Please, Please Don’t Make Me Think!!

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From time to time, I return to the high school where I spent most of my adult life, filling in as a substitute teacher for friends of mine. Having taught freshmen during the last year before my retirement, there is still one cluster of students who know me as a “regular teacher” and they are all now seniors, getting ready to graduate. For the past week, I have been substituting for a teacher who has mostly seniors, and I’ve been re-united with many of my former kids.

It was during some slack time in one of those classes that Luisa, one of my former freshmen, asked if she could do a brief interview with me for an assignment she was trying to complete for her psychology class. She had three questions that she had to ask of someone younger than her, someone older than her, and someone who was of “post-retirement” age. She laughed when I said, “That’s a nice way of saying that I’m the old person of the group.”

It would have been much easier if I had been inclined to give glib, easy answers, but each question hit me as being tough and thought provoking.

Question 1. “What has been the best age in your experience?”

I immediately assumed she was talking about “best decade” as opposed to “best year” and I found myself torn. I had six decades to choose from. I discounted the first two, eventually narrowing it down to either my 20’s or my 60’s (although I’m only two years in). These were/are decades where I have felt the greatest personal freedom, especially freedom from responsibility. I have always taken my responsibilities as a husband, a dad, and a teacher very seriously, but now, when I see a responsibility heading my way, I duck and hide and hope someone else will get stuck with it. I am both highly responsible and responsibility-averse at the same time.

After some thought, I settled on my 20’s. On the one hand, I had less money; on the other hand, I had many fewer aches and pains. I had the energy and enthusiasm of youth and was in the midst of finishing college and beginning a new career. Most especially, though, I remember those years as the long honeymoon of my now 40-year marriage. Married at 21 to a girl I had loved since high school, I’m sure those years are hazed with a golden glow of nostalgia, but for me they were a time of being young and free and in love. As we set up our first home together, a two-bedroom duplex, we worked at blending our different images of what “home” looked like and started to learn what it really meant to be partners. We learned how to have fights. Best of all, we learned how to make up. We could spend lazy hours together on a Sunday afternoon with nothing but each other’s company and feel utterly fulfilled. I remember watching her stand at the bedroom mirror, brushing her long, black hair in the evening, marveling at her beauty and at my good luck in having found her.

That decade was capped off with the birth of our son Nico, and the exciting, demanding, and immensely fulfilling beginnings of parenthood.

Question 2. “What age do you consider “old”?”

Ouch. The face I see in the mirror every morning says that I am old. Scrolling back to 1953 on my laptop whenever I have to record my birth date for some government form is certainly an eye-opener as decade after decade slips past. The constant aches, the more frequent doctor visits, the amount of time needed to maintain a body that once seemed to take care of itself all scream “OLD, OLD, OLD!”

But given all of that, I don’t FEEL old. And I am around OLD a lot. My mother resides in a board-and-care home, a residential facility that can house no more than 6 residents, all of whom need 24-hour attention. The oldest resident there is now 99 years old and until just recently was as spry and sharp as could be. He is my hero. My mother clocks in at 92 years of age, placed in this home due to her growing dementia and lack of mobility. I visit nearly every day, at least for a while, and doing so for the last three years is beginning to age me a bit, I think. Every day, I’m reminded of what the ravages of age can do no matter how hard one might try to fend them off.

It was these many visits that informed my answer to Luisa about what I considered to be old. I told her I could not pinpoint a particular year. For me, it seems that there will come a time when I start to feel that my body is beginning to rob me of my ability to be active in the way that I want to be, the way I am now.

I’m no Stephen Hawking. I don’t expect to be heroic as age or disease begins to chip away at my well-being. I expect to be pretty pissed off about it and to rage a little against the dying of the light. I am just happy that I am not there yet.

Question 3. What is the most important life lesson that you have learned?

 “Is Your Love Enough? Or Can You Love Some More?”

Singer-Songwriter Michael Franti reels off these and other rhetorical questions in his song, “Is Love Enough?” I hate rhetorical questions. There are enough things in my life for which I have no answers. I don’t need more.

