Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On Turning Sixty-seven.

One of the things about becoming older is that it occurs to you that you'll be dying sooner. You think about it less when you turn, say, 35 instead of 55, but still. The thought whispers in your mind, the volume increasing the older you get.

When you turn sixteen, you're pretty glad, because now you can get a driver's license. When you turn 18, you're kind of happy, because now you can vote (even though you won't, because you think there's nobody to vote for--but at least it's your option, and not the law's). When you turn 21, you can now drink legally, which turns out not to be that big of a deal.

When you turn 30, it's kind of cool, because you think that now, you really are an adult and everyone will start taking you seriously. When your parents say something you just did was great, you'll at least suspect they aren't just saying it because you're their kid and everything you do is cool. You start thinking of older people in authority as possible contemporaries and not grownups.

C'est moi? Non!
Hit forty, and you'll think to yourself, "I'm not either having a mid-life crisis" as you hit the gym and buy cooler-looking jeans. Sashay into your fifties, and you know what? It's good. It's all good. In my experience, people are happiest in their fifties, especially women. The only part that sucks  is receiving AARP flyers in the mail, which you throw away in disgust.

At each stage, though, you know that you're older than you were, and the higher you climb, the more you think about the Grim Reaper lurking somewhere just out of view. Maybe it's the "u-h-h" as you get up off the floor, preceded by your not wanting to have contorted yourself onto the floor in the first place. Maybe it's that extra split-second it takes to pull up a word like "vicarious." Maybe it's noticing that you don't hear the turn signaler you left on. Maybe it's leaving the AARP flyers out for another look.

Whatever. The pissoff comes not just from society at large, which demonizes old age through passive dismissiveness, but from your peers. Expressions such as " he's 60 years young" or "you're only as old as you think" make me puke. So do men who dye their hair without realizing that orange actually isn't the new black, or the Joan Rivers-type women prancing around who remind you of a Madame Tussaud (as in wax museum) failure.

We Baby Boomers have been taught that old age is a medical condition that can be treated with medical science. If that's the case, the Affordable Care Act didn't work. Thanks, Obama.

But face the prospect of your seventh decade, and it all takes on a new urgency. Truckin' through life has always been a balance between possibilities on the one hand, and lasts on the other. The possibilities include, say, visiting that elf-like village off a fiord in Iceland or surfing in Malta. The lasts are, pretty much, "that's the last time I'm gonna do that," the "that" being, say, laughing at jokes that aren't funny, going out on New Years Eve, volunteering to do the cleanup for the office holiday party, or ordering a Moscow Mule and pretending to like it.
Is that you god? It's me, Margaret

For some time now, I've been contemplating the lasts. My dog, for example, is ten and has survived cancer. The average life span for her breed is 10-12 years. Will she be my last dog? If she buys the farm and I get another spaniel, will the new dog be my last? Or, a car. One of ours is pushing 16 and the other is almost eight. In our Rocky Mountain world, they both kind of cough their way up the grade, with my sincerest empathy. Will the replacement car be the last car we ever buy, and what will it feel like when sign and date the papers, knowing it's the last time we do that?

I look about our house, built in the 1970s. Two stories, pretty much a pleasant, soothing house despite its rusting sewer line and leaky windows. Assuming the best of circumstances, we won't be able to keep up with it in five, ten, fifteen years or whatever. Then what? Is this our last house, or will the one we move into after this one be our last?

You read articles, such as this one on dying at 75, and it's not so much an ethical debate as it is an interesting proposition. When you're 57, say, 75 is still a relatively long way off, as in, deniable to a degree. It's not when you're 67.

Let me interject, here, that I'm not whining. Actually, I find the whole caper of contemplating lasts rather interesting. I had a friend, a paleontologist, who discovered an anomaly in the half life of a particle in a grain of sand with an electron microscope. He was 86. "A puzzle!" he exclaimed with unbridled excitement. That's kind of how it works. Nothing validates life as much as a puzzle, and while it can lead to glowering moods, it's no more depressing than many other situations and is actually fun at times. Death, be not proud, no?

No, the depressing part is going to the gym and passing a room full of  old people ("seniors" is likewise irritating in its veiled denial of decrepitude) listlessly raising an arm or foot in time to the "Beer Barrel Polka," and swearing that will never be me. The depressing part is watching performers of my favorite music groups creaking across the stage and warbling off-key through public television fundraisers. The depressing part is people calling me "Mister" when they're not creditors. The depressing part is a  grocery store clerk asking for my I.D. before giving me my senior discount. The really depressing part is being eligible for a senior discount in the first place.

