Grumpy Old Man

My wife recently made the observation, with both honesty and concern, that I was becoming a grump.

With both reticence and reflection, I had to agree that she was 100% correct.

The evidence was undeniable.  There are a growing number of things which I just find intolerable.

First and foremost is that Donald Trump continues to be President of the United States no matter how often I wake up and hope that I’ve just been having a bad dream.  Sure, there is some satisfaction in watching him careen about from crisis to crisis, constantly showing off his incompetence and ignorance.  But watching the horrifying damage he is causing to America’s reputation, his willful destruction of our environment, and his lack of concern for justice and human rights is almost as appalling as the fact that 30% of Americans still think he’s doing a good job, or at least are willing to “give him a chance.”  The hypocrisy of his backers grates on me remembering that this same 30% along with 100% of Congressional Republicans never gave President Obama a moment of support even as he advanced initiatives that would improve the lives of all Americans.

I mean, that should be enough to justify four years of grumpiness.  It is epic and bigly, and I have absolutely no control over it.  So, I think that carrying around that angst has made me hyper sensitive to little things, like noise.

I always thought I lived on a quiet street until I retired and was home more hours of the day.  Now it seems as though there is a mower or a blower or a chain saw in operation near my house (actually as I am writing, a chain saw just fired up somewhere nearby) from 7:30 AM on.  I appreciate that people are keeping their houses and yards in good shape, I really do, but couldn’t we have some established “quiet hours” in the middle of the day when I like to take my nap?  Is that really too much to ask?

And when did it become OK to carry on conversations in public places with your phone set on “speaker”?  It seems that everywhere I go now, I run into people on their phones and have to listen to both sides of the conversation when I’d prefer not to hear either of them.  I was taking my walk around a local lake and had to push myself hard to get past a lady who was negotiating with her bank, phone set on “speaker”,  and I could hear her getting put on hold and bounced from person to person and telling and re-telling the story of her loan problems.  I got anxious just listening to someone else getting the runaround!

I even feel my grouch level rising when I know someone with whom I am having a conversation has put me on speaker so that he or she can walk around the house or dust or do the dishes or god knows what.  Can’t we stop a moment and actually talk to one another without feeling a need to multi-task?

I love my smartphone.  I don’t want anyone to take it away from me.  But I don’t want to listen to your conversations.  I certainly don’t want to listen to your music (headphones, please!), and if you want to dust, or do the dishes rather than talk to me, call me back when you have time, for god’s sake.

See what I mean?  Grouchy.

It can even come down to a scrubbing sponge, wet and soapy and full of germs, left in the bottom of the kitchen sink.  I’m not a germaphobe, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to obsess over this, but when I do the dishes, I’ve trained myself to always wring out the sponge and put it in a spot to dry.  So when I find it sitting, soggy and gross in the bottom of the sink, there’s only one other person who could have left it there.  We no longer have the kids at home to blame things on, and I think we both really miss that.

I tried to approach it in a lighthearted way since it was one of those issues that I can recognize as being both petty but increasingly critical at the same time.  “Hey,” I told her, “you know, it’s the weirdest thing, for some reason I’ve developed this sponge obsession” which I went on to describe to her.  You know, subtle, joking, not really a big deal.  She just looked at me blankly.  “I never do that,” she claimed.  “Oh, ha ha!  Guess it’s just me!”  because, you know, it’s petty, inconsequential.  So now, I’ve begun snapping photos of every time it happens, every time she leaves the damn sponge behind.  Clearly, I need to come with evidence next time.

See what I mean?  A Class-A grump.

I’m not actually taking pictures of every time she leaves the sponge in the sink.  I’d like to continue to stay married.  In truth, the root of my grumpiness is me.  Sure, I need to read the news less and take whatever other medicine is available to combat the Trump-virus in my brain.  But I came to realize as we talked about my moodiness that most of my unhappiness comes from the nagging anxiety that comes with being retired and a little unsure if I am still relevant in some way.  It comes from being unhappy that I can’t lose the same 10 pounds that all Americans are trying to lose, no matter how many failed attempts that I make. It comes from every new ache, pain, and wrinkle that announces my advancing age.  It comes from every time I look about me and see a project I haven’t finished or the list of projects that I haven’t even had the energy to begin.

