The straight goods from a writer guaranteed to say what he thinks, from Farnam Street
Until I was about sixty, I could hit the pillow at night and be sure to wake up eight hours later, refreshed and ready to face a new day. Since then, my sleep patterns have been erratic and unpredictable. Some mornings I am able to get back to sleep after confronting the darkness at 3:00 or 4:30; more often, I lie in bed thinking about some idea that has popped into my head until I finally give in to reality and begin my day.
It wasn’t until I hit seventy that I realized my body was not what it used to be. Muscles began to ache in ways they once used to only after exercise, but for no reason I knew. My knees would give me discomfort from nothing more than walking. Every pain suddenly became a potential warning sign that — that what? I didn’t even want to think about it.
Those were the visible signs of aging, and the most apparent day-to-day changes I noticed. Considering what I have seen in many of my friends, changes that can only be described as the ravages of age, these little inconveniences were something to be grateful for. My health, physical and mental, seemed to be intact.
It was an illusion. Underneath, I was developing a common trait of seniors, namely denial.
I was always determined to face the truth about myself as I moved along. I remembered how, when my father began to lose his hearing, he found every excuse to blame his family for mumbling. I could see that Catherine’s father still carries a comb and fusses over the four or five remaining hairs on his head, carefully straightening them out, trying to camouflage his conspicuous bald spot.
None of that for me. As soon as I found myself understanding what people were saying primarily by using my imagination, I got a hearing aid, then two. When my hair began to thin, I cut it short, then off altogether.
But all of these are only visible signs. The most serious mark of aging on me has been mental. I can no longer keep two tasks in my mind as well as I used to.
I say a lot in these pages about the importance of living in the moment, of focus. That is because I find it harder to concentrate than I used to, and because I end up in trouble because of that far more often than before.
Habit is a wonderful antidote to all of this. If I always put my keys in the same place, I never have to remember when I put them. But think of the down side. If I don’t take the keys out of my pocket, the next time I want them I will have to remember which pants I last wore. And I may not have paid enough attention to that little detail to help me. Or if I ever put the keys anywhere else, I could end up with a half-hour delay before I can leave home.
This often happens in the kitchen, especially when somebody helps clean up. A knife, for example, may end up three inches from where it usually is and then I cannot find it. I know where to look, and it’s not there.
For me, lack of focus most often shows up when I am driving. Unless I keep my destination in mind, I may put myself on automatic pilot and end up where habit expects me to go instead of where I am supposed to. I have to start by asking Catherine where we are going, and then keep reminding myself along the way. An energetic conversation can sidetrack me, so that we end up at the wrong place.
Before she starts to talk, she often asks me if I can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. She knows that we will not get to where we want to go if she cuts into my concentration and I am unaware.
For all the well-known flaws of a GPS, it has become an invaluable help for me, especially in town. I used to use it to help me get to places I did not know, but now it is a great tool for familiar routes. All I have to do is set it for my destination at the start of a trip and I do not have to worry about going to the wrong place.
The bubble gum chews itself, and I can concentrate on walking.
There are hundreds of ways we may not be what we used to be, but aging gives us resourcefulness and ingenuity to compensate for our lost focus. We just have to find ways to use them.
When I tell people I am writing about life after 70, some immediately describe the site as “heavy.” They think that being honest and frank about aging is just opening an unpleasant can of worms-in-waiting. But more people pass that milestone every day; and, as many aspects of what awaits them is rarely spoken about, it makes sense to open the windows on the future for them, even if just a little.
What got this started, I suppose, was my encounter with posterior vitreous detachment earlier this year. I suddenly began seeing flashes of light at the edges of my field of vision, as if vertical fluorescent lights were being turned on and off. When I looked quickly to the left, they appeared on my right; when I turned right, they seemed to be on the left.
It was alarming, and I went to my ophthalmologist for an explanation. The three magic words rolled off his tongue as if he said them every day. And he assured me that it happens to most people my age. The jelly-like fluid that fills the eye pulls away from the retina and collapses into the central part of the eye. He said I might see fogginess or floaters for a while but that I would recover.
What amazed me about the whole experience was not that I was suffering the inconveniences of aging, but that I had never heard of it, even though the doctor told me that almost everybody gets it.
How could I be so ignorant, I wondered. And I wondered even more why there should be complete silence about such a common condition.
