Aging can be painless

A few years ago I performed a wedding in a couple’s rural New Hampshire home. It was simple and meaningful and I felt good about it.  Not too long after that, one of them posted a story about getting their license and deciding how and where to be married. In the article she referred to me as “…the elderly justice of the peace…” Now, I would like to say that I don’t dwell on disconcerting comments about my age and indeed it wasn’t too long before I forgot it but it did, in fact, bother me. After all who wants to get old,  especially when that means that time is more likely to be running out? I am sure there are plenty of older people who are coping better than I but let me run some thoughts about aging by you.

Almost everyone I have asked agrees that they don’t feel their age. Sure, when trying to jog across a busy intersection or stoop over to pick up something dropped on the floor, the physical reality rears its ugly head but otherwise we feel as young as ever. That’s a good thing especially when younger people don’t reject you based on numbers of wrinkles or gray hairs. Of course, lots of them do but I know hundreds who don’t. Forgetting what year one is born in and simply being oneself works wonders.

Ally Waters who graduated from high school with my son, Joseph
Ally Waters
who graduated from high school
with my son, Joseph

Another important thing to remember, as macabre as it sounds, is that we all die, some earlier and some later. Things like not smoking, watching your weight, eating less junk food, and exercising every day are critical. However, it is not that such activities will protect you from dying, it is they will most likely make living more fun.

Fun, indeed plus joy, excitement, anticipation, love, these are things that make aging painless and they are not that hard to find anytime, anyplace. I have a silly cat who expects to be lifted to the table every morning when I sit down at my computer so that he can look at the window. Then after he accounts for all the chipmunks he turns around and starts a loud purr while he reaches out and touches me on the shoulder. Now, tell me, how in the world can you think about getting old with a pet like him around?

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Another thing to do is engage people as you go about your day. When I ordered a couple of pastries at Starbucks this morning, I asked for them to be put in a bag to which the twenty something barista responded “Oh, you don’t want me to throw them at you?” I had a rejoinder but that didn’t matter. What really counts is that she felt she could say that in fun.

I don’t remember exactly when I first really, really got that some day I would no longer be here. I do recall it was an adrenalin rush like none other. It turned out to be OK though because it sparked in me a subtle but actual new appreciation of the days that I did have while I am still here.

Andy Rooney, the wonderful 60 Minutes curmudgeon was interviewed after his retirement. One of the questions was “Do you think about dying?” His answer is classic “Yes and I don’t  like it.”

And so it goes

 

Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies

“They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living that demands rigorous honesty”
From Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book) Chapter 5 “How it Works”

Is there a single human who has not told a lie? A rhetorical question, of course, because we all started off with something like “I didn’t do it, she did it” and then went on from there.

How is that working out for you? As for me, I’ve had mixed results. Well, not really mixed, falsehood has never served me all that well.

One of my more embarrassing attempts at misdirection happened several years ago when my high school daughter accidentally ran up on the curb with her car and flattened a street sign. Neither of us realized she needed to report it to the police and wait there for them. So since it was a Sunday morning a few minutes before worship started, I told her to come on to church and we would take care of it later. A few hours later while we ate lunch at a restaurant, one of her friends came to the table and said “There is a cop taking pictures of your car.” So, brave dad that I am, I told the officer that it was my car and that I did it. To which she responded that somebody walking their dog said a young woman was driving the car. With just a slight hesitation, I owned up because, as they say, no matter how far down the wrong road you have gone, turn back.

Unfortunately, deceit is usually knee-jerk. We still do it when experience has shown us how fruitless it always is. We obviously don’t learn from the mistakes we see all around us. In “The Politician’s Wife”, a TV drama, a woman’s life is turned upside down when it is revealed that her husband, a member of the British Parliament, has been having an affair with a former prostitute. As is almost universal in these situations, he says that the indiscretion was a one time thing happening as a result of all the trite reasons. Of course, no surprise, not only was it actually a long term relationship but it was still going on. “Twas ever so!”

You may be saying to yourself, “I would never do such a thing”, but, caution, there is something known as self-deception which may be the worst of all. At some level we are just sure what we think, how we feel, what we are, would not be acceptable to others. Then our daily lack of any consistent transparency defines us. We come to believe our own lies and as in Hamlet’s immortal line,”..there’s the rub” because in that disparity lies the root of much human misery.

Try this. Be exactly who you are for 24 hours. Don’t go out of your way to express negative feelings to others but also stop and think about it each time you consider even a minor cover up. You may find it didn’t lower you in anyone else’s opinion. You will certainly save emotional energy and you will experience a new sense of freedom.

If you like it, keep doing it. Authenticity might turn out to be a great choice.

What is an “American”?

