Sunday, June 30, 2013

Home? - Where the heck is that?

I can definitely relate to Dan Padgett’s frustrating dilemma. Not surprising, since he and I share so much in common. During the last years of his long career in municipal government he nursed his dreams of a mobile retirement---one that would include a well-equipped motor home as the primary residence for him and Nell.

It’s the wanderlust in him that has complicated things, he knows that. Just months before, as his retirement drew closer, the lure of “places-to-be-seen” and “people-to-be-met," especially in the remote, far corners of the country and continent, was growing harder than ever to resist.

In Family Matters, Dan has concluded that his dream is how retirement was meant to be. Predictably perhaps, Nell Padgett is looking forward to their Golden Years through very different eyes. For decades she has followed her husband from job to job all over the state. Every few years she had found herself making a new home in a new town. After half a dozen such moves they have finally returned to Tanner, where their odyssey had begun all those years before. She was finally home, and determined never to move again.

While Nell is looking forward to the permanency of their Tanner home, with no intention of ever living anywhere else, Dan continues to dream his “on-the-road” dreams---of cutting all ties with a home base. That’s what he wants. But why would he turn away from the future Nell dreams of having? What is he thinking? I think I’ll ask him.

GS “Tell me Dan, why does it seem like you’re stepping all over your wife’s dream? I learned a long time ago that’s not a good idea.”

DP Believe me, I know better than that. I don’t mean to be putting her down. I’m just hoping she’ll finally realize how great it would be to see all the places we’ve always dreamed of seeing.”

GS   “Are you sure that both of you have dreamed about seeing those places? Could it be you’re trying to turn your dream into hers too? If so, what if she doesn’t claim it?”

DP “I guess you could say that’s what has happened---at least so far. She’s just so darn stubborn. I’m talking about a way for us to get out from under all the housekeeping, and the yard and garden stuff. To be free, going wherever we decide to go, for as long as we want. Can’t you see how great that would be?”

GS “It doesn’t matter what I think. This is about Nell. And I’m guessing that doesn’t appeal to her?”

DP “You can say that again. She says what she’s looking forward to is the garden, and her clubs. Stuff like that. That’s what she wants to have. Can you believe that? The very stuff I want to get away from, all the day-to-day chores, is exactly what she wants more of.”

GS “Why do you suppose that is?”

DP “I don’t have a clue. I keep asking her to explain, but she can’t---at least not in a way that makes sense to me.”

GS “Would you mind if I took a guess---about what you might be dealing with?”

DP “Go ahead. God knows I’d like someone to sort it out for me.”

GS “Well, how about this? What if the two of you are bumping heads about what each of you means when you talk about ‘home’? Could that be the problem? (As you might guess, I’m prone to playing the pseudo-wise guru.)

DP “What does that mean?”

GS   “You tell me. How would you define ‘home’? What does the word mean to you.”

DP (I won’t include all of Dan' false starts---the hemming and hawing that proceeded his reply.) “Seems to me that when you get right down to it, home can be anyplace we decide to be---anyplace where Nell and I are together. For me it’s not about a certain place or a special building.”

GS “How about Nell? How would she describe ‘home’? Would it be the same as you?”

DP “Not a chance. Her idea of home is the house we live in. It’s all about her friends, and gardens, and clubs, and church. For her it’s very much about this particular place and everything that does with it. Every time I try to explain that it doesn’t have to be that way, she keeps throwing all her Tanner stuff back in my face.”

GS “So the real hang up, what has you two at each other’s throats, is about ‘home,’ and what it means to each of you. Right?

DP “I suppose so.” (He pauses a moment, before asking his question.) “If that’s the case, how do we get past that?”

GS “Oh man, that’s not an easy thing. I’ll bet I could write a whole book about that. In fact, I have.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

October Bold -- you still have dreams, so why be timid?

Unless I change my mind, which sometimes happens, the story I’m working on now will be titled October Bold. It’s interesting how a storyline, and what I want to emphasize, changes as I go along. Over the course of a couple hundred pages what started out as a couple’s bumpy trek toward some hoped-for common ground has taken an unexpected turn.

David and Marian are slowly realizing that finding such an elusive space will require a change of course, and attitude, for both of them. Are they willing to do that? Do they have the nerve to try? Near as I can tell their situation calls for a dose of October Bold---a willingness to move beyond their normal responses, to try something new, and take a chance---in dealing with relationships or any other activity.

Of course, like most everything else, the October version of “Bold” bears little resemblance to the carefree, sometimes foolhardy boldness of our youth. By the time we reach October all of us have gathered our share of barnacles and baggage---excuses for not trying something new, or different, or a bit risky. In the same way that barnacles can slow down a ship, our own doubting logic may hold us back, making us more timid than necessary. I’m not talking about some exaggerated risk or betting the farm on some untried dream. For us October citizens it’s about finding the courage to stretch the envelop a bit, to follow an appealing possibility beyond the reasons we would normally use to avoid it. What I call October boldness is about moving beyond our self-imposed impediments.