Man, where do I even start? I said it poorly to Luisa at the time, but essentially what I wanted to say was that I now knew that I needed to learn to love—more freely, more completely, more vulnerably, more fearlessly. I was raised in a family where we never actually talked about love, didn’t even use the word with each other that I can remember. I don’t think it was until my daughter moved away from home that I got trained in ending a conversation with the words “I love you” because she kind of insisted on it. In my own relationship I have always struggled to be demonstrative and, instead, have hoped that actions would show the love I felt. It is not enough; I know that now.

I believe now, that meaningful human connection may be the most critical element of happiness, and yet these relationships seem fraught with land mines to me. Families are complicated; friendships are complicated; I mean, people are just fucking complicated.

But, I do love the comfort of my family, where affection comes almost unconditionally and instantaneously. Outside of my family, I think I may have only said the words “I love you” to three people in all of these years, and in every case I feared I had said something I shouldn’t, revealed too much, invited an unwelcome response. Why am I so afraid? Is it really that hard to love? To claim a feeling that I know that I have?

On my final day as a teacher, the staff gathered together, as we do every year to honor retirees. The principal said nice things and gave out gifts and awards. Three of us were retiring that year and I ended up going last. The first two wept as they addressed our colleagues and there were tears all around. I didn’t get it. I mean I did, but I didn’t. And I said so. I told them that I could not be happier at this moment, and I hoped that they were all happy for me. I had had a wonderful career and was getting the chance to retire and experience a whole new life. I told them that especially in my final years I had come to love, yes love, the students that I taught. The kids had given me so much love and affection and support that it was easy to forgive their occasional transgressions and bursts of immaturity.

As the ceremony ended, I could hear the skeptics. “Love my kids? I’m not there yet!” I overheard one teacher say. I hope she gets “there.”

Three supposedly simple questions. Just another assignment for a kid (a really great kid), one more occasion for my brain to ache, for my mind to explode.

 

 

 

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I Like Myself Just The Way I Am–Except For This One Thing

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I imagine that the issue of New Year’s resolutions has been blogged to death and dropping another on you after February 1 is probably bad form, but I have my reasons.

The delay was due in part to the lingering effects of a bad cold and severe case of post-traumatic holiday syndrome. I was literally paralyzed for a week once the dust settled trying to sort through my feelings about this time of celebration and all of its attendant disappointments, unfulfilled expectations, guilt, and family drama. Don’t get me wrong, there were some very nice moments, and it’s always lovely to get to spend time with my adult children, but it was about one week into January when I exhaled, not realizing I had been holding my breath since November.

But I smugly began the new year with a leg up on most “resolvers,” those who make resolutions that they will not only not fulfill but if asked a year later won’t even remember what they resolved in the first place!

The remembering has never been a problem for me because I’ve had the same three resolutions for years: exercise consistently, lose some weight, write more. It just so happens that I achieved all of those goals this past year for the very first time. It is a rare day that goes by that I don’t get out for my 3-mile walk, or hit the gym for a swim, or spend an hour doing yoga. A direct result has been that I have dropped about 8 pounds, regained a notch on my belt and now fit into some clothes that I was about ready to donate so they would not spend all of their time taunting me from the depths of the closet. Then, beginning this blog in March provided the inspiration to produce 25,000 words, give or take, neatly packaged into 20 distinct articles.

The most shocking part for me about the writing is that I actually have readers, to whom I am grateful beyond belief. Thanks to the info that WordPress keeps, I even know where in the world my readers are primarily located. It turns out that there is group of crazy Brazilians who frequently read my stuff. And I want to know who you people are so please, drop me a comment and let me know why you don’t have something better to do than follow this blog!

However, no matter the self-righteousness that I feel I have earned over the past year, I also feel compelled to tell you that I do have a resolution for 2015. It’s a secret. Please don’t tell anyone about it. I am not confident at all that I will make a dent in this one.

beers

Truth be told, I like to drink beer. I like to drink more beer, more often than some of my relations, my doctors, and conventional wisdom think is appropriate. Since it gives me pleasure, I know instinctively that it must be bad for me and that I should cut back. Cutting back, I have found, is hard. In fact, I suspect I would have better luck giving up alcohol altogether than to try to be consistently moderate. Being moderate just sucks. However, cutting back is my resolution for 2015.

