Monday, December 22, 2014

Remember When

Okay folks, it’s time for a year-end final exam---a test of your October boldness, and your willingness to tread new ground and take new chances. In the course of my Tanner Chronicle stories I recount the relational journeys of the October friends I have imagined into being. (Like I said before, I tell “people stories.”)
But now I’m hoping that you will take a moment to consider your own personal travels, from “then”---the person you were before your relational connection happened, to “now”---the person you have become in the company of your life partner. 
If you can do that, I invite you to apply that same remembering to the journey the two of you have made together as a couple. Whether or not you are still together your story remains a tangible and very personal thing---a bit of your unique history. No one else could possibly retell your story with all the details that make it so real to you---the heady highs and deflating lows that come with being a couple and a family.
Today, however, no matter where you are in that relational journey of yours, I have a favor to ask of you. The New Year, a time honored season for remembering, is approaching. And that’s what I am asking of you---to spend a few minutes in New Year’s remembering. 
Truth in advertising. Some of you will need to suck it up---to grin and bear it. This Remembering link will take you to a You Tube version of a country song by Alan Jackson, a particular favorite of mine. Though I am one of those strange fellows who likes most all country music, this is the only one that Roma will let me play out loud in our house. So even if the sound of guitars and “twang” set your teeth on edge, I urge you to tough it out and listen to the end. 
I recommend that you set the video on “full screen” (the ‘four corner’ symbols in the lower right corner of the video). Then just close your eyes and listen to the words. Let it be a song about you and yours. Though each of our own histories are different, chances are you will find a the sense of remembering you have rarely heard in any kind of music.
Once you have ‘Remembered When,’ I invite you to leave your comments at the foot of the page. It’s a simple process. Just click on "Post a Comment” at the bottom of the page. Under “Select profile” scroll down to click on “Anonymous.” That allows you to respond without giving out any personal information. Click on “Enter your comment,” enter what you want to say, then click on “Publish.” It’s as easy as that. 

Also, if you are brave enough to “Forward” the email link to this country song, or "Share" the Facebook post, I hope you will do that. Perhaps you can help a friend ‘remember.’ With that I wish you a happy holiday season. You’ve earned a time of peace and reflection, so enjoy it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It’s about 'People' stories that include action, not 'Action' stories that happen to include people

By now, having turned seventy-eight, after telling my stories for nearly ten years, you might think I’ve learned a lot about storytelling. Perhaps so. But there is so much I don’t know. I still have a long way to go. A while back I was reminded once again of that.
Actually, though it had me squirming a bit I was glad, in an uneasy sort of way, to have her input. After all, she was supposed to know what she’s talking about. She works for an agency that represents writers, trying to sell 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, a 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, at least not until Suzie, who had been assigned to critique my Second Chances story for an contest, explained that the first chapter was a “painfully slow” start to the book. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah it did, at least “a little bit”---maybe more. Actually, the first time I read her appraisal it felt like our conversation was over before it had begun. It was later that day, when I reread Suzie’s blunt critique, that I began to sense why she and I were not seeing eye to eye about something I take very personally. 
I began by asking myself where I’d gone so wrong. How had I missed the mark by so much? It took me a while to realize that, regardless of Suzie’s opinion, I was telling the story I wanted to tell the way I want to tell it. Granted, a better writer could tell it better, but this was my story. I had said what I wanted to say in my own way. 
You see, in the books Suzie represents (I’ll call them “action” stories) the characters are there to keep things moving at the desired pace---acting and reacting in ways that move the storyline along. That is 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.
Small wonder that Suzie struggled with my unorthodox tale. The folks I write about are October seekers---seniors looking to overcome the challenges of October life. And just because they are rarely expected to save the world from nuclear disaster, don’t be misled. Their stories do include an abundance of age-appropriate action. They too will take chances, stand up to bad guys, and have their adventures.
But instead of serving some predetermined story line their actions, and my reason for telling the story, are always about the persons I have created and how they deal with their October challenges. The purpose of the story is to know those people better---to understand what they are dealing with and how they cope. Their adventures---in the form of conflict, disappointment, and wrong turns---are meant to illustrate their personal trials, rather than to simply keep the story moving ahead. As one of those “Octobers folks” that is the part that interests me.
By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized that I had answered my own question. It wasn’t Suzie’s answer, but it worked for me. I was ready to admit that if the characters’ main role in a story is to keep the plot moving toward some intended action, then my October tales simply don’t pass muster. One of my friends, who usually reads mysteries---page turners she can’t put down---found Second Chances to be a relaxing read, a bit like reading about her senior neighbors.
So if the purpose of my stories is to meet 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 with my result. I try to cover both the “people” and the “action” parts of the story. But for me the emphasis will remain on the “people” elements.
A while back I offered a post titled He writes what? I ended that piece by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the writer’s market.” After all, I’m telling relational stories about October Years persons playing out what I call their “geriatric adolescence.” Often as not they have come to the game with two strikes against them, and a life-view that is scarcely imaginable to younger readers. Not exactly mainstream, eh?
Yet, though that is still my goal, I also sense something else at work. You see, Suzie was right about Second Chances. The story does begin slowly---though I might debate her “painfully” description. In any case, it starts that way because instead of teasing the reader with tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic conquest, I use those first pages to introduce people and their situations---to set the scene I will be following for two books and seven hundred pages. Truth to tell, I was not ready to move on to their adventures until I (and the reader) knew more about them and what they were dealing with.
So here I am, an admitted amateur, still writing relational stories about old folks. They are indeed “people” oriented stories. I suppose that means the “tiniest sliver of the market” keeps getting smaller. If I wasn’t having so much fun doing what I do I might be tempted to try a different approach. But as long as those special October people keep taking me to places I rarely visit on my own I’ll keep doing what I do, and try to do it better.
In the meantime I once again invite you to take part in my very informal readership census---a matter of providing nothing more than your location. My last request produced responses from Ontario, Canada, Kentucky, and Tri-Cities, Washington. I'm hoping to expand the field.
The process is incredibly simple. Just click on “No comments” or “Comments” at the bottom of the page. Under “Select profile” scroll down to click on “Anonymous.” That allows you to respond without giving out any personal information. “Enter your comment” by simply filling in your city and state, and anything else you wish to add. Then click on “Publish.” It’s as easy as that. I would really like to see how far afield these scribbles of mine are read.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Home? Where it that?

