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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The Answer Is…I Have No Idea

In a comment I posted recently, I mentioned that I had met my wife when we were both juniors in high school and that we later (in 1974) were married and continue to torture each other to this very day as we approach our 42nd anniversary.

One of our writers asked what was the “secret” to having stayed together for so long, and I hope I can give a reasonable response. It won’t be complete or in some cases helpful. Sometimes I think, when it comes to relationships, there is an awful lot of luck involved.

We were celebrating year number 36 at a swank hotel in Coronado, eating appetizers and having an afternoon cocktail, when Mary asked me, “Did you ever think we would still be married after 36 years?” In one of my shining moments as a partner, without preparation or pretense, I honestly answered, “It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t still be married after 36 years.”

So there is something about commitment and expectation that makes a big difference, I suspect. I wrote earlier about how Mary and I first met at a youth retreat and my first impressions of her were that she was strong-willed and looked terrific in the jeans and snug t-shirt she was wearing. For me, it was a powerful combination. I did have to wait around a bit, dating friends of hers, until she ditched a tenuous boyfriend, and I could swoop in. Yeah, I was the rebound guy.

But for all intents and purposes from age 18 to age 21 when we got married, we were each other’s everything. She was extremely faithful, and I never found the wild oats that I guess I was supposed to sow. One time, I put our romance on hold for about two weeks to give me space to consider if I might have a vocation to the priesthood (I’m a recovering Catholic), but I happily realized that giving up my affection for women was not an acceptable compromise and our relationship intensified quickly.

So, right. Longevity. I might be completely off on this, but I think the sexual freedom that young people have enjoyed over the past few of decades (we just missed that particular wave) has made them a little uncertain about the viability of a long-term commitment. The number of serious partners that young people now have between the ages of 20 and 40 seems to make them feel unsure about the possibility of a union that will last a lifetime.

Believe me. I’d love to have a wonderful, guilt-free affair. Truth is though, I can’t even be unfaithful in my dreams. No, I’m serious. I have turned down the advances of beautiful women in my dreams and hated myself for it in the morning. I am a terrible liar, and I find myself feeling guilty about things that I have only thought about doing.

It has not been easy. We pretty much lost ourselves in the 25 years we dedicated to child rearing. Our children continue to mean everything to us and continue to challenge us. It turns out that being the parents of young adults is just as tough as dealing with the terrible twos.

Both of us worked in demanding jobs that we loved. I cared deeply about becoming the kind of teacher that could, on a good day, change lives. As hard as I worked, Mary worked harder. She spent incredibly long hours as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. Her workdays seemed to have no end. All of that took a toll on us as a couple. And while we certainly went through periods of time where we felt more like roommates than lovers, we persevered, believing that eventually the bond we had initially enjoyed would return.

In retirement, we are now healing. We’ve identified some of the dynamics that have continually driven us apart and are now much more aware of each other, appreciative of each other, loving toward each other. We still have work to do, but now we feel like we have the space and time to make things special again. It doesn’t hurt that she still looks great in jeans and a tight t-shirt (yes, I really am that shallow).

I do believe that relationships can last. I’m not sure I’ve done the subject justice. Maybe our combined stories will weave the tapestry that creates an answer that satisfies.

 

Men: Why It’s Important To Keep Your Mouth Shut

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Even though this group is short on male contributors (and therefore readers), I wanted to share this piece–sort of as a public service.

Please remember my previous disclaimer. I love women. Love, love, love them. They are wiser, more beautiful, more loving, and more compassionate than men are. I have many more female friends than I have male friends. So, I hope you will still be talking to me after reading this. Or even better—leave a comment and tell me if, how, and/or why I am wrong. I will offer you my sincerest apology.

But, I’m not wrong. Not about this.

There will be times, many times if your relationship is long-term, when your female partner will come to you needing to talk. She will come to you with a problem about her friends, her work, the next-door neighbor who annoys her, her physical or mental health.

She will be distressed and clearly in need of your compassionate attention, and as a good friend and partner, you will listen patiently, occasionally uttering sympathetic noises (they don’t have to be actual words), indicating that you really care about her dilemma and that she has every reason to feel as though the world is ending and that she is currently, at this moment, the most justifiably unhappy person in the world.

Once she has exhausted herself, she may then look at you expectantly. And now, you must be very, very careful, my friend.

As men, we like to fix things. We are hard-wired to it and conditioned by our society to assess a problem and come up with a solution. If you have been smart enough simply to listen and let her talk uninterrupted, congratulations. But while you’ve been waiting for her to finish, undoubtedly you’ve been thinking about how to fix her problem, thinking about her best course of action. Her solution, you think, is painfully obvious to you.

If you are smart, rather than suggesting any practical solutions, your best play here is to shut the fuck up.

Why? Why not help her with her problem and “fix” it like you would a dripping faucet or squeaky door? After all, she wouldn’t be sharing all of this if she didn’t want your input, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Your solutions are the last thing she wants right now. Why? Because she already knows the solution, already knows what she has to do next. Remember, she is smarter than you.

You look confused. This is normal. Try to get used to that feeling. Embrace it.

All she wants from you right now is for you to empathize with her, to agree with her. In a pinch, you can even repeat things she just said to you with added emphasis to show that you were listening, that you understand, that you care.

In fact, as spontaneous and anguished as her recital may have been, you may be the third or fourth person with whom she has had this exact same rant. She most likely has approached her girlfriends first, and they’ve already sliced, diced, and dissected this problem over wine, chocolates, and ice cream. They will have tried to sooth your partner with affirmations and oddly communicative woman noises that we (males) cannot duplicate or understand, and they have supplied her with the kind of comfort that only calories and alcohol can bring.

Even knowing this, you will have to battle your impulse to help her slap a patch on the problem. If you find yourself start to say something like, “Well, you know, you could…” or “It seems to me like the best thing to do…” or even worse, “Well, if I were in your place, I’d certainly…” put both hands around your throat and squeeze until you are unable to speak.

Make all of your responses as non-specific as possible. Remember, she’s hurt, unhappy, and angry. Take some comfort that it is not because of something you have done. “That’s terrible,” “I can’t believe this,” “You have every right to be upset,” are all appropriate. You can use any of these more than once because it doesn’t matter what you say. What matters is that she thinks you are listening, that you are concerned.

Finally, she may even articulate what she feels is the solution to her problem and what she plans to do. Your job is to agree enthusiastically. Maybe now it’s time to put your arm around her, offer her a glass of wine, take her out to dinner. After all, she’s been sorely wronged by life, and she sought you out to be her person of the moment. You are one lucky guy. Just try to keep your mouth shut.

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.