"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to Grow Old

     I just finished reading a recently published book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans by Karl Pillemer. I'd heard about it a while ago and placed a hold at my library. (I don't know about you, but for me it typically takes a few weeks to get a "held" book from the library, usually because someone else has it checked out.) Then, coincidentally, The Week magazine is running an excerpt from the book in its current issue.

     Author Pillemer takes the position that people over the age of 60 are the wisest Americans. Why? Because they "possess a deep knowledge of just about every problem a human being can experience." In the book he gathers advice on how to maintain a happy marriage, raise your children, build a successful career. But the perspective I found most valuable centered on how to approach the inevitability of old age.

     He reminds us that we Baby Boomers (Pillemer and I share this dubious distinction) have an especially difficult time comprehending the reality of growing old. After all, we are the ones who didn't trust anyone over 30, who invented the Peter Pan syndrome.

     "For many Baby Boomers, turning 60 is a fairly significant shock," he says. "The generation that believed it would be young forever, clearly will not. The boomers are having a hard time with the existential reality of life not being one open-ended opportunity after another."

     This statement came as a shock to me because lately I've found myself thinking:  I'm having a good time in life. I'm not doing much of anything -- my kids are grown, my career is over -- but I'm happy and I love living with B and I like hanging out with my friends and I enjoy watching the world. I don't want my story to end.

     I think maybe the death of Steve Jobs brought on my recent pensiveness. It's a shock to my system when I hear that someone younger than me has died. And Jobs was only 56 when he left us last October. But also, he seemed so much a part of our lives, for so long, and he was leading the way into the future. And now, suddenly, for him there is no future.

     So I looked to Pillemer's experts for advice on how to approach my prospects for aging. The first thing they said is: Don't waste your time worrying about it. It's a process no one can escape.

     The fear of aging is rampant in our society -- we imagine what life must be like based on old stereotypes, rather than real individuals who can actually tell us about it. And as one sage said, "Being old is much better than we think it is."

     For one thing, we can do pretty much what we damn well please, and nobody is going to fault us for it. We're not tied down to a job or a family, and so we can go wherever we want. Most of us are no longer constrained by social restrictions, either. They somehow shed their power as we grow older and realize how manufactured they all are. We are free to drop old resentments and rekindle relationships. We can accept or turn down invitations based on what we really want to do, rather than factoring in who we need to impress or who we might offend.

     One man reveled in the volunteer activities he's doing. "I enjoy the opportunity to share whatever advice I might be able to offer. You can't do that when you're 20. You haven't built a body of experience ... yet in the part of life I'm in now, you can put all those pieces together and offer to society the benefit of what you've learned."

     Ironically, most of the older people said they do not think about death too often. Or, as Pillemer concludes, "The intense, overpowering fear of dying is very much a young person's game."

     When one older woman was asked if she believed in life after death, she responded, "I wonder if there really is. I wouldn't bother worrying about it too much, because I'm going to find out." A 94-year-old woman said, "I'm not afraid to die. Nobody knows where we go, and we'll never know because that's a mystery. Like my husband used to say, 'If you go to heaven, how wonderful. But if you go to sleep, what's wrong with that?'"

     While many elders seem matter-of-fact about dying, they do agree on one thing: Plan for the journey so you don't leave a pile of problems for your family. They advise people to get organized, tidy up their homes, their belongings, their financial situation, so people will know what to do after you're gone. Some people even take comfort in tidying up their lives -- seeing it as a metaphor for bringing disparate elements together in a meaningful way, rather than leaving everything in a disorganized jumble of unrelated parts.

     The wisest Americans also agree that it's crucial to stay connected as you get older. Some people are lucky and remain tied to a stable social network until the day they die. But if you do lose important people in your life, you need to develop new relationships. Human beings are not meant to live solitary lives, and all the research has shown that meaningful roles and satisfying relationships are strongly correlated to emotional and physical health. But it can sometimes be a challenge. So take steps to remain engaged -- move near your children, reach out to new friends, join a club or social group or support group, sign up for an event at your library or a class at your community college.