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

This coming Monday, October 8, 2012  is a national holiday officially called Columbus Day.Unless you were, like me, looking out the window that day or had a bit more enlightened elementary school teacher, then you learned all about Christopher Columbus “discovering” America. Maybe you even heard the whole poem with the throwaway stanza at the end:

The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

Sometimes I wish I had not been talking to the other kids in the back row so much because I was well into my late 20’s before I began to realize that white males of English descent were not supreme. (A fact ironic in itself because Columbus was Italian sailing for a Spanish monarchy). In graduate school in Chicago I was fortunate to participate in a small group racial awareness exercise. Sadly, as I quickly discovered,  many of the casual references to people of color that I took for granted were so inherently bigoted that I couldn’t believe I uttered them. Then too much later, having found a wonderful, strong woman to be my wife, I woke up to feminism. I guess it is pretty much inevitable that if you are in privileged group you will be pretty slow to see the ramifications of your outlook.

A few Columbus Day’s ago now, It struck me that I  had that same nonchalance about Native Americans. Sure, I no longer talked about the wild indians attacking the cavalry but I still had a ways to. One day I said to my much more perceptive spouse that I wondered why in the world people coming here from Europe in the 1500’s and subsequent centuries didn’t simply have a working relationship with the indigenous dwellers, thinking about the many things each culture could have learned from each other. Her answer: racism. She was right. Just study the various laws and treaties regarding land ownership when white people were arguing about their divine right or at the very least their superior power over the land through the the courts. Those who were already on this continent were “savages” and as such had no part in such decisions.

I like holidays but I wish this one wasn’t so tainted. I don’t really think calling it something else really helps either, what with the Atlanta Braves fans doing “The Chop” and the NFL team of our Nation’s Capitol being called the Redskins. The only hope seems to be changing one mind at a time as happened to me along the way. Consider: are you listening to those who would enlighten you?

When are you going to get a real job?

Dirty Jobs

One of my Facebook friends, whom I have known long before the Internet, responded to my new job as a school bus driver with “Now I know you are old.” Very funny. Ha Ha. She should watch me doing pushups.

It did start me thinking about our perception of people in certain jobs. There is not much doubt that all of us stereotype at least some of the time. We talk about “ditch diggers” or “garbage collectors” as if those jobs, however they are defined, are the lowest of the low. I wonder though.

One time many years ago, I showed up at a Galveston, Texas temporary labor office only to be sent to be a small Gulf oil rig tender as a deck-man while the boat was in harbor. Described as a job in which “you must be willing to do what average and ordinary people are not willing to do.” That was an understatement. Picture a typical high school boy’s bedroom and multiply that by 50 or so bunked in one section and add the large shower area. Then just imagine a tornado going through just before you walk in to clean.

The obvious point is that people actually do the dirty jobs. Mike Rowe

One of my Facebook friends, whom I knew long before the Internet, responded to my new job as a school bus driver with “Now I know you are old.” Very funny. Ha Ha. She should watch me doing pushups.

It did start me thinking about our perception of people in certain jobs. There is not much doubt that all of us stereotype at least some of the time. We talk about “ditch diggers” or “garbage collectors” as if those jobs, however they are defined, are the lowest of the low. I wonder though.

One time many years ago, I showed up at a Galveston, Texas temporary labor office only to be sent to be a small Gulf oil rig tender as a deck-man while the boat was in harbor. It was described as a job in which “you must be willing to do what average and ordinary people are not willing to do.” That was an understatement. Picture a typical high school boy’s bedroom and multiply that by 50 or so bunked in one section and add the large shower area. Then just imagine a tornado going through just before you walk in to clean.

The obvious point is that real people actually do this kind of stuff. Mike Rowe does many of them on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and it is clear that he is always relieved that each particular episode is finished. Even if we who sit in air conditioned offices or jet from city-to-city in our vocations think we are not that bad off, what in the world would do without those workers?

One of my fellow school bus drivers admitted that his family bugged him all the time to get a “real” job. I wonder if any of them were a parent standing with their kindergarten girl or boy, entrusting that child to to the driver on the yellow bus, would they dare say it was not a significant role in the life of the young people.

I really don’t mind my friends making fun of me. I give it back in spades. Meanwhile, next time you see a person in a job that you think is probably beneath you, remember, first of all, that is a real person at work and, secondly, who would do it for you if they didn’t?

When the managers are humane

Some of my random jobs are assignments from a temporary staffing company. I began one yesterday and it was a very pleasant experience. The duties are almost identical to those of a position I recently quit in frustration after a whole year of indecision. So why the emotional difference? It is because, clearly, everyone I met treated me and each other as professionals working as a team. That means they gave me credit for knowing what I was doing and if I was on the wrong path, they were kind in their instruction.

This first day was training with the person I am relieving for a week. It turns out that she also had a long term frustration with a previous position. Normally, she would have never started a griping session but by the afternoon we seemed to trust each other and were comparing  our two past unhappy work experiences. Guess what the common factor was. The ones for whom we worked were extremely controlling and were dehumanizing in the process.