This eventually led to Brilliant Fall. In time I will reveal much more about myself, not because what I see, feel, and know are idiosyncratic or unique. Quite the contrary. Much in my life could be relevant and meaningful to others.
And if you think that is heavy, well, so is all of life. What seems to make this heavy is that it is about a part of life that is closer to death than the rest.
There is a common belief that people inevitably begin losing it as they move along in years. I have known men and women who worried that they were on a downhill slope without traction because they had become disoriented, forgotten where they put their keys or their car, even lost words in the middle of a sentence. They thought that not being able to recall the name of a casual friend was just the beginning. Now all that was left was to wait for the end.
That may sometimes be the case, but it is not true for everybody.
There are many reasons for us to become forgetful as we age. We have much more to remember, so of course we are likely to let some of it slip away. Events and facts come at us much faster than they used to, and nobody can be expected to keep up with all of them. On the other hand, some comfort remains with our more acute long-term memory: we can often remember junior high school friends more clearly than the people we worked with a decade ago.
For some people, worry is more serious than forgetting itself. It’s like insomnia, which can get worse if you toss around in bed thinking about it and disappear in a haze of sleep if you don’t. Worrying about missing a gear is self-fulfilling. Young or old, we can let things go, accept forgetting as the normal condition of things, and life will go on. You can’t remember everything.
I stood mystified in front of my storage locker the other day, unable to open it because I did not remember the combination of the lock. All the numbers looked the same. I had thought up a mnemonic to help me remember, but it escaped me. It would have helped to write it on the locker itself or tape it onto the lock, but would-haves are of no use. After a few minutes of fumbling around, I accepted reality and started out of the storage room.
As I reached for the doorknob, I remembered that the first number is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for “hand.” The other numbers immediately jumped into my mind.
A brain doesn’t necessarily have to get worn down by age. Older people often forget things because they are distracted, not paying attention to what is in front of them, not living in the moment.
I remember the license plate of every car in our family when I was growing up, the telephone numbers of both sets of grandparents when people would have to dial Northlawn 1895, the Detroit addresses of all my friends before I was 20 — some of which no longer exist, victims of recent history. Growing up, I learned to recognize every American automobile model during the 1940s. I still light up with recognition when I see one of them. My daughter, who spent her formative years in remote rural Ontario, can still identify plants and animal tracks that I forgot long ago — even though she now lives in a city in Colorado.
We learn what we must, we remember what is important. Because certain numbers and addresses mattered to me as a child, they have never faded. They were my world, my way of describing my place in it. Nothing today matters as much, or requires as high a proportion of my attention, as those things required for the young Eugene. I have forgotten many of the plant and animal signs I learned as an adult.
These things differ for all of us. My wife can identify music groups of the 1960s and 1970s, can sing their lyrics. I, on the other hand, have never heard of most of them. If I cannot identify some songs of the Beatles, it is not because I have forgotten them; I never knew them. If she cannot, she worries.
It is crucial to pay attention to the things in front of us and not to ignore them. Not being aware of our world today can lead us to think we have forgotten it later; in reality, we might not have known it in the first place.
This is true of where we parked the car and which pair of pants holds our keys. If we don’t know those things, it is not because we are losing it or because we have forgotten. We cannot forget what we have never known.
Memory is a tenuous possession. We all hope never to lose it (though I can think of some people who are lucky they don’t have to remember where they put it). But worrying about not being able to retrieve the past will not help. Paying closer attention might.
I have always cherished the first light on summer mornings. At various times in my life I would enjoy the time by riding my bike through deserted streets or playing catch with myself, throwing a tennis ball against a wall, or just reading and listening to the radio. It's a time to be alone, to feel as if the world is mine alone. The adventure and discovery of the game without anybody else in it.
It was not so long ago that the revelation hit me that I had already done everything I ever would do in my life. Why these extra days, I wondered. It must have be something like what my father felt when he was more than ten years younger than I am, when he thought he would die at sixty-five. He treated the final five years of his life as a bonus.
For some people, grandchildren bring adventure and discovery to the endgame. But I have only one, and he is in Colorado becoming a bass guitar player, an activity I cannot share or appreciate. He might as well be on another continent, another planet, in another dimension. I am here alone, a sleepwalking wanderer waking up in the middle of the Sahara thinking Enough walking already, sometimes hearing a voice saying If you don't like the sunshine get into the shade. But there are no trees in sight, no bistros, no friends for conversation. True pointless exile.
