Thursday, July 11, 2013

October Years - does that mean Going Poor?

I’ll tell you what, it feels too much like having a job---which is one of those things I don’t need. Writing a two-a-week blog---deciding what to say and whether it’s worth saying, trying to get the readers involved---it’s a hard thing for a guy who sometimes goes two weeks between good ideas. Moreover, though it may not show, it’s a time consuming process---time I would rather spend telling my stories.

It is the combination of all those things that has prompted my decision to become an ex-blogger. Though I expect I’ll add a post from time to time, just to have it on the record, that probably won’t matter much. Once folks will have stopped visiting October Years not many will come back to see what I post.

Having made that decision I probably could have stopped right there. But I had a couple pages of notes I wanted to spring on you. I haven’t posted about Going Poor until now. It’s one of my favorite stories, and I think it deserves a few minutes in the spotlight before I go.

I’ve said it before---our October Years can be an intimidating time. By the time I started working on Going Poor, and its depiction of poverty’s impact, I had written of relationships impaired by divorce and death, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, stroke and decades of separation. So why not explore what has become an all-too-familiar part of October life? Why not take a close look at poverty, and what happens to relationships when they face the harsh realities of Going Poor?

I’m not exactly sure what prompted the idea. I suppose it’s a child of the times. We read every day about how many people are unprepared for retirement, how many of us face an uncertain financial future. 

By itself “poverty” is more depressing than interesting, not a likely topic for the stories I tell. But what about the impact of poverty---its effect on those who deal with it? Beyond the basics of food and shelter the cruelest part of financial hardship is its impact on the human psyche---the emotional price of not measuring up to what we or society expects of us. How do youthful dreams of success fare in the face of late-life poverty? What are its effects on self-esteem, families and children? Those that are ingredients for a worthwhile story.

And what are the effects of poverty on relationships? On one hand, no one is more in need of the support and caring of a committed partner more than a truly needy person? On the other, how do the deeper questions of personal worth and not being a provider affect relational possibilities? Relationships can thrive in a real home, no matter how modest it is. Yet poverty and homelessness do not lend themselves to permanency. In Going Poor the couples, or prospective couples, I write about are dealing with life as it is. For them, “it is” means being poor.

Going Poor - excerpt 1
Lane Tipton has reached the end of his rope. Calling his sister in Tanner is a last resort. Sadly, he has no other choice.