It is not surprising that I can relate to Dan Padgett’s frustrating dilemma. After all, he and I have a lot in common. During the final years of his long career in municipal government Dan had nursed his dreams of a mobile, nomadic retirement---including a well-equipped motor home that would serve as the primary residence for him and Nell as they went off to see the world. 
As his retirement date drew near that seductive possibility was harder than ever to resist. In the end, however, his nagging wanderlust---the lure of “places-to-see” and “people-to-meet,” while visiting the remote corners of the US and beyond, had only complicated things. 
As the story I call Family Matters opens, Dan has concluded that his carefully constructed dream is a perfectly reasonable vision of what retirement ought to be.  The truth and the attraction of it was so self-evident---at least until he realizes that Nell has created her own, very different notion of their Golden Years. For decades she had followed her husband all over the state, from job to job. Every few years she had been forced to establish a new home in a new town. Finally, after half a dozen such moves they had returned to Tanner, where their odyssey had begun all those years before. To her way of thinking they were finally home. More to the point, she was determined never to move again.
So while Nell looks forward to the permanency of their Tanner retirement, Dan continues to dream his “on-the-road” dreams---of going off to see the world, unimpeded by the anchoring limitations of a permanent home. The logic of it is so clear to him. But in the face of her objections why would he continue to dream that dream? Why is he so eager to dismiss her desires for a very different future? What could he possibly be thinking? I believe I’ll ask him.

(Me) “Tell me Dan, why does it look like you’re walking all over your wife’s dream? I learned a long time ago that’s not really a good idea.”

(Dan) “Believe me, I don’t mean to be putting her down. I just keep hoping that she’ll finally come to her senses---to realize how great it would be to see all those places we’ve dreamed of seeing and do the things we’ve always wanted to do.”

(Me) “What makes you think that both of you have ‘always dreamed’ about seeing those places and doing those things? Could it be that you’re trying to turn your dream into her dream? If that’s so, what if she doesn’t claim your idea of retirement? What happens then?”

(Dan) “I suppose you could say that is what’s happened---at least up to now. She’s just so darn stubborn. I’m offering the perfect way for us to get out from under all the stupid stuff that comes with owning a home---the housekeeping, and yard work, and gardening. We could put all that behind us. We’d be free to go wherever we wanted to go, for as long as we wanted. Can’t you see how great that would be?”

(Me) “It doesn’t matter what I can see. This is about Nell. And I’m guessing that  what you’re describing doesn’t appeal to her? It’s not the way she wants to spend her retirement. Right?”

(Dan) “You can say that again. She says that she’s actually looking forward to the gardening, and all her silly clubs---all the stuff that keeps us here in Tanner. That’s what she wants. Can you believe it? The very things I want to get away from---the day to day chores and upkeep, the meetings that never seem to end---are exactly what she wants more of.”

(Me) “Why do you suppose that is?”

(Dan) “I don’t have a clue. I keep asking her to explain, but she can’t---at least not in a way that makes any sense to me. It’s like she’s living in some other world.”

(Me) “Would you mind if I took a guess---a slightly different take on what you might be dealing with? I may be wrong, but I’d like to hear what you think.”

(Dan) “Go ahead. God knows I’d like to find someone who can sort it out for me.”