I count it as boldness when you finally decide to pursue a hobby or interest you’ve always wanted to try, but never ventured to do. In my own world, writing relational stories about my Tanner friends, then having the nerve to tell everyone what I was doing, qualified as boldness. As does creating a blog about those October adventures. From the beginning I wondered what gave a rank amateur like me the right to be doing that. But the further I ventured down that path the more I realized I was there because I wanted to be. As long as I’m not hurting anyone else that’s reason enough.

This October boldness of mine is not a matter of daring adventure or great physical risk. It’s a willingness to move beyond my comfort zone to pursue something I really want to do. To hold back or hesitate because of what someone else may say or think about my feeble efforts strikes me as a cowardly and very unbold reason for not acting.

After everything we’ve gone through to reach October, isn’t that how it should be? Haven’t we earned the right to be bold---in an October sort of way? Why not scrape off those limiting barnacles and be open to taking a chance of your own? So what if you end up looking silly or out of place. If you’re like me, you’ve been there before.

Jimmy Brooder’s first steps toward boldness in Conversations With Sarah are what I call “backdoor bold.” Though his dream is bold, he hesitates to act. But rather than turn away he resorts to his own timid, but decisive approach. In true “John Alden” style he asks Hank Rolland to do what he cannot do for himself---arrange a date with Gladys Horner. When Gladys finally unravels his indirect invitation she is in his face, asking questions of her own.

Turning back to face Gladys, Jimmy nodded toward the far end of the hallway, away from the others, and nudged her in that direction. “Tell me,” he said as they walked. “Does what you heard have something to do with you and me?” He noted her cautious nod. “Maybe something about a date, a double date, to the Big Band Concert?”
She moved closer, straining to hear his soft words. A second later she offered her response. “Yes. That’s what I heard. From Angie. Who heard it from Hank.”
“In that case, I need to bail Hank out of the trouble he’s got himself in.” Jimmy was scolding himself for creating such confusion. He had gone looking for Hank’s help, to ask Gladys the question he could not bring himself to ask. Hank must have asked Angie to do the asking. No wonder Gladys was confused. Still, since it was apparently a bad idea from the start, it was not fair for her to be blaming Hank. 
A single tug on her arm turned Gladys toward him. “Look, I’m sorry. This is my fault,” he said. “It was something I wanted to happen. But I can understand why it sounds so crazy to you. Anyway, if you’re going to be mad at someone, it should be me. I’m the one who asked Hank to help me. I just didn’t know he would be getting Angie involved.”
“Why did I ask Hank to lend a hand? Because I thought going to the concert with you was a good idea, something I’d like to do. I still think so.” Jimmy was already moving back toward the Fellowship Hall. “Anyway, I’m sorry I caused such a fuss. Why don’t we just drop it. Okay?”
“So you still think it’s a good idea. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Then why didn’t you just ask me? Why did it take Hank or Angie to do that?”
Jimmy Brooder had the look of a man prepared to run away, to escape her probing questions. Why did she have to keep pushing? It was time to end their ridiculous charade. “Gladys Horner, you’re not going to the concert with me---out there in front of all your high-society friends. I knew that all along. You’ve got more sense and good taste than that. So let’s just forget about it.”
Gladys paused long enough to draw herself to her full five foot two, looking up into his face, assembling her parting words. “Jimmy Brooder, you are exactly half right. I won’t be going to the concert with you.” She started toward the front door, before adding over her shoulder, “Not if you don’t have the nerve to do the asking yourself.”
He stood rooted in the middle of the hallway, watching as she walked away. Replaying her words, he asked himself again if she had actually said what he thought he heard.

Boldness, in its October form, is a frame of mind. It can be a timid, but decisive decision to act in the face of all the reasons we have created over the years for not acting. The kind of October Bold I advocate does not entail physical danger, but rather the risk of hurt feelings, embarrassment, or head-shaking snickers. It took me longer than it should have to realize that my sometimes fragile ego can deal with those injuries.

Perhaps someone buys my books---maybe they don’t. My blog may be read---or not. Either way, it feels like October boldness has earned me a very satisfying opportunity to be true to myself. And I pray that you too can be bold in your own October way. If there is something you want to try or do, and there is nothing more than your own timidity holding you back---then do it. What are you waiting for? Will it be easier next year? Be Bold.

As always, if you’re so inclined I’d appreciate your comments, posted below. Beyond that, if there are folks with whom you’d like to share this October Years post I hope you’ll pass it on. It’s an easy thing to do. Just click on the “M” at the bottom of this page to email the post, with the video, to any addresses you choose.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Senior relationships -- the October kind -- do you believe in Geriatric Adolescence?

October relationships---the ones I write about---are very different than the March and April connections we once pursued so eagerly. Heck, if you’re an “October” you don’t need me to tell you that. To begin with, you can probably set aside the obvious difference in hormone levels---nature’s sneaky and very effective way of continuing the species. For most of us, by the time we reach our October Years other matters have become primary. 

