Thursday, August 28, 2014

He writes what?

I'll admit that I cringed a bit when my first e-book publisher wanted to catalog my stories as “senior romance.” My God, do they still call it that in our October Years? And even if they do, what seventy-plus guy would claim to write “romances”? I can assure you, these stories of mine are not about muscular Alpha Males cavorting across a book cover in a torn shirt, swooping up a swooning and seductive maiden. Instead, the tired old Beta Males I write about are stumbling toward the promise of a late-life connection, resurrecting adolescent memories as they go---the ones they had filed away decades before and never expected to revisit. In the face of that reality I long ago set aside the “romance” label and settled instead on  “relationship” stories.

After all, relationships---whether casual or deeply personal---are the stuff of life. No matter what our age, when they work we thrive. When they are absent or injured, we suffer. And for my purposes, relationships are also at the heart of a good story. So why should I be embarrassed about writing something that everyone can relate to? Would I be more authentic if I wrote instead about fantasy or vampires and zombies, spy thrillers or who-dun-its---none of which are part of my personal experience?

Each of us, based on our own unique experience, knows how complicated and sometimes intimidating the “relationship seeking” process can be. For the October friends I write about it is all that and more. They and their world have changed dramatically since their youthful, first time excursion into that territory. Along the way they have gained at least one important insight---everything looks different through October eyes. Yet, though the world around them has changed over the years, they are still seeking the same affirmation and hoping to fill the same existential void. 

Yet, even with its new label, it took a while for me to move beyond the self-induced embarrassment of writing relationalship stories. I had to convince myself that relationalship episodes are an elemental part of life. More than that, they are highly relatable---sure to include recognizable snippets of our own lives. That’s what I enjoy the most, creating stories about good people who are in need, and hoping for the relationship that will help them heal.

I understand that fiction is a favored form of escapism for both readers and writers. We read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary---a perfectly valid reason. On the other hand, relating true-to-life relationship stories, like the ones I tell, is apt to take the escapist to the very space he or she is hoping to escape. In that case, I can probably write off a large portion of my potential audience. As for the rest of those fiction readers? How many of them are looking to curl up with an October Years relationship tale that’s not on anyone’s best-seller list---especially one that addresses head-on the challenges that come with that late-life territory?

Pretty clever of me, eh? Staking my claim in the tiniest sliver of the whole darn market, telling stories that few have ever heard of or considered reading. Oh well, I can live with that. After a time-out to spend a few weeks retracing the Oregon Trail, I’ll be back to finish my current "in-process story." Beyond that, who knows.

In the meantime I offer the following scene from Becoming that illustrates the inherent frustration that comes with writing “relationalship” stories.