(Me) “Well then, how about this? What if the two of you are bumping heads because you don’t agree on what each of you means when you talk about ‘home’? Maybe the word means something different to her than it does to you. Could that be the ‘other world’ you talk about? (As you might guess by now, I’m prone to playing the pseudo-wise guru.)

(Dan) “What the hell does that mean?”

(Me) “You tell me. If I backed you into a corner and forced you to define ‘home,’ how would you do that? What does it mean to you? How would you describe it?”

(Dan) (I won’t include all his false starts---the hemming and hawing that proceeded his final reply.) “It seems to me that when you get right down to it, home can be anyplace we want it to be---wherever Nell and I are together. It’s not about a certain piece of land or some special building. It’s a matter of being happy together wherever we are. That’s what makes full-time RVing so appealing to me. We could go anywhere we wanted, and still be home.”

(Me) “So, how about Nell? If I asked her to describe ‘home,’ would her answer be the same as yours? Would she agree with your ‘home can be anywhere you are together’ idea?”

(Dan) “Not a chance. Her idea of home is right here in Tanner. It’s the house we live in now, along with her friends, and gardens, and clubs, and church. For her it’s all about this particular place and everything that goes with it. Every time I try to explain that it doesn’t have to be like that, she throws all her Tanner stuff back in my face.”

(Me) “So the real hang up, what has you two at each other’s throats, is the notion of ‘home,’ and what that means to each of you. You simply don’t agree about that. Right?”

(Dan) “I suppose that’s it.” (He paused a moment, before asking his question.) “If that’s true, how the heck do we get past it? Can you see any way for us to do that?”

(Me) “Oh man, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it’s wouldn’t be easy. It would be a complicated thing. I’ll bet I could write a whole book about that. In fact, I think I have.”

There you have it. The scene has been set and the Padgetts’ frustrating dilemma has been spelled out for everyone to see. What if it was you? How would you define “home?” Can you imagine how their Family Matters story will play out?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The making of an October hero

Today’s “Me” generation may snicker at the possibility, but I happen to believe that October relational stories, that small but bountiful pond where I cast my storytelling nets, provide the necessary ingredients for warm and satisfying tales of late-life relationships gone right---age-appropriate examples of geriatric adolescence, offering fortunate outcomes for deserving couples. In my own very biased eyes several of the Tanner Chronicle stories I tell fit that “warm and satisfying” description. But then again, some do not.
It was a video clip I posted last week about end-of-life issues, the ones we would prefer to avoid, that reminded me of Leona Peck’s harsh Alzheimer’s trials in Best Friends and Promises---and how Aaron Peck struggled to deal with his wife’s life-changing illness. I can remember when it first dawned on me that Aaron and Leona’s journey was leading me toward new and sometimes troubling places I had never visited before. In the course of writing a pair of more or less “happily-ever-after” stories there had been no need to ask myself the obvious question. Who would read something as realistic, some would say “dark,” as the Pecks’ story?
I stumbled around a while searching for an answer to that question, before concluding that even my most warm and fuzzy tales were not likely to attract much of a readership. Who even knew they were out there? Besides, October relational stories were not exactly mainstream. Yet I kept writing them---because they were the stories I wanted to tell. In that case, why not give myself permission to tell a less-comforting story, one that depicts a troubling, but very real side of October life? After all, if I am writing to please myself, why not tell it the way I want?
In fact, Best Friends and Promises is not the story of Leona’s sad descent into Alzheimer’s. Instead, her distressing decline serves as the backdrop for Aaron’s befuddled “coping”---his struggle to adapt to a frightening new reality. The scenes that follow depict his growing awareness of a world gone terribly wrong. and set the stage for his tentative efforts to make sense of it and carry on. They are not meant to be pleasant reading---simply realistic.