But don’t cry for me, Argentina.  I have discovered one powerfully curative potion.  Within the past week, on a trip to visit my niece in Colorado Springs, in the space of 4 days, I went zip lining over beautiful Colorado canyons, something I’d been afraid to try on other occasions AND spent two glorious hours roaring down the Arkansas River through Class III and IV rapids, feeling an utter sense of calm and a pure rush of adrenaline coursing through me at the same time.

When I got home, suddenly everything seemed possible again.  I came home younger than when I left, ready to let the little stuff go.  Ready to look for the next chance to push the limits for myself.  Turns out that that may be the cure-for-what-ails-you.

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Shakespeare Sundays: The Readiness Is All

I’ve worked hard about not going all English teacher on all of you, my faithful 15 readers, but part of me has wanted to bring a little structure to the blog to keep me writing on at least a weekly basis.  Let’s see how this goes. I’d like to bring you a passage from Shakespeare on the weekends that we can talk about.  I’ll share what I can, and please feel free to add your comments.

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all.”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

I taught this play for years but always struggled with this passage syntactically. In Act V, Hamlet is about to go into a “friendly” fencing match against Laertes, a man with a grudge, since it was Hamlet who caused his father’s death.  Hamlet’s best friend, Horatio, cautions Hamlet to withdraw from the match if he has any misgivings.

Above is Hamlet’s reply. I’ve always interpreted it as kind of an existential statement.  “It” seems to be his death.  If he is to die now, that just means he won’t be dying in the future (“tis not to come”), but if he isn’t meant to die in the future, he is meant to die now.  He reassures us that no matter what, he knows that he will die, like all of us (“if it be not now, yet it will come”). I’m thinking the actor would have to hammer that last WILL.  Death is inevitable, “the readiness is all.”

I think about this passage a lot.  I admire Hamlet’s resignation to the truth of the moment.  I think about mortality often.  I can say with some certainty that I won’t see the year 2043.   I don’t expect to see 90.  Waldron men do pretty well getting into their eighties, so 2038 is certainly reachable.  That gives me about 20 more years to do whatever I might want to, to see what I still would like to see.  Sounds like a lot, except for when it is your last 20 years, when you’ve already seen 20 years go by three times.

I don’t think of it as being sad or morbid.  It just is.  As Seth Avett says in his song The Perfect Space:

I wanna grow old without the pain,/Give my body back to the earth and not complain.

My life has been good.  I suspect it will continue to be so for a while, but if “the readiness is all” then I’m ready.

Perspective

One of the great things about getting old(er) is that you get to tell young people about the way things used to be “back in the day.”  It’s fun to play the numbers game with them.

When I got my first car, gas prices floated between 29.9 cents to 31.9 cents per gallon.  In 1973, I was dating my future wife who lived in Orange County which meant driving up to see her every weekend.  I started to worry about the future of our relationship the day I saw gas prices hit 53 cents per gallon.  How could I possibly sustain this?  Long-distance phone calls were very expensive, so we wrote each other at least once or twice weekly, which I described here.  The earliest of those letters carried a 6¢ stamp.

I declared my independence from my parents on July 4, 1973 when I moved into my first apartment, a one-bedroom place in a four-plex just 10 minutes from San Diego State University where I would finish my degree and credential programs.  It was a delightfully seedy place called the Aloha Garden Apartments because there was a couple of unkempt palm trees on the property.  My rent was $95 per month.

A covered wooden porch/deck ran around the front of the four attached units, and I put a chair that my parents gave me out on it but never used it.  Apparently, it got taken over by neighborhood cats.  When I finally met the two girls who lived next to me, they told me that (because of the cats) they had decided that I must be a warlock.

By 1977, Mary and I had been married for three years and were ready to jump into the housing market (sort of).  We had $2000 and some change in savings and found a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom place in Spring Valley for $40,000.  We each borrowed $1000 from our parents to come up with the down payment and signed the papers on August 16, the day that Elvis died .

We were oblivious to what a dump it was, because it was OUR dump.  We did what amounted to a slow-motion flip of the house, taking three years to paint and wallpaper every interior wall in the house.  A friendly neighborhood carpenter volunteered to come over and put up cedar planking on one wall in our dining room, creating a cool feature wall before we ever knew such a thing existed. We replaced all of the flooring. We painted the exterior. We had every intention of staying there longer but when a garage band that we had battled over noise for all three years we had been there moved back in across the street for the 10th time, we put it on the market and it sold in a matter of weeks for $75,000.

With that profit, we bought the house in which we still live for $108,000 (3 bdr, 2 bath, 1600 square feet) but were saddled with a whopping interest rate of 11 3/4%.  Interest rates were absurdly high in the early eighties.