There have been lots of thunderstorms in this absurdly cool summer, day after day of clouds rolling in toward afternoon, far-off rumbles, occasional flashes of light. Last night the thunder started long after dark. And even after the rumbling became sharp cymbal crashes there were not many breaks of light. It reminded me of a distant storm I once saw in Kansas, heat lightning without sound, and I thought this must be the missing part.
I am normally self-contained, not concerned about lacking friends, family, colleagues. I have thought that is the only reasonable response to life ever since I saw my father dying in 1979 and realized that one of the things we must do in life is get comfortable with the thought of walking off the field alone, carrying only our memories and our beliefs, deluded or not. He was sure of what waited for him on the other side, I was not. Even now, more than thirty years later, just as I am prepared to live with my memories and not to care whether they correspond to anything that actually happened, I am willing to embrace my beliefs and not to care whether they say anything about the present or the future. This is what I consider being self-contained.
I have not met many people who share that stance in life. It is an antidote to exile. Normally it entails an acceptance of isolation and an unbridgeable gulf between me and anybody else, a permanent distance from everything outside me, regardless of how I try to fill it with love, compassion, concern.
I don't have to be reminded how close we all are to dying. I have seen too many friends and relatives die recently. None of them told me that they were going, and I have never learned to read the signs. This morning I dreamed that somebody opened the door (which door? I don't know; it wasn't the room I was sleeping in), reached inside, shut the lights, and was standing there in the room with me. Scared me until I got my wits back, but then I was too agitated to get back to sleep. Three o'clock and I didn't need that kind of thing. So I thought I might as well face the day. Almost time for the first light.
Twenty years ago, my employer flew me to the branch office in Calgary to interview for a job as a communications officer. That was a unique situation in my life, being considered for a promotion in a position far from home.
I did not get hired. Moping with disappointment back in my old job, I asked some senior people if that might have been because of my age. Though age discrimination is not allowed under the Canadian Human Rights Act, I knew that what happens in fact often flies in the face of what is not allowed by law. Everybody I asked insisted that such things did not happen in their company.
More than six months later, the people who had interviewed me were in Ottawa. The Calgary office had been closed down and they were all shopping around for new jobs.
My heart had sunk when I lost the job and the promotion, but that feeling was replaced by relief. Same incident, different perspective. It had been devastating for me to fly west only to lose the opportunity for a new position; but what had been a crushing disappointment could have instead made me share the awful fate of the people who later had to salvage their own careers.
Government work is encountered by normal people only when they fall into the gears of bureaucracy, ensnared by tax people or bored enforcers of regulations. For many people who live in a place like Ottawa, people who can end up on the comfortable side of the desk, finding that work can feel like a reward, even a sinecure. Get your foot in the door, the saying goes, and you’re set for life. But it’s an uncertain existence.
I last worked in a government office in 1998. Yesterday I agreed to do it again for the next couple of months. The opportunity came thanks to a friend — a man who has been an angel in my life, coming to my rescue a number of times. He is in a position to recommend me for the unusual kind of work I do when his colleagues do not know where to find me.
Though I am grateful that some people think I am still worth hiring, and especially happy to have a steady income for a few weeks, I am approaching this work warily. The main reason is that I treasure the things I must now relinquish for money: time, leisure, freedom of movement.
Another reason also underlies my reticence. I firmly believe the ancient talmudic wisdom that says, “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.” There’s the uncertainty of the life, which is just as true today as it was in the time of the Romans who inspired this warning.
I have satisfied many government clients, but almost none of them ever called me back when the work was done. It has always made me wonder how much anybody really cared about what I did.
The first time I worked for the Canadian government I was impressed by a man who used to handle complaints from citizens. Stuck to his telephone was a conspicuous note that he would see every time he talked to the public. It said “It’s only a job.”
I have always favored jobs that are more than just a job, the kinds of work that influence the everyday lives of others, fields such as cultural affairs and health.
I will now be working on public service policy. Does anybody outside government even understand those words?
Many people, even in recent weeks, have told me that it is worth giving up time, leisure, and freedom for money. I do not believe it. These are the things that commonly define retirement; to me they are empty unless they are filled with meaningful and useful activities.
