ON THE PLUS SIDE
Henry Sherman (“Hank”) Basayne
Resident of San Francisco
March 29, 1927 – April 11, 2011
Hank Basayne passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by family. He had just turned 84. San Francisco columnist, Humanist minister, and a Union Street restaurateur were just a few of the roles Hank played in his long entrepreneurial career. Each of his ventures emphasized and encouraged human vitality, the arts, and mental and emotional well-being.
Born in New York City, he graduated from the High School of Music and Art in 1945. He started his career at WCBS as Edward R. Murrow’s “bag boy.” He studied broadcasting at New York University and continued work as radio writer, producer, and executive producer at WCBS - Radio, program manager at WCCO - Radio (Minneapolis) where he won a Peabody award, and program manager at KCBS - Radio in San Francisco from 1960 through 1965. Hank also produced 50 TV shows for Westinghouse Television.
Hank loved San Francisco, arriving first in 1948 and then settling here for good around 1960. From 1964-68 he taught Broadcasting and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University, while researching and interpreting broadcast ratings as Western Division Manager for Media Statistics. He conceived and designed the Coffee Cantata in 1966, which became an internationally famous restaurant on Union and Buchanan Streets, and was featured in the film, “Bullitt.” He also developed and initiated the Cantata Deli down the block and served as one of the first presidents of the Union Street Merchants’ Association.
As Associate Executive Officer of the Association for Humanistic Psychology (1971-73), Hank developed national regions and chapters. He also became a certified Humanist Counselor. As Executive Officer of the Humanistic Psychology Institute (now Saybrook Institute), he secured State of California accreditation, and developed faculty, the board of Trustees, and the student body (1973-76). Creating the company Educational Events Coordinators, he designed and produced conferences with internationally renowned speakers across the nation, emphasizing human potential with seminars and workshops such as “Birth without Violence,” “Holistic Health,” Non-adversarial Divorce,” “Management of Stress,” and “The Art of Dying.” Hank co-authored the Do-It-Yourself Allergy Analysis Handbook, consulted with both profit and nonprofit businesses, and wrote numerous professional and lay articles primarily on humanistic psychology.
During 1982-86 Hank was Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of California. In addition, Hank officiated at more than a thousand Bay Area marriage, memorial, and naming ceremonies since he was ordained by the Humanist Society of Friends in 1968. He conducted some of those events while flying over the bay, in the shade of Yosemite’s Half Dome, on the cliffs of Mendocino, and all over the Napa and Sonoma wine country. Hank co-authored Weddings, The Magic of Creating Your Own Ceremony. He’s also been a long-standing columnist, with his “On the Plus Side” appearing in the Westside Observer, The Marina Times, and the New Fillmore. Hank also represented the New Fillmore Community Theater, did a stint as Executive Director of San Francisco’s Press Club, and was once Executive Vice-President of the Bay Area Regional Arts Council.
Hank’s love for community led him to serve on many boards, including the San Francisco Mental Health Association, California Institute of Integral Studies, Chamber Music Society of San Francisco, Young Audiences of America, and the Task Force on Future of the Family.
Hank is survived by his children Adela Basayne (of Portland, OR), Michael Basayne (of Napa), and Lisa Francesca (of Campbell), and his grandchildren, Megan, Ryan, Gabriel, Peggy, and Andrew. His enthusiasm, kindness, and ready wit will be missed by all who knew him.
Hank’s last act of generosity was to donate his body to medical science. A memorial will be held on July 10 for friends and family. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations in his name to one or both of two organizations: Sutter VNA and Hospice, and the Palliative Care Fund of Seniors at Home, a division of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco.
Why I'm (Almost) Fearless
"My life has been filled with many misfortunes, most of which never happened." —Mark Twain
Terror is actually so rare in my life that I've had to go looking for it, in Stephen King's chilling tales, in spooky movies, in roller-coaster rides. There's something exhilarating about the rush, the catharsis of these fancied brushes with dread and disaster, and a kind of smug Indiana Jones sense of joyous triumph when the threatened catastrophe doesn't happen.
As I grow older I've become much more careful. I look with increasing wonder at the youthful risks I used to take. I'm astonished at the reckless abandon with which some of my fellow humans frequently tempt terminality: sky-diving, climbing sheer rock walls, making right turns from the left lane, and indulging in casual, unprotected sex.
I think I understand the thrill, the cleansing rush, of these behaviors, but I'm also acutely aware of their potentially impossible high cost. I truly love and prize my life, and while I recognize our human tenacity by clinging to it, I also now know how fragile it can be.
On the other hand, as I continue to age, I find that I am less fearful than I used to be, less likely to wallow in fantasies of star-crossed outcomes, more inclined to give equal time to the prospect of a favorable end result. This unexpected, more relaxed outlook comes from the growing realization that my fears are nearly always in the future, that my apprehensions and anxieties have always been about things that have not yet happened.
Burdened, as we all are, with lively and vivid imaginations, it is the possibility of what might happen that generates my trembling, terror and sometimes panic, never something that is happening right now.
Fear can be beneficial, warning me not to get too close to the precipice, keeping me attentive while handling a sharp knife, causing me to avoid that deserted, dark alley at night. But my apprehension is always about "later," not about "now." I haven't fallen yet, my hand is still uncut, I haven't yet been set upon by thugs.
Fear can be life-saving, providing me with the adrenaline to run from the sabre-toothed tiger or to snatch a toddler from an oncoming car. But on reflection, it isn't the tiger I fear. It's the pain I would suffer IF he/she caught me and started tearing my body apart. It isn't the speeding automobile, it's the anticipation of the sadness and loss that would follow the needless death of a child.
I think about the fears that have cluttered my past: anxiety while being wheeled into an operating room, anguish that a loved one might leave me, dread that a parent or sibling might die, trepidation that I might lose a job.
I have lived long enough to have survived all those things.
I realize that my fears were not about those events, but my own fantasies about what might result from them, that I might die, that I might not be able to make it on my own, that I could be without enough money.
None of those things have yet happened!
Courage is that quality of mind which enables us to meet danger with firmness and valor. I'm not talking here about courage which is facing extreme difficulty and proceeding anyway. I am talking about a slowly dawning realization, based on experience that most of the deepest apprehensions of my past never happened. Therefore shouldn't I start to view threats to my well-being with some equanimity? Shouldn't I consider what it is I really fear, and bear in mind that it is mere fantasy about a possible future outcome that is causing my dread? Since fear is always about something in the future, I need to remember that the future exists only in my imagination.
Not all fear is groundless. Sometimes it is extremely useful. But I have spent so much of my energy avoiding imagined pain and restricting my life by reacting to things that haven't happened that I'm ready to try something different now. Franklin Roosevelt taught us that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." I used to understand that idea to mean "Don't add to the threat by fearing it." Now I see it as meaning "We have nothing to fear; it's only a figment, my imagining of what might happen, but probably won't."
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who wishes you a fearless New Year!
Buried somewhere in the following 750 words, Gentle and Perceptive Reader, you may find a frequently overlooked truth that can save you time, money, grief, and anguish. This mini-epiphany came to me unbidden, a revelation which—if it ever caught on with the world at large— could ruin whole industries, severely injure the economy, and wipe out major publications. At the same time, it will greatly increase your own sense of comfort and confidence.
Do I now have your complete attention?
This rarely acknowledged truth might even save you from committing four of the Seven Deadly Sins, namely pride, covetousness, anger and envy. (Pop-quiz detour: can you name the other three?)
From the mostly ancient of times, ostentatious display, conceit and the desire for admiration for one’s personal attractions have been frowned upon by the keepers of public morality. The Bible wags its admonishing finger at us when we indulge in preening and vain-glory. Philosophers—and others who eschew heavy lifting—warn of the pitfalls of too much self-appreciation.
As I age and decry the lost image of myself as young, vigorous, lean and racy, I’m resigned to the sprouting of my love handles, my ever-rounding belly, my rapidly graying hair—and the loss of same on my head along with its uninvited, unwelcome appearance elsewhere. Gravity attacks and I try to distract myself from the evidence of its triumph over me.
To take away attention from what is actually happening to them, some people indulge in drastic cosmetic surgery or hair coloring in the forlorn hope that no one will notice that they have attained their 50s, 60s, 70s or 80s. Others pursue vigorous, unnatural activity—straining, sweating, and jarring their skeletons, forgetting that the true evolutionary purpose of running is to get away from something or to catch something.
I’ve also seen those who starve themselves in a silly yearning for that svelte anorexic look, exploring the binge-and-purge route. While I haven’t hung on to the 30-inch waist wardrobe I enjoyed in my 20s and 30s I admit—with embarrassment—to retaining some clothing, for sentimental reasons, that I’ll never be able to button again.
As a little tyke I sometimes enjoyed the warm, gentle radiance of being admired—someone thought I was cute, if not actually good-looking. Someone else has laughed at my jokes or praised me for I can’t remember what. Later on, a small handful even thought they might want to spend their lives with me. Once—when they were too young to know better—my kids thought I was wise. And the resulting glow of self-satisfaction was marvelous, even if dangerously addictive.
I, in my turn, have snapped my head to follow the stride of an uncommonly attractive person, even-featured, well-proportioned, tailored, confident. Sometimes I notice such a being with veneration, an appreciation of beauty. Sometimes I react with jealousy, sometimes with nostalgia for the era when I imagined I was the object of such esteem.
Being preoccupied with how I look has not served me well. I remember the night of my high school senior prom. (“Senior” meant something else to me in those days.) Fresh haircut, scoured skin, newly pressed clothing, blindingly shined shoes. But how quickly I shrank from feeling ten feet tall to something less than three. Corsage in hand, I rang the doorbell of my date, who appeared wearing a stunning frock, hair done to a T. She looked me over, and then after a moment said, “You forgot to zip your fly.”
These days, I don’t look in the mirror much, just enough for necessary adjustments like combing my remaining hair or making sure there’s no jam on my beard. Appearing neat and clean does count; being the target of every admiring eye no longer does. Here’s why:
Alert, vigilant and thoughtful readers will remember that earlier in this polemic I promised an insightful bombshell. Pay attention. Wait for it. Here it comes.
Somewhere in my journey through the decades I had a sudden realization: Mostly, people weren’t concerned with how I looked; they were focused on how THEY looked!
Having gone through periods when I was not certain that I really was okay, not truly sure of myself, I might take some tucks in my attitude and behavior. But I’ve come to understand that preoccupation with my appearance—coming across as an improved or superior self—is like trying to polish a brick to a mirror finish. Waste of energy. Can’t be done.
What a relief to discover I’m no longer in everyone else’s cross-hairs. I probably never was.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who wonders how much time you spend thinking about how you look.
Long time, loyal readers may find the following vaguely familiar. It ran in this space way back in 2007. But as the year dwindles down I think it’s worth repeating as a reminder of a choice we can all still make.
It’s September, 1914. A twelve-year old farm boy is rewarded for his summer’s hard work with a trip to a rural Illinois county fair. Wide-eyed, he takes in the freak show, the pungent animal smells, the amazing sword-swallower and the bearded lady. Tries his skill at pitching baseballs at a pyramid of glass bottles. No luck. Wandering, with frequent snatches at his cone of cotton candy, he pauses at a sign with the compelling invitation to “Know Your Future”. Finds a dime in his pocket and warily enters the darkened tent.
An old woman in garish Gypsy costume motions him to the seat opposite her at the worn table with a crystal ball in its center. She tells him he’s a good, hard-working boy with talents yet unexplored. “You have a gift to give to the world,” she adds. Then a frown crosses her face. A long silence and then she breaks the cardinal rule of fortune tellers by giving him the bad news. “You will die young,” she says.
Shaken and sobered, he slowly walks through the carnival’s other attractions, preoccupied, unaware of the crude, showy and noisy environment begging for his attention.
That night, sitting on the edge of his bed, head in hands, he wonders what the prophecy really means, how he would die, and when. And what did she mean about unexplored talents? Next morning, while accomplishing his chores, he makes a decision that will shape and inform the rest of his life. “If I don’t have long to live, if I’m really going to die young, I can’t waste any time. I’d better get going!”
And he does. With his strict upbringing and few distractions, he becomes a self-disciplined, independent and somewhat isolated person. He reads avidly, majors in agriculture in college, then decides to prepare for the ministry and switches to religion. From time to time he remembers the fortune teller’s prediction and—in his twenties—notices that he is still alive.
He marries, moves to New York, studies theology, switches to psychology and earns his Ph.D. in 1931. Nine years later he accepts a full professorship at Ohio State. Still driven by the belief that he hasn’t much time left, he applies himself vigorously to his work, publishing his first book the next year. His career blossoms. He makes major, original contributions to the profession of psychology. He becomes widely respected and internationally known. He is a warm, accessible, much-loved human being. He is active, enjoys a devoted family life, finds pleasure in his work, his accomplishments and his relationships. He is nominated for a Nobel Prize.
In his forties, fifties and sixties, he occasionally remembers the dire prophecy from his youth. And finally, in his seventies, the light dawns. He finally understands what the Gypsy fortune teller really meant: “At whatever age you die, you will die young!” Carl Rogers lived a full and fruitful life until his actual death, at the age of eighty-five.
