinds of secrets, especially a mischievous old ghostly presence of a previous owner. The farm had been in his family for 155 years and he just wasn’t ready to leave it. Oddly after only 13 years I wasn’t either! That house came alive like no other I ever owned. Being an innkeeper is a lifestyle not a job. It is hard work and constant but soooo rewarding. We got into a good routine, worked out the division of labor- my partner did the cooking and bookkeeping and I served breakfast and cleaned the rooms. We both shared the schmoozing part willingly and lovingly. The inn was constantly breathing, new guests arriving, others departing, greeting them at the front door after they returned from dinner, telling stories at breakfast, laughing, sharing a bottle of wine by the fireside at night, laughing, meeting people from all over our country and from all over the over the world. Did I mention laughing? And finding how alike people are from wherever they came! The excitement was addictive and palpable. And we were good at all of it!
Like Henry felt in the outdoors, I felt it at the inn among the guests and making them comfortable and relaxed. I liked arranging details for visitors’ stays with us. And we were part of the lodging community which at that time in Woodstock, Vermont was a special group of innkeepers from about 15 inns. That abruptly changed with the inception of Air BnB. Our business began to drop, tensions increased and the relationship came to an end. Running an inn by yourself for a couple seasons became a chore and after a stressful 2 years on the market it sold! Talk about stress! I returned to where my kids lived just like a Henry did. I found a great little house that I love but I miss the inn. I miss the sound of laughter as guests became acquainted. I missed the stories at breakfast, the laughter, the constant breathing of the inn. I even missed talking to my ghostly friend who helped me clean rooms each morning. And then in a year or two Covid struck and just added a layer of silence and loneliness. I tried to fill if with activity- my dog was a savior, but it amplified just how much I missed being a productive person with a purpose. I am still struggling with that. After all I worked for almost 50 years straight and then abruptly it was over! Time to redefine myself. And Henry will do the same in his new home. He has the advantage over me because his glass is always half full and mine…….well at least I still have the glass! Did I mention how much I miss the laughter?
“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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.