Bartender, Can I Have a Refill?

For the last two Covid years the isolation has caused me to do a lot of reflecting.  Most of it while waxing nostalgic.  I spent way too much time wishing things were back the way they “used to be!” If I were being honest the “used to be” wasn’t always that great but being deprived by a pandemic can make everything that came before it look rosier than it actually was.  Lately, I guess I have had enough of looking backward.  There’s nothing to be gained from it. Now I have to look forward to get out of this funk I have been in.   It isn’t as if I haven’t had to look toward a new future in the past.  I retired from teaching on a Thursday and on Friday my new life began owning and operating a bed and breakfast in Vermont. The difference being that I knew one phase of my life was coming to an end and had time to prepare for the next one, fully recognizing and acknowledging the accomplishments of the past and looking forward to a carefully planned out new experience.  Covid gave us no warning, neither to its arrival nor the end of our previous existence.  My half empty glass kicked in big time!  

Enough!  The last couple of weeks I have been trying to shake the negativity.  Every time I mourned the loss of my previous life I tried to look ahead. I needed to find things to look forward to. Which brought another dilemma in that I had to come up with ideas that brought me some joy. And honestly that was difficult. One crazy thing that stood out was that ever since I was a kid I have been collecting model railroad equipment.  At different points in my life I had layouts in my basement and with every move the boxes and boxes were moved as well.  I have decided that as soon as the weather permits I am going to build a layout in my oversized garage, which will not only necessitate cleaning it out but will have the added benefit of allowing me to park the car in one half and construct the layout in the other half.  Great.…That brought a smile to my face. But what else?   Part of the problem is trying to envision what the new normal will look like.  And then, will any of the things I loved about the past be part of this new era?  Will the skills that I had before and succeeded with be useful in a revised world?  

Probably the most significant thing missing for me today is the social interactions I used to have regularly with friends, former students and colleagues and the fear is that for two years we went into our shells, locked the doors and shuttered the windows.  It has become habit.  I hope there are a lot of other turtles out there who want to come out of their shells again and socialize but we are creatures of habit and I pray that habit hasn’t been broken for good!  I am learning slowly that the unknown can turn out for the better just as easily as it can go sour.  Not sure I fully believe that yet but Henry and Wally say it does!  At this point in my life, what used to protect me from disappointment as a young person doesn’t serve me well anymore, but the local community college doesn’t have a free course for senior citizens to teach them about positivity so I guess I have to try the hit and miss method.  I am slowly trying to fill that glass!  Where’s the bartender?

All Aboard!

Here you go, George – let me top off your half full glass! Your thoughts gave me a lift… it is good to see you expressing forward movement that will bring some satisfaction. People are tired of living under the shroud of COVID. It’s as though we have been living defensively for two years – well there’s no ‘as though’ about it, it’s been bunker-mentality. Time to move on.

I used to work for a psychotherapist who suggested that one treatment modality for a certain type of depression was for the therapist to act depressed. After a while, the client may try to find something positive to talk about and each instance would then be encouraged. I’m not so sure about this approach with really distressed individuals, but there is some truth in the thought that most folks can only stand to be ‘down’ for just so long. Sounds like you’ve reached that point, George!

The immediate future will certainly be different, but we are made to change and adapt. Handle future issues in the future and don’t let your worries cramp your creativity. I’ve got more HO-scale kits that I will happily donate to your effort! It makes me smile to think of you building the layout with plenty of room to be inventive. Let me know if you would like some company in building the structure that will hold the train set.

As Hen points out, anticipating the project is as much fun as doing it. It is nice to have something to move toward, whether it’s model railroading, planning a garden – or woodturning (my favorite)! I’m looking forward to exploring texture and surface embellishment in my next woodturning projects. In order to  prepare, I’m squeezing in You Tube videos to learn more about approaches that work with wood: knurling tools, chatter, sandblasting and pyrography. One excellent byproduct of the pandemic has been the proliferation of live remote demo’s by expert woodturners!  Here’s to the momentum of the human spirit!  Wonder what other projects folks are looking forward to doing? 