     Also, before the aches and pains of life slow you down too much, figure out where you're going to live. Maybe the decision is as simple as staying in your old family home, or moving to your long-held dream house at the beach. But you need to consider if you should move to one-level house, because at some point you might find it difficult to negotiate stairs. You might have to face the question of whether or not you're ready to give up your home and live in a group situation. Many older people now reside in independent or assisted living communities. Almost without exception, they were initially reluctant to make the move, but later said it was one of the best decisions of their lives as they realized the lost independence was more than made up for by new opportunities.

     One elderly sage summed up, "I have found each decade, each age, has opportunities that weren't there in the previous time. There've been joys in each stage of my life. The thing is -- people are so afraid of getting old. Don't worry about it. It's an adventure."

     I'd love to hear about your joys, opportunities, surprises or insights about growing older. Because there is one thing I do know. We're all in this together.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vacation Photos, and the Most Beautiful Daughter

     I've always thought it was pretty self-indulgent for bloggers to post pictures of their grandchildren, or their vacations, on their blogs. I mean, it's an old joke, thrusting pictures of your grandchildren into people's faces and importuning them to tell you just how cute they are*, or herding your friends into your living room to see an excruciatingly boring slide show of every little thing you did on vacation.

     But ... what the hell. I'm going to be self-indulgent. But I'll try to be brief about it. I'll limit it to the Top Ten.

Looking toward Laguna Beach from Dana Point
The overlay, and Catalina Island beyond

That's someone else surfing, not B and me
San Diego sunset -- from Pacific Beach, showing Crystal pier
I'm looking out from Razor Point, Torrey Pines Natural Reserve
This is where I replaced my camera battery, in Uptown Sedona
We visited one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World
But this seems like an unnecessary warning, doesn't it?
Sunset in Sedona, AZ
On the front porch of the cliff dwellers (I picked up that sheriff's badge in Tombstone for $5.)
Overlooking Phoenix from Camelback Mt. -- my not-so-tall brother-in-law, dwarfed by a Saguaro

*  P. S. I don't yet have any grandchildren. But I vividly recall the day my daughter was born. I went over to the viewing area, where the dads and other relatives could look through the window into the nursery. Eight or ten babies were lying in their cribs, wiggling their feet and gumming their little fists, and then my eyes alighted on the most beautiful baby there -- my daughter.

     I gawked at her for a  few minutes. Then I wiped my eyes and went to find my wife, lying in her hospital bed. I told her, "I know every dad says it's their kid who's the most beautiful baby in the nursery. But you know what? Of all those dads, one of them is right. Well, I just looked in the nursery, and I can say the most beautiful baby in there is our daughter. And ... I'm the dad who is right."

     Later, I sent a photo of my baby daughter to my sister. She called me on the phone to congratulate me, but then she hesitated. "What?" I wanted to know. "Well," she hemmed and hawed. "What?" I prompted. "Well, the thing is," she said, "she kind of looks like Uncle Johnny." And that's when I realized maybe I was looking at my little darling through rose-colored glasses.

     But, not to worry. She has grown up to be a beautiful, smart, accomplished, independent 20-something. And that's the truth. You can take it from her dad.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Mining the Southwest for Retirement

     Did you know that it was the miners who dug out the Grand Canyon?

     Okay, not exactly. Native Americans were living along the Grand Canyon some 9000 years ago, and the Spanish rode up to take a look in the 1500s. Then several American parties explored and mapped the Grand Canyon in the 1800s, including one group that wanted to run a railroad at the bottom of the canyon along the Colorado River.