Now, as an octogenarian myself, I know that staying active, staying curious, staying connected with others are the essential ingredients for staying young. Most of the elders I know feel their age physically, as the packaging deteriorates and body parts become less reliable. But ask them how old they are in their minds and, generally, they’ll report feeling younger than their years.
Sure, I’m winded when I walk up a hill, my fingers often now have trouble with buttons, I’m cranky when I don’t get my afternoon nap. But meeting new people, finding out about them, reading an engaging novel, listening to beloved familiar music, scratching my cat’s ears—all are ways of continuing to feel fully alive. I’m as interested in what’s next as I was at thirty. Focusing on what I used to be or focusing on what’s possible now is a choice. I prefer to stay in the present so that I, too, can die young.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan. He is busily working on a book to be titled “I’m Still Vertical, Thank You!”
LARS DIDN’T DO IT
As I continue getting somewhat long in the tooth—a few of you may be like me in that regard—I can remember way back to my early school days when I was required to memorize some lengthy classic poems. It amazes me how exercise implants that poetry into the marrow. I can’t tell you for sure what I had for dinner last Thursday, but I could put you to sleep reciting some Walter de la Mare—and don’t get me started on Shelley’s “My Name is Ozymandias, King of Kings.”
Along with The Three Rs, it was a given that by the time you clambered into high school you could identify and accurately recite at least some of the gems of English literature. And, because the mind of a kid is a sponge, the words that I soaked up then—if I didn’t yet get their full import—remain with me almost three-quarters of a century later.
I can still tell you what Abu Ben Adam saw within the moonlight in his room, what it is like to wander lonely as a cloud and find a host of golden daffodils, why the “luv” of Robert Burns was like a red, red rose, and why Tennyson wanted no moaning at the bar when he put out to sea. I can get all the way to why April is the cruelest month, and repeat what the raven quoth.
I don’t take any particular pride in or credit for this—my memory is about the usual, although the short-term memory is spotty—but the panic that ensued when I thought the teacher might call on me to recite focuses the mind wonderfully. Powerful motivation, indeed.
I understand now why reading and memorizing poetry is as important as knowing what happened in 1789, in 1848, in 1933, in 1945 and in 2001. For me, the continuing study of history is like eating celery: I’d never order it, but if it’s there, I’ll chomp on it—and even derive some satisfaction from the cool crunch. As I continue to age—the alternative is unattractive—I am more and more inclined to look back, way back, to try to understand the absurd and preposterous twists and turns of the human journey.
We can draw a line from Pilate through Ptolemy, the Caesars, Louis the XIV, Rasputin and Himmler, all the way to certain current politicians and legislators and be overwhelmed with the prevalence of dishonesty, bribery, immorality and impurity. But history as she is writ is not history as she is made. History is told by the winners and whatever goodness was inherent in the losers is blown in the wind and covered by the sands of time.
Mostly, but not always.
Like you, I watch my pennies carefully, but acting on an impulse I don’t fully understand, I recently purchased some very ancient history. As I began to browse through a tome titled The Etruscans (isn’t that where you’d start?) the tiny bit I thought I knew about these early Italians was shown to be dead wrong.
What I thought I knew I had learned from memorizing a poem in high school by Thomas Macauley. It began “Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore, that the great house of Tarquin would suffer wrong no more…” Or something like that.
Lars was king of Etruria, if you’ll cast your mind back to the 6th Century B.C., and reportedly was prevented from leading his expedition against Rome, turned back by the bravery of Horatius. Remember Horatio at the bridge? Not! It didn’t happen that way at all. Macauley had swallowed the Roman version, written much later by Tacitus, a classic case of cover up.
Actually, Porsena did not flee, but entered, conquered and occupied Rome and became its ruler. The later Roman historians found it unflattering that the upstart Etruscans had made hash of them. So they re-wrote the story and reversed the outcome. Poor Lars.
Isn’t history fun? Next time I’ll give you the real skinny on Marie Antoinette.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who wonders what future historians will say about us Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
My Superior Forgettery
Remember where you parked your car on your last trip to the mall? If you’re old enough to remember Dallas, how about who shot J.R.? Any luck recalling the name of the Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1988, the one who debated Dan Quayle? How about the name of the second person you dated in high school?
It’s unnerving to find that my once much more dependable memory has turned against me. In the twilight of my life I sometimes go from one room into another, then stand there, wondering what I went in there for. My best advice to myself: get used to it!
On the other hand, I’ll bet you can recall your first telephone number. It was easier then: no area code to remember, no “Press One for….” And I’m sure you can recite your Social Security number—just be sure no one’s listening.
I fight back. I make lists. If I’m feeling emotionally secure enough at the moment, I might even ask some else to remind me of the name of a movie or a song I once loved. Would that I had a personal, reliable, mental multi-megabyte hard disk with a good search function!
We’re all like two-headed Janus, looking forward and looking backward at the same time. When I was young, it was easier. I hadn’t accumulated so much of a past to re-examine. But as I’ve aged I’m increasingly tempted to explore the trail I’ve left. It may be that it helps avert my eyes from my future.
It was the German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer who gave his name to the horrible kind of dementia that comes from organic disease, but the kind of intermittent, temporary memory loss I’m talking about is—I suspect—more often the result of inattention. On the general theory that everything has to be somewhere, I recognize that the thing I’m trying to remember right now has not vanished. Later, when I’m not staring directly at it, it may come back to me. It was lurking in the little gray cells all the time. Were I less distracted by my incessant flow of thoughts, plans, ideas and feelings, I’d be able to bring my full attention to the tasks of focusing, searching, finding and retrieving the memory I want. But—like you—I’m merely human: a flawed being, tantalized by the vision of who I could be while staying stuck with who I am.
We’re all like two-headed Janus, looking forward and looking backward at the same time. When I was young, it was easier. I hadn’t accumulated so much of a past to re-examine. But as I’ve aged I’m increasingly tempted to explore the trail I’ve left. It may be that it helps avert my eyes from my future.
I find that it pays to keep trying to hone the cutting edge of my memory. Mental muscles, like physical ones, gain strength and tone if reinforced with frequent practice. Whether I’m trying to gather memories to hand off to the generations that will succeed me, or merely to savor and re-visit parts of my own journey, I believe that my persistent attempt to search my past fortifies that ability.
I have spotty and highly selective remembrance of some of my triumphs and disappointments, my successes and my failures. Some of the memories that return make me want to cover my face with my hands, saying to myself--with embarrassment—“Did I do that?” But there are other fragments that generate a small, inward smile of remembered pleasure or even pride. As I think back in time I remember others—some now quite old, others gone—who enriched my understanding or influenced my beliefs. I’m grateful to them. But just as my life-long struggle against gravity is doomed to failure, so is my persistence in searching for a mind that will cough up the information I demand when I want it. I continue to strive because I hate feeling like a helpless victim. I continue to labor to remember, to revisit my earlier selves, as a way of trying to make sense of where I’ve been, where I am, and how I became the me that’s telling you all this.
Now, where did I put my keys? Standing in the market, what else was I going to buy? Oh, that Vice Presidential candidate? Lloyd Bentsen.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who doesn’t care who shot J. R.
Conversations With the Other Me
In one of my occasional attempts to try to make sense of this strange business of growing older I’m considering the possibility that imagining my future might make just as much sense as reviewing my past. I can’t recall where I hid my magic wand or when I mislaid the wishing ring, but if now—in my 80s—I were to stumble on either one, I’d conjure up some visits with myself at some different—both earlier and later—ages.
As I think about this I’m struck first by how large a cast of characters I’ve been: the eager young and somewhat superficial corporate executive; the daring, creative and sometimes foolhardy entrepreneur; the outwardly dutiful but inwardly resentful son; the sometimes devoted husband, and at other times the squirrelly, unreliable husband. I was also a patient, loving father of young children and the impatient, self-focused father of teenagers; a doting grandparent; a sometimes tough boss. I’ve been a patient, attentive lover as well as a person who heedlessly ran over others, ignoring the reality of their feelings.
At times I was a compassionate friend, a public performer, a goofy joke-teller, and a concerned teacher and wise counselor. At parties, a “hale fellow, well met,” but on the inside, insecure and doubting my own worth. Sometimes a crier at movies or on hearing certain music. I’ve mishandled important relationships, taken unwise risks. “Me” turns out to be plural: courageous, cowardly, enthusiastic, depressed, innovative, lazy, energetic—the list is endless.
I really find I don’t like a lot of those people. I didn’t like some of them while I was being them. I wish that when I was 19 I could have had a serious conversation with me as I am now—or at least when I was in my 50s. I might have made different, better choices. Looking back, much of my life seems to have been lived in a semi-conscious state—unable or unwilling to look at the consequences of my decisions.
While somewhat sobering, this exercise has been useful. In looking back I’ve found some of those past personae to be quite okay. I would now cross the street to avoid some of the others. While none of us knows how many heartbeats we have left, looking ahead I sense an opportunity to still fashion a bit of the person I would have liked to become.
What would my conversation with myself be like if I could visit with me at 90? The 90-year-old me might remind the 83-year-old me that the ability to forget is as useful as the ability to remember. There’s comfort in the fact that there’s a whole lot I don’t have to go through anymore. He might congratulate me on realizing that I don’t need to still try to impress anyone, no need to continue trying to be the good guy or the pleaser. He’d caution me to judge others less harshly, to let go of preoccupation with the trivial and give up the persistent need to try to understand or know everything.
He would probably advise me to deepen the connections with others that I still have left, spend more time with children and grandchildren and friends, and to pursue my true passions: reading, music, theater and dance. I’m sure he would counsel me to spend more time in cultivating an inner tranquility and prepare myself to accept my death without regret or terror.
Any of us who are conscious of aging must, in some small way, be heroic. I have deep respect and admiration for the courage and bravery of every human who struggles to get through the day, the week, the year—and tries to find meaning in life. Looking both back and ahead is a kind of triangulation, helping us to see where we are, what we still want, what’s in the way, how we might negotiate around any obstacles. Talking with the child I was and the older person I may still become is revealing, instructive and fruitful. Now, where did I put that wishing ring? I’d love to have those conversations with the other me’s.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan knows better than to spend time hunting for a wand. Feedback: email@example.com
Hope Springs Internal!
I know how busy you are. We all have far too much to do. (So how come you’re reading this? Is this really the best use of your time right now? Don’t you have better things to do than to sit around, hoping I’m going to provide the answer to all your life’s problems? But I digress….)
Let it be said at the outset that I, like many, was absent the day they taught Humility 101. As the only son of a doting mother I came to believe that I was a precious sphere among mere circles—in the words of Nabakov, “a crystal among glass”. Never doubting the successful conclusion of any enterprise I began, I somehow remain a shining example of Hope over Experience. That arrogance and pomposity has served me well at times; not so well at other times. Oh yes, I’ve run into plenty of concrete walls, stumbled here and there, suffered more than the requisite number of collapsed relationships, landed on my nose. Often, I’ve fallen short of my envisioned goal. Yet I stubbornly remain unreasonably optimistic.
Young people expect that those of us who have somehow survived into Old Age become wise and moderate. Ha! Only we who are actually there know how ill-founded that surmise is. I still make decisions grounded in unproved assumptions, am still often plagued by doubt. Much of what I try to do is based on guesses and hopes. Amazingly, I’m still surprised when things don’t always turn out as I want them to. Like you, I travel with an incomzzzplete map that doesn’t reveal the pitfalls and barriers that lurk ahead, waiting to frustrate my plans. Too many of the cards I need to see are still face down on the table.
Is the Universe friendly or hostile? Are other people basically good or evil? As I pursue the ever-elusive goal of happiness I find that my life is more enjoyable if I come down on the side of optimism. Fantasy, you say? All of my life’s best realities began with fantasy. All vacation trips begin with fantasy. Were I to build a dream house, it would have to start with a dream. Beginning a new job, moving to a new location, starting a new relationship—or re-tooling an old one—everything that I hope to find valuable begins with fantasy.
Do I realize it’s fantasy? I’ve managed to stay out of the hands of therapists so far by being able to recognize the difference between reality and the dream. Applying magical thinking to the real world most often ends in disappointment, failure or disaster. But unshackling my mind, allowing it to roam freely, it makes up things. It imagines what is not yet. That’s the first step to creating something new. If I can visualize an outcome and identify the obstacles to achieving it, plot the campaign, plan the steps, I’m well on my way to making it happen.
When something I desire seems possible to me, I feel a resurgence of energy. Boredom is banished and my creativity is engaged once again. Who doesn’t like new beginnings? Imagining something new rekindles my courage, my confidence, my sense of aliveness. If I choose to pursue that fantasy I know I’m closing other options, but I’m also starting on my next adventure.
The thirteen steps up to my flat get steeper. Computer type sizes get smaller. My fingers have lost some of their dexterity. My aging body continues to surprise me with unanticipated twinges. But my body is older than me! Internally I can still find enthusiasm, curiosity, rich memories and plans for the future. More often than not, I choose to notice what’s inside.
I’m constantly confronting choices. This road or that? Work today or play? Waffles or bacon and eggs? Read the book or watch the new Netflix? Exercise or rest? But I also frequently need to deal with larger, life-shaping alternatives. Wringing my hands, blaming, viewing with alarm, enumerating pitfalls, collecting grievances—these all seem like lesser choices to me. Expecting things will get better, that I’ll still find some of the joys I’m seeking, that the sun will rise tomorrow—these seem like a better path. I choose Hope.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and an author who revels in connection with like-minded others.Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting To Know You
Because you and I are now getting used to life in the Third Millennium, we won’t be shocked by the possibility that the brain is a hologram. (Stay with me—this gets easier.)