Of course, the most fortunate of us remain in a satisfying, time-tested relationship. That’s where I am, and very glad of it. But too many of my Tanner friends are alone, even isolated. For some of those folks that's exactly where they want to be. They have no interest in a new relationship. But for others, like the ones I depict in the Tanner Chronicles, the need for companionship and affirmation have taken on a new importance. In that case, they have become candidates for my stories.

On the surface those in that “seeking” mode might appear to be replaying an earlier experience---one that perhaps began as a teenager. Yet the reality of their new and slightly disorienting "geriatric adolescence" is not at all like the first time. For one thing, the measure of a prospective partner has changed. Appearance, status, income, even sex appeal, have become less important. In their new circumstances the comfort of a caring companion---someone willing to show that he or she understands what a “special” person you are---means everything. It's that undisguised affection and caring that really matters.

Case in point. Johnny Blanton is one of my very favorite people---at least of the Tanner seniors I have imagined into being. In Best Friends and Promises he has left the hospital to move in with Jan Pierce, a lonely and very caring librarian. Truth be told, Jan hardly qualifies as an old friend. They first met less than twenty-four hours before Johnny’s latest heart attack. Yet she has invited him to spend his recuperation with her.

Watching Darien walk away, Jan Pierce was trying to make sense of the sudden and dramatic changes in her normally pedestrian life. She had always thought of herself as stable, to the point of boring---given to cautious expectations, cautious deliberations, and cautious actions. An impulsive one-night affair was not her style, any more than inviting a man she scarcely knew to share her home. Why then was she feeling so comfortable, so committed to her unlikely choice?
Truth to tell, she was not accustomed to having a man in her life. She had not been a cute baby and had never grown into that condition. From her perspective the only constant in her life had been weight, too much of it. She had never married. As far as she knew, no man had ever considered proposing. Over the years there had been a few casual liaisons, including one that lasted for several months, largely because she had been willing to settle for the minimal security it offered. 
Then, just days before, in the course of a single night, a worn-out Johnny Blanton had accepted her caring as something special. Later, during his days in the hospital, as she waited to learn whether he would live or die, she had felt that caring grow.
Now, back in the apartment Johnny was sitting at the end of the sofa when Jan returned. He patted the cushion beside him and nodded for her to join him. “You know, I really appreciate this,” he said. “Letting me stay here. I’m not sure what I can offer to make all the trouble worthwhile.”
“Just be yourself. That’s all.” Resting her hand on his knee she leaned against his shoulder. “We’re much too old to be playing silly games. I want you here. That’s enough reason for me. Besides, it’s not like I’ve ever had men chasing after me.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You should. The thing is, from the first time we talked, about my scotch-on-the-rocks of all things, it was like I was talking to an old friend. It just felt right. Besides, I like being able to help. It’s been a long time since anyone needed my help.” 
“You’d better believe I need you and your help. And not just because I’m feeling so puny.”
She looked over into his deep set, weary eyes. “So tell me, Mr. Blanton. Why does this work for you?”
“To begin with, I’ve never been very good at being alone.” How blunt should he be? “But, at the same time, I’m not everyone’s idea of good company.”
“Why would that be? What’s not to appreciate? Is there something I should know.”
“Oh my, how can I describe it?” Was there a polite way to explain, in words that would not be graphically offensive? “I’ve been called ‘undisciplined’ and a 'free spirit.’ To some folks I’m a ‘loose cannon.’ And there are other descriptions I can’t repeat in mixed company. All that stuff is pretty negative, but I suppose it’s partly true. The thing is, I’ve never cared much what people thought of me.
“But there’s another side to that,” he continued, taking her hand in his. “The part I want you to know about. When I’m on your side I’m there one hundred percent, no matter what. That’s something you should know. I’ll be here for you in any way I can.” There was a moment of quiet as he searched for a way to spell out his final concern. “And there is something else.”
“What’s that?” 
Jan had never before witnessed Johnny’s obvious, almost blushing embarrassment. “You may have noticed,” he said. “Based on one night’s experience, that I’m no longer the youthful love-machine my mind tells me I once was.” There, was that subtle enough? Had he made his point?
Jan stifled her own laugh and poked playfully at his ribs. “Do you recall hearing any complaints?” 
“You were very kind not to bring that up. The thing is, my situation has changed a bit since then. For the worse, I’m afraid.”
“Well, after a heart attack, I should think so.”
“When we were kids we used to joke about wanting to die making love. If you had to go, that sounded like the best way. Just so you know, that is no longer my goal.” He paused to let her soft laugh wash over him. It was the best tonic he could imagine. “I just don’t want to misrepresent my reasons for moving in.”
Jan wrapped her fragile old man in a most affectionate hug. “Don’t you ever worry about that. I want you here with me. You want to be here. What other reasons do we need?” 
Indeed, Johnny was weak and tired. She was right about that. But in the midst of his weariness, he felt the pleasant knowing that he was wanted. For him, that meant he was exactly where he belonged.

There you are, my friend. If you happen to be one of those seniors in search of your own relationship I hope you’ll remember to set aside those “April” qualifiers and focus instead on October attributes. In fact, I could do worse than suggest you look for a Jan Pierce or Johnny Blanton.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I love Paris in the spring -- but Bogota or Bangkok in October??