As Jack and I got to know each other better we naturally cultivated a curiosity about each other’s work, until in time he had developed an interest in my writing. One of our earliest conversations about a story of mine took place on a Saturday afternoon at the Terrace, a busy pub not far from the local university. Jack had just  finished reading the latest draft of my first novel-length story and was ready to register his opinion. As I recall it was a three-beer lunch, which may have accounted for his socially incorrect bluntness.
“I’ve read about people who thought they were called to write,” he explained. “But what you’re doing with this calling of yours doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why a love story about old people? Why not something more ....”
“More masculine.” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho---with action and bad guys, maybe a homicide or two. Stuff like that, eh?”
“Yeah. That’s it. Make your guys younger, with a thing for loose women. Something to hold the reader’s interest. I mean, reading about old folks trying to get it going again, that’s not exactly mainstream is it?”
“You’ve got that right. The publishers who’ve read that story seem to agree on that. They’ve been absolutely unanimous in their disinterest. So what can I say? I'm telling the story I want to tell. That’s all.”
“But why? People read stories to get away from ordinary stuff.” Jack was serious now, wanting me to hear his logic. “Just think about what sells. It’s mysteries and whodunits. It’s tracking down a killer or a cheating husband. It’s about terrorists and undercover agents who have to find the bad guy before he destroys the world. At the very least there’s a good chase scene. And, of course, some really steamy sex. Then at the end, on the last page, the guy and the lady get together. 
“That’s what real stories are about,” he continued. “About suspense, and action, and mystery. They’re sure as hell not about some seventy-year-old guy deciding that a seventy-year-old lady is his soulmate.”
First of all, Jack’s objections were not new. The Old Man had registered the same complaints, although his exact language was a bit more colorful. In any case, there I was struggling to pay my bills, yet obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories. The question was---should I spend my time telling the low-key relationship tales that flowed so naturally, or write the suspenseful action stories that Jack and the Old Man advocated? Of course, there was no evidence to suggest that I could do either one well enough to succeed. But that aside, should I focus on the stories I wanted to tell, or turn to something more commercially viable? 
“Tell me Jack, how many homicides and spies have you come across in your life? How many times have you been forced to save the world from destruction?” I did not wait for his answer. “Why would I tell a story like that? It has nothing to do with me.”
“But this is so damn ordinary.” Jack was struggling to understand. For a moment I wondered if he was ready to suggest a four-beer lunch. “Why would I want to read about stuff that’s all around me every day?”
“Come on," I replied. "This isn’t literature, you know. I’m just telling stories about ordinary people and some of their special times. They don’t always end happily-ever-after, but it feels like they’re real. And most of all, they’re the stories I want to tell.” 
“But can’t you see? They’re 'love' stories for God sakes.” Jack was ready to play his trump card. “Women write love stories, everyone knows that. Besides, real love stories are about young folks. That’s what all those little old ladies want to read about---young love. The people in your stories are too damn old.”
About then we fell quiet. All around us the busy pub crowd played on. The overhead television screens showed their ball games. Noisy college guys were trying their best to impress anxious college girls. The place was absolutely alive, yet I had managed to bore Jack into silent submission.
“You know,” I finally said, trying to resurrect our conversation, “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this through. When that relational stuff happens again at our age I think some of it must be like the first time around. You do remember that, don’t you? When we were kids and it was all about hormones?”
“Just barely.”
“But the second time around, or maybe the third, is bound to be different. It may be something like coming-of-age all over again---only this time each of them brings along all sorts of baggage. They’ve each had their own experiences and made their own memories. There are some highs they’d like to live again---and some lows they’re hoping to avoid.”
“You mean they’re hoping to get it right this time?” Jack was shaking his head again, convinced that he knew better than that. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”
“Come on, they’re not thinking about the odds. They’re looking for something they want.” I decided not to ask Jack what qualified him as an expert on “getting things right.” I knew something of his history, enough to render his judgment suspect. “As near as I can tell, a lot of people have those feelings. If I tell my stories in a believable way, maybe some of them will see something of themselves in what I’m writing.”
“And you know how to do that?” 
“I keep trying. Look, I used to apologize for telling stories no one wanted to read. I’m pretty well over that. I just keep doing what feels right and try to do it better.” I drained the last of my beer and stalled while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.

Monday, August 18, 2014

I Believe in Heros and Sheros


I replied---”Shirley, your post reminded me of this little essay I wrote for a class assignment a few months ago---about those battles we all fight, and what I believe.”

Caring, unselfish, willing to face adversity and do what must be done. Those are some of the things that define a hero. I happen to believe in heros. More to the point, I believe in “heros” and “sheros.”

Like most folks I remember the heros of my childhood---The Lone Ranger, Red Ryder, Jack Armstrong. They were the good guys, and they always won. Later there would be Mickey, Willie, and Johnny U---who seemed bigger than life, and although they didn’t always win, they won more than anyone else. 

Fast forward to the present. Perhaps it’s not surprising that by now much of what I know about real-life heros has been learned in the context of my church family. I’ve learned that God’s blessings often arrive in the form of "hes" and "shes.". Over the years Roma and I had the opportunity to visit with more than one hundred individuals and couples from our congregation, getting to know them and creating short profiles of their lives and battles. We were constantly amazed at how many heros we met in the course of those visits. For the last twelve year we’ve visited shut-ins, and in the process discovered a whole different crop of heros.

Along the way I’ve learned that heros don’t always win. They can become heros by the way they try. In fact, they’re often at their best when it seems that life has turned against them and the bad guys are winning. At times like that those heros are on the job, doing their good work and giving their best---encouraging and comforting, healing and praying. I’m pretty sure you’ll find them in every church on any given Sunday. (Though of course they don’t have to be in church.) In any case, I know for a fact that you’ll find them in my congregation every Sunday morning.

Sometimes you’ll know who they are. Their efforts will be obvious. But at the same time there will be dozens of others dealing with their own struggles---fighting battles we will never know about. For those undercover, out-of-sight heros the focus may not be on winning. Often it’s about coping---dealing with their personal adversity, relying on their own resources and the power of prayer to make it through hard times. I see those heros in every pew, every Sunday, seeking the strength and renewal to carry them through another week.