Remember what a hologram is? If you want to see one, you have only to look at one of the credit cards in your wallet—if you still carry any of those dangerous 20th Century things. It’s that little photographic image that seems to change as you tilt it this way and that. Earlier dictionaries don’t include the word because it can only be created by coherent light—a laser—common now in CDs, DVDs and ID cards—but a relatively recent invention.
One of the curious, almost-Harry-Potter-magical properties of the hologram is that any part of it contains a lot of the information about all the rest of it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we mere humans shared that characteristic? I’d have a much better sense of you— the whole picture—instead of just the particular face you’re wearing when we encounter each other. I’d have a much better sense of myself, too—all of my attributes, instead of just my frame of mind at any given moment. I’d know myself in my entirety all the time instead of just the limited view filtered by my transient mood.
“… When the ‘coster’s finished jumping on his mother, he loves to lie a-basking in the sun…” Now if you’re not conversant with the delicious 19th Century word-play of Gilbert and Sullivan, that quote is from their lament “A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One.” It makes the point about how infernally complex each human being is and the almost hopeless task we face in trying to truly and completely understand each other.
The idiot in the oversized SUV who cuts in front of me, making a right turn from the left lane, may also be the gourmet cook who prepares a delicate scaloppini to the mystical strains of music by Eric Satie. The shrew who snatched the last cashmere sweater from you at the Loehman’s sale is possibly also the person who gave up a Saturday to help clean the beach and lovingly adopts orphaned animals.
Conversely, that generous, philanthropic psychiatrist who devotes his life to helping people with their problems of living may just also be the drunken lout at home who beats his kids. And we think we really know each other!
One of the joys of aging is the paradoxical gift of time. While I know that my future on the planet is much shorter than my past, there is also now a freedom from the clock that was not available when I was driven by attending classes, raising kids, holding a job, maintaining a household. And one of the possible uses of my discretionary time now is to try to reduce the perpetual sense of isolation and loneliness that I suspect all of us feel at our inner core. The nagging desire to feel more connected with others can be somewhat alleviated, but it takes effort and attention.
To try to get to really know you, you’d think I’d start by asking lots of questions, but my experience tells me that approach wouldn’t accomplish the intimacy that I seek. Probing questions can make others feel invaded, attacked, defensive. But to the extent that I can disclose myself to you—become more transparent, reveal my passions, fears, hopes, and preferences—there is an inherent invitation for you to do the same. We discover our similarities and our differences, agreements and conflicts. We discover that we’ve shared many of the same sorrows and pleasures, and that, while we follow separate paths, our journeys have some experiences in common.
I don’t know whether or not the brain is a hologram, but I do know that the part we show to each other does not make the whole known. I’d probably have more compassion for people who annoy me if it did. So if I am to narrow the gap between us I must try to understand who you really are. But I can only hope to open that door to you by unlocking and opening my own.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and an author who revels in connection with like-minded others.Feedback: email@example.com
How can I die when my New Yorker subscription still has almost a year to run? And—in a reckless challenge to the fates— I’m sure to survive for at least another 24 months because my driver’s license doesn’t expire for another two years. (I can’t expire before it does, can I?) You’ll fully appreciate the arrogance of this point of view if you know that I’m oozing into my low eighties.
Optimism? Faith? Or some kind of superstitious bargain with the Cosmos? The logic is about the same as that employed by Thurber’s cartoon matron, demanding of the bank teller: “How can I be out of money when I still have all these checks left?”
I’d never cross a street or mail a letter if I lived in the constant expectation of evil. If I chose to escape all risk, I’d sleep on the floor to avoid falling out of bed. I’d put on gloves before shaking hands with anyone. To evade all perils, I’d never go outdoors or write down anything—especially on Facebook.
The Universe, it seems, is basically indifferent to my plans. I find Fate somewhat unreliable. Things don’t always go according to my design—in fact, they rarely do. That annoying reality might be a cause for despair and paralysis, but I prefer to view it as adding the excitement of uncertainty to the ordinary business of living: surprise can delight; the unexpected can present a challenge.
While I continue to plan and prepare, I’m conscious that the sudden and abrupt stumble may very well lie just ahead. We all found that out when we were learning to walk. We simultaneously learned that we needed to pick ourselves up and try again.
“I am haunted by a vision in which medical science cures everything and makes everyone immortal—and I am the last person to die before scientists get it right,” I read a while back in Salon. Me too.
Well, despite our best efforts, and the best efforts of science, of course we will die. We don’t know when, where or how, but there is no “if.”
We are all aging all the time and the average age in the Western world is creeping upward. More and more of us find ourselves classified as middle-aged or elderly. We can’t do anything about it. And—mostly-- we’re not happy about it.
Each new decade is a first time for each of us, but aging is not a new issue. In 44 B. C., Cicero speculated about why humans are disheartened by the prospect of growing old. He came up with four reasons: First, it withdraws us from many activities that formerly we were able to pursue. Second, our bodies grow weaker. Third, it deprives us of many familiar physical pleasures. And fourth, it moves us closer to death. Not one to merely view with alarm, he also considered how we might diminish our fears and the depredations of our inevitable decline.
Much of his remedy is that boring old stuff your Mom nagged you about, and every stress-reduction and self-help guru repeats endlessly. Old Marcus advised that to make the Ultimate easier, we need to prepare by keeping ourselves agile, by living moderately, by eating sensibly. We can’t start too early to get ready for “later” by getting and staying in shape,
Another part of his prescription is also familiar: grow, nourish and maintain your Social Support system. (That’s not a phrase Cicero would have used). Develop friendships, make yourself part of a community, protect and nurture the relationships with people who are important to you.
He also advised that—early on—we cultivate our taste for the mental, intellectual and artistic pleasures, so that life still will have savor when other pleasures ebb.
Unfortunately, Cicero did not get to enjoy the fruits of his own advice about finding happiness in the advancing years: he was executed for political reasons at the age of 63.
I NEVER Exaggerate
I like to think of myself—in my fantasy—as way cool. You know, reserved, moving slowly and deliberately. (Important people are never in a hurry.) Serious, not full of smiles, rarely laughing. Somewhat formal. Always sensible. Never nodding in agreement. Pausing, for a beat or two, before thoughtfully responding to anyone. Speaking quietly, so that others may have to strain a little to hear me. Not speaking very often, so that others have to wonder or speculate about what I’m thinking. Like Robert Vaughn in Bullitt, or Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, or Al Pacino as the older Michael Corleone, or Herbert Marshall in anything. Think Ben Kingsley, laden with gravitas.
So much for fantasy. In reality I am very much otherwise. Burdened with persistent curiosity and a sometimes alarming amount of enthusiasm, my Myers-Briggs personality type is ENFP. I once heard ENFPs described as “the puppy dogs of the universe.” You know how they are, tails always wagging, eager, hyper energetic, constantly busy, passionately poking into everything, fascinated by a dead leaf blown by the wind, always looking for something new to chew or paw, or considering what to eat next. Puppies playing make you smile but you never take them seriously.
While I don’t yell very often any more, I do tend to express myself vigorously. Hungry, I’m liable to say I’m
starving! Having enjoyed a movie, a concert or a book, I’m apt to express my pleasure with I
loved it! Disappointed might come out as Devastated! So much for gravitas and restraint.
Like you, I have my ups and downs. In my middle years my “downs” or blue periods might have been written by Dostoyevsky. (“Suffering is the sole source of consciousness.”) Not so much now that I’m an elder. I’ll let the darker moods play out, believing that they will pass and the sun will come out again.
Elders—supposedly having accumulated some wisdom from experience—are expected to be moderate, serious, mostly solemn, kindly but pensive. It’s a role I try to play every so often but it doesn’t feel like my natural state. Excitement is absolutely more interesting to me than self-possession. I’m more curious about the extreme than the judicious. So what if I sometimes come off as excessive. Moderation in all things, we are instructed. Does that include being moderate about moderation?
Yelling, being loud, seems to belong to the young, or at least to the immature. Excess testosterone? The need to be heard? The belief that I’m not real unless others notice me? I find that kind of overkill annoying, more than is required. Like profanity, I see forceful expression at high volume both coarse and offensive, a bankruptcy of ideas and reason. In these later years I value tranquility more than I used to. As a kid I wondered how old people could just sit in the sun, doing nothing. Now I find that prospect somewhat attractive.
I don’t know if the constant drive for self-improvement is just an American trait. Losing weight, getting fit, saving for tomorrow, fixing the broken shutter, finding more efficient ways to do things—next week I’ve got to get organized. It’s as though we each carry a chrome-plated model of perfection that we persistently, and futilely, try to match. But there is a serenity that comes with an end to striving, a calmness, a sense of relief.
In the end, I’m stuck with just being me. Perfection will remain out of reach. I will continue to lean more toward the Sid Caesar in me than the Ben Kingsley. I’m likely to continue to use words like Always and Never, to sometimes over-sell my enthusiasms, to still say I’m exhausted when I’m merely tired. Perhaps one of the true joys of aging is the slowly dawning realization of the profound wisdom of Popeye as he sang “I yam what I yam, and that’s all I yam!”
MEridian 7-1212 or POpcorn
I think we’ve lost something. Despite the many conveniences we enjoy with the wondrous advances of technology, there was a simpler, more predictable and more graceful time within living memory—say the middle of the last century. If you were born in the 1950s, or earlier, you’ll probably agree.
I know what time it is, or—if I don’t—my iPhone, my computer, or my television set will tell me, with alarming precision. But back in those days, when I had to wind my watch every night and set it frequently, if I wanted to know the correct time, I’d rely on Ma Bell. As a kid, growing up on the East Coast, I had only to dial MEridian 7-1212 and I’d hear a mellifluous female voice say, “When you hear the signal, the time will be eight-thirty-one and ten seconds, exactly.” Then a brief pause, then a beep. My children grew up here on the Left Coast and they learned very early that to get the right time they had only to dial POpcorn (which works out to 767-2676).
In my grandfather’s time he’d simply tell the telephone operator the name of the person he wanted to speak to. In my father’s time, he would tell her—always a her—the number he wanted to be connected to. But those numbers had prefixes that were names, names that told him, more or less, where the person was. I can remember, as a child of four, being drilled to remember my home number, which was SChuyler-4-3887. That was 79 years ago. Some memories die hard.
Glenn Miller had a popular record called PEnnsylvania 6-5000. Jimmy Stewart starred in a movie named NOrthside 777, which took place in Chicago. John O’Hara wrote a book called BUtterfielld-8, a glitzy New York neighborhood. Each of those prefixes evoked a place, an ambience.
Here in the Bay Area I was intrigued by the many San Francisco prefixes, colorful names that would bring to mind the exotic history of the West or feelings from the past. I loved YUkon-2, which was my first business phone prefix, and KLondike-5 made me know I was really in the romantic West. There were many other wonderful, rich phone numbers here that began with LOmbard-4, SKyline-1, TUxedo-5, MArket (the Van Ness area), EXbrook (the financial district), WEst-1 (the Marina). Others I remember include SEabright, MOntrose, JUniper, BAyview, BAlboa, FIllmore, GArfield, PRospect, DElaware, EVergreen, WAlnut, HEmlock, MIssion, VAlencia, and JOrdan.
My life is increasingly digitized. Area Codes, door-entry buttons, PIN numbers, clock faces. (I really miss “…the big hand is on the four and the little hand is on ten”.)
The Arabs gave us numbers which are amazingly useful. Otherwise we’d still be stuck with just One or More Than One. Our civilization would be unrecognizable without that precious gift. But there is ancient power in names. To name something is to exercise a certain control over it, which began with Adam and Eve in Eden. I count myself fortunate to live in a time when the geographers have not (yet) succumbed to numbering places instead of naming them. Otherwise I’d miss the magic and mystery of knowing places called Thief River Falls in Minnesota, Death Valley, Hangtown, Oxbow, Bull Run and the ever-enigmatic Yreka. I’d miss all the wonderful Native American place names that describe, locate and identify where we are and where we are not, from Ottawa, Miami, Saginaw, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Oshkosh all the way to Walla Walla. I’d miss the Spanish named cities and towns from Santa Fe to La Jolla, Sacramento, Coronado, El Cajon, Laguna and Los Banos… not to mention all of the many western cities that begin with San and Santa, named for the saints.
I think we’ve lost something important as we’ve become more mechanized and tech-savvy. We’ve lost a lot of the warmth and color and romance that used to suffuse our lives. My present phone number begins with 567-. I think that used to be JOrdan-7. I may start using it again. A man does not fight only to win.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, an author and a minister. He’s glad he has a name, not a number.
Out With the New and In With the Old
Likely you are gearing up for the annual rash of holidays. I know you’d welcome any distraction from the endless miseries that fill the nightly news: this crippled economy, health care (shouldn’t that really be “illness care”?) as well as that new ache in your back. Not to mention Afghanistan, hard-to-find H1N1 vaccine, heavy traffic, unpredictable weather, and all the spam in your email.