I’ve mentioned before how I sometimes took advantage of my dad. This morning I am reminding myself that he too was capable of his own dirty tricks. For all the good things he did for my mother, brother, and me, the Old Man managed to bequeath to me his own particular curse---a pesky and persistent infection he called “wanderlust.”

The symptoms were there at an early age. By seven or eight I was spending hours leafing through the big Rand McNally World Atlas the folks kept under the coffee table. From map to map to map---I did my best to sound out the strange names and tried to imagine the people who lived in those far away countries, wondering what they were like. At twelve I ran away from home, determined to see the world---or at least spend a couple days in Eastern Oregon. Later, I was fortunate to visit a few of those places---as many as our resources and family situation would allow. I was born with that urge to see new and interesting places and meet the people who live there. I’ve never outgrown that. Perhaps you have some of that in you.

Then in my mid-sixties, I retired and moved on to my own October Years. Surprise---it was still there, the undiminished lure of wanderlust. The difference was I finally had time to indulge myself in those fantasies. But how much travel could we afford, even if we wanted to? As always, those with a hefty pension have more choices. Though the pull of friends and family may have them staying close to home in retirement, they could decide that “home” ought to be in the sunny southland---Arizona or Florida for instance.

Of course, some of us who don't have the necessary resources want those same things. In that case, we might find ourselves considering other options. That's where the internet offers a whole new world of possibilities. One of my favorites arrives every couple months, as it has for years. Near as I can tell the message has changed little over the years. I have only to open the email or envelope and recite the first sentence or two to have my wife is heading for another room.

“The hibiscus are in bloom,” the message begins. “As they are every month of the year. The gardner watches over them and the rest of the grounds, while  the maid/cook maintains order in your bright and airy home. Just months before you would never have dreamed the two of you could retire in such luxury for less than $1,800 a month. But now you have learned what so many others have not---that the good life, including affordable health care, is well within your reach.

You’ve probably seen the pitch. You can afford the retirement you dream of---somewhere. And perhaps you find a certain appeal in dreaming about that. I know I do. Fact is, for decades more and more of our fellow Americans have taken advantage of low cost foreign retirement, especially in Mexico. Lately, in the face of an increasingly harsh economic environment, that trend has taken on a new and novel forms.

In this brave new world of ours an updated list of well-publicized retirement havens is enough to send us back to the atlas. Just ask yourself what it would take to make Colombia a viable place to live out your Golden Years? Or Peru, or Thailand, or Uruguay? I see weekly emails advertising $300 seminars that will provide all the information you need to establish a home and live the good life in any of those countries, at a fraction of the cost you’d pay here in the U.S. The sponsors claim they can make the case for that. Could they convince you?

By all accounts the “offshore” retirement trend will continue to accelerate. We read everyday about how many retirees will not have saved enough to fund an decent retirement---at least not in the USA. For a certain portion of that population the lower cost of living “overseas,” especially the reduced cost of health care, will make that sound like a viable option.

Lately the articles I read online tout two particular retirement destinations---Panama and Belize. Certainly Panama has a long history of dealing with and providing for US citizens. Belize, on the other hand, was formerly a British colony. It is the only Central American nation where English is the official language. Each of those countries already hosts a sizable ex-patriot population.

But in the end we’re left to decide what “retirement”---the label we assign to life-after-work---means to us. For a wanderlust junky like me the lure of inexpensive living in new and far-away places, especially some exotic, out-of-the-way locale, is hard to ignore.

Then, about the time I get caught up in the wonderful possibilities, another of those pesky October attributes kicks in. “Is it really practical?” I ask myself. We're a family-oriented family. How would it work, having Grandma and Grandpa living on the seashore of sunny Belize, thousands of miles from the clan, following the grandkids on Skype? Beyond that, both Roma and I are kind of set in our ways. How would we adapt to a very different way of life, no matter how luxurious or inexpensive it was, or how adventurous the challenge?

How about you? Do the possibilities of tropic splendor on a shoestring resonate with you? Or does “Is it practical?” win out? I'd like to hear what you think. 

As always, if you’re so inclined I’d appreciate your comments, posted below. Beyond that, if there are folks with whom you’d like to share this October Years post I hope you’ll pass it on. It’s an easy thing to do. Just click on the “M” at the bottom of this page to email the post, with the video, to any addresses you choose.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dad -- he deserved better than I gave him

Yesterday was Father’s Day. My dad has been gone fifteen years. I’ll admit that I don’t think of him every day, but I did yesterday. I tried to remember the person he was in the October Years of his life, and realized that at the time I had no idea of what he was dealing with---the kind of things that arrive with October, including a son like me.

I must be at the stage when those special days take on more meaning, as though October has a way of putting things in perspective. I’m pretty sure I have a better understanding of how important and satisfying our own parenting experience has been, even if I didn’t always stop to realize that at the time. I hope that’s how it seems when you look back on those family times.