 * * *

Aaron had been busy in the garage, having vowed to finally bring order to his cluttered work bench, when Leona stopped by to say she was off to pick up a few things at the store. By the time he came back inside she had been gone nearly an hour. That was enough to trigger his concern. Something was not right. Stepping out on the front porch he scanned the sidewalk in both directions, looking for her approach. 
Back at the kitchen table he drained his coffee and told himself there was no reason to worry. Yet try as he might he could not relax. Ten anxious minutes later he stopped pretending. Slipping on his jacket he started off on the two block walk to the shopping mall that fronted Center Street. For the first block he proceeded at a moderate pace. By the time he reached the mall’s parking lot he was moving faster, striding in time with his growing sense of urgency.
Inside the sprawling supermarket he paused, leaning against a row of nested shopping carts to get his bearings. It was not the short walk that had his heart racing, but a fearful anxiety he could not will away. Closing his eyes, he waited for the queasy lightheadedness to pass. Then, with a deep breath, he started toward the daunting maze of aisles that crisscrossed the store.
For fifteen minutes Aaron hurried from aisle to aisle, looking desperately for the slightly stooped, gray-haired woman who could be his Leona. Pacing the width and length of the mega-store his stride quicken and his panicked thoughts grew more demanding  Finally he realized there was no reason to continue. She was not there.
Returning to the back of the store he approached the glass-enclosed Manager’s cubicle, set on a raised platform above the main floor. There he tapped on the glass door.
The chunky gray-haired man at the cluttered desk looked up, then rolled his chair to the door. “Can I help you, sir?”
“My wife. She’s lost. I can’t find her anywhere. She’s just gone.” Aaron's words came in a rush, matched by his anxious frown. “Can you help me?”
“Please, sir. Calm down.” The Manager stepped down from his cubicle to stand beside the obviously distraught old man. “Your wife is lost? Here in the store?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find her. She must be somewhere else.”
“Let me explain, sir.” The man’s hand was on Aaron’s shoulder. “The store’s security team can only help if she’s here in the store. The shopping mall company has their own people. But they spend most of their time securing the parking areas and warehouses. They probably wouldn’t be much help in locating a missing person.”
“What can I do? I have to find her.”
“If you’re sure she’s not here in the building, I suggest you call 911. Perhaps they could help.”
Outside, in front of the store, Aaron sat down on a display of sacked lawn fertilizer and took the cell phone from his pocket to dial 911. “I want to report a missing person,” he explained when the operator answered. “My wife. She’s gone. I don’t know what to do.”
In a matter of minutes the pleasantly efficient Emergency Operator had managed to calm her frantic caller, assemble the information and description he provided, and assure him that city police patrols would be alerted at once.
“I suppose that’s all you can do,” Aaron said, taking some comfort in knowing that others would be looking too. “Anyway, I’ll be walking through the rest of the stores in the mall. Maybe she went window shopping.”
“Please keep your phone turned on, so we can reach you.” He appreciated the hint of concern in the operator’s voice. She was probably trained to sound that way. Still, it helped at a time like that.
“Please find her. That’s all. Just find her.” Aaron wiped at the tears with his sleeve, closed the phone, and started toward the pharmacy next door. For the next half hour he moved mechanically from one store to the next, while his panicked distress mounted, filling his thoughts with mind-numbing questions. Where she was? Why couldn’t he find her? What could have happened? His hands were shaking and it was becoming harder to concentrate.


Through that summer and into the autumn the changes in Leona’s behavior continued---some subtle, others more dramatic. At home coded locks and magnetic signal alarms were installed on exterior doors. Within the walls of her thus-secured home Leona Peck was free to roam at will, often pacing nervously from room to room, as if looking for something she had misplaced. In the course of her random wanderings she sometimes walked right past Aaron without offering the slightest hint that she was aware of his presence.
Not surprisingly the kitchen was one of her favored destination. How many times had he found her there---staring blankly at the mixing bowls, utensils, and assorted ingredients she had spread out on the counter? She might stand there for minutes, in what had always been her most comfortable surroundings, appraising those vaguely familiar elements, yet making no effort to put them to use. Finally, with a resigned shrug, she would turn and shuffle off to the front of the house.
On other occasions Leona simply disappeared, creating anxious moments for Aaron---at least until he learned to look for her in the darkness of the narrow walk-in hall closet. He would find her there, sitting silently on an empty suitcase, withdrawing from an all-too-confusing world. Still, as frightening as those episodes were, even worse were the unpredictable outbursts of angry agitation, when her frustration boiled over and she appeared unwilling to accept her diminished universe. In those moments of irrational flailing Aaron could scarcely imagine what demons possessed her.
Surprisingly, however, some connections remained, still accessible to her retreating memory. “See you later, alligator” never failed to elicit her predictable “After while, crocodile,” complete with a childlike grin. It was more than Aaron could comprehend. Their daughters, Leona’s own flesh and blood, had become unrecognizable strangers. Yet “after while crocodile” was still within reach.

* * *

Aaron Peck had no words to wipe away his painful dejection on that January morning, no way to escape the disgust he felt for himself as he descended the front steps of the Davies Care Center. Moments before he had left Leona sitting by herself in the sterile silence of the facility’s day room. Her blank, unknowing gaze would haunt him for days. Although there was no hint that she had heard them, his parting words had been a promise to return the next day and every day. He would not leave her alone in that friendly, but foreign place.
He spent that afternoon at home, walking nervously from room to room, surrounded by still fresh memories of what had always been “their” home. More than once he paused to weigh that affirming past against the forbidding future Dr. 
Flescher had described, asking himself again if that was where their long-ago promises to each other were meant to lead them. For so long he had relied on Leona’s supporting presence. Now, standing before the ornate fireplace mantel that had been her pride and joy, it felt as though all that was good in his life had been defined by their partnership. Without her, what would there be but emptiness?