While you’re diverting yourself with your excessive revels, I’ll be paying homage to Janus, the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings and endings. He has two heads, two faces, each looking in opposite directions, enabling him to see both the future and the past. (I wonder, is that a gift or a curse?) But it’s useful physiognomy for his namesake month.
I’ll be spending some time during these no-longer-very-holy holidays reviewing my own past year and planning/speculating about the next. Looking over my own ‘09 will entail a certain amount of hand-wringing, secret smiles, self-blame and astonishment. It’s probably a useless practice, but one I indulge in from time to time to prove I’m merely just another flawed human.
I realize that we don’t really know each other. Oh, we may have been at some Trader Joe’s at the same time, or in different parts of a darkened theater, or one of us may have honked at the other for some stupid automotive near-miss. But, even if we haven’t been introduced, I have an urge—which comes over me from time to time—to share the accumulated wisdom of my many years. Some of it is born of my own uncomfortable experiences. Some is from a collection of snippets I’ve gathered over the decades, mostly from now-defunct magazines, including Popular Mechanics. (At least I think it’s defunct. Haven’t seen one for ages.) The rest is from stuff I’ve overheard while waiting in the check-out line.
I’m not saying I really know anything important to share with you or have useful advice to give you or even know why the robin sings. It’s just that while we’re all groping for reasons to get out of bed tomorrow morning, any straw we can grasp at provides an illusion of doing something that might help. I know, it’s an outside chance. It’s why we need each other.
Here’s the thing: As I revisit the past twelve months and how I spent—or misspent—them, I experience some embarrassment, some pride, some amazement. A lot of it is a blur, like the things I was worried about in 1997. Can’t remember them no matter how hard I try. Un-Janus-like, I spent much of the past year looking only forward, focusing on what was next, fearing some things that never actually happened, hoping for things that also didn’t happen. Sure, there were goodies along the way, some pleasures, some surprises, some brief moments when I actually got out of myself. I mean a momentary instance when all that was real was the taste of a special food, a particular musical harmony, a breathlessness from laughing hard. Transcendent flashes like that stick out, bright pebbles among the ordinary ones, the flecks of golden ore that made all the muddy searching worthwhile.
Resolutions about how I’ll try to do better next year seem faintly pathetic. I could fill boxes with promises I’ve made to myself that I found ways not to keep. Intentions are noble but I need an actual frying pan if the fish are really to get fried.
I’m pretty sure that things used to be better than they are now.
They certainly were simpler, easier, more manageable. I don’t think this is merely the nostalgia of an old guy yearning for his long-gone youth. (Don’t think I’d go back there even if I could). But this Brave New World seems not brave but distracted with egos rampant and superficialities supreme. Lots of action, lots of noise, but with the enduring solidity of soapy foam.
Where I am? Looking forward: Not useful. Looking backward: Not useful. Who needs Janus? Have a happy holiday!
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan who knows a little bit about a lot of things but doesn’t know enough about you. Maybe next year.
I can find plenty of reasons to be pessimistic but, oddly, I can also see justification for looking on the bright side. Confused? Contradictory? No, not more than most. Just reminding myself that things are not always straightforward and simple. I find the world around me becoming increasingly fragmented, which makes it more difficult to take a stand, to stay consistent.
Not that I’m convinced that consistency is a always a virtue. Move it up a notch or two and one becomes a True Believer, an ideologue, unable to take in other points of view and enjoy the rare pleasure of a change of mind.
I wonder if those of us who can look back over three-quarters of a dozen decades all believe that, when we were young, life was simpler, more orderly, more predictable. I know that I’ve become quite skilled at self-deception. I know that my memory is shamefully selective. The further away I get from the starting line, the more likely it is that a rosy glow will suffuse my recollections.
But I do remember when I had a choice among five local daily papers instead of just one. Now there are hundreds available to me online. I remember being able to easily find legal parking places when I went downtown to shop. During the years when I was still in thrall to the corporate 9-to-5 rigidity there was still time to take an hour and a half for lunch, to visit with co-workers, to actually leave the office at 5. Take work home? Work on weekends? Breakfast business meetings? Never!
I remember when $5000. was a good annual salary—spouse didn’t have to work and there was still enough money left for vacations, an auto and savings. Gas was about 30-cents a gallon. The bank didn’t ask for my I.D. It was okay to pick up hitch hikers and everyone watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights. Long gone now: My Nehru Jacket, flashbulbs, the Princess Phone and that silly Lava Lamp.
On the other hand—and there always is another hand—people died at much younger ages, polio crippled and killed, We stumbled on despite assassinations, the A-bomb and its big brother the H-bomb, and suffered through almost perpetual wars in places we couldn’t pronounce or find on the map.
I believe there’s a case to be made for shadows. Paintings and movies would be much less interesting without them. If every day were sunny I’d probably stop noticing and appreciating them. Without the occasional pain, or headache or cold, I’d take my days of feeling good too much for granted. If I didn’t have a feeling of hunger every so often I’d miss the pleasure of feeling well-satisfied after a good meal.
My life isn’t just one thing—or rather, it is one thing, made up of many, many pieces. Joy, loneliness, love, anger, satisfaction, curiosity, affection, boredom and appreciation. Many more. Somehow the little separate tiles fit together, not always neatly, and make up the mosaic that is me. Some elements are cracked and irregular, some glow with beauty. But even as I approach the end of my journey, I cannot see the whole picture. Maybe I never will. But Chance and my choices have created whatever it turns out to be.
Ancient Greek mythology describes the Three Fates who determine the shape of our lives. There is Clotho, the spinner of the thread. There is Lachesis—the allotter—who measures the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod determining how long it is to be. And there is Atropos—the inexorable—who is the cutter of the thread of life. She chooses the manner of each person’s death; and when their time has come, she cuts their life-thread with her shears.
I’m not sure they got it quite right. I can imagine my life as two entwined threads, the dark and the bright, the gold and the black. And I suspect that when I can accept both of them as necessary and legitimate, I’ll find a greater measure of serenity and tranquility.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan and a Humanist Minister. He spends a lot of time these days sorting through all the threads that make up his tapestry.
What I Know For Sure
I can’t tell you anything about the origins of Life or what—if anything--happens after we die. As I (surprisingly) continue to age I am absolutely positive about less and less. I have only a dim grasp of the theory of flight, know nothing at all about metallurgy—except I can recognize rust when I see it. Higher mathematics is completely mysterious. I find even lower mathematics somewhat depressing. I love words but numbers induce mild melancholia in me.
The list of things I’ll never fully understand continues to grow, faster than I do. Although I basked in certainty in the arrogance of my youth, there are precious few things I now know for sure. Oh yes, I have lots of opinions. Often wrong, but never in doubt. I make some wild guesses, some of which—amazingly--turn out to be useful.
I make a careful distinction between Information and Knowledge, and I try not to confuse Knowledge with Wisdom. Wisdom is sadly always in short supply. But to truly, completely understand anything? That happy condition continues to elude me.
I guess I have a world view, things I assume or take for granted. Most of us think certain things are true despite the lack of evidence for such beliefs. And it’s always a jolt to discover that my basic premises are not universally shared. In fact some of my presuppositions seem to be uniquely my own, not held in common with anyone else.
Do I continually make up my own reality, inventing the strange Universe I inhabit? Does everyone else do the same thing? No wonder there is so much messy misunderstanding, conflict, confusion and disagreement. Author William Golding said that to communicate is our passion and our despair. Right on, Bill!
This business of aging is more difficult than advertised. For instance, internally I’m only 32 but my body is fifty years older. That disparity really gets in my way. I make plans, lists, mentally undertake great creative leaps, then it turns out my body says it’s too tired, or it hurts, or it’s not strong enough, or let’s do that later—much later—or maybe not at all. As if I thought I would live forever! But in some quiet place, deep inside, I know I won’t. Turns out that this life is not just a rehearsal—it’s the actual performance, so everything counts.
My good intentions turn out not to be good enough. Someone who lives in a distant city, for whom I hold happy memories and deep affection, has been out-of-touch for a long while. I need to call him or write and reconnect. It’s on my list. Then, in order to avoid doing something else, I impulsively call him—and discover that he had died while I was busy not calling him earlier. There’s suddenly one less person I really care about who is available to me. My remaining life is again diminished.
I’ve never been much good at farewells. Endings, exits and goodbyes make me sorrowful. That sad clown Pagliacci said we appear on the stage without asking, we take leave without wanting to go. But it’s the exits of the other players that wrench the heart—all the laughter that won’t now be shared, the hugs that will stay unhugged, the mutual understandings that are broken now.
If you’ve read this far it may be because you hoped to learn something useful, or because you share our human curiosity about each other, or because sometimes you find my musings entertaining. I’ve been thinking about you, too, as I’ve been writing this, although we may not have met or have not been together in a while. I’m writing this in a different time and place than you’re reading it, but it is a connection of sorts, one that I value. I started this talking about what I didn’t know for sure, but I am pretty sure about two things: We need each other. We ought to stop putting off important things.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and an author, who didn’t want to delay telling you what he is thinking about right now.
FLOTSAM & JETSAM & ME
“…Apelike they are, and simian, instead of normal men and wimian!”
I’m sitting in the car, waiting for the light to change, and from somewhere, deep in the dark jungle of my brain, out slithers the above quote, a random shard of memory. You know how the mind works, especially unfocused in reverie, so I mentally follow that path and, yes, I do remember where it comes from.
Because you are impatient and can’t wait to see what I have to say, and because I’m in a great hurry to let you know what I think I remember, I’m not going to look it up, cross my heart. Since I’m old and full of years, I have one foot stuck in the 20th Century and the other tentatively in the 21st. I could go to my stack of reference books, Bartlett’s Quotations or Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, search for it and maybe find it. Or I could Google or Wikipedia it and certainly get it. But—because you can’t stand waiting another minute—I won’t take the time to do either. So here goes, from my not-very-reliable memory:
The composer Maurice Ravel wrote a charming score called Carnival of the Animals, musically describing some of the fauna that inhabit our planet. Many years later, the incomparable poet Ogden Nash fashioned words to portray each of the beasts. For the elephant, for example, he gave us, “The Elephant has a leathery hide, it’s teeth are upside down, outside”. And “I could not eat a Kangaroo, but many fine Australians do”. You get the idea.
Astonishingly, among the many animals, he includes Pianists. And the quote that started this screed is part of his description of those humans who inexplicably choose to tickle the ivories. Ravel, himself, was a superior pianist.
Like the remnants of a shipwreck, bits and pieces of debris keep floating up to my consciousness unbidden, the accumulation of many decades of reading, seeing and listening. There’s no rhyme in the English language of the words “silver” or “orange”. Now aren’t you glad to know that? I was, more than 30 years ago. Not particularly useful and I have no idea why I remember it. But that’s how mental detritus works sometimes.
I’m especially pleased when something pops to the surface that makes me smile, like captions from some ancient, remembered James Thurber cartoons. “How can I be overdrawn when I have all these checks left?” Or “She heard him say that Brazil was bigger than the United States, so she called the FBI!”
Sometimes the remembered phrase that flashes is actually useful, coming to mind when I can really use it. There’s Robert Benchley’s all-purpose response to a question he didn’t hear clearly, “Well, I don’t know….” Or a thoughtful psychologist I knew who, on hearing some tale of woe from a patient would ask, “Why are you telling me this?” or “It could be worse, it could be me!”
Or the guaranteed-to-defuse-the-argument retort from a brilliant woman named Gail, “You may be right….”
Were I to be able to gather all these bits and pieces in one place, write them down and pass them along, would it be of interest to anyone else? I doubt it. I suspect that after ingesting a few of them most people would just glaze over. My kids and grandchildren might find them appealing curiosities. Maybe not.
I wonder what great deeds I could accomplish if I didn’t have so much memory junk stuffed in the attic of my head. I could think a mighty thought or sing a trivial song. (There’s goes another, that one from a play by Edna St. Vincent Millay! Will it ever stop? No, I don’t really want it to. It’s too much fun. )
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and author, who hopes that before his act runs out he’ll get to organize his books and records, clean out his closets, and make some sense of all the miscellaneous stuff he remembers.
Nothing To BE Done
You have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Neither do I. It’s likely that there will be surprises—pleasant, unpleasant, welcome or unwelcome. If it’s one of those days when I’m alert and paying attention to what’s going on, I may even discover some unexpected delight. On the other hand I may receive a letter from the IRS or someone else I don’t especially want to hear from.
It seems unfair that we can only see life through a rear-view mirror. I’m reasonably certain I can recall most of what yesterday was like. But tomorrow? Totally opaque. With the spectacular advances in all the new tech tools that have appeared in the past decade—some of which I can use, but none of which I’ve really mastered—you’d think that somebody somewhere would have figured out how to get a peek ahead. I would gladly receive even a little one.
But not all technological advance is actually progress. For instance, if I were texting or tweeting these musings, I might have titled this ”0 2 b dun”, thereby contributing to the deterioration of what was once our elegant, precious, precise and evocative language. All these sort of short cuts—in use primarily by the young using their thumbs—strip our communication of its grace. I can’t imagine what they do with all the time thus saved. Maybe they just get to tweet more. But I digress.
Douglas Adams taught me—and many of you who are over thirty—the answer to life’s most difficult question: Forty-Two. But even all the endless information stored in his vast array of computers couldn’t insulate me in advance from the astonishment, despair, elation, pain or pleasure that tomorrow’s rising sun may bring. It is unfair, but I’m not sure where or to whom I should address my complaint.