Like all of us, Dad was a man of many facets. The one I settled on last night was his patience---which I sometimes tried to the max. Nearly a decade after joining the family business I was caught up in what can only be described as an early mid-life crisis. In the course of five years I dragged my family off to graduate school, then to an Eastern Oregon ranch to play cowboy, and finally to live in England, where I pursued my suddenly important need to write a book. 

After each of those adventures I came back to the business, where Dad was anxiously awaiting my return---so that he could retire and do the things he wanted to do. But before he had a chance to do that I was off on another wild-goose chase. Truth be told, it doesn’t take Father’s Day to realize how much I owed him.

It’s probably not surprising that a complicated father/son interaction occasionally shows up in my writing. Nowhere is that relationship more central to the story than in Becoming. In the following except Carl Postell has left his wife and career to follow his own writing obsession. Besides his stories, the one remaining constant in his life is his father. Though their mutual affection is often disguised with blustery words, it is never far below the surface.

The Old Man’s healthcare aide answered the doorbell and ushered me inside. It was late morning and already warm, the way late-August mornings can be in the Willamette Valley. After cussing the Saturday morning traffic all the way across town I was ready for something to eat. I had skipped breakfast. Hopefully I was in time for lunch. My own cupboard was nearly bare and I was sick of Top Ramen. 
George Postell, my dad, was seated in his big cloth-covered recliner, the kind that raised to help him stand up. He was a small man, gray haired and stooped, who once on his feet shuffled around his apartment with the help of a four legged cane. Sitting there with a sweater draped over his shoulders he looked to be all of his eighty-six years. A hard life, especially one that includes serious disappointment, will do that.
As usual my visit would begin with our predictable pre-meal skirmish---loud arguments and passionate rebuttals---replowing old ground just enough to stir things up, but not enough to produce new answers. Our dialogue, whether about politics, religion or something from the newspaper, was in fact a well-disguised form of play, a highlight of Dad’s lonely week. In the face of his long days alone, our few minutes of spirited dueling were some of the best fun he had.
Of course, after years of playful head-butting neither of us had ever convinced the other he was wrong---not because of my logic or his, but because accepting the other’s arguments would have felt too much like giving in. 
“Glad to see you could spare the time,” Dad grumbled as I pulled a chair up beside his recliner. “Seems like it’s been a while since you’ve darkened my door. I suppose you’ve been too busy, eh? Locked away in that dingy cave of yours, writing your silly stories, forgetting all about your old man.” 
By then I was catching a hint of the bemused grin he reserved for his wayward son, his only offspring. “Damn it, boy. You could be doing so much better than that.”
“Why should you care? I’m doing exactly what I want, you know that. It’s my life. Besides, I don’t take a dime from you.”
“Don’t you kid me. You’re just buying time, waiting for me to kick off so you can come into some serious money.” As always, he wished that I was more respectful of his seven-figure brokerage account, funded by the sale of the Postell family farm more than a decade before. I knew there were times when my apparent disinterest in his money upset him. Though, of course, there were times when I was more interested than I let on.
The Old Man was a smart guy. His body was worn out, but his mind was still sharp. It was a rare thing when I could poke a hole in his logic, though I would never admit that in range of his hearing. More than once I had tried to imagine what he could have become if he had not been a Postell, tied to the family and its farm.
Most folks in his condition would have been in a nursing home, or at least an assisted-living place---like the one across the road from his independent living apartment. “Independent Living.” It had been that label that had sold him. I remember that morning, walking through the sprawling grounds of the Tanner East -Side Living Center, listening as he repeated the names to himself, comparing one to the other---first “Independent Living,” then “Assisted Living.” One sounded so descriptive of the person he believed himself to be. The other reeked of a weakness he would not accept for himself.
Perhaps he did stretch the “Independent Living” definition a bit. But once his chair pushed him to his feet he could shuffle around the apartment with his cane. It was slow going and though he never told me, I knew he had fallen a few times. Still, with the emergency call device hanging around his neck and the local Meals on Wheels program, he was able to take care of himself---microwaving his dinners, managing his own personal hygiene, and looking forward to Maria’s visits every Wednesday and Saturday. She was his caregiver, and except for me, his last reliable link to companionship and caring.
From the beginning I had assumed that one day Dad would move across the street to an assisted-living apartment, maybe even down the block to the nursing-home unit. That seemed to me the logical progression---the path I expected his future would take. For his part he had no such plans. He would “kick off” there, in his own place, before any further move was necessary. He was more than willing to forego those last stops on the itinerary that others were planning for him.

Stubborn, independent, with just a hint of bluster. Those words that describe George Padgett also fit my dad pretty well. His last words to me were “I love you.” It was also the first time I remembered hearing him say that---though I never once doubted it. It’s no accident that in Becoming Carl Postell’s father, and mine, play important roles from the first chapter to the last.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Be aware, IT is lurking in the shadows, waiting to impose its will

I made the point in an earlier post that the October Years are a time of change. Just think how crazy it gets sometimes. Is this what we imagined when we looked forward to our calm, quiet, and hopefully eventful Golden Years? 