* * * 

Every day Aaron was reminded of how much he missed her presence and the subtle interactions they had shared---the soft touches in passing, seemingly unnoticed smiles, even the unspoken aggravation she could communicate with the simple raising of an eyebrow.
One winter afternoon, in a particularly introspective moment, he reflected on how much of their relationship had been played out below the surface---those times when their verbal interaction was little more than redundant phrases and muttered code words, each carrying a long-established significance, conveying volumes of meaning in a handful of syllables. It hurt, knowing that the personal dialect which had served them so well had ceased to be. The way they had communicated their love and caring was no longer effective, as though he was the last person left who spoke their dying language.

There you have it, thumbnail sketches of life lived in the hard lane---dealing with one of the harshest ordeals a long and loving relationship can face. If it makes for uncomfortable reading, you can imagine how depressing it would be to live out. It also begs the question---how does someone in Aaron Peck’s shoes carry on?
That brings us to the heart of Best Friends and Promises, which I describe as warm and hopeful, often frustrating, and very human. The story follows Aaron’s well-intentioned and sometimes misguided efforts to deal with the obstacles life has put in his way. Along the way he comes face to face with yet another October truth, “happy endings” are a relative thing---sometimes a matter of settling for modest results, while relying on coping skills Aaron is not sure he possesses. It will not be easy, but cope he must. How else can he deal with a future built on little more than best friends and promises. His is a story of fighting October battles, and emerging as an October hero.
Finally, I will close with a personal observation, which in turn leads to a special request. The post I mentioned above, about communicating with an Alzheimer’s father, was “Shared” by several of you, which I was glad to see since it contained worthwhile advice. That sharing also enabled us to reach many more readers than usual. Hopefully you are not surprised to learn that I would like to expand the readership of these scribblings. 
So when, or if, you come across a particularly interesting or thoughtful post I encourage you to “Like” it and/or “Share” it with anyone you think might be interested. And of course, if you would like to add your voice to the conversation I hope you will take time to leave a “Comment” below. Taken together, those modest efforts are probably the most effective way to spread the October Years message. I thank you in advance for any such help. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If retirement is so easy, why did I nearly flunk it?

As seen through younger eyes retirement has the look of an easy, carefree time of life. One of our grandsons is certain that it must be “the sweetest thing ever---you can play computer games all day and all night if you want.” Of course, those of us who have reached that time of life know the truth is something more than that.

It begins with Retirement 101---the first grade of a brand new and different kind of school. There are probably a million roads leading to that space. Each of us has followed our own unique path. Yet no matter how we approached it, as we grew nearer to that goal the thought of it became more seductive. Now, having arrived, some of us are disappointed to find that the fact of it is something less than expected. Actually, as I have confessed before, I very nearly flunked retirement.

Chances are we have spent years dreaming our dreams of that special prize waiting at the end of our career journey. “The Golden Years” we call them, the ones I’ve labeled October Years. If we are the kind to do that, we have painted glowing mind-pictures of how it will be---the things we’ll do and the places we’ll see. For many the fortunate happenstance of being born into the “pension plan” generation, with its generous payouts, will make those dreams financially feasible---assuming they can agree on which dreams they want to follow and stay healthy long enough to enjoy them. 

Beyond that I must admit that I am reminded, sometimes rather forcefully, that for those whose career centered on the never-ending need to keep house and feed the family the retirement dilemmas I describe may have the ring of false distinctions and cosmetic change---like the same old play being performed on a new stage. (In Family Matters I tell the story of a couple who can not agree on retirement dreams.)

Yet, within the confines of those realities October life leaves prospective retirees, the ones who are actually changing jobs, with an elemental set of choices---deciding how to use the time their new status provides. Though it may sound like the least of our worries that can, in fact, be a serious challenge. The fortunate ones began their preparation years before---cultivating interests and capabilities that would help them adapt to a time when the structures and strictures of employment were removed. The rest of us were left to deal with the burden of empty, unstructured days.

I can assure you that the giddy exhilaration of sleeping in every morning soon wears off. Without a plan retirement can become a matter of empty hours, days, and weeks, waiting to be filled. But how? At that point the real test begins. For the unprepared it will have the feel of a clean slate or, if you are a writer, a blank page. No matter how you describe it, your new “retirement” job will include filling in those blanks. 

For some the process of “retirement renewal” is a matter of finding something that draws them beyond themselves. In my case I was pulled deeper within myself. Wherever it takes you, the answer you seek will be a very personal thing. I happen to believe the right “something” is waiting out there, in one form or another, for everyone. If so, it is a matter of exploring the possibilities to find what works for you.