When I landed my first (and only) teaching job at Valhalla High School in 1976 my salary for the year was $10,000.  Since the district could not figure out how to spread that over 12 months, it meant that I got paid monthly from September to June–no paycheck for July or August.  Veteran teachers coached me on saving 1/6 of every check to get through the summer since I had no intention of working at a temp job for two months.  My wife tried it and lasted one day as a tele-marketer.  We were happy to tighten our belts and simply enjoy the summer being poor.

The numbers just seem ridiculous to me now.  It was a long time ago.  The cool thing to think about is that in 30 years, my kids will get to do the same thing to other youngsters. And, come to think of it, it will be most unlikely that I will be there to see it.  How’s that for perspective?

A Pain In The Neck

ChronicPainMind

At age 63, I’m blessed with pretty good health. I won’t be training for a marathon anytime soon, but I’ve managed to dodge the scariest and most hideous forms of progressive diseases that give me nightmares.

However, I have had the same headache for 10 years now. It began as a dull throb at the base of my skull and now involves all of the muscles of my upper back, particularly extending along my right shoulder and down my right shoulder blade. I initially blamed the headache entirely on my problems with TMJ, but now realize that 50 years of poor posture have probably contributed equally.

On a good day, three ibuprophen will take the edge off and get me through most of the day. Some mornings though, I wake up feeling like someone has jammed a knitting needle down my neck and into my upper back.

The pain has successfully resisted $5000 in TMJ treatments, acupuncture, chiropractic, physical therapy, injections, massage, yoga, heating pads, topical creams, and a myriad of stretches and exercises that I’ve been told would help if I would do them daily, hourly, whatever.

All of these things have provided some temporary relief. If I could afford a daily massage, I think I would be pain free. Visits to my chiropractor also are particularly helpful; but then even if she could “fix” me, I’d continue to make up excuses to go in and see her because we’ve become friends and she is amazingly pretty.

So I manage the pain by using all of the above along with as few ibuprophen or Tylenol as I can get away with. I’ve read their warning labels and I know there is an almost inevitable downside to their constant use, but chronic pain is a bitch that I simply can’t tolerate day in and day out.

I recently discovered what seemed to be a lovely cure-all as a result of my adventure with sinus surgery. I was given something called Norco, a pain medication that combines Tylenol with just 5 little milligrams of Hydrocodone, a cousin of Vicodin. Having had little experience with opioids, I thoroughly enjoyed the 4 or 5 days that I felt justified in using this wonderful drug. I found that it didn’t necessarily eliminate pain entirely, but it took care of most of it and made me feel so good that I didn’t care about any pain that was left over. I was ready to try to find a friendly doctor that might keep me on the stuff until I read all the side affects. Just like all good things in life, it’s both highly addictive and likely to kill my liver or kidneys or both. Worst of all, to keep taking it I’d have to give up my affection for craft beer, an unacceptable trade-off. However, I still have 19 pills left—just enough for an occasional vacation from the pain if I feel I need it.

So that’s it. Big surprise! I’m getting older, and I wake up with aches and pains. I know how lucky I am that this is the extent of my physical troubles for now. I sure hope it stays that way.

 

 

 

 

Did Anyone Happen To Notice Where I Set My Brain Down?

memory-improvement-with-brain-games-for-adults

I never had a great memory to begin with. For years, I relied on my sister and mother to fill in significant gaps in my childhood memories, and my sister continues to be a great help with this. I apparently lived a vibrant and active life as a youngster, and I do remember significant portions of it, but other parts are long gone and have been for some time.

As I age (62 currently), I have become more and more aware of lapses in memory mostly because it is awfully inconvenient at times and also because my family tree is pretty heavily infested with dementia, and I sometimes get concerned as I feel the memories drift away.

However, I’ve gotten reassurance from a number of sources. I have a lot of younger friends who all report similar memory experiences to the ones that I have had. Ever noticed how easy it is to walk out of some movies and 30 minutes later be unable to really explain what it was all about? Need to re-read the chapter you just read last night to remind yourself what’s going on in the book you are totally into? Or have you ever had to to search your mind frantically to list the critical things you accomplished during the day when confronted with the question, “So, what have you been up to?”