Lane flinched a bit at that, remembering how much he disliked those moments when his sister’s questions focused on his unfortunate circumstances. “So how are you doing?” Sally asked. “Have you been working at all? If I remember right the last time you called you were retrieving shopping carts for the Merchants’ Association, and living in someone’s garage.”
“I worked myself out of a job.” He was laughing to himself as he switched the phone to his other ear, wondering why she would remember something like that. “A place like Medford only has so many shopping carts. It took about two weeks to round up the lost and stolen ones, at least the ones I could find. It earned me a few bucks, but then I was out of work again. As for the garage, that worked out pretty well, until I got evicted.”
“You got evicted from a garage? That sounds like a first.”
“I should have seen it coming,” Lane admitted. “Ron had been talking about getting a car for his wife. When he finally did, there wasn’t room for me and the Honda. The Honda won out.”
“So where are you staying now? Have you come up with a new answer?”
He turned quiet, offering no hint of his normally upbeat banter. That was very much unlike him. For years he had endured hardship and hard times without complaint, relying on his characteristic optimism and an exaggerated bravado to mask the hurt. But now, as his silence continued, Sally was inclined to believe something different was at work this time. 
“Lane. You have to tell me. Does it feel like you’ve run out of options? Is that it?” She paused, wondering how to pry the truth from him. “Come on. I understand how that feels. I’ve been there. Remember?”
His reply arrived in a hushed near-whisper, tinged with a hesitant resignation she had seldom heard from him. “Yeah,” he said. “It kind of feels like I’ve hit the wall. There’s not much work to be had around here. There are a couple dozen guys going for every job that comes up. An old fossil like me doesn’t stand a chance. 
“The only ones who are hiring are the orchards. They’re pruning this time of year, and looking for young bucks who can run up and down a ladder a hundred miles an hour. I just can’t do that anymore.” By then Lane was scolding himself for sounding so down in the dumps. Still, he owed her the truth. 
“The thing is,” he continued. “The few shelters in town are turning guys away. They don’t have any room. There aren’t enough beds to go around. Winter’s coming on and I’m fresh out of ideas.”
“So?” Sally voiced her one word question and waited.
“So? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m wondering what you’re going to do. You can’t do nothing.”
By then neither of them wanted to be the first to say what must be said. Without another word being spoken they each realized where their sparse dialogue was taking them. Sally understood her brother’s reluctance to sound like he was giving up. Yet, if he could not say what needed saying, she would have to do that herself.
“Listen to me, brother. How many times have I told you that you ought to come back here, to Tanner. Why not do that now? Stay with me until you get things sorted out. I’ve got room for that. It’s not fancy, but it beats the heck out of staying in some camp on the Bluffs.”
“Sal, don’t you kid me. You don’t have room. You’re still in the same single wide, aren’t you, the one you had in the other park?”
“That’s right.” 
“Which means you don’t have room for another body bouncing around your trailer. I can’t be imposing on you like that.”
Brother Lane was raising his predictable objections. That was not so surprising. Her challenge was to make him listen to reason. “Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t be imposing at all. In fact, I think I’d appreciate some company for a change. In fact I’d probably feel more comfortable with a man around the place. Who knows what kind of guys are poking around here at night?”
“And you expect me to scare them off?” The thought of that had him laughing. “That’s not too likely. Besides, how are you ever going to get acquainted with any of those guys with little brother hanging around.? I might end up scaring off the wrong one.”
“Don’t you fret about that. You won’t find any fellows buzzing around this old girl. At least none that I’d be interested in meeting. That doesn’t bother me at all. Don’t forget. I know what the real thing is like. Why would I ever settle for second best?

Going Poor - excerpt 2
Lane has made his way to the downtown Job Market, where area farms and nurseries come each morning to hire the day-workers. 

“So tell me,” Lane said to the only other fellow waiting in what appeared to be the senior section of the Job Market. “What are the odds of making a connection here? Is there any work to be had, especially for old guys like us? I’m standing here in the rain, hoping to make a few bucks before the day is over. I need to do that. It’s been way too long between paychecks.”
“You can see how it works,” Robert replied “Most of the outfits that come in here are looking for the young guys. They have crops to get in, or plants to tend. They need help and they’re not worried about age discrimination issues and stuff like that. Those young kids, especially the Mexicans, are hard workers. They’re the ones they want. Hell, I’d hire them in a minute if I had work to get done.”
The rain had picked up again, sending Robert down the wall, under the wider awning in front of the fitness center. “During the summer,” he continued. “There’s plenty of work for everyone, even us old farts. But by now, in the fall, it gets harder. The work has slowed down. The only thing in our favor is a lot of the Hispanics have headed south to California, where there’s more work. Another month or so there won’t be much call for extra help. Except for the Christmas tree farms, everyone will be going with a skeleton crew.”
“Does that mean you’ll be going south?”
“I don’t know,” Robert answered. “I’ve done that the last couple years. Mostly because it’s warmer. But the truth is, my body can’t take that kind of beating year round. I turned sixty-one this summer. Been fighting bad knees for years.”
“You got a place to stay up here?” Lane asked. “If you decide to stay?”
“Yeah, sort of. Another fellow and I have what we call our Penthouse. We’ve set up a tent, made out of plastic sheets, against one of the warehouses on the bluff. It’s not pretty, and sure as hell doesn’t meet code. But we stay dry, even half-warm most of the time. That, along with the Mission House, keeps us going when there’s no work.”

It was an interesting exercise, creating a relational story from such unpromising fabric. Sadly, it’s a story being played out all around us in these hard days. I hope you’ll take time to check it out.

In the meantime, thanks for being part of this ride. Check in from time to time. Perhaps our paths will cross again sometime.

Gil Stewart

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is this who I was meant to be?