Glancing Back But Moving Forward

I like George’s approach to move forward, commit to a project for which you have a passion and loosen up with a libation or two.  He also reminds me that if we hold the right frame of mind, the unknown can turn out better just as easily as it can sour.  Good advice in the time of COVID.

Looking forward to something you want or like or care about can lift our sense of happiness or contentment as if we were actually there or more!  According to a 2010 psychological study about the connection between anticipation and happiness that was published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, “ just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it.”  

George also talks about being fed up with looking back.  He realizes that in these almost two years of altered (normal) reality we likely remember the past more positively that it actually was and that pining for what we had (or think we had) isn’t doing us any favors.  I think he’s onto something!  In a related study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2007, it was found that people are happier during the planning stages of a vacation than they were after taking one. In other words, we just might delight in looking forward to trips more than reminiscing about them.  It also goes on to say that if we actively plan our trips or projects over time, we more readily smooth over the unforeseen bumps we will encounter that if we didn’t prepare and will have a more positive experience.

Of course the trick is to not only recognize what George has brought to our attention but to act on it.  I hesitate to look at the happiness studies of people who planned to do things and then never did. L  I recently read that it’s easy to think (believe), harder to act, and hardest to act on what you think (believe).  

For me, I’d love to saddle up to the bar at a local pub with close friends and continue this conversation over a couple of drinks.  Of course, I’ll have to wait until COVID takes a back seat.  In the meantime, there’s always my laptop, MS Word, and tomorrow morning’s Zoom call with Wal and George.

Do You Have Everything You Need…for Now?

Recently I was at a rather busy outdoor restaurant with friends waiting to place our order.  The waiter came over to our table, poured some water, and asked if we wanted any drinks.  When he returned with our beverages he took our food order and asked if there was anything else we needed for now.  Likewise, when he returned with our meals, he asked, if there was anything we needed for now.  And, throughout the meal, dessert, and check deliveries, he always ended with, “Is there anything else you need for now?”

Several days later, unrelated to the meal or our waiter, I watched the Netflix movie, “Don’t Look Up.”  In it there is a scene where family and friends are sitting at the dinner table together and one remarks, “We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”

Both of these experiences got me to thinking about the quest for more of or a better something to make me happy or content.  And the more I thought about it, the more I recognize that, for now, for this very moment, I have what I need to do what I’m doing, to be content, and to just be.  And perhaps, if I can agree that in just about every moment, when I ask myself if there is anything else I need and I can answer, no, or not really, then in each of those moments, I can be a little more focused, a little more content, and a little more in the moment.  Many years ago, a friend gave me a rather far out book to read that espoused that life would be so much easier and less stressful if I could simply change my expectations to preferences.  So, yes, I still would like to get new things and improve my living conditions and relationships when I can but if I no longer feel I need to and if I can recognize that, for the moment, I already have what I need, perhaps, just perhaps, life will be even more fulfilling.

When I moved to Delaware in August, I stayed with my daughter and her family for about 5 weeks.  During that time, I had only the clothes that could fit in my suitcase and nothing more.  As the weeks passed I realized that I didn’t miss any of my “stuff” that surrounded me for the 21 years I lived in my former home.  I had all I needed.

It is said that change cannot occur without first having awareness.  These recent episodes in my life remind me that I don’t need very much at all.  This doesn’t mean that I will remain in my small apartment or that I won’t continue to seek new adventures and friends.  Perhaps the change that will occur is knowing that I don’t need any of those things…for now.

Bask

Hen chose a great topic and described it well: recognizing contentment ‘for now’. It’s those last two words that make the difference.

My kneejerk response to Hen’s piece, was ‘maybe we were not here to be content’. A darker part of myself actually was saying ‘Are you kidding? We’re clearly not here to be content – what’s this “maybe” stuff?’ We’re here to try hard, miss the mark, scramble to recover, and hopefully survive to move on. Contentment is code for ‘sitting duck’.

Contentment — but, what’s in a word? Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion cold talk, you wouldn’t understand what it said. He felt that words make the reality we experience – simply put: you might understand the logic of the sentence, but not appreciate the individual meaning assigned to the lion’s words.