So when something slips my mind, I don’t feel so bad anymore. In fact, I’ve come to sort of enjoy my coping mechanisms. I almost always remember to put my keys and wallet in the same place every night before I go to bed. For the first time in my adult life, I not only write things down on my calendar, but actually check it regularly. I often post a big note on the bookcase that is directly across from my bed with a list of any appointments or things I need to get done the next day so I see it first thing in the morning. Since my car lacks GPS, I use directions like those below to get me on my way.

gps

However, some of the slips can be maddening. I cannot count the number of times I have marched into my garage, straight from another room of the house, and stood peering about in the heat absolutely knowing that it contains an object that 10 seconds ago I had a critical need of. I will stubbornly stand there for minutes at a time searching the room for… what? No clue. The only solution is slink back to my previous location where somehow, magically, my memory snaps back and I know exactly what tool, hardware, or device it was I needed.

I have become almost used to the fact that when introduced to someone new, my brain will vaporize that person’s name within 3 seconds of the introduction.  Even when I make a conscious effort, preparing myself to remember a new person’s name, something erases it upon arrival. I’ve become so resigned to this that I am less and less bashful about breaking in with, “I’m sorry, and you said your name was….?”  I take some comfort in the number of times they too have had to ask me my name.

Maybe we are simply so overstimulated by the barrage of information that we have to process that our brains just can’t keep up.  I tell myself that often because I often forget what I’ve already told myself.

I have, however, become convinced that I do have one particular memory disorder so unique that I have named it—displacia. It is a condition that causes me, most frequently in the kitchen, to search for a needed object in the cupboard or drawer exactly one cupboard or drawer over where the object lives. If I need some Comet to clean the sink, I will find myself staring dumbly at baked and canned goods wondering what in the hell I am looking for, knowing I have no interest in baking or cooking. But if I should need some corn meal, my first stop will likely be next door where we keep all of the cleaning supplies, again staring, stumped and confused.

So I now look at memory as a sort of game, even as a battlefield, where I know I have to use my wits to keep my life in order and to fill it with moments that are landmarks I simply must not lose. I do not want to become an unmoored boat that simply slips away from the dock, having forgotten to load up with memories that make me who I am.

Human-Brain

DAY 5 (see note) A Parent To My Parent

Note: I’m starting this only because a friend that I like and respect very much invited me to be part of the club. And also because as a blogger, I’ve discovered a creative kick in the pants can be very helpful at times. Also, I am going to call this DAY 5, even though it is my first contribution, just so I don’t feel hopelessly behind for the next month.

Just like there was no manual for living my through my 30’s and raising small children, I have longed at times for the manual that would guide me through the difficulties of being a parent to my parents.

My mom is now 92, has dementia, can barely converse with me or anyone else, is incontinent, is hard of hearing, and requires nearly constant supervision. She also has a fragile immune system and just this Sunday it was compromised by something, probably an infection of her lungs. As the only child living in the vicinity, I’ve been on call for 4 years now and once I arrived at her board and care home on Sunday, I could see her labored breathing was going to land us in the emergency room.

I’m not sure if it is worse to be attending someone in the emergency room or to be the actual sick person. Mom was agitated for the two hours we waited to get into a room, which meant she would rock back and forth and jabber incoherently and loudly at times while I would try to calm her and get her to stop.

I’m far beyond being embarrassed by this behavior or worried about the reaction of others. They can move if they don’t like it. Hell, I don’t like it, but not liking it isn’t going to change anything. And here’s where I struggle. To all those waiting sick folk, I appeared to be a patient, attentive, loving son. I comfort her and make silly jokes and do anything to break the cycle of moaning and tension that seems to seize her like a wave that will slowly, and only temporarily, recede. I’m sure they look at me and think, “He’s a good son.”

But I’m not. I hate all of this. I hate the constant, seemingly useless visits I make to her every day, the disturbing emergencies, and even the routine doctor’s visit that usually results in a three-hour commitment. I know that none of my efforts or the doctor’s efforts will improve the quality of her life. Every time I leave her I feel sad and depressed. I’m long past the point where I can tell if I’m sad for her or for me. That’s why I feel like a fraud. I told my wife once that everything I was doing was actually “remorse insurance” for myself—a desire that when she passes I could honestly feel that I had done everything possible to make her last years, if not joyful, at least comfortable.

It seems to me that the true good sons out there have hearts that are much more full of love than mine is. My maddeningly detailed, obsessive, neat freak of a mother left long ago, and I’m now caring for what is left. I desperately want it to be over. I hate myself for saying it, but there it is.

Please, Please Don’t Make Me Think!!

dexmedia

 

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.