Looking back, I can see that I started my own search for a viable retirement lifestyle with only the vaguest of guidelines in mind. I was searching for something I would look forward to doing---ideally something that provided a means of creative expression I had never found in my work. I told myself it was time to be bold, to take chances, even risk failure---behavior rarely expected from a school administrator. But things were different this time. If my work pleased others, that was fine. But in the end I intended to be the primary judge of my sometimes dubious results. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone else---only myself.

That I finally stumbled onto my storytelling, the thing that works for me, was primarily a matter of “try, try again.” The wife’s gardening didn’t suit me. I just couldn’t get interested in woodworking. It was hard to get excited about something as pathetic as my golf game. Not until I came across a thirty-year old manuscript, a story I had written and set aside, did it dawn on me that perhaps I had found my retirement project.

In time story telling and blogging came to fill my personal retirement void, taking me places I never expected to visit. Today’s technology can make that possible. How else could these geriatric ramblings of mine be read from Maine to Alaska and beyond. (I can more or less understand the consistent England readership. But Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan? Why do they show up every week?) No wonder I have a hard time getting my mind around the reality of this internet world.

Take it from someone who very nearly flunked retirement---it can be a daunting change---one that requires serious attention. We begin the process with grand ideas of how it will be, but precious little experience in actually living that new life. 

Still, we mustn’t be intimidated. Having waited a lifetime to get here, why shouldn’t we let retirement be a liberating experience? For perhaps the last time in our life we have the opportunity to choose our future. The goal is simple enough---to settle on a life and lifestyle that suits us, that holds our interest, perhaps even help us grow. However we choose to pursue that goal, it deserves the best effort we can muster. After all, it’s the rest of our life we’re talking about.

Back to the question of where this post is being read. I for one would like to know where you are as you read this. I hope you'll take a moment to "Post a Comment," below. Just fill in your city and country, nothing more. Thanks.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Soulmate? Are you sure?

The rains have returned and a brisk October wind is blowing leaves past my window. I won’t be working outside this afternoon, so why not settle back in the recliner and let the recurring stream of pleasant thoughts have their way with me? You can chalk up today’s post as unadulterated self-indulgence. As I say in the heading, it’s a “writer’s blog.”

For at least some of us it ranks high on our list of October perks---these unstructured visits to well-remembered good times, hoping to recapture the ethereal essence that made them so memorable in the first place. ‘Fess up now, you’ve been in that space too, haven’t you---when it feels like you are visiting an old friend, or reconnecting to special times spent with your children and grandchildren, the ones you watched as they grew into the persons they have become. When I return to the “writer” side of me, I must confess to that same “feel good” comfort when I close my eyes and revisit any one of my Tanner Chronicle stories. 

After all, they are offspring of my imagination, that indefinable something we sometimes want to hide from, but never can. From that murky reservoir of dated, but never-outgrown highs and lows I have birthed each of those stories---sending them off to follow the path they choose, pulling me along in ways I never expected, toward outcomes I had not foreseen. The results are almost always different than what I originally had in mind, leaving an unsuspecting October dreamer like me to wonder---where did all that come from?

For instance, imbedded in Long Way Home, the second half of a two-book story that begins with  Second Chances, there is an unexpected, but intriguing side trip---a visit with the woman Clint Harris thinks might be his “soulmate.” Like you, I had read about “soulmates” before. Though I suppose the term means different things to different people, the basic idea is probably the same---there is someone out there who is meant to be with you, the special one with whom you are paired in some mysterious, predestined way.

In Clint’s case, the lure of a soulmate is a fall-back situation, a way out when there seems to be no other options. He has lost his wife. The lady he hoped would fill that void has apparently taken up with his rival---Fat Tom Berry. 

From a writer’s standpoint it would have been awkward, so late in the story, to introduce a new female character who’s only purpose for being there was to provide Clint with another round of relational failure. So instead I have him considering a possibility that at least some of us can imagine and perhaps even relate to---meeting again after sixty-some years the person who had first stirred those emotional fires---the one who might be his “soulmate.” 

It begins as a mind game---as it would for any of us---an angst-driven return to the memory of a special adolescent moment, one he had carried somewhere in the back of his mind for his entire adult life. Though he could not know it at the time the impact of that incident on a young Clint Harris had been indelible---a brief, emotion-packed taste of how the affirmation he longed for ought to feel---providing a relational baseline he had never outgrown

Now, deep in his October Years, yearning for what he apparently cannot have, he returns to what-might-have-been. In spite of his doubts he wants to believe that first-time, long-ago soulmate could be the answer to his emptiness. With each swallow, his whiskey-propelled remembering of whom “she” had been sixty years before grows more persuasive. Finally, after enough swallows, he finds the courage to plan a much-belated reunion.