The question is how meaningful and useful my next few weeks will be. My biggest challenge will be to find real significance in my time on the job.
Wondering what might be the most valuable quality for an aging person, I spent lots of time and attention before settling on the word “useful” in the heading of this website. It is a concept used often by Benjamin Franklin (see right sidebar), and it would have been applauded by other 18th century figures as well.
There are many dimensions of usefulness, many ways to measure it. A woman I once knew thought all men should be quietly eliminated after their peak child-producing years because they no longer had any use. That view was reasonable so long as you thought child-rearing was the only useful work to be done. At my age, I am forced to look long and hard at what good I am achieving in any other sense. These reflections represent my journey.
Most of the money I have made has come from freelance writing and editing. In a government town, that meant looking for work in one federal departmental office after another. Alas, the current administration has made it more complicated and more difficult for private contractors to find work. Writers and editors seem to have been especially hard hit. It has been many months since I have had steady assignments.
Yesterday a friend, an editor in a federal department, called to ask if I would be interested in coming downtown for a few weeks to help convert some lengthy and crucial printed documents into web text. It is a skill I have developed over the years, one I have used for some sizeable and highly visible web sites.
Though electronic text has become more ubiquitous over the years, and IT professionals are common, very few people specialize in writing text for the web. I was flattered and excited by the prospect. At last, another chance to be useful.
But not so fast. There are now considerations that did not exist five and ten years ago: the acuity of my eyes, my need to rest during the day, my uncertain tolerance for office work.
My desire to do the work may outstrip my ability. I still have the knowledge and the skills, but are there parts of me that will keep me from performing as well as I used to?
I’m about to find out.
Work in the traditional sense has never appealed to me. I accept the fact that what any of us can do might help move the world forward, and I acknowledge the importance of the people who fix shoes and pave streets and pick up litter in the parks and keep appliances going, but I have never been so impressed by their roles that I wanted to become one of them.
My concept of myself, the ideal of a creative artist, has had no room for manual labor in it. I have tried to move toward it, though it has never dominated my life. Most living beings have an instinct to leave copies of themselves in the world, and a creative soul wants to leave something a little more abstract, in words, the plastic arts, or music. Let others pave the streets.
I look out my window for almost two hours in the morning, from my perch high above the bridge between Ottawa and Aylmer, and I see an endless stream of cars, every one of them carrying people off to do Canada’s important business.
Just saying that almost makes me laugh. What is important business anyway? The complexity of government reminds me of activity in an ant hill, with scurry in every direction to shift the sand around. But it may take years to notice what anybody has done, just as you would have to look at very old photos to recognize the difference between today’s open-shirted bureaucrats and the mutton-chopped, button-downed workers of a century ago.
From this height the traffic looks the same as last year too — you can’t tell that some of the cars are different — and in the offices you can still hear the same trivial conversation and find the same self-important managers as I knew in the 1990s.
Most of the people I worked with in offices did not care how important their work was. When I worked in the communications section of Canada’s national housing agency, my manager once tried to assuage my guilt at being paid for sending out vapid messages. I had thought I was being paid for making messages understandable. He reminded me that at least I was working. At least I was putting bread on the table.
That was like trying to comfort me with the thought that my daily grind would get me from the cradle to the grave with less boredom. That idea was expressed by a character in Waiting for Godot.
Considering this, I have thought I might be trying to rationalize too much of life away. But when I read what has been written about the dignity of labor, I wonder whether those writers are rationalizing even more than I am. Is what they say just palaver and whistling in the dark? Is it more or less of an attempt at self-justification than what I am thinking?
In the end, there may be no better epitaph for my tombstone than the words “Still looking for basic answers.”
Some people whose bodies are falling into disrepair, when their lives have become more a matter of will than ability, continue to make claims about their unflagging vigor. These people might insist they feel the same as when they were forty — that is, they feel the same impulses and instincts. But aging is a mixed bag, full of lingering desire but threatened by encroaching aches and pains in the morning.
This is especially true for men. In our society, so much of female identity and self-concept are tied to physical appearance that many women wage a war against physical change from Day One. The cosmetics industry is built on the confidence that many women will continue to try to look good regardless of how they feel.
But pain is inevitable. There's as much point to fighting against it as there would be to fight against the ocean tides or against the movement of sand dunes.