I am still processing Thursday’s post about “thriving” in our October Years. In my own mental shorthand I have defined thriving as “coming closer to being the person I can be.” That in turn has led me to questions like---Am I thriving? Should I expect to thrive? Does it matter one way or the other?  I’ll admit, there are times when I’m inclined to just settle for being the person I am. 

Of course, thriving is a very personal thing. My thriving isn’t necessarily your thriving. If you happen to be one of those October thrivers, chances are you’ve found the proper balance in your life. You look ahead, but remember the past. You accept the person you have become, but hope to be more.

Yet I see, and perhaps you do too, October friends who are not thriving---who seem to have been beaten down. Some have given up. Be aware, however, that such judgments are fraught with danger. Who is to say that his or her kind of thriving is the only acceptable kind? I have to remind myself that thriving, and the change that comes with it, is a very individual thing. Your change doesn’t have to look like my change.

I’ve mention “change” before. It seems to me it ought to be an important part of October life. It is, after all, still allowed at our age. One way of viewing life is as an unending chain of choices, adaptations, and changes. Though I can’t judge what change is appropriate for you, I am sure that adapting to life’s changing circumstances is an important part of thriving at any age. To use our October status as a reason to stop “becoming” is to sell ourselves short. What could be sadder than the person who believes that it is too late to become something more---that change is not worth the effort at this late date?

One way to integrate change is in the context of a life lived on purpose. Do the concepts of “purpose” or “intention” resonate with you? Have you ever thought about becoming the person you were meant to be? As you may have guessed by now, I’m a Wayne Dyer sort of guy. In that life view there are no accidents---things happen for a reason. To resist the changes implied by life’s “non-accidents” is the same as resisting our destiny.

As a storyteller I constantly create change in the lives of the characters I imagine into being. In a hopefully entertaining way I lead them from one place, with its particular circumstances and outlook, to another more desirable place. More than once I have used the notion of life’s “intention” to link someone’s beginnings (childhood perhaps) to a much later October event. In the same way that it happens to each of us, I ask my characters to follow the twisted, but continuous chain of change and adapting to where it leads them.

Take for instance Jack Benz in Becoming. For fifty years, half a century, he has nurtured his improbable dream, knowing the odds were stacked against him---yet willing to stay the course.

For a few seconds he thought perhaps he had lost contact with her, until she looked up, ready with a new question. “Do you really believe that? What you said at lunch.”
“What did I say?”
“Last night, at the motel, you said that when something is meant to be it will work out. Then today, at lunch, you told me that everything is working out just right---just like it was supposed to.” She turned back to him. “Is that what you think? That this is meant to be?”
“Meant to be?” Jack blinked at the sound of her words. For a instant it felt as though she had traced his own questions back to their source. He could not remember exactly where he had first read about it---the idea that there was actually an “intention” behind what he had always assumed to be the random unfolding of his life.
It was a notion that had captured his imagination. When viewed from that perspective, perhaps his years of unremarkable plodding had served a purpose. There might have been a reason for the way his life had played out. If nothing else, it would help explain the unlikely fact that Cynthia Larson was seated comfortably beside him, seeking his interpretation of their unexpected and life changing connection.
“I’ve read stuff like that---how everything happens for a reason.” He rolled his eyes, offering a hint of doubt for her benefit.
“According to that, there’s a purpose for everything that happens to us. It’s not just accidental. It means that every person who shows up in our life is there for a reason. We may not know what it is, but it’s important---otherwise they wouldn’t be there. It also means there are reasons that we don’t necessarily understand, for things like strokes and divorces. It might even explain why I’ve been such a pest lately.
“Just think about it.” Shifting in his seat to face her more directly he hurried on, caught up in his not-so-conventional logic. “That day in the sixth grade, when we held hands and didn’t want anyone to see us. I’m not sure you even remember that. But I do. Anyway, I’d like to think that happened for a reason. Because, without those few minutes together, more than fifty years ago, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about getting old, maybe together.”
For a few seconds the sight of the bridge in the distance seemed to capture Cynthia’s attention. When she looked back at him her crooked, but comfortable grin had returned. Was it the soundness of his argument or her growing hope that he was right? “And maybe all those things happened because we held hands?” she wondered out loud. “It makes you think, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve asked myself over and over,” Jack continued, “if it could be just a coincidence. There must have been a million different ways to get from where each of us was on that day in the sixth grade to where we are now. It seems to me that you took the high road---living the good life with Eric, while I bounced along on the low road---working at my state job and drinking beer with Carl.” 
He had her hand again, squeezing to make his point. “Our paths were so different, but even with all the twists and turns, your way and my way both led to this exact time and place. 
“That sounds like what Carl calls ‘becoming.’ He says that everyone, even at our age, is in the process of the becoming something new and different. It may be something good. It may be something bad. But no one can stay the same. For you and me it seems like becoming has brought us right here. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t feel like an accident to me.”
Jack leaned over to kiss her on the cheek. Cynthia was not prepared to settle for that. Seconds later he pushed himself back into his seat, rebuckled his seat belt, and paused to wrap his mind around the improbable truth of it. After years of idle daydreams, Cindy Welton was sitting there beside him, looking forward to his company. She was no longer the youthful school girl who had first caught his eye. Like him, she had changed. Yet even with her crooked little smile and halting, jagged words, she had never been more appealing. Indeed, he was unwilling to accept those changes as accidental.
“I think we’d better be going.” He gently elbowed her good left arm. “I believe I’m beginning to feel a little under the weather. In fact, I think I’ll probably be needing a nurse.”