     But, the story goes, a few miners were poking and prodding along the sides of the Grand Canyon in the late 1800s. They were looking for copper, lead and zinc. They never found enough minerals to make it worth their while to haul the ore up and out of the canyon, but when a railroad line reached Flagstaff in 1882 and Eastern tourists wanted to go out to see this natural wonder, some of the miners gave up looking for riches in the rocks and went to work on the tourists instead. They improved the trails into the canyon, led mule teams down to the bottom, and hired out as guides to the tourists. One miner, Louis Boucher, opened a hotel in 1889, and another miner, William Wallace Bass, built a campground, complete with kitchen and dining facilities and special stage coach to ferry guests to and from the train station.

     I like this story, which I learned about when a few days ago I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. To me it illustrates how the West was won. First came the miners. Think California gold rush. Cripple Creek. The Comstock lode. Idaho's Silver Valley. The Black Hills. Then came the railroads. The first transcontinental railroad linked the East to California in 1869. In 1883 the Southern Pacific connected New Orleans to Los Angeles and the Northern Pacific closed the gap between Chicago and Seattle. Ten years later, in 1893, the Great Northern Railway offered another line from St. Paul to Seattle.

     Then, after the miners and the railroads, came the tourists -- to the Grand Canyon, California and a thousand places in between. And finally the retirees, to Arizona and Oregon ... and a thousand places in between.

     I was interested in the history of San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado when I went to visit last week. (We took a walk around, didn't stay there -- it costs a fortune!) The hotel opened in 1888 and has been serving tourists ever since. And I loved wandering through Old Town San Diego -- taking in a city that offered up no valuable minerals and therefore remained nothing but a small outpost until the railroad arrived in 1885. The population of San Diego County shot up from 8,600 in 1880 to 35,000 in 1890.

     When I came back to Arizona, I particularly enjoyed my visit to Bisbee, a little town (current pop. 6,000) nestled in the Mule Mountains in far southern Arizona. The town was founded after gold and copper were discovered in the late 1870s. By the early 1900s the population had grown to over 20,000, and it soon peaked at 25,000 people.

     It was 1877 when a U. S. Cavalry officer, Lieut. Jack Dunn, rode through the area on a scouting mission against the Apache. He spied some bits of interesting rocks, but couldn't do anything about them because of his duties in the army. So he struck a deal with a prospector named George Warren:  Warren would work the property with Dunn as a partner. But Warren double-crossed Dunn when he brought in some of his drinking buddies, the group staked the claim and left Dunn out in the cold.

Bisbee, AZ, in the early 1900s

     Soon prospectors were crawling all over the Mule Mountains, digging shafts into the hills, dynamiting the rocks and pulling out gold, silver and copper. Then came the corporate interests in the form of the Copper Queen Mine, which brought in big machinery and eventually started surface mining the area.

     Today, the huge Lavender pit dominates the area. The mine, now owned by mega-corporation Phelps Dodge, is currently closed, but the town itself has been restored, featuring a mining museum, several blocks of Victorian storefronts, and a few carefully restored hotels. Perfect for the tourists. And a few retired people as well, including the proprietor of our hotel who told us she and her husband came down to Bisbee from Seattle a few years ago, and turned the hotel into their retirement dream.

     I'll travel home on an airplane, not by railroad car. But I'll be taking some bits of the West back with me, in the form of a few rocks and stones, plenty of colorful memories -- and the grounds for some interesting retirement thoughts.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The End of the Road in California

     I once made the drive across country -- it was in 2004 when I brought my daughter's car out to San Francisco where she was going to college. I left home in New York and first headed south to Jacksonville, FL, to visit my sister. Then I got on I10 and took it all the way west, stopping for a few days in Phoenix to see my other sister.

     I continued on I10, 2500 miles in all, until I arrived at the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. And as I looked out over the Pacific Ocean, I realized I was truly at the end of the road.

I didn't see Brad Pitt
     Now on my current trip I'm staying in a townhouse/condo type place, just a half a block up from the Pacific Ocean. And once again I am really aware that I've come as far as I can go, without getting wet. It's fun to walk down to the beach at sunset, along with a scattering of other tourists and locals, and watch the sun go down over the water, knowing you're among the very last of your fellow Americans to see the sun wave goodbye to the continent.