You and I have probably spent decades thinking about this time. I hope it’s matching the dreams you’ve dreamed, though of course it’s not that way for everyone. And even if you are among the fortunate ones there is always a chance of being blindsided by some innocent appearing event you had never considered a threat to your peace or sanity. 

I count the wife and myself among those lucky ones. We’re as healthy as seventy-six year olds have a right to expect. Our offspring are doing well and out modest retirement seems secure. At first glance, life is good. At least that’s how it looked to us, until IT raised it’s ugly head.

Perhaps like you, we have spent most of a lifetime accumulating “stuff.” It comes in many forms---things we just couldn’t do without at the time, reminders of family times and growing children, momentos of special times and places. We’ve wrapped ourselves in bits and pieces of our own history, filling our closets and corners with evidence of whom we were and what we did. Our home groaned under the weight of stuff, sometimes even spilling out into rented storage space. 

Then IT happened. It was time for us to shift to a lower gear. It’s that way for lots of October folks. For some the big house will be too much to deal with any longer. For others retirement will be more appealing in a Sun Belt location. Or perhaps it will be the reality of October economics that dictates a change. Whatever the reason the time will come---time to downsize. At first blush we may look forward to that process. But in time we will learn it is an event to be dreaded.

The appeal is undeniable, with its promise of blessed freedom---liberation from much of that stuff. The reality, however, is something very different. The gist of it is simple enough. You commit yourself to parting with a portion of your carefully assembled treasures. You will make do with less. But what part will you do without? Which of those things---all of which have their own special meaning---are you willing to give away? Which of your memories are disposable?

Rather than bore you with our own mundane experience I’d like to offer a couple excerpts that depict my take on two very different kinds of downsizing.

First, in an untitled piece that has yet to become a finished story, a couple are contemplating the need to move to a smaller, less expensive home---which will mean getting by with less space.

At that moment Jim and Anita Camden were sitting on folding chairs in the middle of the two-car garage. The car had been moved outside to make room for their work. Around them, on three sides of the open room, long shelves held an eclectic assortment of cardboard boxes, each one a repository of their personal histories. Those fragile containers held the remnants of forty-nine years together---of the two of them as newly-weds, the satisfying family years, raising Larry and Ann in their comfortable Tanner home, and finally the empty-nest years that had led to their present quandry. 

They were effectively surrounded by their own past. As always it would be about choices, Jim told himself, suddenly captured by that insight. The persons they had become and the life they had lived were the results of choices made at each fork in the road. Now they would again come face to face with that past.

In each box long-unseen reminders concealed the evidence of earlier choices---holding some bit of a once-special time he or she had thought important enough to transport into their future. As they prepared to revisit decisions made for reasons they perhaps did not remember they sensed the ghostly presence of times past.

The task itself was simple enough. It would be a new round of choices---deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to consign to the trash barrel. It would take a while, but it was time to start---at least until Jim watched his wife’s head sink into her cradled hands.

“How can we do this?” Anita whimpered. “We ought to keep it all. Every bit of it is important.”

It was not a time to be debating his logic, sound at it was. He knew better than that. Instead, it was time for kid gloves and going slow, allowing her to proceed at her own naturally reserved pace.

Best Friends and Promises, on the other hand, illustrates a very different type of downsizing. Aaron’s wife has been moved to an Alzheimer’s ward and the big house must be sold to pay for her care.

In early March the house on Elm Street, their home for forty-eight years, was sold. For Aaron the troublesome process of selling---meetings with the realtor, leaving the house when it was being shown, the final round of paperwork---triggered a renewed sense of loss. For days he sorted and packed, urging the girls to select the momentos they wanted for themselves. In the end he avoided the weekend garage sale they held to dispose of the remaining treasures. It was more than he was willing to bear, watching the reminders of a lifetime with Leona being sold off as casual collectibles to unknowing strangers.

Finally the dreaded day came. The home where their life together had been lived belonged to strangers. The girls went back to Portland and Aaron sat alone in the cramped living room of his Samson Street apartment, mourning the loss of what had always been their home, and the reasons that made it necessary.

Downsizing---some will avoid that trial by leaving it for family to deal with after they leave. For the rest of us it will be a bitter-sweet visit to earlier times---a return that is bound to include hard choices and even regret.

As always, if you’re so inclined I’d appreciate your comments, posted below. Beyond that, if there are folks with whom you’d like to share this October Years post I hope you’ll pass it on. It’s an easy thing to do. Just click on the “M” at the bottom of this page to email the post, with the video, to any addresses you choose.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

They are People stories that include action, not Action stories that include people.

By now, going on seventy-seven, should I expect to have learned everything---or at least most of it? Safe to say I haven’t. Not even close. A couple days ago I was again reminded of that.

Actually, since to my readers have been slow to offer their comments on my blogging efforts, I was glad to have her input. After all she knows what she’s talking about. She works for an agency, representing writers, selling their stories to publishers. She (I’ll call her Suzie) knows what her publishing clients want. And what they want---whether the story is a whodunit, an dark and sinister vampire saga, or a steamy romance---is fast moving action, the kind that grabs the reader on page one and never lets up.