So it goes.

The truly interesting part, though, is where are we--i.e., moi--going with this? You reach a time in your life when you want your existence to have counted for something, so issues eschatological take on a new urgency. "You need something for them to put in your obituary," my father used to say. True, that, except obits in 2015 seem to be more infomercial than news item. I can still join the Peace Corps or freelance for Charlie Hebdo, I suppose. The Denver nonprofits to whom I've offered volunteer work have filed my contact info just in case, and excuse me if I've heard that before. But that's their problem more than it is mine, and if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't believe.

I imagine I'll slash and burn my way through the next year, even the next decade, much as I've always done--ineffectually at times, capably at others. If you didn't truly believe that, how could you go on? I refuse to do Paleo, Crossfit, or vegan Metamucil, but I imagine I'll do acceptably well, since science supports the relative value of good bourbon over bean sprouts. You can look it up.

And, truth be told, there's something to be said for planning your life with an obituary. The possibilities are almost endless.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Gratitude for Veterans: It's Not What You Think

Combat veteran Chuck Fulkerson, my friend and brother-in-law, told me one time that I would never be able to appreciate the gratitude you feel when someone you don't know gives you a pair of dry socks.

An army Ranger, Chuck served two long tours in the Vietnam War, earning numerous decorations including two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars, and the Vietnam Cross for Gallantry.  I did not serve in the military--in fact, I protested the war in Vietnam--and while neither of us passed moral judgment on what the other did in those years, it took us many years to be able to not just talk about military service, but what it meant.

He corrected me, once, on what it meant to serve. We'd been discussing the difference in service and decorations between, say, the American force who invaded Grenada in 1983 versus those who came under fire in Desert Storm in 1995. To me, there was a substantive difference. There wasn't to him. "It's not so much about dying for freedom or for your country," he said. "It's about putting your life in mortal danger in service to your country." The dying part, he said, was more about the person standing next to you when the shit hits the fan.

And that's when he told me about the gratitude one feels for a pair of dry socks, clearly referring to his wartime experience in Vietnam.

Most of us are grateful for something. We're grateful for friends and family, for what we have, for loving and being loved. We're grateful for the things that have accrued to us and give us joy. But the gratitude Chuck was talking about was something different. He was talking about the kind of gratitude that only can come from an unsolicited gift.

When the poet or songwriter or artist receives an inspiration for a good work, she or he first thinks about getting the work out there for everyone else. The poet's epiphany, the artist's sudden insight, is a gift from someplace, and the compulsion is to do something with it to make it expansive and available to all.

A second career with the National Guard followed active duty service, and Chuck went on to found the Veteran's Guest House in Reno, Nevada, to serve the spouses of veterans receiving treatment at the Veterans' Hospital, now serving a third generation of ex-soldiers. He went on to serve in the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, where he was instrumental in building the Nevada State Veterans' Home in Southern Nevada, which will soon begin serving a second generation.

Chuck died October 25 of this year.

But if he were still around, this is what he'd say: When it's time for the final count, it's not what you have that matters most, it's what you are. While you might be grateful for what you have, what others are grateful for when you're no longer around is what counts.

We read news stories of Malala Yousafzai giving her Nobel prize money to Pakistani schools, or poet Amy Clampit using her MacArthur Genius grant to fund residencies for young poets after her death, and we are not just humbled, but grateful. Gratitude that grows from a gift builds not just nations, but generations.

We'll never stop appreciating the transcendent value of gratitude, even when--especially when--it arises from a soldier's gratitude over the gift of a dry pair of socks from a stranger. Thank you, Chuck. For veterans everywhere, you told us what it's all about.

Col. Charles W. "Chuck" Fulkerson, 1935-2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Death, Be Not Loud (Pt. One)

What got me to thinking about this was the notion of writing my final Facebook post (and Google+ and LinkedIn--those folks purportedly give a damn about me too, or so the Terms and Conditions imply). The only hard part would be not being able to read how many "likes" the post received, or, for that matter, what the "likes" meant. Did they like the post, or did they like it that I was dead?

At the very beginning of a J-School 101 class years ago, I learned the most-read parts of a newspaper were the letters to the editor and the obituaries. Totally guilty, I. They're both far more interesting than the usual articles on venality, mayhem, corruption, and greed. Or planning commission meeting stories which, arguably, are pretty much the same thing.