Let’s face it. Medically, it makes all the sense in the world to reduce my alcohol consumption. Anything that can eventually destroy my liver is a bad thing. However, I have gotten very mixed signals from my doctors when we have talked about this. My GP suggests “just one or two per night” but then warns me not to cut it out altogether because it could adversely affect my blood pressure. My therapist said to quit worrying about it, that at the level I was drinking if I were to cut off a couple years of my life they’d be the worst couple of years of my life anyway (I like him). A cardiologist I met with gave me a fish-eyed look and said “one.” He looked like a man who took pleasure in taking away the pleasures of other and instinctively I did not trust him. One final health professional confided in me that actually 3 or 4 drinks is now considered “moderate” but that no doctor will actually tell that to his patients (I like him).

So I need an additional motivation. Not wanting to be a slender guy with a prodigious beer belly is certainly one of them. At 150 calories per 12 oz bottle of premium beer, consuming an extra 300 or so calories per night must mean I’m in a constant battle to maintain my weight, right? But, in fact, I’m not. I’m very conscientious about my diet and I exercise religiously. As I have looked for beer substitutes, something to sip on that will be satisfying, tasty, but not alcoholic, I discovered that virtually all of them have just as many calories and many throw in the evils of processed sugar and caffeine. If it’s not water, it’s not a good trade-off. Also when I have given up beer for a week at a time and maintained all of my other good habits, I expect the pounds to just absolutely fall off of me. I want to see my weight drop at least one pound a day to compensate for the pain of abstinence. It just doesn’t seem to work that way.

And there is the WTF factor. I do not live each day to the fullest and in fact, I don’t think anyone actually does. Many days are full of trips to Target and the dry cleaners. Others to grocery shopping, cleaning and paying bills. It’s just life, and I’ve been lucky to have enjoyed an awfully good one for 62 years. On my way to the sports section, I can’t help but glance at the obituaries and take ghoulish pleasure in the growing numbers of complete strangers that I have outlived.

Sadly, I have also lost former students, friends, and colleagues who died far too young, taken by accident and disease. I’ve seen young friends felled by stroke and brain tumors. Being aware of life’s capriciousness has not exactly made me fatalistic, but what the fuck? Knowing that I can get taken down by some kind of heinous disease at any moment, I’m less inclined to follow the arbitrary rules of healthy beer consumption. Besides, it tastes good—really good.

And, it feels good to be a little bit bad. I was an altar boy as a young man, a fanatic rule-follower. I don’t think I knowingly broke a rule until I was 34. I am the guy who will stop for a red light at a crossroads in the middle of the desert at three in the morning, waiting for the light to turn green. To my great frustration, I will not allow myself to commit adultery even in my in my dreams (“Gosh, sorry, ma’am. I’m awfully flattered, but it just wouldn’t be right, me being married and all. I hope you can understand”). An extra beer at night feels like a small revolution, a salute to independence, a raised middle finger to all of the conventions I have followed for so long.

And there is an illusory effect that beer has on me that all experiences are enhanced by drinking. Television is better, music is more profound, the book I’m reading is more moving when accompanied with my favorite IPA. I am absolutely certain that the sunset is more vivid, the moonrise more spectacular, and that the fire is warmer and more captivating sitting outside by my outdoor firepit welcoming the night with a cold one. Likewise, when writing, the words seem flow more easily, my mind races with ideas, synapses are firing that I didn’t know existed, and at times I’m convinced I’m pouring out nothing but brilliance as I sip on my drink. This is before I humbly proofread my work the next day in the very sober light of the following morning.

These are all of the reasons that I will fail miserably with my one resolution for 2015. Here is the reason I will succeed.

I like to feel good when I wake up in the morning. I like to wake up and lie in bed planning out my day without a dull headache, a hazy memory, and a rumbling stomach. When I get up in the morning after a non-drinking night, I feel cleansed and righteous. I feel the same way I used to walking out of the confessional as a youngster knowing that my sins (which were nothing close to sins at all) had all been washed away. I feel more alert and have more energy as my day begins with that glow of well-being filling my soul.

We will see, in 11 months, if that is enough to turn the course of a deeply-rooted habit–a habit I really enjoy. Not giving it up, mind you. Just cutting back.