So there I was, sitting at the computer as I composed Clint Harris’ story---sifting through bit and pieces of my own youthful history, gathering snippets from which to assemble a rationale for the feelings I wanted him to feel. I was trying to imagine how it would feel to be caught up in that disorienting mind-drama so late in life. Before long I was wondering if they are real, those "soulmates" I was writing about. If so, did that mean the sweet lady who has been at my side for fifty-eight years was intended from the beginning to be there? Was that the Big Guy’s plan for us from the start---a pairing of soulmates? 

Of course, in the fictional setting I had created I was also dealing with other, more practical questions. Their stories---both Clint’s and his potential soulmate’s---had to provide some explanation of how a chance connection made sixty years earlier could have survived to become a possible “second chance.” What had there been about their first encounter, so brief and noncommittal, that now made her soulmate material? More to the point, if it had been meant to be, if they had really been soulmates, why hadn’t it happened the first time?

Without dwelling on the outcome of Clint’s soulmate adventure, let me take a moment to turn from the nebulous realm of literary construction to a more personal real-life look at how each of us---you, me, and everyone---deals with our own unique set of adolescent lessons. 

How was it for you? Were those “first time” experiences, the ones that felt so real in the moment, simply discarded and erased from your memory? Or did they, in some form---real or imagined---find a permanent home in some far corner of your mind? And if so, have they played any role in your becoming the person you are? Were they an important part of that process, or simply a bit of excess baggage you would rather have unloaded? 

Finally, having imagined the story of Clint Harris’ return to his roots, hoping to find his soulmate, I was left to put those conflicting elements on paper, a paragraph at a time. In truth I approached that process with a degree of timidity---proceeding with the certain knowledge that once finished I would be asking my own soulmate to read and critique my stumbling description of a time before we met, when perhaps an earlier soulmate candidate had crossed my path. 

Since then I have walked that same intimidating path again and again, as the “She” in my life has read all nine Tanner Chronicle stories---ones that by their very nature have included my personal interpretations of the “mind matter” I have gathered and stored away over the years. Truth is, it’s not something we normally talk about. Yet by the time she had finished reading about Clint's “soulmate” episode I was accepting her willingness to be part of the process as the ultimate endorsement of our shared history.

So what is your take on the cache of “memory clutter” you have stored away over the years---be it “soulmate” related or other “becoming” recollections? Does all that matter at all? Is it simply the stuff of an overactive imagination? (To which I plead guilty.) Or an acceptable way of recalling what we are sometimes unable to put into words?

Friday, October 24, 2014

How did Mom and Dad figure this out?

Confession time. There are days when I feel like a creaky old relic from another time, struggling to cope in a new and changing world. How can we make the best of our October Years? More to the point, is there any “best” left in us by now?
You see, I write about “thriving in our 60s and 70s” as if I really know how to do that. Lest I be accused of peddling tainted expertise, let me set the record straight. What I know about “thriving” has been learned the old fashioned way---by trial and error. (Heavy on the error.) Yet, even then I have paused from time to time to look for outside guidance, something to confirm that I was on the right track, before plowing ahead.

It is a human thing, isn’t it---the way we doubt ourselves, and seek to validate our often feeble efforts? For some of us the biggest obstacle is admitting that we don’t know what to do. Why is “I don’t know” such a hard notion to accept? Whatever our reasons, there is no denying that we do sometimes harbor those self doubts, the ones that send us looking for someone else’s better idea. 

When that happens we run the risk of being swept up in the flood of “how to” and “self-improvement” offers that wash up on our internet shores every day. It seems there is “expert” advice available for everything under the sun---including retirement and thriving in our October Years. At every turn there is some guru promising to sell his “tried and true” success formula at a significant discount. (Or not.)

So how do suppose our parents and grandparents made their way through that same daunting time of life? How did they carry on without the help of some unsolicited “expert”? No matter how long their October Years lasted I doubt that many of them relied on some bestseller, other than the family Bible, for tips on how to live out their late life. So how did they know what to do?  I don’t recall my parents discussing the advice of their “career coach.” Perhaps with offspring like me, there was no reason to seek improvement---though I doubt that.

In any case, for better or worse today’s October population has more “help” options than ever before. Whether you question your own ability to chart a retirement course, are looking for ways to supplement your planning, or feel the need for a mentor to lay out a path for you to follow---there is no shortage of willing helpers ready to guide you toward success. Of course, you mustn't be surprised when the path they recommend comes at a price. To illustrate the range of possibilities, a recent Sunday issue of USA Today newspaper offered a range of new books that offer help to the floundering retirement seeker.
In Encore Career Handbook Marci Aboher says she can show us how to make a difference in the “second half of our life.” Fact is, I had to read that claim more than once. In my October world I don’t think I have “half a lifetime” ahead of me. Still, I was drawn to her “As we age we realize we have only so much time left---so make the most of it.” I believe I’ve read that before in these pages. It is, after all, a recipe for thriving in our 60s and 70s.