The best obituaries I ever read were in the Eugene (OR) Register-Guard. They really tried to tell a story, unlike, say, those in the New York Times, which are little more than vital statistics with good verbs and serve to remind you that you're not important enough to warrant an obit in the Times. The next best are those in the Portland Oregonian, which are written by one of the bereaved and therefore have a human quality (so to speak). Oregon may be onto something.

About midway through that selfsame J-School course, students were assigned to write an obituary of a famous person. I ticked names off a mental list of celebrities and politicians I hated, but because there were so many of them, I couldn't make a choice. Instead, I opted for shock value and picked Muppets creator Jim Henson.

He died for real a short time later and I'm still not over it, as though his untimely, odd demise was my fault. Will the pre-death writer of Robin Williams' obituary please stand up? You're toast, man.

But I digress, except to note that one's final Facebook post, or, more to the point, thinking about what to put into it, is kind of like an obituary. "Why did you do that?" someone once asked my father about some scurrilous or notable thing he'd done. "So they'd have something to put in my obituary," he said. It's kind of the same issue with your Facebook epigram (which, for those of you born since 1970,  is like Instagram, only different).

And, wouldn't you know it, but along comes a wonderful article in The Atlantic by an esteemed bioethicist (yes, definitely a First World profession, but, you know) on his hoping to die at 75. The author, Ezekiel Emmanuel--a physician, brilliant thinker, avuncular writer--doesn't say what you might suspect from the title. An end-of-life specialist, his thoughts are life-affirming and he opposes assisted suicide.

But it got me to thinking--why not cash in at 75? Okay, okay, I understand the usual rejoinders--look at all those much older than 75 who function very well, you'll change your mind when you're 74, and so on. I get it. It's like all the politicians who change their minds about term limits when their terms are up. Sort of, anyway. Just more permanent.

In my case, though, I've always wanted to make a difference and leave the world better off for my having been here. By "making a difference," I mean performing some act that weaves a different-colored thread through the fabric of society, of life, and if not leaving it better than it was, then at least noticably different apres moi. It doesn't have to be anything grand, such as negotiating an Israel-Palestine peace treaty or discovering a cosmological Grand Unifying Theory. And it can't be something affecting only you and your kith, like being a good storyteller or halfway decent babysitter.

It means leaving something in your wake that people think of when they think of you. Something to put in my obituary, in other words. The 21st Century variety.

Dr. Emmanuel points out that the early medical advances that extended life expectancy mostly affected early life--lower child mortality rates, polio vaccines, antibiotics, that kind of thing, all of which not nobly extend life, but improve the quality of living. Later medical achievements extend your termination date, but those extra years are not quality of life extensions. You've probably done everything great you're going to do and you pretty much just pass time sitting in the sun and dream of vodka in your Metamucil.

Should you lie to your doctor
about alcohol consumption?
I think I've missed my chance at leaving behind a better world than the one I entered. I like to think I had some tiny part in bringing the war in Vietnam to a close and in ending racial discrimination, but it's less than clear. Too many people still think both were a good idea. Women's equality was (and is) a huge issue for me, especially as it is intertwined with the environment, my other huge (and Quixotic) concern. But I'd venture to guess there are more people who have never heard of the Equal Rights Amendment than there are those who have, and that it was never ratified. Even my lost causes are dated.

But I do want to finish a novel. I wrote one, once, but go so exasperated with it that I destroyed the 350-page second draft. A new one is in progress, but will I finish? Maybe, if I die at 75.

I always did better when there was a deadline.

And then, my final Facebook post could express my gratitude to all those who pretended they liked the rough draft.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

I'm Dumping Politics and So Should You.

Every once in awhile, I get on a roll with my father's quotations, the most recent one being his theory of the American Revolutionary War: Twenty percent supported England, 20 percent supported the colonials, and the rest didn't give a damn.

For my entire adult life, I've always been a twenty percenter. Remaining so involves one-half conviction, one-half optimism, and one-half magical thinking. Not only has my side lost more elections than we've won, the issues and people we care about most never seem to make there in the first place. But we endure. See second sentence of this paragraph.

Anyone know what happened on April 22, 1970? That was the first Earth Day. It was back in the olden days when the environmentalist-types thought climate change meant global cooling. A new Ice Age was at a hand. All that stood in the way of certain doom were the rainforests. We planted some  trees just in case.

One day, the scientists weighed in and said climate change meant global warming. Some say the world will end in fire, but ice would be just as great and would suffice, and you can look it up. The slaughter of the rain forests continued unabated. I made sure everyone I knew as well as my elected officials were aware of this. See father's quote in paragraph number one, above. My wife planted some trees. Lumber companies clear cut Oregon.