Pretty hard to argue with that, eh? And I didn’t, until Suzie explained that the first chapter of Second Chances was a “painfully slow” start. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah, at least “a little bit,” maybe more. Our conversation was over almost before it began. As often happens it was later that day, as I replayed Suzie’s blunt critique, before I realized why she and I were not seeing eye to eye on something I take so personally. 

I began by asking myself where I’d gone wrong. It took a while to understand that, in fact, I was telling the story I wanted to tell exactly the way I want to tell it. Granted, it could probably be told better, but it says what I intended to say. 

You see, in the books Suzie represents (I’ll label them “action” stories) it is the characters, the players, who keep things moving along---acting and reacting in ways that keep the storyline intact. That’s their role in the scheme of things, to provide the action, piece together the clues, stand up to the bad guys, and take chances---all in the name of advancing the plot. At every turn the players are there to serve the story.

Second Chances, like each of my books, is about folks who fit the profile of my October seekers---seniors looking to overcome the loneliness of life lived alone. They are the reason I’m writing the story. Their adventures---in the form of conflicts, wrong turns, and disappointments---are meant to help us know them better, rather than simply keep the story moving. The purpose of the story is to learn about them---to know them, to understand what they are dealing with, and how they cope. As one of those “Octobers,” that’s what interests me.

By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized I had answered my own question. If the characters in a story exist primarily to keep the plot moving toward whatever action is intended, then my October tales don’t pass muster. If, on the other hand, the purpose of the story is to meet and know individuals I can relate to, and explore how they deal with the trials and traumas of a particular time of life---what I call the October Years---then I’m satisfied that I’ve done my best. Of course, I try to cover both bases---the people and the action. I know that’s what the best writers do. But for me the emphasis will remain on the “people” elements of the story.

Back on May 9th my post was titled Why would he write that kind of stuff? I ended that piece by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the market.” After all, I’m telling relational stories about October Years players. Not exactly mainstream.

I still believe that. But now I can see there is something else at work here. Returning to Second Chances, the story does begin slowly---though I might debate Suzie’s “painfully” description. That’s because instead of offering tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic conquest, I am introducing people---the ones I’ll be following for the next three hundred pages. Truth to tell, I was in no hurry to move on to where their adventures would take them, not until I (and the reader) knew more about the players.

So here I am, an admitted amateur, writing “people” stories about old people. I suppose that means the “tiniest sliver of the market” keeps getting smaller. Makes me glad I’m having so much fun doing what I do.

As always, if you’re so inclined I’d appreciate your comments, posted below. Beyond that, if there are folks with whom you’d like to share this October Years post I hope you’ll pass it on. It’s an easy thing to do. Just click on the “M” at the bottom of this page to email the post, with the video, to any addresses you choose.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

I did it my way -- and you can see how that turned out

“I did it my way, and I’m proud of that.” “Of course, things didn’t turn out exactly like I expected.”