It’s comforting to know that when I’m in need of inspiration I can find examples all around me. "Caring, unselfish, willing to face adversity and do what must be done"---those are the characteristics of the heros I believe in, including the pair of special heros who keep me going. Each of us will have our own special list, but our reliance on heros will be the same. Everyone needs “heros,” and “sheros” to help them cope and carry on. That’s why I believe in heros.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dad - He Deserved Better Than I Gave Him

(Originally posted June 17, 2013)

My dad has been gone sixteen years now. Though I’ll admit that I don’t think of him every day, he has a way of sneaking back into my thoughts at the most unexpected times---like last night, when I laid in bed trying to remember the person he was in the October Years of his life. The more I thought about it the more I realized that at the time I had no idea of how many October realities he must have been dealing with---including having a son like me.

Now, at my stage of life, it seems those seldom visited thoughts take on more meaning, as though our own October experience has a way of putting things in perspective. Certainly I have a better understanding of how important and satisfying our own parenting experience has been, though in truth I didn’t always realize it at the time. I hope that’s how it seems to you when you look back on your own family times.

Like all of us, my dad was a man of many facets. The one that surfaced last night was his extraordinary patience---which at times I must have tried to the max. What I remember most in that regard was the late 1960s when, nearly a decade after joining the family business, I was caught up in what I can only describe a very early mid-life crisis. It was then, in a matter of five short years, that I dragged my young family through a whirlwind of sometimes disorienting change. 

First there was graduate school. I didn’t really want to be there. But the Stanford Business School had invited me to be a part of their MBA program. That was an ego-boost for sure---one I couldn’t resist. A year later I was home, again working with Dad. That lasted a year---until I bought an Eastern Oregon ranch, so I could play cowboy. It took another year to learn  that I wasn’t really a cowboy, and couldn’t afford to play one. So I returned to the window business---for a year. Then, in the fall of 1972, I moved the family to England, where I pursued my suddenly important need to write a novel. 
Along the way Dad and I had established a routine of sorts. After each of those adventures I returned to the business, where he was anxiously awaiting my arrival---so that he and Mom could set out on their own long-dreamed-of retirement. But each time, before they had a chance to do that, I was off on another wild-goose chase. Looking back, it’s easy to see how patient he had been, and how much I owed him.
Given that history it’s probably not surprising that complicated father/son relationships occasionally show up in my stories. Nowhere is that interaction more central to the story than in Becoming. In the following excerpt Carl Postell has left his wife and career to follow his own writing obsession. Besides his stories, the ones that no publisher is interested in, the remaining constant in his life is his father. Though it is often disguised by loud arguments and blustery exchanges, their mutual affection 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---perhaps a sandwich, or some soup. My own cupboard was nearly bare and I was seriously sick of Top Ramen. 
George Postell, my dad, was seated in his big cloth-covered recliner, the kind that tilted forward to help him stand up. Once on his feet he shuffled around his apartment with the help of a four legged cane. He was a small man, gray haired and stooped, 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.
I knew, of course, that 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 never 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 week. In the face of his long, lonely days, our few minutes of spirited dueling were some of the best fun he had.
After years of spirited 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. “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. I know that you’re just buying time, waiting for me to kick off so you can come into some serious money.” As always, the old guy 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.
My dad 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, had he not been a Postell---tied to the family and its farm.
I suppose 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. It had been that “Independent-Living” label that sold him. I remembered 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  of them sounded so descriptive of the person he believed himself to be. The other reeked of a weakness he would not accept for himself.
Perhaps on paper he did stretch the “Independent Living” definition a bit, but  his was a very determined independence. Once his recliner had 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 that hung around his neck and the local Meals on Wheels program bringing him lunch, 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  housekeeper, caregiver, and best friend. Except for me she was also 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, or maybe 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 the Old Man had no such plans. He was more than willing to forego those last stops on the itinerary that others were planning for him. He expected to “kick off” right there in his own place, before any further move was necessary. 