Optimism first imbued my system when Robert Kennedy ran for president on an anti-Vietnam War platform. It actually seemed as though someone in charge shined a big light on the absurdities accepted by the American population, its political leaders, and the news media. But he got shot, which never works out well. See Martin Luther King.

Nixon won. He resigned. Ford served. He bumped his head a lot. Carter won and scolded the country for four years. Reagan won and became a giant press release. Bush I won, invaded Iraq, and presided over the savings and loan financial crisis. Clinton won, eviscerated welfare, and revoked Taft-Hartley, which led to the financial meltdown of 2008. Bush II won (sort of) and invaded Afghanistan and, for good measure, Iraq again, with support from my party. The stock market tanked. Twice. The second time, the whole financial system collapsed.

Now, of course, whatever is wrong is all Obama's fault.

To which I say:

What's so depressing is the realization that anyone running for public office doesn't do so to make life better so much as to serve the interests of whomever provides financial resources to the party. That means putting their integrity into escrow and doing or saying whatever is necessary to get elected.  Is Congress debating a climate change bill? Nope. How about campaign finance reform? Nope. Immigration reform? Check that. This list goes on and on and on.

It's the Koch brothers playing cards with the brotherhood of AFL-CIO, everyone motherfracking their way to victory. If you've got the money, Honey, I walk the line, and Chelsea Clinton now gets $75,000per engagement on the speaking circuit.

And who is out there on a national level not just to do something, but to actually care? The starters for Republicans are all whack jobs, and the bench is worse. The Democrats don't even have a bench, which is sad because their sole starter is about as interesting and creative as the fine print on an insurance policy, someone who will take a bold position after making sure the public supports it first. See preceding paragraph.

Turns out the 20 percent for-or-against has been wrong all this time, and those who don't give a damn got it right.

I quit.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Bucket and Me

Yes, it's there. It's been demanding my attention for some time, now, but it's become downright officious lately. In its silver-tongued palaver, it assures me the carriage is just for ourselves.

Buying the farm has always been something of an abstraction. But that was before Zynga.

I blame the precipitate cause of this cerebration on moving to Colorado. If I hadn't moved to Colorado, I wouldn't have quite working as a real estate broker. Our search for a home included both traditional and short sales, and after a dozen encounters with brokers, all of whom claimed to be experts, none of whom actually were (except the Redfin guy), I voted myself off their island.

Still, brokering had been something to do. Besides, I liked all my clients. I may not have liked the trade very much, but at least it consumed the hours and distracted me from ruminating on all things eschatological, which I'm wont to do. At its best, work doesn't seem like work. I've heard that people who love what they do actually exist. At its worst, work distracts you from thinking about wanting what you can't have.

And then, this:

It's a tiny, silver cup, a gift for my daughter when she was born forty-one years ago. Think that's cool? Well, let me tell you, it's bad enough to watch your favorite musicians creaking around the stage croaking golden oldie fundraisers for public television, but to have your personal treasures become candidates for Antiques Roadshow is sobering. And kind of depressing, actually.

With time on my hands, I decided to get fit about a year ago and began spending an hour or more at the gym every day. I'm pretty healthy, but nonetheless decided to have a better diet as well, not counting whiskey, with the hope of either turning back the clock or at least living a few years longer. My weight actually increased a bit, which it does when your metabolism increases, but my body fat went down and all that. Gleefully, if not smugly, I rushed off to have my first physical exam in seven years to see how much longer I'd be around. The result? My cholesterol had gone up 20 points.

Hello? Whaddup, here? Would someone please tell me the point? I don't think it's the Rocky Mountain altitude. My warranty was definitely up.

A trip to the audiologist followed this close encounter of the blurred kind. She was kind of cute, so I sucked in my gut and threw back my shoulders and said amusing things to her. It did no good whatsoever, as she found a mass on a hearing nerve whose existence I'd been blissfully unaware of, and sent me for an MRI. And I still had to make the co-pay.

The point of all this being that it doesn't matter which road in the yellow wood you took. They all end up at the bucket, the paid assurances from priests, Kaiser Health, and Deepak Chopra notwithstanding. This revelation came as a complete surprise, of course, because those of us who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies have always believed someone would invent a cure for old age and dying. Even now, I confess to holding out the smallest of hopes that some bright-eyed chirp will come up with an app for it.

I did quit going to the gym, though.