You’re apt to hear one or the other of those claims whenever our October peers look back over their lives. In the following excerpt from Family Matters (See Tanner Chronicles on the right sidebar) Dan Padgett is on his back-road tour of the western United States when he meets a fellow who lays claim to a bit of both.
The Stone Bridge Saloon was not a spacious watering hole. The bar itself seated three on high wobbly stools. Fortunately, since I appeared to be the only customer, seating was not a problem. Then the creaky rest-room door on the far side of the room opened and a balding, jean-clad cowboy limped across to the bar and plopped himself down on the stool next to mine.
“Howdy, friend,” the newcomer mumbled, taking the overflowing glass the lady behind the bar held out to him. He sucked the foamy head off his brew, then turned to me. “Buster Henshaw here. Don’t believe I caught your name.”
“It’s Dan. Dan Padgett.”
“Glad to meet you, Dan.” He raised his glass in my direction, then put it to his lips. Seconds later, with a single long gulp, in was empty. Pushing it back across the counter he explained, “Gertie was hoping to get a little business from that bull riding thing down the road. So far it’s just the two of us.”
“I expected to see more folks,” I nodded, taking a stale pretzel from the dish Gertie pushed my way. “Especially after all those signs I passed out on the highway. But I haven’t seen anything that looks like The Battle of Stone Bridge.”
Buster took a moment to fondle, I believe that’s the right word, the refilled glass Gertie slid across the bar to him. “That’s Pokey Turner for you,” he said between sips. “No one knows how to squeeze a few bucks out of a bad idea better than that old bandit. Folks around here know it’s the wrong time of summer to find enough riders and decent bulls for a dinky little show like Pokey’s. The good cowboys are out on the circuit. So he rounds up a few kids and a couple of worn-out old timers, pays them ten bucks to ride a used-up steer, and puts on his show. I guarantee you he don’t get many repeat customers.”
“I don’t think it would matter how used-up the bulls were,” I offered. “From what I’ve seen on the tube riding a bucking brahma is a tough way to make a few bucks.”
Something seemed to have set Buster thinking. He sat staring into his beer, until I asked. “You ever done that? Bull riding?”
“Oh yeah.” There was a remembering look in his eye. “I’ve done that. Rode most everything with four legs. But I don’t do bulls any more. I might try the buckin' horses again during the fair. But not the bulls.”
“Horses are easier to ride. Is that it?”
“Not really. Either way it hurts when you hit the ground. But it’s a lot better to get bucked off a horse than a bull. At least that horse won’t try to run you down when you’re on the ground. Not the way a seriously-mad bull will.”
“So, how old are you, Buster?” 
“Well, I just turned fifty-one. I expect that’s about a hundred in ‘rodeo years.’ About thirty-five of those years been spent on ranches all over the Outback---from Provo to the Canadian line, Ogallala to Boise. Hell, I’ve done it all---trailing cattle, pulling calves, breaking mustangs, and baling hay. For a lot of those years I’d schedule my jobs so they didn’t interfere with my rodeoing. That’s really what I lived for---a good bull, a good brew, and a good woman. Not necessarily in that order.”
“You ever been married?” I asked. “Sounds like rodeoing would play hell with a relationship.”
“A relationship?” my new friend repeated with a laugh. “Now there’s a big-city word if ever I heard one. Fact is, I've been married---three times. Had three kids that I know of. Don’t remember that I ever had a ‘relationship,’ but I did have three wives. The best of the bunch was Elsie. We were together almost a year, ‘til she made me choose between my job at the grain elevator and the Four Corners Stampede, down in the canyon country.”
“And you had to decide? Between a rodeo and a job?”
“Yeah I did. And I gave it quite a bit of thought.” Buster paused to nod his thanks to Gertie for the beer she handed him. “But you see, I’d won twelve hundred bucks down there the year before. Took first in a short go-round. How could I pass up a place that had been so lucky for me?”
“So you went back again?” His nod confirmed that much. “Did you win anything that time?”
“Nah. I ended up with a couple busted ribs. Couldn’t do much of anything for two or three months. By the time I got back home Elsie was long gone, along with the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen.”
“You ever see her? The daughter, I mean.”
“Have no idea where she is. She must twenty-five or so by now. Probably has babies of her own.”
Buster set his beer down and half turned to greet the lanky fellow, a cowboy from his Stetson to his boots, standing in the doorway. “Howdy, Tom. Good to see you again.”
Tom answered with nothing more than a touch of his hat brim as he followed Gertie to the front counter. 
“Ole Tommy and I go way back,” Buster explained. “We started out together, up on the North Fork, went to lots of rodeos together. Had some good ole times. At least ‘til he went to work for old man Brunner on the Cold Hand Ranch. After that we didn’t see much of him, especially after he married that Carrie Braxton gal. She was a sweet thing. A heck of a barrel racer too.
“Anyway, I’ve seen ole Tommy a few times over the years. Heard that they had a few kids and built up a nice little spread of their own. Near as I could tell he was always working. Didn’t have time any more to rodeo.”
I watched as Buster turned silent again, perhaps wondering how things had worked out so well for “Ole Tommy.” Finally, I had to ask, “You ever wish it had been like that for you? You know---a real family, a place of your own.”
“Sure,” he nodded. “There were times I wished it could have been that way. The thing is, stayin’ in one place that long just wasn’t in me. I was a damn good ranch hand. Everyone knew that. Finding another job was easy. So I just kept moving around, from one place to another, riding bulls when I could. 
“Then, after I’d slowed down a bit, I moved on to broncs. Anymore, I don’t do much of that. It got to where I couldn’t ride anything but a barstool.” I caught a flash of his gap toothed grin. “Hell, I’ve been bucked off one of them a time or two.”
“I can tell that rodeoing must have been hard on your body,” I said. “Seeing how you limp like that.”
“Yeah.” He offered a sad little laugh, trying to make fun of what was not a laughing matter. “It’s my hip, you know. It’s kind of messed up. Been bent, broke, and stepped on.”
“Damn. That must hurt, whether it’s a bull or horse, or even a bar stool. If it hurts like that, why would you keep doing it---even a little bit?”
“You’re right. It does hurts. Sometimes a lot.” By then his grin was about as sad as his laugh. “But what most fellows don’t understand is how good it feels when you make eight seconds. Hearing that buzzer, and knowing that you’re still up there and not on the ground. Let me tell you, that’s worth a lot of hurtin'.
“Anyway, the doctor in Butte told me I needed a new hip, a ‘replacement’ he called it. He also said that I needed health insurance. Turns out, if I don’t have the one, I don’t get the other.”
I left Stone Bridge that afternoon thinking sad and sometimes envious thoughts of Buster Henshaw---of the hopeful young man he must have been, and the sad and tired old man he had become. He was doing his best to sound satisfied with the life he had lived. Yet, hearing him tell of how “Ole Tommy” had used those same years, Buster’s disappointment was evident. By the time I had chased away the last of those Stone Bridge thoughts I was wondering if Buster’s choices held any lessons for me. 
Here’s hoping that your October Years are a time of “doing things your way,” without getting too hung up on how they turn out. You’ve earned that. They tell us we mustn’t die with our music still in us. I happen to believe that, even if your “music” is getting  bucked off a bull, or a bar stool.