Okay, in my lexicography, ‘contentment’ is different from serenity. Serenity is a feeling you have while in the flow of doing a task; contentment is the feeling you have when the task is finished. Contentment is the temporary rest stop while enroute to a summit. If you stay there too long, you won’t finish the climb. That’s why the leavening words: “for now”, make all the difference. It recognizes the deep breath you take before setting off again. It is the opportunity to take stock of where you are and say “how beautiful”, knowing you’ll soon be in motion. Walt Whitman has a pertinent poem Song at Sunset, which in part says:

Good in All,

In the satisfaction and aplomb of animals,

In the annual return of the seasons,

In the hilarity of youth,

In the strength and flush of manhood,

In the grandeur and exquisiteness of old age,

In the superb vistas of Death.

Wonderful to depart;

Wonderful to be here!

I used to work with a mechanical engineer whose favorite line was “Bask!” It was a reminder to take a moment to appreciate the progress a team had made on a project. It was always a good reset before resuming the journey – he was a wise person. So Hen, I agree: Bask – for now!

Two Little Words

Two little words, six little letters…..FOR NOW!  This diminutive statement carries the weight of the world on those two- 3 letter words’ shoulders! How is that possible?  I have been ruminating on this idea since Henry brought it up.   What is implied?  For Now implies change, usually forward change since the the last Now is gone. For Now questions it’s own life span- when is this Now over and the next Now begins?  If NOW is static like with a pandemic or something NOW could last a very long time.  How do we know when this NOW is over and the next NOW is arriving?  The optimist looks forward to the next NOW assuming improvement or betterment. The pessimist fears the next NOW cause history has told him things can get much worse.  Not to mention all the factors involved in creating NOW.  Factors such as current events, weather factors, one’s own humanity and outlook. Do all those things change at the end of one NOW into the next?  And how many of those factors have to change to label the quality of the next NOW?

Now throw in the concept of “contentment.”  Contentment is one of those emotions that fits somewhere on the Ladder of Happiness.  I suspect it is a high rung of that ladder right below joy and peace.  Lower rungs include comfort, amusement, ease, pleasure, higher up come satisfaction, with happiness and possibly euphoria just below the ultimate rung of peace and serenity-the absolute top! 

We all strive for those top rungs. Some of the rungs are phantomlike.  A feeling lasting only short moments in NOW. They are like the bouquets of flowers in a beautiful garden on a beautiful day.  They boost the spirit and make the Now special but rarely last long.  Happiness is one of those feelings.  We experience moments of true happiness and it enriches us beyond belief but seldom lasts for great lengths of time like peace and serenity do.  And euphoria is just a short sharp blast of bliss too soon gone to even remember how it felt….. but peace and serenity …… they last from this Now to the next and help us get through the subsequent Nows that lay ahead.

My final point right now is that For Now I am truly struggling.  Struggling with the loneliness, the worry for friends’ and family’s health and the fear of normal never returning.  Throw in a little anger for those who have decided their right to do what they want with their bodies supersedes our expectations for this pandemic to end.  So for now, my For Now is strangling me.  Sure glad the waiter didn’t ask me!  

Begin as You End

Irresolution

I am done with the convolutions

I know I’m too old for the revolutions

I am still seeking some solutions

And know I still need absolutions.

I am personally done with evolutions

I have no need for retributions

I’ve lost faith in most institutions

Yet, I continue to make contributions

So, from this simple elocution

I am declaring a conclusion

To each and every illusion

Of my keeping any resolution.

-Tom O’Brien

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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!)
  6. 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?

Moving Forward

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Eating healthy foods that I enjoy (even those that take time to prepare) will be more on my mind and on my shopping list.
  3. Giving to others with a full heart and often will be a practice I will increase.
  4. 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. 

Forward!

The Late Late Show

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!

Night Terrors

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!

Reflection

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. 

Blogolution

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Journalicious

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!

The Tyranny of Small Things

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.

Heart to Heart

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. 

Peter Pan

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.

On Change

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.

Paradise Lost

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? 

Decathexis

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

I took a week off and lost a friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disconnecting – Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winter of Our Lives

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

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

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

Do You Hear What I Hear?

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

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

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

Bird Note

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

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

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

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

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

Sound and Smells of Yesteryear

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

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

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