By now, some are already thinking of "list" in connection with "bucket," and you can bet your sweet ass that these scolds are plenty south of Medicare eligibility. Okay, I will confess to harboring a serious thought of buying a house in Italy and living there half the year. But beyond that, what? Should I pick up my guitar again? I'd be like this guy for sure: 

The Bucket List Brigade tends to think of old age as pretty much of a midlife crisis, where you find yourself working a job you hate, despairing over a journey not taken through karavanserais on the old Silk Road, not owning the Ferrari you'd always dreamed about, and becoming annoyed with the hand Fate dealt. Life has passed by some of their dreams, but there's still a little time.

The difference is that I've about run out of time. When you're forty-five, you think about 20 years hence and visualize yourself applying for Social Security, moving to Provence, maybe working part time and doing some volunteering--whatever. You still have options. At 66, if I visualize 20 years hence, I pretty much don't visualize anything. Have you ever tried visualizing nothing? 

My bucket list is in the recycle bin.

Old age is the minority group most everyone will eventually join, the news being less than optimum for those who do not. We all have a date with destiny. We just don't know if it happened already. My own view is that we have more than one, but I won't know for sure until my last one is in the rearview mirror. 

I'll let everyone know.

Update: After reading a couple of comments, I realize I may have left the impression that a medical catastrophe was about to do me in. That may well be the case, but if so, I don't know about it and nothing has come up. I should have had better sense than to initiate the tumor, uh, rumor, of my demise, but good sense and competent editing has always been something that eluded me.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Supplicants, Mendicants, Miscreants,and Aspirants

Hello, world. It's been a while, I know. My Muse seems to have abandoned me once again. She does this without warning.

Fortunately, a Bloomberg News anchor pissed me off today, making my Muse raise her moribund head. Reporter Julie Hyman was giving a rundown on Target stores, chittering the usual chatter masked as news these people have become so adept at doing, when anchor Alix Wagner chirped, "I actually bought some furniture at Target!"

No! You didn't really, did you?

She went on to say how it really gave a different "look." Which is to say, I suppose, that no one really ever sits on any of it. I guess you're supposed to just look at it.

Call it the Normcore revolution. Throw on your JC Penney hoodie, pick up a six pack of Bud Light in your Leaf, head over to Alix's upper East Side flat and marvel at her new furniture, and then meet for cocktails and a $600 meal at the locavore farm-to-table joint overlooking the river.
Hipppity doo-dah

Am I guilty of venous envy? Not really. No, really.

All my life, I've known rich people (I kind of was one for a time) and never felt they were much different than anyone else, the apocryphal Hemingway-Fitzgerald exchange notwithstanding. I include both types of rich folk, here: Those who actually earned their money, and those who got it the old-fashioned way by inheriting it. Was I ever resentful of their privilege? Nope. I never thought much about it too much, other than to believe that juice should count for something and having some would be fun.

I pretty much suspect that most others feel as I and don't harbor resentment to the uber-buxup folk. They have the same hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, after all, so at times, we imagine that any one of us could join their ranks. And really, in the backs of our minds, while we envision and envy the comfort and freedom enjoyed by those whose heels are well, we are also in the poet Edward Arlington Robinson's camp with his famous Richard Cory:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked; 
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread; 
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head. 

Oh, those guys!

At some point in the last few years, something changed. It use to be, it seems to me, everybody; now it's a handful of plutocrats and everybody else.
Gluten free and sustainably raised?

And it's not just a plutocracy of money and power, nor of morality and cool as well. It's a plutocracy of being, as though a tenth of a tenth of a percent are Plato's Guardians, the philosopher-kings, and the rest of us are, well, the rest of us, the supplicants and mendicants and miscreants and aspirants who bought into the whole pitch, put it on our credit cards, and have to pay the bill with everything from freelance work to retirement accounts. We're the ones living from day to day pissed off over shitty television and internet service, furnaces that have to last a while longer, bags of student loan debt bound with degrees no one cares about, health needs subordinate to the utility bill, old cars coughing along on their wheeze of denied recalls, and so on.

But still. We don't rage, rage the lying of the Guardians. We recognize, perhaps exclusively, that life needn't be a zero-sum game and that no matter who has what, it's not what you have, it's what you are that counts.

So drumroll, please as the Philosopher Kings try to co-opt our epiphany and get on with their manufactured presence and pre-recorded conversations, flip-flopping their way down bar and boutiqued streets to buy furniture at Target with a tad of envy concealed in their wallets and feeling better once they've gentrified at the Normcore temple.

And the rest of us?

On the whole, having a good time, actually.