You could say that I’m selling change. You may not agree, but I am willing to believe that more than a little October change happens because a small voice is telling us we must keep striving, and thriving, to become the person we were meant to be.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Thriving - can that be done at 60 or 70?

Today’s post will be a short one. It’s a holiday and the grandkids are waiting to thump Grandpa at croquet. However, just to keep things interesting, I’m including a holiday homework assignment for you. Something I hope you’ll take me up on.

Did you notice the new sub-title at the top of the page? It now includes “thriving in our 60s & 70s.” It’s an idea that came to me in the wee hours a couple nights ago. That happens a lot. It’s why I keep a pad next to the bed. Without turning on the light I scribble my notes and hope I can read them in the morning. It’s become a necessary skill, since story ideas seem to arrive on their own schedule, not mine.

I woke the other morning to find ”Thriving at 60 and 70” spelled out in large letters, partially written on top of each other. What the heck was I to make of that? Like so many other great notions, this revelation and its context had been swallowed by my return to sleep. That’s happened to some of my very best ideas. At least I think they were. I can’t remember for sure.

Anyway, being the impulsive fellow I am, I tweaked my original note a bit and came up with a new sub-title. Please note, however, that it still reads---”a writer’s blog.” That’s because - 1) I write books, and 2) I’ve found the blogging format to be a good way for me to explore what I’ve written, and why. I have no interest in backing away from that.

Yet the main blog title---”October Years”---is intended to focus on our 60s and 70s, as my stories do. I happen to find it a fascinating time of life---for reason I’ve posted about before, and certainly will again. Hopefully, the time I spend on these posts will help make my stories more real and effective.

But now I’ve added “Thriving in our 60s & 70s,” and that has become a new kind of challenge. It’s one thing to sound authoritative about my own writing. Whether I  did it well or not, I know what I intended to say better than anyone else.

But what makes me an expert on “thriving in our 60s and 70s”? Nothing. I meet the age criteria. But beyond my thoughts on the importance of relationships, and how they can make broken lives whole, what do I have to add to that conversation? 

This is where your holiday homework assignment comes in. Sometime between now and next Monday I’d like your input, your response to my “thriving” questions. The Google tracking numbers tell me that at least a few dozen of you follow my posts on a reasonably regular basis. I appreciate that. But now it’s time for you to speak up. Tell me---what helps you thrive in your 60s and 70s? Or, if you’re not thriving, why not? I’m sure you have thoughts about that, and they’re probably better than mine.

If the “comments” section below is not your preferred way of communicating, then please email your thoughts to me at I’d really like this “thriving” conversation to be a dialogue. After all, it is a very individual thing. No one person can provide all the answers. More than that, there are bound to be readers who would appreciate your input. I hope you’ll take a minute or two to add your ideas.

Now, enjoy your holiday. Happy Fourth of July.

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.