There are those who claim they are able to see into the future and will happily share that information, usually for a price. I’ve known such sensitive people. I’m especially fond of one of them. But neither the lines on my palm nor the Tarot deck of cards were able to warn me in advance of the cat bite that hospitalized me last year. Nor the death of someone close. Nor the economic meltdown that presently is injuring nearly all of us. For the likes of us, maybe the future should remain hidden and mysterious.
There’s no escaping it. The next higher stage of evolution may produce beings who can know for sure whether they can safely cross the street against the traffic light. At our level of development we cannot. I hate to be the one who brings you this bad news, but the truth is we’re stuck where we are. Nor all our piety nor wit….etc.
I’m walking backwards down a country road in the twilight, barely able to discern the landscape I’ve just passed, but absolutely without a clue about the truck that may be bearing down on me from behind. No way of knowing whether it will safely pass me or send me flying out of here and into whatever is next.
What to do about this rotten limitation to our vision of what the future holds? The answer is as simple and obvious—and as unsatisfying—as Forty-Two. There’s nothing to be done about it. The only possible response is to learn to live with the uncertainty that clouds the next pages of the calendar. We can plan, We can hope, We an gird ourselves against possible, foreseeable misfortunes. We had better get ready to jump this way or that, as circumstances emerge.
And I’ve found it helpful to hear myself saying, Hey, it’s okay. There are just a ton of things I’m not going to be able to ever know, especially in advance.
Oh, about Forty-Two. Explanation to be found in Life, The Universe and Everything, the third book in Adams trilogy. Don’t read the next line if you don’t like spoilers.
(Six times Seven equals Forty-Two).
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and an author who advises the uninitiated to hasten to the bookstore or library and catch up on Douglas Adams’ masterpiece, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” so we can discuss it in our next class.
Save It or Spend It?
I once read of a scheme concocted by someone who worried about what he perceived as a lack of time. “Think of the time I’ll save,” he thought, “if I don’t have to keep making decisions.” So he pre-made all the decisions he could anticipate. Whenever confronted by Left or Right, he’d turn Right. What to have for breakfast? Always oatmeal. Which tie to wear? Always the blue one. I’m not sure how much time he actually saved. Or what he did with all that extra time if he actually saved any. Like the time-study man in Pajama Game, he could have saved more by sleeping in his clothes, dressing for work before he went to sleep, so he wouldn’t have to waste time doing so in the morning.
When someone tells me that they haven’t time to do something, I usually—and unkindly—point out that they have the same twenty-four hours a day that everyone else has. We all have some choices about how we live our lives, how we spend our time.
Once in a while I think I’m bored—which is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, a moment when I’m not doing or going, but just being, forces me to slow down. It interrupts my usual, sometimes too-active behavior. It creates time I didn’t think I had. That still point, that instant of nothing to do, is an imposed rest. Once I let go of my irritation at having to shift my mental gears, it provides a chance to re-group, to reflect and to plan.
Most of my adult life I’ve been in motion. I now see other elders sitting quietly in the sun. But unless I’m working on a tan, it’s not my thing. I’d rather be checking things off my list, if not physically, at least mentally. I have been, like most of us, inordinately preoccupied and stressed by time, or more accurately, the lack of it—trying to squeeze the ten pounds of everything I want or need to do into a five pound schedule.
Aging has forced me to accept some limitations on my habitual busyness, but hasn’t significantly diminished my continuing mental marathon. Unfortunately, growing older has also produced another unwelcome conflict—that old time-energy tug of war. When I have a light schedule, I now often would rather rest than stay busy. Conversely, when I’m feeling fine and energetic it’s usually because I have things to do. Then, there’s not enough time to get to the B and C priorities. I can only do the A’s.
I’m intrigued to notice that when I have appointments, an interview, a lunch date, a wedding or memorial to perform, or a column deadline, I feel full of life, vigorous, and easily able to do whatever is required. It’s those days when there’s nothing on the schedule, when the shopping and laundry are done, when the email has been dealt with, that lethargy overtakes me and tiredness prevails. The most demanding things I feel like doing at such times is staring at the cat or thumbing through a magazine. It would be the perfect time to try to finish my book, clean out file drawers or weed the plants, but weariness, lassitude and self-indulgence usually win. It feels unfair. Had I access to their address, I’d write to the rulers of the Cosmos and complain.
“This was the day that God presented the bill for all the fun we had,” wrote John LeCarre. And with the accumulating years, it seems true. Oh, we did have fun. Falling in love, laughing so hard I got a stomach ache, reading books that opened new worlds, raising the kids, developing some competencies, hanging out with good friends. They just didn’t let me know that those—and all the other goodies I’ve so enjoyed—carried such a big price tag. I’m slowly paying off that giant invoice with occasional brain unfitness, some aches and pains, expanding girth and more time alone than I’d like. I can no longer flit from one thing to another without a rest in between. Even so, I do now enjoy the gift of time. I also get to make the decisions about how I will spend it. Saving it now doesn’t seem nearly as important as it once did.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a minister and an author. He’s awaiting that next moment of boredom, curious to see what he’ll do with it..
Q: What is Mind? A: It doesn’t matter. Q: What is Matter?
A: Never mind! This tautological nonsense may be a few centuries old but I first heard it in the 1940s. Then
in my teens, I thought it very clever. Now, I’m not so
The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once compared someone’s
mind to an escallop of oysters: first a layer of crumbs,
then an oyster-y taste, then another layer of crumbs.
I could find no description of the reaction of the poor
woman so described.
In 1937, when the general reading public was first becoming
aware of psychology, the unparalleled James Thurber wrote
a book titled Let Your Mind Alone, a phrase I find more
and more appealing as I continue to age. In it he offers
alternative prescriptions to the many self-help books
emerging at the time. His interpretations were based
on a Marxist philosophy—Groucho’s, not the other one.
I loved another piece Thurber composed called How to
Lose Friends and Alienate People, a wickedly funny response
to Dale Carnegie’s all-time best seller. Twenty years
later this genius produced another wonderful spoof, Is
Sex Necessary?, continuing to puncture the balloons of
our widely held assumptions.
Some years ago a beloved companion once characterized
my mind as “a fine instrument, out of control”. The passing
years seem to have added validity to her portrayal. For
instance, when I hear a reference to a cell phone my
mind sometimes hears it as Self Phone. When I see the
words “bar code” my somewhat odd intellect conjures up
the way dogs communicate with each other: Bark Code.
Sorry. I just can’t help it.
“Leave your mind alone” is a not-so-silly injunction
from the wisest Zen masters. The whole point of the practice
of meditation is to empty the mind, to stop the internal
noise, to still the inner chatter. Learning to quiet
my random, unpredictable thoughts is a never-ending,
never fully successful pursuit. I’m not a very self-disciplined
person, but even when my attempts are partially achieved,
the effort is well worth it.
I’ve found two very different approaches to shutting
off my mental prattle. The traditional one is to focus
intently on one thing, counting the breaths, a candle
flame, a flower or a mantra. This doesn’t work well for
me; my haphazard thoughts keep popping up, unbidden.
The other, almost opposite method is to allow each thought
to appear, but not to get stuck with it. “I observe the
birds cross the sky; I do not go with them,” says an
ancient Japanese recipe. It is repetition that gives
one thought more weight than another.
I use a sort of mental windshield wiper: with my mind
as quiet and blank as I can make it, I let a thought
arise, notice it, then wipe it away to let the next thought
arise. After fifteen or twenty minutes of this practice
I am surprisingly refreshed and peaceful. I know that
the “noise” will return but I feel somewhat more in control
of this thing called my mind.
With all the new and extensive research into the brain,
and the scientific assumption that it is the seat of
the mind, I find a more poetic and romantic hypothesis
more appealing. Who is to say that my mind isn’t located
in my left elbow, in Antarctica, or somewhere in outer
space? As I am reminded every Valentine’s Day, we still
more or less assume that our feelings of love are situated
in the heart, however anatomically incorrect that may
I think—there I go again—we spend altogether too much
time and effort thinking about minds, our own and the
minds of others. We indulge too much in mind-reading,
thinking we know what someone else is thinking or feeling.
I’ve often confused my own thoughts with reality—whatever
that is. It then comes as a jolt to recognize that my
own perceptions are not universally held. And if you
find these ruminations confusing, perplexing or not very
useful, never mind!
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a Humanist Minister
and the author of Weddings: The Magic of Creating Your
Own Ceremony. Who knows what he’ll think of next?
I know where I am—I’m Here. I know where
I’m going—I’m going There. Simple? Clear? Not really,
for even the sophistication of Google Maps fails to factor
in the ever-lurking Unanticipated.
“What bars my path is the way along
it.” That murky, somewhat opaque thought—Camus, I think—doesn’t
immediately communicate a vivid picture. Yet, as my many
years on our planet continue to accumulate, I’ve come
to regard its wisdom as a given.
I’m Here. I’m going There, but
along the way there’s a fallen tree that blocks my road,
or the bridge ahead is out, or—bad weather ahead—my flight
is cancelled. Still desirous of getting There, I need
to improvise, turn right or left, somehow get off the
path I’d planned. Like it or not, I’m on a different
path. I may still get There, but not in the way I’d intended.
Tickets for the opera or the ball-game?
Didn’t count on the sudden, severe stomach ache. On my
way to a party? Didn’t plan on an inattentive driver
colliding with my car at a rainy intersection.
In the middle of writing a short
essay the power goes off and my computer is turned into
a very large, non-responsive, heavy paperweight. Or for
no reason at all the cell phone abruptly stops working
and I can’t call to say I’ll be late arriving.
As a minister I conduct a fair
number of weddings, some scheduled as much as a year
in advance. Yet last year, despite the most careful preparation,
I failed to anticipate a cat bite that developed into
an infection that put me in bed for almost two months.
The weddings went ahead with another Celebrant. I got
to catch up on my reading.
There are far more dire interruptions
that can shatter the designs we construct for moving
ahead. Job loss, house foreclosure, the sudden death
of someone close, a broken foot or hip from a fall, earthquake,
tsunami—all of these totally halt the flow of a chosen
Not all unanticipated events are
negative. I’ve never won the lottery—never even got my
buck back—but I imagine I would welcome the sharp turn
in my path that such an unlikely occurrence would cause.
(Herb Caen said that one’s chances of winning the lottery
were the same, whether or not you bought a ticket!)
Take the cat bite: it gave me the
chance to read some delicious mystery novels, meet some
lovely people among the medics who attended me, and gave
me new appreciation of mobility once I was able to walk
unaided again. Or think about the lives saved by penicillin,
fortuitously discovered by a laboratory accident. Post-It
Notes, too, began as a failed glue experiment.
In such an uncertain world, with
the unexpected constantly waiting in a shadowy corner
preparing to pounce and dramatically alter my day, is
there any sense in continuing to make my plans? Of course,
my answer is yes. It’s not in my nature to drift aimlessly
from moment to moment, becalmed and directionless.
The cornucopia is not going to
turn itself upside down over my head all by itself. My
life is more fulfilling when I start the day with some
direction, even if it’s just the decision to go back
to sleep for another hour, or spend the afternoon listening
to the birds sing to each other, tickle my eyes with
the colors and shapes of the Spring blossoms, or brush
I will continue to make occasional
lunch and dinner appointments, plan visits with my kids
and grandchildren, schedule future weddings, and renew
my New Yorker subscription. But as I make my plans, to
spare myself from frustration and disappointment, I will
try to remain mindful of the Buddha’s instruction: Do
not become attached to the outcome.
Hank Basayne lives with uncertainty
in San Francisco. His next book, a compilation of these
columns, is called I’m Still Vertical, Thank You! and
who knows whether or not it will be finished later this
When We Don't Know What to Do
As I walk on to the stage and enter the scene in progress I realize that I don’t remember what character I’m supposed to portray. I can’t recall any of my lines. I forgot my costume. The audience is waiting. What a terrifying moment, even if it is just a scary dream.
Despite the fierce injunction of my callow youth—when the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” was burned into my consciousness—I’ve gone through much of my long life not feeling really ready or well-equipped to cope with a lot of the events and situations that call for some effective action from me.
How do I get set to hold my new infant for the first time? What’s the proper posture or attire to focus and hold the attention of the large group that I’m supposed to instruct? Where is my appropriate response when the Board of Director’s meeting veers off in an unproductive direction? How am I to react when an attractive young woman shows a flicker of interest in me, so I don’t either scare her off or appear to be indifferent?
I must have been absent from class the day they issued the handbook on how to be a grown-up. As a result, I’ve mostly had to make it up as I’ve gone along. Much of my life has been an improvisation. Yes, experience helps. After I’ve been in similar situations a few times I’ve begun to discern what does or doesn’t work well. And observation of how others behave—and paying attention to the results they get—may provide some useful clues toward achieving my own desired or intended outcome.
Because I think I’m unique (although I know we’re really more alike than we are different from one another), the experience of others doesn’t always offer me the skills I need or want. And I’ve also spent a lot of time learning and re-learning things I already knew, so my own experience isn’t dependable. I’ve managed to make it into my eighties with a lot of ad-libbing, some invention and creativity plus a big dose of making do.