Trying to relieve the pressure in those days, I often asked of my coworkers “What management seminar taught that kind of supervision?” In other words, how could anyone expect to get professional results by treating the workers like peons? Those bosses will love it in the future when they only have computerized robots to program any way they want.

On the other hand, gathering untroubled, fairly intelligent people of good will and giving them reasonable expectations makes a lot more sense. Then as the tasks become complicated, ask the employee for suggestions, listen instead of having your mind made up. As trite as it might sound, treat them how you would like others to treat you.

In short, be humane. How hard is that?

The Time I Shot a Bird

When I was 10 years old I got a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. It looked just like the Winchester rifle, The Gun that Won the West” which I had seen on the saddles of all the cowboy heroes in all the westerns kids like me loved.

(That the Indians only had bows and arrows in the beginning and that “winning” the western territories of North American meant killing the people who already lived there, seems to have not been a part of my elementary education)

What a thrill. There were little cardboard tubes of BB’s, tiny shotgun pellets, which you poured into the rifle to be ready for rapid-firing. It had lever-action cocking, you had to pump it for each shot, just like Tom Mix or Buffalo Bill had to do with their Winchesters when they whipped them out of the saddle holsters with the leather thongs. Once you learned the technique you could lock and load with the best of them.

So with a big smile on my face I went outside to, well, shoot my new rifle. The first targets were Coke bottles or tin cans but the ultimate target to “shoot for” was a bird. Now, if you are hunter, you are thinking “Yeah, so?” but maybe you had a parent who also shot animals for sport. As for me, I don’t think I my father had even held a weapon since his days as a member of Florida National Guard back in the 20’s and even then only for formations and parades. So when it came to “hunting” I was on my own and that is the good news and the bad news all in one.

The point of this story is that I had a hunter career of only a few hours. When I finally had the chance to sight my rifle on a blue jay and pull the trigger, I killed it and immediately burst into tears. I don’t what I thought, in fact I didn’t think, I just aimed and fired. It just seemed like a good idea at time. I ran in the house crying to my mother who I am sure had sympathy but was silently wondering about mental stability.

I have had many friends and pleasant acquaintances over the years who were hunters and fishing folk. I never told them they were wrong. It’s also not like I don’t kill creatures. I spend a lot of effort this time of the year trying to rid our kitchen counters of big black ants. My daughter and I killed a mouse with the traditional deadly snap trap. I even had the terribly sad task of holding our beautiful seventeen year old cat, Punkin, as the vet administered the lethal injections for obvious humanitarian reasons. However, a hunter I am not nor will be. Self punishment, such as marathons, maybe, but killing animals for the fun of it, no thank you.

Once a few years ago, as he neared the end of his life, we sat with Bill Coffin in his living room in Strafford, Vermont while he watched yellow finches at the bird feeder outside his window. Here is what he said: “Nature is much more interesting when you realize you are about to return to it”. I think of that each time I fill my bird feeder just out the kitchen window where the blue jays, possibly exacting revenge for their ancestor I assassinated in Florida in 1949, eat everything before the sparrow can get there.

Huh! On a journey to return to nature? What a concept.

A few vital minutes in the morning

“Jane and I have always professed different philosophies about language: she will use meditation while I use prayer for the same set of words.”
-Mark Belletini in the Forward to Jane Ranney Rzepka’s FROM ZIP LINES TO HOSAPHONES

As soon as my Macbook comes alive every morning and I sign into my Gmail, I read three daily posts.

Most of the time, the first one is Today’s Gift, a subscription from Hazelden, the famous treatment center based in Center City, Minnesota but now with locations around the country. These are excerpts from a variety of 12 Step daily meditation books.

Then I usually go to the Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, meditations written by a very down-to-earth and wise group of United Church of Christ ministers.

Finally (I should say “for now”) I open up the Daily Compass, readings submitted by Quest for Meaning, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, Unitarian Universalist Association.

Sounds like a major task, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. I would guess that even with pauses to think about what I just read, it may use up 10 minutes of what time I would probably just waste playing Bubble Witch Saga on Facebook anyhow. That little bit of time could be compared with brushing my teeth or showering, things I need to do to maintain my body. These emails are in fact things I need to do to maintain my soul.

This is not all that meritorious. I am not in the least trying act holier than thou. What I am saying should be pretty obvious: there are certain exercises that I must do or things deteriorate. I hope this mental or spiritual activity each day helps keep me emotionally balanced, maybe even make a little progress.

What are these readings anyhow? Are they religious, maybe propaganda or just more of the flood of Internet postings? Are they meditations, words of guidance, centering readings or….? They help me so what difference does it make? I don’t care what they are called if I find the needed nourishment.