Another take on our October game plan comes from Joe Burger in Why Do I Do That? Mr Burger’s retirement advice apparently boils down to ”Life is too short to spend our remaining years merely fulfilling a sense of obligation.” The answer he proposes will hinge on identifying one’s “true passion.” I’m not sure I know how to define what that is---or if I knew, whether I would be willing to admit it publicly. Still, Mr Burger poses a question we all ask ourselves from time to time---Why do I do that?

Paul Irving, in his book The Upside of Aging, paints retirement as a time of change---a focus that will be familiar to regular October Years and Tanner Chronicles readers. In particular, he stresses the importance of helping people adapt to their changing world. “We should enable life-long learning and skills development, so people can apply that new learning as they age.” How about you, does it feel like you are still learning?

Finally, Adam Taggert’s Finding Your Authentic Career is directed primarily at career seekers who are looking for the life’s work that best suits them. Yet I think it applies to seniors seeking a retirement that fits them. Truth be told, it sounds a lot like my own rants about preparing for our October Years. Taggert writes, ”The vast majority of people are actively dissatisfied---or at best unfulfilled---by their current situation. If only they realized that their purpose is out there waiting for them.”
So what are these so-called experts telling us? “We have only so much time left.” “We need to keep learning.” “We are meant to seek our passion.” “Our purpose is waiting for us.” Did our forefathers need a guru and guidebook to know that? Probably not. Still, it can’t hurt to be reminded---if only to keep us thriving.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October instincts -- should we run from them?

So you’re retired now. You’ve finally reached those golden years at the end of that work-a-day rainbow. Hopefully these October Years are providing you with the time to pursue at least some of the dreams you dreamed on the way to this special place. But while it’s nice to have time for those things, I've heard some of our October peers complain of having too much time on their hands. That, in turn, leads to a different question---one we are sometimes reluctant to face. If you find yourself in that “too much time” space, whose job is it to make better use of the time left to you? (Of course, your plan may be to sit passively in front of your TV, waiting for those days to pass.)
Most of us have learned by now that an hour of June or July time is different than an hour of October time. After all, our world has changed. Our expectations are different. We have new goals to strive for. Our capabilities have probably retreated a bit, perhaps more than a bit. In light of all that why should we expect the same old  “going to work” and “raising a family” answers to work now?
Hopefully we learned along the way that when our circumstances change, we must adapt---our responses need to reflect our new reality. I’ll bet you used that logic in your career, your parenting, and your relationships. Well surprise--it also applies in retirement. We are finding that October is a sometimes unfamiliar world, with new rules and new challenges. If ever there was a time to trust our instincts, this is it. 
I can think of times when I faced the need to “adapt.” Perhaps you too have found yourself in that space---knowing that the old ways weren’t as effective as they used to be, but unsure how to change them. Truth be told, I’ve probably spent more time than most people focusing on October problems. After all, each of my nine Tanner Chronicles novels deals with one or more of those late-life challenges---situations that I've lived with for weeks, even months as I created the story.
There have been times when I’ve gone to bed feeling so pleased with how a new story idea had come together, how it said exactly what I wanted to say.  But how often, when I revisited my efforts the next morning, did it seem the logic I was trying to illustrate had vanished? Something had changed, but I wasn’t sure what. Then, quite by surprise, I stumbled onto what promises to be a new, more accountable sort of “change agent.”
I have included the following disclaimer before in the course of my blogging. I am neither competent nor qualified to be a literary reviewer. So when I mention a book (other than my own) it is because its message has touched me personally. In this case the book I am referring to, the “change agent” I mentioned above, is T D Jakes’ latest title---Instinct.
I was taken by Jakes’ way of addressing the notion of change---at any time of life, even retirement. The change he writes about is not an “off-the-shelf,”  “one-size-fits-all” process. Instead, he stresses the uniquely personal nature of change. To be successful it must focus on the individual---taking into account his or her history, preferences, capabilities, expectations, and perhaps surprisingly---his or her instincts. All that, of course, requires serious self-examination, something most of us resist. Yet, without a thorough understanding of what makes us the person we are, how can we expect to create change?
For some people, of course, T D Jakes’ reputation will precede him. He is, after all, a very successful mega-church pastor who often writes on Christian topics. For some that is a red flag. My take on such concerns is pretty simple. If you disagree with Jakes’ treatment of change, and role of instinct in that process, I assure you it won’t be because he has turned his case into a religious rant. There is nothing remotely like a sermon in the whole book---just his straight-forward explanation of the many ways instinct impacts change, or the lack of change.
We who live in an October world know the truth of it---change is inevitable. We can choose to play a part in directing our own change, or simply sit on the sidelines and accept whatever change comes our way. If you decide that you want a voice in the matter, you might consider T D Jakes’ reasons for relying on your own instincts to plot your course toward a new, more age appropriate you.