There are, however, some events for which no preparation is possible, like the dawning realization that I’m now really old. Three-score-ten was supposed to be the limit—but I’ve already been given a bonus of twelve years.
Looking at how others deal with advanced aging isn’t helpful to me at all. I see that some of them are bent and wizened, some have a blank stare, others collect grievances and complain a lot. I don’t find any of that attractive or interesting. Still others are in denial of their years, still sporting the pony-tail that was the mark of cool 35 years ago. My inner voice hasn’t changed much for fifty years, but it seems foolish and somehow dishonest to pretend that my energy, my body and my interests are still exactly what they were.
“How, then, shall we live?” Is there an appropriate way to be eighty-something? Talk about the need to improvise! My grandfather (who was born in 1876) used to say that when you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Let the scroll unroll a little bit more and then you’ll know what to do. But I’m conscious of the sand rapidly running through my hour-glass and doing nothing doesn’t come easily to me. So I continue to compose my life, hour by hour, without preparation or a text to follow, dealing with just the materials at hand.
Fortunately, my larder is loaded: books to read and re-read, music to listen to, some surviving friends whose company I enjoy, a demanding cat whose rituals I share, and children and grandchildren I adore and who provide me with great pleasure and whose lives continue to interest and surprise me.
We appear on the stage without asking; we take leave without wanting to go. When it’s my time to exit, I’m sure I’ll be reluctant to end this fascinating performance. And I’ll have to improvise about how to do that well, too.
Hank Basayne is a San Franciscan, a Humanist
Minister and the author of Weddings: The Magic of Creating Your Own
Ceremony. His next book, a compilation of these columns, is called
I’m Still Vertical, Thank You! and he hopes to have it finished
later this year.
There were precious few jobs available in the San Francisco area when I arrived. It was 1948. I was 21, somewhat brash and optimistic, knew no one in the Bay Area, and had fled the East Coast to get as far from my family as I could without getting wet.
Broadcasting had fascinated me since I was about 10. During my last two years of college in New York I had actually been hired by CBS as the first male mail-boy after the war. CBS by day, school at night. So, in my innocence, I was sure I could find a revenue-producing spot for myself in radio, TV, advertising or journalism.
I did all the usual things: want ads, employment agencies, some cold-calling. Nothing. There was no Craig’s List in those days. One month I actually earned $15, writing and tape-recording a speculative ad for a beer company. Their ad agency took pity. They didn’t use the spot, but they did send me a check and an encouraging note.
Desperation—and the threat of starvation—are powerful pitchforks poking one’s rear. After a long dry spell and more negative responses than I can count, my longed-for flash of inspiration struck! Since I wanted a writing job my goal was a berth as a promotion writer. But rather than writing job-seeking letters and risking more rejection, I decided to promote myself as if I were a product.
I carefully selected five targets in my desired fields: a newspaper, a brand new television station, two ad agencies and a radio station. I researched the names and addresses of the decision-making executives at each of them, then embarked on a week-long, anonymous direct mail campaign. On Monday each of them received a 3 by 5 card from me, without name or address or anything identifying myself, saying, “I’d be tickled pink to work for you” with a pink feather attached. On Tuesday, they received another card with a small cog-wheel pasted on, with the words, “I’d be a valuable cog in your organization. Wednesday the card read “Don’t get stuck, play it safe, hire me” with safety-pin attached. And for Thursday I scotch-taped two pennies on each which said “I don’t give two cents who knows it: I want to work for you.”
Friday’s card had a dime taped to it with nothing but my phone number. (Can’t remember whether phone calls were a nickel or a dime back then, but I attached the proper coin). The following Monday I received five calls. One of the ad agency guys threatened to sue me for the time wasted by his staff, waiting for each day’s mail. Then he invited me to lunch. The other four each set up interviews with me. And those connections resulted in three firm job offers.
Radio station KQW had just been bought by CBS and changed it’s call letters to KCBS, The executive in charge of hiring asked if I could keep busy for four months and then he’d hire me as Promotion Writer for the station. How, I asked, did he know he’d have a job available in four months? “Because the person holding the job now is pregnant”, he answered. I found a low-paying job writing ads for a San Jose radio station (miserable commute—there was no freeway then—and at the end of four months I was a member of the KCBS staff. That position launched an 18-year career with CBS, where I ended up as a program executive, hiring new talent, inventing programs, managing the on-the-air staff.
My point? In hard times, with massive layoffs and high unemployment, it’s not enough to pursue the usual paths to a job. We are all more creative than we know. We all have untapped reserves of imagination. Sometimes it takes extreme difficulty—or even desperation—to jog us loose from our set ways. But demonstrating to a prospective employer that you can help solve its problems, showing your uniqueness, going beyond the limits we so often set for ourselves, can pay off big time.
If you, or your child, or your grandchild, or a friend is job hunting, looking for work and feeling discouraged, tell them this story. It may help generate that necessary flash of inspiration, your own pink feather to help you create what you desire.
Fly On The Wall
I’ve enjoyed the fantasy of being invisible since I was a little kid—six or seven, maybe. Now, edging into my ninth decade, the fantasy came true—almost.
I recently found myself unexpectedly in hospital for a fascinating reason, but that’s a tale for another time.
Unhappy, in pain, I survived the elaborate ritual of the ER—the parade of technicians, interns, nurses, residents and doctors, the endless questions, attachment to an IV rig. Finally, some four or five hours later, was moved to a semi-private room. A curtain separated me from the other occupant.
I’ve always been interested in the lives of other people. Learning their stories, travails, triumphs, fears, hopes and the settings in which their personal dramas unfold, enriches my own life and experience. Every novel, movie or play is an entrance to a vicarious enlargement of my own journey. I find out things I wouldn’t have otherwise known.
in the afternoon of the first of my ten-day stay, a little foggy from the blessed periodic infusions of morphine, I became aware, of a conversation between two men. They were less than two feet away from my bed but, shielded by the flimsy drape, they were totally unaware of me.
Their conversation was halting and vaguely unfriendly. It developed that they were father and son who hadn’t seen each other for a long time. The father was the patient—seriously ill; the son sounded in his late twenties. Son was dutifully trying to make small talk, Dad was irritable. Son was in touch with his mother, but his father was not. Son was itinerant, talked of next going to Oregon. Dad wanted to know how he was supporting himself but the only response he got was, “this and that”. It was an uncomfortable visit and the son ended it abruptly, saying only that he’d be in touch. I was reminded how lucky I was to have warm, respectful and loving connections with my own children.
A few days later a new patient replaced my unseen roommate. He sounded quite old, foreign-born, his wife in constant attendance. They lived a few hundred miles from the hospital. His two grown children visited often. They seemed to be deeply religious and hopeful. He had come for tests to determine whether his liver cancer was reversible.
One afternoon when they were all together, a social worker came to talk with the family. Her voice was gentle but confident. Her task was to let them know that the patient was terminal. While they had hoped that chemotherapy and radiation and prayer would cure him, she tenderly, gradually, skillfully and lovingly helped steer their hopes toward the uncomfortable reality that he would soon die.
Her competence and expertise were astonishing. Her gentleness and obvious caring—over a two-hour period—were amazing as she guided them through the various options that remained to them. She helped shift their wishful longings toward how they could make and keep him comfortable and make the most of his remaining time. She explained the concept of hospice and helped them visualize how that might work easily and effectively in their own home. She gradually gained their assent, and, before she left, they agreed to let her make the necessary arrangements. There were tears but there was also a satisfied acceptance.
I marvel at the compassion and expertise of that social worker. I never saw her (or the family) and never learned her name. I’m grateful that such people exist, wish that I could perform such sacred service, and hope that I and my family could be the beneficiaries of such care should such circumstances arise.
I embraced the lives of two other families during my hidden stay, and then returned to focus on my own recovery and return to the dailyness of my life. It was as if I had read four rich novels during my hospitalization, with much to think about, appreciate and understand. And it did provide the opportunity to be the fly on the wall, to be invisible—almost.
In a Very Strange Land
I don’t understand the language. The terrain is unfamiliar. Many of the inhabitants seem uncomfortable, but there are some others who appear relaxed and even quietly joyful. I’m not prepared for this place--I’ve packed all the wrong things. I started this journey more than eighty years ago, but now that I’m here, I don’t know where I am.
I knew this was my destination all along, yet I’m surprised to be here. I didn’t arrive suddenly—there were milestones along the way: the births of my grandchildren, difficulty buttoning my shirt buttons, the deaths of parents, siblings and, increasingly, my peers. My first heart attack. The jolting awareness that I am the oldest person in the room. The deference paid me by those who I think of as contemporaries, but who see me as an elder.
Without planning to, I’ve arrived at old age. Trying to sort through my feelings, I’m aware of fear, excitement, grief, surprise, gratitude.
Fear because I still cling to thinking of myself as youthful, competent, energetic, creative. I guess I’m still somewhat stuck in the stereotype our youth-oriented society has of the aged. Not sure that I’ll be any good at this new role as an elder. Fear that I’ll lose my independence, and I’ve long resisted the idea of being dependent. Fear of becoming irrelevant, disempowered, outdated, invisible. I feel young; how can I be old?
And yet I know that the fundamental rule of life is inexorable Change. It is futile for me to try to resist inevitable change and trying only invites frustration and unhappiness. Also, if I hug tightly to what is known, I’ll never get to explore the unknown, and there is excitement for me in discovery. As Ram Dass has said, to invest in anything that changes is to create suffering.
This is no longer the world I knew growing up or during my young adulthood. The tectonic changes are social, global, technological, and I’m no longer the person I knew while I was growing up, either. So there is lively and pleasant anticipation in seeing how the new Me is going to accommodate to this new place.
Yes, I feel some sadness for what is lost. All that energy and hope, all those big plans, that wonderful feeling of invulnerability. My sense of active engagement in the affairs of the world, dimly seen beyond my own busyness. There are people I miss, achingly. Some lost dreams. But, despite my drawers full of memorabilia, I remember the cautionary tale of Lot’s wife: to get stuck looking back could turn me into a pillar of salt, too.
I’m amazed at this unexpected situation I find myself in. I didn’t prepare for it very well. Could have taken better care of my body. Could have stored up provender against this time of winter. Wish I had been more attentive, less self-preoccupied. But I suspect that, even if I’d made some harder choices, I’d have arrived here anyway. The buds leaf out, they reach full leafhood, they change into beautiful colors, they fall. They make way for the new buds. The cycle is universal. It is to be embraced.
So rather than clinging to the past or bemoaning the losses or fearing what is unfamiliar, it’s time for me to welcome this Gift of Age, to investigate this new, very strange land. I need to practice letting go so I am free to look into this new state of affairs. I need to cultivate a quieter way of allowing this unfamiliar scenery to reveal itself. I’m grateful for this unanticipated opportunity, which so many are denied. But it is a very strange land, indeed!
What—Me Take a Risk?
My second most favorite word in the English language is “choice”.
I love the idea of smorgasbord—whether I’m being given the freedom to select my meal from a variety of foods, or I’m considering how I may choose to spend my day, or I’m in a reverie, examining various possible next steps on my path.
The ability to say “No, thanks, I don’t want that, but I’ll have some more of this” is a delicious experience of instant power, a sense of control over at least some parts of my life. Now, deep into the third act of it I’ve found that I enjoy many more opportunities to pick a preferred direction than I did earlier in my journey. Unburdened by the daily demand to be at my desk between 9 and 5 and no longer responsible for the day-to-day care and guidance of my now adult children, I’m afforded more frequent chances to decide what I’ll do next.
But one of the dilemmas that come with “I want” instead of “I must” or “I should” is determining exactly what I do want. As a mid 20th Century philosopher asked, “Now that you’ve found a new key, what tune will you play?” And for many of us, that’s a scary question, for we are so used to being on automatic pilot, our journeys defined by “shoulds” and “musts”, that we rarely take the time to re-examine what is that we truly want.
The Sufis have a saying: “Deep in the sea are riches beyond compare.
But if you seek safety, it is on the shore.”
As I’ve moved, more or less gracefully, into my later years there is another kind of life-enhancing choice that I can make, and it’s about risk-taking. If, indeed, there are untold riches deep in the sea, do I dare to choose to go after them? Or do I seek the safety of the shore? Making that choice might consciously dictate the next turning on my path, perhaps even shape the rest of my life and determine how I might spend these twilight years.
I think I understand why many seasoned citizens opt for the shore. After a lifetime of struggle, juggling responsibilities, experiencing disappointments and frustrations, there is something attractive about the possibility of peace and quiet. An existence of reduced effort and danger and the opportunity to explore a contemplative way of being seems highly inviting. It is a perfectly legitimate choice.
But so is the decision to take the other fork in the road, the one that leads toward the unknown, toward greater risk-taking. Isn’t old age the time to try new things, to check out the trails I haven’t had the time or leisure to investigate?
Now is probably my last, best chance to try to develop new skills, to risk failure, to explore new places, new foods, new kinds of acquaintances. I know I might also risk disappointment. Seeking new experiences or re-visiting old, unsuccessful ones invites frustration. But this is, above all, the time to replace other people’s Musts, Shoulds and Wants with my own.
One of the risks of risk-taking is having to deal with the expectations of others. The kids think they know who you are: that nice old guy who reads by the fire with the cat in his lap. How dare you suddenly take up sky-diving or line-dancing? So what if the neighbors gossip about your new red convertible, the two-seater you’ve wanted all your life, or the buzz cut that ends your concern with your thinning hair? Whose head is it, anyway?