Stubborn, independent, blessed with a hint of bluster. Those words that describe George Postell so well also fit my dad. His last words to me were “I love you.” That was a bit surprising, since it was the first time I remember 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.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Keep Pedaling

These October Years posts of mine often deal with material taken from books---usually my own stories. It is, after all, a “Writer’s Blog.” This time, however, I’d like to consider a book that is not mine. Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life is by Jane Marie Thibault and Richard L Morgan, and published by Upper Room Books. It was those authors and their book that started me down the path I am exploring here.
As you might guess, the insights Thibault and Morgan offer have a religious slant. I know some folks are uncomfortable with that. Yet when you are writing about “the last third of life,” blogging about “October Years,” or telling stories of Tanner seniors facing their own Octobers and Novembers---I happen to believe that you are treading on ground strewn with spiritual implications.
The challenge for us October types, whether its’s spiritual or not, is to move ahead in the face of a changing landscape. Think back for a moment. In one form or another you probably spent the middle third of your life, your July, August, and September looking ahead, focused on the future you hoped to create. For most of us it was a season of possibilities---nurturing a career and/or a family, becoming more tomorrow than you had been yesterday. 
Early on in their book Thibault and Morgan suggest a metaphor to help us put that time of striving into context. They ask us to think of ourselves as having climbed a long hill---one that represents the first two-thirds of our life, from January to September---that time of “looking ahead.” In the course of our climb we were seeking expanded possibilities, and hoping for more and better rewards. It was, among other things, those mind pictures of future possibilites that kept us moving ahead, even when the going was hard.
Then we reached the summit of that hill, where it seemed that we had climbed as high as we could go. From there we paused to look down the other side towards what waited ahead---the last third of life, the time I call October and beyond. By then the seductive dreams that had pulled us up the hill were probably fading. As we stood there our first impulse may have been to take a deep breath and reluctantly prepare ourself for the not-so-seductive descent to the end.
From our vantage point on the hilltop, October and beyond may have had the look of a dead end decline---devoid of the affirmation, accomplishment, and recognition that had made midlife so exciting and powerful. Looking down on that cloudy, sometimes forbidding landscape we perhaps longed for the sunny and hopeful days of June and July, and mourned their passing---while wondering about what waited ahead.
Right there let’s take a second to expand the authors’ metaphor a bit. Remember those Tour de France cyclists you’ve watched on TV? Like them you pedaled hard to reach the top of your hill, the one that represents the first two-thirds of your life. From there, as the saying goes, it’s all downhill. But what if that “downhill” has the feel of something to be endured, not something to be looking forward to. Having spent your entire life, up to then, on the exhilarating climb to the top, it might be tempting to simply accept the new and not-so-exhilarating future awaiting you. In that case, why not just settle back and coast down the hill to the finish line?
As you can probably guess Thibault and Morgan recommend something more than “coasting to the finish line.” They write of a “pilgrimage,” a meaningful October journey. They speak of retirement and aging as a time of purpose. Truth to tell, their appeal sounds very much like the “thriving in our 60s & 70s” I write about.
I’ve made the point before. No matter how we label that time of life, it is not for sissies. It is literally a new life and lifestyle. We soon learn that the ways we dealt with life in June and July, the things that worked for us then, are probably not as effective, or even possible, in October and beyond.
You have read the numbers. In the last century science and medicine have added decades to our life expectancy. The October of our life is arriving at an older age. Our “October and beyond,” what the authors refer to as “last third of life,” will last longer. Twenty and thirty year retirements are common place today. The question for us has become---will we spend those years passively waiting for the finish line to come meet us? Or will we choose to use our remaining years in a more productive manner?
If you vote for “something more productive,” be aware that the best part of thriving in October is that we CAN choose the form of our thriving. On the other hand, the hardest part of thriving in October is that we MUST choose how we will thrive. No one else can do that for us. We have to make that choice ourselves. After a lifetime of having our choices dictated by career and/or family, the opportunity and the challenge of thriving in October rests squarely on our shoulders.
Having tread that path and descended that hill in the course of nine Tanner Chronicles stories, as well as my own life, I have some experience in the matter. Why else would I have posted Retirement - If it’s so easy why did I nearly flunk it? a few months back. Still, I understand that most folks are not looking forward to that “pilgrimage,” that descent to the finish line. Many of us would rather not think about it. It is, however, as vital to completing the wholeness of life as our birth and maturing---and better by far than the alternative.
So, since the choices are yours to make, why not choose to thrive in your October? Instead of tilting your recliner back and coasting to the finish line, select one of the many paths that lead down from the hilltop? Take the one, or ones, that offers the unique and satisfying “something” you seek. That thriving, of course, will not erase your October trials---the health, financial, or relational obstacles we all face. It may, however, soften those blows. So instead of coasting, choose a way that makes the most of your time and energy, and start pedaling. That sounds to me like a proper pilgrimage.