     One comes to California with certain expectations. For example, I always expect to see a movie star. But I never do. (It's the same in New York City. But in all the times I've been to Manhattan, I've never seen a famous face -- except once I think I saw Jacqueline Kennedy outside my taxi window standing on a street corner, but I'm not even sure if it was her.)

     I was wrong about another expectation as well. A couple of posts ago I guessed that there weren't many retired bloggers from California -- assuming not too many people retire to California, simply because it's too expensive. I don't know if many retirees move to California, but there are plenty of retired people in California. And among the bloggers are The Fifty Factor and Retired Syd at Retirement: A Full Time Job.

I didn't see Naomi Watts
     You expect to see young, beautiful people in California who are hiking or biking or surfing. You also do see a few homeless people (there's a guy living outside a convenience store down the street) who have truly come to the end of the road. All this is part of the California experience. But I have to admit, I am having trouble getting used to the time change. Not the jet lag, which slowed me down for a couple of days. But the realization that, by the time you wake up in California, the day is already half over on the East Coast. I feel like I'm constantly behind, trying to catch up with the rest of the country.

     It's only lunchtime, and the financial markets have already had their day. They close at 1 p.m.! The White House has had its daily briefing. Whatever else that has occurred in Washington is already history.

     Last week I was going to watch the Super Bowl. I've watched the Super Bowl plenty of times. It's always on at night. So I went about my day, figuring I'd tune in when I got home in the evening. I got back to my room a little after 6 p.m. and turned on the TV, expecting to catch the game. The game was almost over! I was right. It did start at 6:30. But that was in Indianapolis. In California it started at 3:30, and it was practically over by 6:30.

I didn't see Daniel Craig
     I think if I lived in California I'd feel like I was missing    out on most of what's going on in America. But my daughter, who is much more at home in California, has a different point of view. She likes the idea that everything else in the country has already occurred by the time you're done at work. That way, you go home and you know nothing else is going to happen. So you can relax and enjoy the extra three hours you have in the day.

     "Maybe that's why people are so laid back out here in California," I ventured. "They all have an extra three hours at the end of the day to chill out."

     And I thought, maybe that's why people in California feel like they're a little different from those of us in the East, the South and the Midwest. Whatever we do in the rest of the country -- by the time it gets to California, it's history. It's done. It's over. Like the Super Bowl.

But I viewed some beautiful sunsets over the Pacific

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Range of Thoughts from Arizona

     I have to admit, I really don't like to fly. Actually, I'm afraid to fly. But so are a lot of people, even though not everyone is willing to admit it. So why do they call the place where you go to get on the airplane the "terminal"? Doesn't instill a lot of confidence in people like us.

     That being said, my experience on U. S. Air was about as good as it gets. There was no mob scene at the airport. Check-in was not a problem. We took off without delay. The flight was smooth. We arrived on time. The whole experience almost made me want to fly again ... well, I guess I'll have to if I want to go home. 

     So I arrived in Arizona a few days ago, and I find that I am sleeping extremely well. I fell into bed at 9:15 last night; I read for a little while, but couldn't say awake past 10 p.m. Then I slept soundly until 7:15 this morning. A good nine hours of solid sack time! I dunno if it's because I'm on vacation, or if it's the dry air, or what, but if you're having trouble sleeping, come to Arizona!

     There are a couple of things that make me nervous, however. Apparently there's been a rash of home invasions in the area recently. When I arrived, people were talking about a double murder that had occurred just a few days before, in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Phoenix.

     It's pretty gruesome. A retired doctor and his wife were found bound, shot and burned beyond recognition in the master bedroom of their suburban home. Authorities have released no official statements. But the rumor I heard from another Phoenix doctor suggests it was a home invasion gone bad -- two men had followed the couple into their garage but they'd been recognized by the man. And so the couple had to be killed. And then the house was set on fire. Two suspects were arrested by the end of the week.