Isn’t this the time to finally please myself, to let go of worrying about what other people will say or think? I’ll never have a better chance to switch the channel from what “they” think to what I want. So I might surprise the kids and the neighbors… so what!
As the days dwindle down to a precious few I might finally get to be who I really am.
I told you about my second favorite word. My number one favorite is that most human of words: Nevertheless. To me it represents the courage to mush on, even in the face of overwhelming odds. I see it as a refusal to accept limitations on what’s possible. The word Nevertheless incorporates grit, audacity and guts. To me it is human bravery in its most elevated form.
I know that it is hard for me to face taking a risk. Nevertheless, the choice to take it opens up the wonderful possibility of adding new richness to my life.
The Slough of Despond
I generally think of myself as a cheerful person: basically optimistic, positive, sometimes funny. I like my kids and their kids, I have friends and I live with a pushy, affectionate cat. I read, I watch movies, listen to music, get out and about. I keep pretty busy, which is not always the case for someone ankle deep in his eighties.
So it came as quite a jolt to suddenly realize, a few weeks ago, that I was stuck—emotionally paralyzed. Physically I was all right—just the usual creaks and aches of an aging body. A little slower getting out of a chair, walking a bit more deliberately, no heavy lifting—just the usual. But my habitual sanguine self was absent.
I was spending a lot of time brooding, sitting, staring, recalling past disappointments, failures and losses. I was engaged in making mental lists of the dozens—no, scores—of memorials and funerals I’ve attended or presided over. Busy compiling lists of the deaths of siblings, close and not-so-close friends, the many people who have been important to me. The Rolodex that gets thinner every year. Cataloging the many relationships that had begun in hope and delight, but ended badly. Jobs and projects where I might have done better. Gloomy thoughts of my own diminishment, decline and eventual death.
These intense feelings of sadness, loneliness and emptiness seemed to feed on themselves, blotting out the sun, generating a paralysis of will that made it seem impossible to take action of any kind. Newspapers piled up, unread. My mail remained unopened. Telephone messages went unanswered. I had no interest—or even awareness—of the world outside of my own swamp of cheerlessness. No concern or access to my usual curiosity.
This was not merely a black mood or a down day; it was a full-blown depression, unexpected, unwelcome and, seemingly endless. I was unable to give equal time to counting my blessings, thinking about what was going well, or the uncountable millions who are so much worse off than I am. All the self-help books, motivational advice, New Age seminars, treatises on happiness, were useless to me at that time. “Pull yourself together” is usually said to someone who cannot possibly do it at that moment.
Yes, the world is in flames, natural disasters seem to increase in frequency and intensity, wars continue to rage, my beloved country is no longer the simpler, happier, healthier one I grew up in. But the darkness that was upon me was personal—my own—not about the world at large. I was consumed by a sense of vast hopelessness and despair.
And then, after about four days, it disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. The sun came out. My waves of self-pity subsided and the stirrings of energy and hope and things-to-do took over. I opened the mail, responded to phone messages, got the dishes done and laundry put away. I was back in the world again. While I clearly and vividly remember the horror of that feeling of emptiness, I can no longer find a trace of it in my experience. Should it occur again, I expect I’ll recognize it—and remember that I came out of it—and therefore not feel that same depth of hopelessness.
In the latter part of the 17th Century Paul Bunyan wrote an allegory of the trials of his hero Christian on his long journey from earth to heaven. Christian is nearly thwarted while trying to cross the Slough of Despond, a swamp of mire into which he almost sinks under the weight of his sins and guilt. The good news: he does finally make it to the Wicket Gate, the narrow entrance to the Celestial City.
I recognize that chronic depression is frequent among the elderly, but I don’t think of myself as usually depressed. Like you, I have my ups and downs, but a few shadows don’t make the sun disappear. Although I know there is much less time ahead of me than behind me, I expect the rest of my journey to include some new learning, pleasure and delight. I find the world and the people in it endlessly fascinating. I can still move about. I have plans. I have—this time at least—successfully crossed the Slough of Despond.
SOME OF US ARE TALLER THAN OTHERS
It had been a delightful lunch—nothing fancy—just good company, lots of laughter, an interesting exchange of ideas, cheerful surroundings.
A bright day, there was no hint of near doom. After the warm good-byes, I waited on the curb for a green traffic light, then started to cross the street.
Halfway across, an over-large vehicle ran a red light and barreled across the intersection, coming very fast, bearing down on me. In that nanosecond the tangled threads of my mind included disbelief (this can’t be happening to me), a sense of terror that this was it—the end of all my joys and sorrows, my plans and projects, as well as a flash of rage at the 30-something woman who was driving so recklessly.
Fortunately, my body didn’t wait for my mind to decide what to do.
By itself, it executed a combination of lurch, leap and stumble that carried me past the SUV with barely any daylight between us.
Now if the names of C. Aubrey Smith, Sauter-Finnegan, Ernie Kovacks, or Joe Penner mean anything to you, then you, too, are in the Third Act of your life. (If they don’t, you could surf the net or call your local library.) If you’re like me, during the past few years you’ve had an occasional desire to simplify your life. Once in a while you’ve considered what—if anything—your years add up to, and you’ve been conscious of an urge toward tranquility.
We’ve all met “old souls”, people who seem to know things they haven’t been taught. Meeting such a person who exudes that mysterious wisdom, I sense that they see the larger picture. They operate from some marvelous combination of patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility and compassion. The Dalai Lama says that Old Souls” abound with intuition. When I encounter someone like that I am awestruck and reminded once again that I have not yet achieved the level of growth and understanding that I hope for and that may be possible for me.
I suspect that the growth of our awareness and mental maturity is something like this: our consciousness is an apartment building. We can only see down. People on the fourth floor surely know that that others live below on the second and third floors. But the people on the third can’t possibly see the fourth, and those on the second may not know that the fourth even exists.
It seems almost obvious to say that we don’t all grow at the same rate, but in day-to-day living, we often forget the obvious.
There are different perceptions of possibility, different kinds of intuition. Intuition is not about reasoning or emotion or sensing physical reality; it’s what enables us to see beyond the facts of a situation. Sometimes it’s a leap out of the dark in a sudden flash of understanding. Other times it’s a slow dawning, a gradual coming together of notions we’ve had, possibly in daydreams, doing some repetitious task, or at the moment of falling asleep. We don’t always credit it, but we’ve all had “hunches”, hints of what’s possible.
I’ve slowly learned that we don’t all evolve at the same pace. Some of us amble, some of us gallop, some don’t seem to have much forward motion at all. When I’m unsure of myself and my ego is tender, it’s hard for me to forgive. When I’m angry or fearful, tolerance is out of my grasp. But intuitively I know that the harmony I seek lies in the direction of exercising whatever compassion I can muster.
In that awful near-death moment, with a speeding car coming straight at me—with real doubt about whether I would survive—compassion was not available to me. But when the shaking subsided and I had made it across the intersection safely, somehow still alive, I did remember that we don’t all evolve at the same rate.
I don’t know what the young woman who was driving was thinking about, why her mission was so urgent that she ran that red light and put my life at risk. But I know that I am no longer ever in such a hurry. It’s senseless for me to stay angry when I remember that the person triggering my fury simply is still stuck on the second floor and can’t possibly see the view from the floors above where I live.
Don’t Remember Mama
Do you remember Spike Jones & His City Slickers? What a sassy bunch we were, making a hit of their outrageous 1942 recording of “In Der Fuehrer’s Face!” What a peculiar, devastating, and satisfying way to heap scorn and ridicule on our then-enemy.
In a more sentimental and optimistic vein, I remember “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “When The Lights Go On Again,” “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You,” and “Something To Remember You By.”I can hum the tunes even if I can’t recollect all the words.
If you, too, can recall those gems, you are also getting long in the tooth. But I think you’re cluttering up your mind and memory with not especially useful stuff, not leaving enough space for more important things. Unfortunately we haven’t yet learned to add more megabytes to our human hard drives; our mental storage space is sorely limited.
Marcel Proust wrote a long and impenetrable novel (sixteen volumes!) called “Remembrance of Things Past” Wallowing around in search of times gone by seems to me like using a compass with the four directions unreadable and illegible. The nuggets he uncovers, both bitter and sweet, may appeal to the voyeur, but I doubt if it advances life in the Twenty-First Century.
In like manner, Vladimir Nabakov offered us his memoir, entitled “Speak, Memory” It’s a rambling, intensely personal and sometimes clever collection of scenes from his life.
I say, Just shut up, memory.
I find it impossible simultaneously to live in both the past and the present. If you’re a "Rashomon” fan you know how each eyewitness to an event can come up with an entirely different scenario. Our ability to recall is woefully unreliable, our current selves are constantly and selectively interpreting and re-interpreting the past, attributing meanings that may have no relation to what actually happened.
To be sure, I can sometimes find pleasure in reverie, wool-gathering and reminiscence. It can be fun to play What If with the past, concocting stories to tell myself, assigning blame or motivations to others, mentally re-living my handful of moments of triumph-- and playing clean-up, of course, with those choices I made that did not turn out so well.
But who wants to squander time fingering dry, dead pressed flowers when they could instead inhale the fragrance and intoxicate the eye with a bouquet of vibrant, colorful, live ones?
The tragedy of memory loss in our later years is in evidence all around us. Perhaps, because we are living longer, we now tend to outlive the “little gray cells” that Poirot uses so well. The old stuff seems to stay firmly lodged inside the cranium, while recent information and events are terribly transient. I can remember the name of my third grade teacher, and our telephone number when I was seven, but I’m hard pressed to remember the name of that nice chap I met last month who works for Microsoft. But then, no one promised me that the universe would work in ways that were just or helpful.
Remembering Mama, remembering that Night to Remember, remembering Pearl Harbor or the Maine, can help us revisit warm and fuzzy places, or rekindle old excitements. But like a diet restricted only to cream puffs and caviar, it can get in the way of true nourishment, preventing us from savoring the joys of the present.
Those of us who are aging for the very first time can look around us at those “old” people who share our chronological age and notice that we have choices: We can enlist in the cohort of Complainers with their endless organ recitals of aches and pains and failing body parts. We can sign up with the If Only-s who wish they had sold their Nasdaq holdings at the high, or the Grumblers whose kids never call them. We can join the Nostalgics who are loudly sure that things aren’t as good as they used to be, or the Poor Me’s whose list of miseries are endless.
Or we can pull up our socks, get ourselves up and doing, make the most of whatever cards we still hold.
I’m for staying in the Now, looking ahead, and moving onward.
Now, where did I put my keys?
As the Queen remarked in “Alice Through the Looking Glass “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
THE MOMENT THAT IS NOT YET
It’s 6:30 AM and there are insistent little stickers tapping on my cheek. The taps are unrelenting, they grow more determined, and Morpheus and I are once again reluctantly, cruelly parted.
My dear cat Scout-- a pushy Domestic Shorthair-- has been contentedly snuggling against me for seven peaceful hours, but suddenly decides that she’s starving to death! Never mind that she has not missed even one breakfast in the year we’ve been together. That’s more than 300 consecutive mouse-substitutes that I’ve set out for her finicky inspection and consumption.
This time, today, right now, she’s sure it’s the end. She’s famished, dying from terminal hunger. Unless she is able to rouse me, and somehow make me cause her cat food to materialize, surely she has come to the final moments of her ninth life.
Scout doesn’t believe in slippery human concepts such as “not now,” “tomorrow,” or even “later.” She only knows about now. And sometimes I also forget about “later,” and I bet you do, too.
You’d think that by the time we reach the second half of life we would have learned something about patience, about how the universe is in a constant state of change, about the existence of possibility. But there is a conspiracy afoot: we are brainwashed from our earliest years with certain notions: Strike While the Iron Is Hot; She Who Hesitates is Lost; Seize the Day.
Even the lofty and noble Buddhist concepts of living in the moment-- and now is our only reality-- collude with the millisecond images of today’s TV to undermine our confidence in the future. Everything is speeded up, and our impatience rules as we are admonished to get on with it. Forget contemplation, give up any thought of allowing an idea to incubate or mature.
Do it now!
It is almost impossible, with runny nose and tear-filled eyes, to remember a time when histamine did not rule our lives. With an aching, cracked or broken heart, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever love or be loved again. In the midst of acute and severe pain, how can we dream of a moment when we may again be pain-free. At the death of a loved one we cannot conceive that we will ever smile again. After a long spell of rain, will the sun ever shine? Too often, the Moment that Is is our only reality.
Ancient Chinese wisdom, as evidenced by the I Ching--The Book of Changes--teaches a concept that we all immediately recognize as true, but we have a hard time remembering: all is in flux, transition is constant, everything alters and shifts. When life goes well, we forget that it may not always be so. When all is dark, gloomy, painful, it’s hard to remember that a different, better climate will arrive. Opposite pairs prevail: the stock market goes up and down, day turns into night, winter comes-- but so does summer.
What do we need to help us stay mindful of the likelihood that what is next will be different from what is now? Some of us indulge in hope, optimistically expecting that our situation will improve. Some rely on faith, believing and trusting in the unseen. But even the most hard-bitten, pragmatic realists among us have only to regard their own experience to recognize the fact of inevitable, constant change.