Most doctors will treat you for pain until you stop complaining, but the chemicals they throw at you do not really eliminate the causes of pain. They just make it bearable. Chiropractors try to go deeper, to eliminate the causes. But my first visit to a chiropractor made me more ready to live with pain. I came away convinced that there was something silly about going to the grave with a body as pristine and pain-free as the day I was born — that pain in a sense is the tax we pay for continuing to live.
I never thought about how my body might be breaking down until I turned seventy. At that grand celebration, with 70 friends and a cake molded of 70 cupcakes, I actually felt better than when I was forty, at least for a night — though I had already occasionally felt a twinge of pain in my back as I carried bags of groceries into the house.
These twinges were eventually explained by lab reports using big medical words about mid to lower facet arthropathy and cervical foraminal narrowing. They didn’t really explain anything because the words meant nothing to me. The reports might have had some value for somebody, but giving my pain a name did not make it feel better.
My doctor began talking about severe arthritis and wondered whether osteoporosis might be around the corner. Then came the prescriptions for magical potions that would keep bones together. And the pain killers too. Some people are so eager to avoid pain that they routinely pop those things whenever they feel a twinge more serious than a bump on the head. But I have been lucky enough not to have had headaches for most of my life, and I stay away from them. I resolved to live with my new pain, to ignore it when I could, to tolerate it when I had to.
The dentist tells me it’s time to replace some of my old fillings. They are older than he is, and it’s a miracle they have lasted as long as they have. But if my body is going to continue to serve me, the job will have to be done. It took me a long time to learn how to care for the inside of my mouth, and I have had more fillings than teeth since I was a teen-ager.
I think about the state of my body every morning, as soon as I am conscious enough to recognize that a new day has come. I take a top-to-bottom inventory of the whole apparatus, grateful for those parts I do not feel, even more grateful for what I do feel. I mean, grateful that I am still alive to feel anything.
If I begin to slip into self-pity and to forget gratitude, my mood changes as soon as I think of all the people I know who have lost organs, strength, the ability to walk unaided. Even people who have lost lives.
If aging doesn’t teach you gratitude, you’re in for a bumpy trip.
We evaluate and judge everything that happens to us, think of it as good or bad. But our perspective is always limited. We never know whether in a month or a year we will look back in the same way on what happened to us today.
Good or bad, it cannot be denied. At some point we have to accept the reality of the universe. It’s what we do with our lives that makes us different from each other.
I learn as much from dreams as from the events I share with the people around me. Last night my sleeping mind took me into a mess hall at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, for a reunion of military men. (I have never been in Arkansas, and my only experience with Fort Chaffee came when my brother Joel went there for basic training.)
At first, I could see no way into the building, but as I approached two giant patio doors opened in front of me. I wandered over to a round table where five or six men my age were waiting for breakfast. Their joviality and camaraderie made it clear that they knew each other. When a newcomer arrived, they jumped up to greet and embrace him. But I did not recognize them. I was just an observer, an outsider.
When the food came, some of the men divided a 10-inch souffle, and the rest dug into a platter of chopped egg sandwiches. More and more people kept coming into the hall, so many that the waiter, who had noticed me at first, got swept away by the crowd. I did not know what to order or why I was there.
Catherine looks at life in terms of what she can learn from it. She wonders what she is supposed to learn from circumstances or events, especially those that seem to be setbacks or obstacles. I, on the other hand, frame the question differently. I think there is no “supposed to” about it. There would be only if things happened with a cosmic purpose always waiting to be discovered.
I believe we impose meaning and purpose as life proceeds.
Some people say “There is no God” of “You’re a success if you can fool the other guy more often or not” or “We have an obligation to leave the world in better shape than we found it.” Some believe there is no meaning to existence, or that meaning resides in a divine mind. These stances reflect larger attitudes toward the universe and the other people in it. And everybody believes some of them.
We all make observations like these and guide our behavior with them. What we see as adversity or good fortune reinforces our attitudes or challenges them. In the end, our overall attitude makes us cranky or pleasant. Our underlying sense of purpose is what makes us judge as good or bad.
Shakespeare had it right when he had Hamlet observe that there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
A footnote: I spend time with people who believe the affairs of this world just serve as an introduction to a better world. If I suggest that nothing might matter, they agree enthusiastically. What they understand is that while nothing on this plane of existence has ultimate meaning, there are spiritual realities with deep significance. But that's not what I mean at all.