     This could happen anywhere, I suppose. And honestly, I don't know if the crime rate around Phoenix is any worse than anywhere else. But I'll tell you one thing. My sister and all her friends are being very careful to close their garage doors and lock their doors at night.

     Meanwhile, there's a proposal on the ballot in Arizona to allow people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. Arizona already has the worst gun-safety laws in the nation, tied at the bottom with Utah and Alaska, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Now, I don't know how many 18 - 22 year olds you know, but when I look around and see how those kids drive, and how they can be impulsive, and how they experiment with drinking and drugs and who knows what else, do you really think it's a good idea to give them a license to carry a concealed weapon?

     Yeah, yeah, I know a lot of people in the military are 20 years old, and carry much more deadly weapons than a concealed gun. But the kids in the military have been trained, and they are under the supervision of older, more experienced, more responsible officers. It would make me very nervous to be walking around a college campus, wondering who was packing heat, and who was not. If nothing else, it might inhibit class discussion, don't you think?

The Heard Museum in Phoenix features Indian arts and culture

     Of course, I don't spend much time on a college campus anymore. But it also makes me a little nervous driving around the streets of Phoenix, wondering who's carrying and who's not.

     Although, when I am driving around the streets of Phoenix, I'm not always aware that I'm even in Arizona. In fact, the Phoenix metro area seems like Florida to me -- miles and miles of strip malls and low-slung office buildings and parking lots dotted with palm trees. I think of the Valley of the Sun as Florida -- without the water. Except every once in a while you turn a corner and there, up ahead, is a mountain, or mountain ridge. And you're surprised. Oh yeah ... we are in Arizona.

     One place I did drive was to the Heard Museum, a beautiful oasis in the middle of Phoenix dedicated to American Indian arts and cultures. (They say American Indian, not Native American, so I'm just going with their terminology.)  I recommend a visit if you're in town.

     As you can see I have mixed initial reactions to Phoenix -- and I've yet to experience the rest of Arizona, which I will do after I get back from California. Like everywhere else, I suppose, there are some good things and some bad things. But I didn't come here to judge Phoenix. Plenty have people have already done that, and given it high marks. Americans have voted with their feet, moving to Phoenix in droves. The place has been growing for decades and is still attracting people, despite what you hear about the bad economy and horrible real-estate market and the poor gun-safety laws.

     As for me, I might not want to retire and live here; but it's a great place to visit. The people, by and large, seem friendly. The prices are reasonable (at least compared to the Northeast). And the weather in February is fantastic. Great for sleeping!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Retirement Research ... or Vacation?

     Some people may say I'm going on vacation. No, no, no, no ... I'm doing research!

     I'm heading out to Arizona and Southern California, to visit my sister and my daughter. But I do -- I really do -- have it in the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, this is a place where B and I would like to retire.

     It's a long shot, to be sure. B and I are really East Coasters at heart ... don't think we'd ever feel "at home" west of the Mississippi. Plus, at least three of our four children are located on the East Coast. (We never know about my daughter -- she's got a big case of wanderlust; as soon as she plunks down in one location, she's already thinking about the next place she's going to move.)

     I realize Arizona is nothing new for many retired bloggers, especially for people who live there, like Satisfying Retirement or people who take extended vacations there, like Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting. Although it occurs to me that I haven't seen many retired people blogging from California -- maybe California is a place you relocate from, not to, when you retire.

     In any case, I'll be doing more traveling than blogging for the next few weeks. I'll check in from time to time, but not with my usual regularity.

     So yesterday B turned to me and said, "Gee, what do we do if we really like it out there in Arizona or California?"

     I laughed, because I don't think it's gonna happen. "Don't worry," I said, "I really don't see us falling in love with Arizona as a place to live -- we like to be near the ocean, not out in the desert. And as for San Diego? Well, maybe we'll like it and want to live there. But we can't afford it."

     So maybe that's why there aren't too many retired people blogging from California. Anyway, we'll see.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Remember Him?