It serves us all to remember the Moment That Is Not Yet.
A particularly thoughtful 16-year-old I admire recently raised this issue with me. How, she wanted to know, can you take what you’ve learned from the past and use it when you need it? Her feelings had been hurt; she was wounded, angry. How, she asked, could she remember in that furious, confusing instant that things would be different, might even get better?
I reminded her about all the changes she had already experienced and urged her to be more gentle with herself. I tried to help her help herself by finding a mantra-- a powerful phrase that she could repeat in stressful moments-- which would assist her in recalling how things always change. I taught my own children early to remember that “This, too, shall pass.” A starving Scarlett O’Hara knew that “...tomorrow is another day.”
Then I told her about my impatient cat, Scout, who doesn’t have a mantra, and never remembers The Moment That Is Not Yet.
We’ll Never Be Best Friends
Maybe we’ll never be friends at all. We are acquainted and over the past years we seem to run into each other more and more frequently. Well, not actually run into each other—we are more like passers-by—each hurrying on to some other place. But by now we nod in acknowledgement of each other as we pass. As time slips by I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better.
Of course I’m talking about that guy with the black hood and the scythe, the Grim Reaper. He usually is depicted as male—except in the film All That Jazz where Death is a beautiful, knowledgeable, seductive woman. (What an agreeable, attractive concept for a passionate man!)
I first became aware of that troubling, dark presence when I was about four. An ancient great aunt died causing great consternation and disruption in our up-until-then orderly home. Weeping, whispered conversations, my father shaving (in the middle of the day!) and putting on a black tie, with other very unusual activity as the grown–ups prepared to attend the funeral. I was just learning to spell about then and thought I detected the word “fun” in “funeral”. Ah, childhood innocence!
Cats, pet turtles, insects, other distant relatives also died in those distant years, but caused me only momentary disturbance until my early teens. Then death and dying began to be consciously real, distressing and preoccupying with the death of my beloved grandfather. Ever since I’ve viscerally felt the meaning of words like “transient”, “temporary”, “brief” and “momentary”.
There’s no evading that inevitable last encounter. The Sufis tell a story about a servant in Baghdad who frantically tells his master, a merchant, that he saw Death in the marketplace. He’s terrified that Death is after him. To hide him from Death his master sends him on an errand to Samarra, a town about 75 miles away, Meanwhile the merchant goes to the Baghdad marketplace. He sees Death there and demands to know why Death is threatening and terrifying his servant. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Death replies. “I have no business here. I have an appointment tonight in Samarra!”
I really began to acutely feel the close presence of The Big D (no, not Dallas) in my mid-fifties, coming-to in an ICU one Mother’s Day after the first of several heart attacks. We brushed shoulders again two years later, which resulted in surgery on my opened heart. That’s when there then was added meaning for me in Saroyan’s musing, “I used to think I’d live forever, but now I’m not so sure”. It’s also when I took my first stumbling steps toward re-ordering my priorities. Our near-miss encounters have continued with increasing frequency as I move through the years.
Big D has handmaidens, or handmen, assistants whose task is to remind me of Death’s inexorable approach whenever I get too bound-up in delight or worry or the other trivia of daily life. Those reminders take many different forms: a bad dream, a surprising new ache or pain, a sad movie or touching piece of music, the failure of a finger or a knee to act in its accustomed way, a gray day or an autumn mist, the illness, accident or death of someone close. They are like the sharp rap on the head of a meditating monk by a Zen master to keep the acolyte’s mind from drifting. They are there, like the skull on the desk of a medieval alchemist, as a Memento Mori. They take me back to “Remember, you will die”, so that I can embrace living with renewed purpose and vigor.
Now well into my twilight years, I have survived the loss of parents, much-loved siblings, dear friends, spouses, favorite dogs. I know that the old leaves must turn color, dry, and drop from the tree to make way for the new young leaves of Spring. But Big D hovers, present nearby every day. I feel the occasional tap on my shoulder, but so far, I have been able to say “No, not today”. I have fruit to eat, a movie to see, a book to read, a cat to pet, children to hug and other important joys to pursue. I know that some day Death and I will go off together, but we will never be best friends.
WHO AM I REALLY?
Laugh if you like, but I remember Ross Perot. I’m even old enough to remember Henry Wallace. It’s not that I think about them very often; it’s just another example of my quirky, unreliable memory which occasionally spits up bits of useless data—nothing that really advances my life which is now well past the three-quarter mark.
I also sometimes remember those gawky wagons that once stood outside every train station in America: overlong handle, oversized spoked wheels, huge wooden platform—painted green, I think—proudly emblazoned “Railway Express.” There must have been thousands of them; do you, too, wonder what ever became of them? Railway Express handled baggage and freight; they just didn’t know what business they were really in. Like Western Union, once the sprawling telegraph network that tied America together as much as the railroads did, these industrial giants were seen as unsinkable — but they turned out to be just about as unsinkable as the Titanic.
Unfortunately for those vast corporations—and the thousands of people who worked for them—they were unclear about their true purpose. Western Union thought it was in the telegraph business and didn’t realize that it was really in the business of communication. Railway Express believed that itsmandate was to deal with goods that traveled by rail; it failed to see its larger objective as transportation.
That near-sighted view of their greater missions leaves them today both as extinct as the dodo, icons useful now only for wistful nostalgia.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own largermission and purpose. Someone once asked, “If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?” While I’m sometimes as optimistic as a thirty-two-year-old, other times my body creaks as if I were a hundred and thirty-two. How old am I really? It depends on the view of my purpose, at any given moment. In my early years it was about Learning: acquiring information and knowledge. Then a long period of Doing: honing skills and accumulating experience. The next phase was largely about Teaching: passing along what I thought I knew to my kids, students and employees. And in recent years the emerging stage seems to be about Going Inside: reflecting, remembering, planning, trying to discern a Grand Design.
Of course, life doesn’t divide itself into such neat segments; the sequence is blurry, messy even-- and the Learning part never stops.
But the bedeviling questions aren’t about how old I am or even about how old I feel; the persistent, nagging quest is for meaning: what is my life—or yours—really about? Knowing that nothing I can do will erase whatever “the moving finger has writ” about my life so far, clearly my attention needs to be on what I do with what days or years are ahead, however long or short they may be. It would be a terrible waste if I devoted my future to telegraphy when it really should have been about communication.
Is this the time for self-fulfillment, self-indulgence, or service to others? Should I be tending my garden or using my energy for some greater final achievement, some meaningful legacy to leave? More time with kids, grandchildren, pets? Reading and re-reading? Or should I volunteer my time in some other noble, selfless pursuit? Or be busy trying to make new friends and spend my time hanging out with old ones?
Part of my concern is about time and how best to use it. But the greater amount of reflection is how to think about myself, deciding which of my severalsub-personalities is the “real” me, the curious one or the know-it-all, the confident one or the one who is apprehensive, the teacher or the student, the loving one or the lonely one. The reality is that they all are—or have been—me. Like a mosaic, they combine into some kind of whole. I just don’t quite see the large picture.
I sometimes speculate about what my last words should be. I know that I won’t be saying “I should have spent more time at the office.” With W. C. Fields, it might be “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
But I hope that at that ultimate moment, I will retain the capacity to say—along with Marie Antoinette—“Really, you know, it’s all been very interesting!” Even the Ross Perot episode was kind of interesting.
THE IMPATIENT PATIENT
We Americans are constantly reminded how lucky we are. We are not only the richest country in the world, we are also the freest, most enlightened and we have the best possible medical care. People come from all over the world for American medical assistance. We are told that as many as 50 million of us have inadequate coverage, but that the other 250 million of us have the best medical system available at our service.
Living in San Francisco, all this is even more true. We have some of the best medical facilities and doctors in the world. We should kiss the ground beneath our feet to be so fortunate to have this great care. So why is this patient impatient?
I have lived with several life threatening diseases for at least 25 years. I have had five heart attacks, as many surgical procedures including two open heart surgeries. I also have diabetes and perhaps resultant kidney failure. The three different diseases are highly interactive.
It is incumbent on such a patient to monitor several functions every so often. For kidney and diabetes progress, one must look at blood test results. For kidney function one needs to know the BUN level, the creatinine clearance, the potassium level (which is also very important for heart patients to know) and finally the red blood cell count since that is controlled by enzymes produced in the kidneys. For diabetes one should check the A1C levels every three months to ensure that the long-term blood sugar level is acceptable. For the heart there are tests for chloresterol levels and there are echo exams to be done on a yearly basis to see if the heart tissue is losing its ability to pump blood through the body.
A patient should take these tests when needed, but more importantly, the patient must receive the results of the tests. Just as schools give students tests not only to determine whether they are learning the material and to decide whether they should continue to the next grade, but also to give feedback to the students so that students can make adjustments in study habits or test-taking strategies. It is a necessary part of the learning process.
Modern medicine has not yet learned this lesson and neither have most patients. The medical establishment unlike that of education, acts as though their practice is strictly top down. The doctor who has studied calculus, physics and chemistry in addition to biology must decide what tests to give and then must review them to advise the patient what to do next. The patient is better off just doing what s/he is told by this master of science.
Besides the obvious problem of taking the main character out of the play by restricting the patient’s knowledge of his own condition and progress to generalities like “a little above normal” or “within the range” or “nothing to be too worried about, yet,” instead of getting the actual data like blood test reports, echo exams, stress tests, etc., there is a more basic one. Nowadays, your doctor is seeing one patient every 15 minutes. If s/he is a specialist who usually sees each patient twice a year, that doctor has more than 1,000 patients. If you are a patient, you have only one patient to worry about - yourself. Doctors, because of their overload of cases, can easily miss reviewing a test result or miss important parts of the report.
Also, with specialization being what it is, a patient may have to see several different doctors. They may need to see the information presented in a blood test given by another doctor. It would help if the patient had a copy of the test to show the other doctor. And with the burnout rate in the medical field, it is very likely that soon you will have a different doctor who may not have a copy of tests given by a predecessor in another practice. A patient who has copies of all medical test results would have this data available to share with the new physician.
We shouldn’t have to wait patiently for our tests results any longer. These tests are given to us, for us, from us and are paid for by us. We have every reason and right to expect to receive them when they are available for our information and future reference.
We are patients, but please do not try our patience
It’s September, 1914. A twelve-year old farm boy is rewarded for his summer’s hard work with a trip to a rural Illinois county fair. Wide-eyed, he takes in the freak show, the pungent animal smells, the amazing sword-swallower and the bearded lady. Tries his skill at pitching baseballs at a pyramid of glass bottles, but no luck. Wandering, with frequent snatches at his cone of cotton candy, he pauses at a sign with the compelling invitation to “Know Your Future,” finds a dime in his pocket and warily enters the darkened tent.
An old woman in garish Gypsy costume motions him to the seat opposite her at the worn table with a crystal ball in its center. She tells him he’s a good, hard-working boy with talents yet unexplored. “You have a gift to give to the world,” she adds. Then a frown crosses her face. A long silence and then she breaks the cardinal rule of fortune tellers by giving him the bad news. “You will die young,” she says.
Shaken and sobered, he slowly walks through the carnival’s other attractions, preoccupied, unaware of the crudely showy and noisy environment begging for his attention.
That night, sitting on the edge of his bed, head in hands, he wonders what the prophecy really meant, how he would die, and when. And what did she mean about unexplored talents? Next morning , while accomplishing his chores, he makes a decision that will shape and inform the rest of his life. “If I don’t have long to live, if I’m really going to die young, I can’t waste any time. I’d better get going!”
And he does. With his strict upbringing and few distractions, he has become a self-disciplined, independent and a somewhat isolated person. He reads avidly, majors in agriculture in college, then switches to religion deciding to prepare for the ministry. From time to time he remembers the fortune teller’s prediction and notices that in his twenties, he is still alive.
He marries, moves to New York, studies theology, switches to psychology and earns his Ph.D. in 1931. Nine years later he accepts a full professorship at Ohio State. Still driven by the belief that he hasn’t much time left, he applies himself vigorously to his work, publishing his first book the next year. His career blossoms.
He makes major, original contributions to the profession of psychology. He is respected and known internationally. He has become a warm, accessible, much-loved human being. He is active, enjoys a devoted family life, finds pleasure in his work, accomplishments and relationships. He is nominated for a Nobel Prize.
In his forties, fifties and sixties, he occasionally remembers the dire prophecy. And finally, in his seventies, the light dawns. He finally understands what the Gypsy really meant: “At whatever age you die, you will die young!” Carl Rogers lived a full and fruitful life until his actual death, at the age of eighty-five.
Now, as an octogenarian myself, I know that staying active, staying curious, staying connected with others are the essential ingredients for staying young. Most of the elders I know feel their age physically, as the packaging deteriorates and body parts become less reliable. But ask them how old they are in their minds and, generally, they’ll report feeling younger than their years. Sure, I’m winded when I walk up a hill, fingers often now have trouble with buttons, I’m cranky when I don’t get my afternoon nap. But meeting new people, finding out about them, reading an engaging novel, listening to beloved familiar music, scratching my cat’s ears—all are ways of continuing to feel fully alive. I’m as interested in what’s next as I was at thirty. Focusing on what I used to be or focusing on what’s possible now is a choice. I prefer to stay in the present so that I, too, can die young