     He said he never knew who his real, biological parents were, but he did seem to know that he was born in New York City, and his birthday was February 3, 1907. He was adopted at an early age and raised by a widow in Doylestown, Pa. He was bitten by the travel bug early in life, and while still in high school he traveled across the country, using his thumb and riding the rails.

     In 1925 he graduated from Doylestown High School and went to nearby Swarthmore College, where he played basketball and was described as the poorest boy in school, and also the brightest. After he graduated, with highest honors, he headed to Europe where he traveled and briefly went to school in Scotland.
Swarthmore College

     But his first ambition was to be a teacher. He landed a job as an English teacher at the exclusive private school, The Hill School, in Pottstown, Pa. -- a school later made famous by Tobias Wolff in his novel Old School. He then went to teach at the George School in Newtown, Pa., where he met and married his first wife. Next he headed out to Colorado to get a master's degree in teaching. A few years later, he landed a one-year teaching job at Harvard. But after that, he decided to leave the profession, and he found a job in New York as a social studies textbook editor at MacMillan & Co.

     When World War II started, he was called to active duty and joined the Navy. He became a lieutenant, assigned as a Naval historian, and in connection with his recording of events was sent on various missions across the South Pacific.

     When he returned from the war, he first went back to work at MacMillan, then decided to try to make his living as a writer. He had plenty of success, but suffered some failures as well. He tried his hand at television writing, but was unable to sell any scripts. He was involved in one show, "Adventures in Paradise" that made the air in 1959, but even that was only a modest success. After his Hollywood ambitions fizzled, he took on a more steady assignment as a Roving Editor for Reader's Digest magazine.

     In 1960 he signed on as chairman of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, committee to elect John F. Kennedy. Two years later, in 1962, he ran for Congress from the 8th District of Pennsylvania. He was defeated by the Republican incumbent. In the meantime, he divorced his first wife, married his second wife, then got divorced once again and in 1955 married his third wife, Mari Yoriko Sabusawa of Las Animas, Colorado. They remained married for 39 years, until her death in 1994.

     All these were important events in his life, but they were not what made him famous. His claim to fame came from his stories from the war in the Pacific. He mailed them to his former employer, MacMillan, and they were published in 1947 as Tales of the South Pacific. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and provided the basis for the megahit musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein, starring Mary Martin.

     The play opened on Broadway in 1949. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950 and garnered ten Tony awards, including best musical. The movie was released in 1958, starring Mitzi Gaynor, and became the top-grossing film of the year. (Doris Day was offered the starring role, but turned it down, while Elizabeth Taylor tried out for the part but didn't get it.)

     Meanwhile, the writer -- obviously, by now you know he's James Michener -- went on to write literally dozens of books that altogether sold some 75 million copies. His 1959 novel Hawaii was based on extensive research (he lived in Hawaii for several years), and set the stage for his subsequent books, which were noted for their historical breadth and depth, their memorable characters, their easy readability ... and their sheer length. Several of his tomes ran on for over 1000 pages.

     I'd be interested to know how many people have read the Michener classics, and which ones were favorites. I myself never read Tales of the South Pacific, although I certainly saw the movie, but I did read The Covenant when it came out in 1980. A few years later I read Poland. And then last year, in advance of taking a short vacation to Chincoteague, Va., I read Chesapeake -- and was reminded once again just how ambitious, and how good, these books really are.

     Michener died in 1997 at the age of 90 and was buried in Austin, Texas, where he spent his final years. He gave away much of the money he earned from his books, including an endowment to the University of Texas to create The Michener Center for Writers. He also gave money to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and then left the bulk of his estate to his alma mater Swarthmore College.

     Today, a library at the University of Northern Colorado is named after Michener, as is a suite at one of his favorite hotels, the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. There's a James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa., that features the work of local artists. In 1998, a group of enthusiasts formed the James A. Michener Society which meets periodically to promote his work and share stories about his life.