Sunday, January 25, 2015

You still have dreams, don't you. So why be timid?

A few days ago I put up a post that ended with the line---”Don’t worry about old age; it doesn’t last that long.”

Fact is, we should probably file that under “Half True.” It may not last as long as we’d like, but we know that today “old age” and retirement last longer than ever before. In turn, that normally happy fact creates its own set of anxieties. Will our nest egg last that long? Will our health hold out, or are we destined to live our last days in a “cared-for” situation? It’s the same old story, October and November are tricky times. We all bump into that reality from time to time.  

It is those “bumps,” and how people deal with them, that I write about. Creating those stories requires a certain amount of planning---looking ahead to see where the storyline I have in mind is taking the characters I have imagined into being. Yet it seems that no matter how well I plan there are times, when I least expect it, the story takes its own surprising turn. 

In a recent instance, what started out as a story about an October couple’s search for a relational common ground seemed to take on a life of its own. The storyline I had so carefully crafted was simply hijacked by the confused and conflicted pair. No matter what I had planned for them they seemed intent on taking their tale in a different direction. Almost before I understood where they leading me the two of them were insisting that their future relied on a new and uncharacteristic boldness.

In October Bold David and Marian found themselves backed into a corner, bogged down in their own natural timidity. Their relational prospects were growing dimmer, until they realized that what they wanted would require a change of direction and attitude. Were they willing to do that? Did they have the nerve to try? I was halfway through the story before it dawned on me that their situation required a liberal dose of what I call October Bold---a willingness to move beyond their normal responses and take a chance.
Of course, an October version of “bold” will probably not look like the carefree, sometimes foolhardy boldness of our youth. Over the years we have gathered our share of barnacles and baggage---and well-worn excuses for not trying something new, or different, or a bit risky. In the same way barnacles slow a ship our own doubting can hold us back. I am not talking about an exaggerated risk or betting the farm on some untried dream. Instead, think of it as finding the courage to stretch the envelop a bit, to follow an appealing possibility beyond the reasons you would normally use to avoid it. 
I count it as boldness to pursue an October hobby or interest, a pursuit you’ve always wanted to try, but were never willing to follow beyond your comfort zone. Roma did that when she began her genealogy work. Was it worth while? I think so. How else would I have known that I married my tenth cousin?
For myself, writing October relational stories about Tanner seniors, then having the nerve to tell the world what I am doing, qualifies as boldness---as did creating a blog to elaborate on those October adventures. From the beginning I wondered what gave a rank amateur like me the right to do that. But the further I ventured down that path the more I realized that I was there because I wanted to be. That’s reason enough.
This October boldness of mine was not a matter of daring adventure or great physical risk. It was a willingness to move beyond my comfort zone to pursue something I really wanted to do. To hold back or hesitate because of what someone else might say or think about my feeble efforts strikes me as a very unbold reason for not acting.
Think of the trials we’ve gone through to reach the October of our life. Haven’t we earned the right to be bold---in an October sort of way? If that is true, why not scrape off those limiting barnacles and take a chance of your own? Do your own thing---for your own reasons. So what if you end up looking silly or out of place. If you’re like me, you’ve been there before.
What I call October boldness is all about moving beyond our own self-imposed impediments. Moreover, that willingness comes in many shades and shapes. For David and Marian in October Bold it was a matter of moving beyond their own intimidating perceptions of each other. In the story I call Conversations With Sarah Jimmy Brooder resorts to what I would label “backdoor bold.” 
Though Jimmy’s dream is bold, he lacks the will to act on his own. So rather than turn away from what he wants, he relies on his own timid, but decisive approach. In true “John Alden” style he asks Hank Rolland to do what he cannot do for himself---arrange a date with Gladys Horner. Not surprisingly, when Gladys finally unravels Jimmy’s indirect invitation she is in his face, asking questions of her own.

Turning back to face Gladys, Jimmy nodded toward the back door, away from the crowded Fellowship Hall, and nudged her in that direction. “You say that you’ve heard something,” he said as they walked. “Does by chance it have anything to do with me---and you?” Noting her cautious nod, he continued. “Maybe something about a date, a double date, to the Big Band concert?”
She moved closer, straining to hear his soft words. A second later she offered her response. “Yes. That’s what I heard---from Angie---who heard it from Hank. But it made no sense at all. A ‘double date’---at our age. What is that about?”
“It sounds like I need to bail Hank out of the trouble he’s got himself into.” By then Jimmy was scolding himself for having created such a mess. He had gone looking for Hank’s help, to ask Gladys the question he could not bring himself to ask. Instead, Hank had apparently enlisted Angie to do the asking. No wonder Gladys was confused and upset. Still, since it had been a bad idea from the start, it was not fair to blame Hank for the ensuing confusion. 
A single tug on her arm turned Gladys toward him. “Look, I’m sorry. This is all my fault,” he said. “It was something I hoped could happen. But I understand why it must sound crazy to you. The thing is, if you’re going to be mad at someone, it should be me. I’m the one who asked Hank to help me out. I just didn’t know he would be getting Angie involved.”
“Why did I ask Hank? Because I thought going to the concert with you was a good idea, something I’d like to do.” Jimmy was already nudging them back toward the Fellowship Hall. “Anyway, I’m sorry I caused such a fuss. Why don’t we just drop it. Let’s pretend it never happened. Okay?”
“So tell me, do you still think it’s a good idea? Or have you changed your mind?”
“Oh, it’s still a good idea. But it’s one of those ideas whose time has come and gone.”
“Then why didn’t you just ask me? Why did it take Hank or Angie to do that?”
Jimmy Brooder had the look of a man prepared to run away, to escape her probing questions. It was clearly time to end their ridiculous charade. 
“Gladys Horner, I know you’re not going to the concert with me. Why would you want to show up in front of all your high-society friends with Jimmy Brooder in tow? You’re a bright lady, with more sense and good taste than that. I knew that all along. I just let myself get a little carried away, that’s all. So let’s just forget about it.”
Gladys took a deep breath and drew herself to her full five foot two. Looking up into his face she assembled her parting words. “Jimmy Brooder, you are exactly half right. I certainly won’t be going to the concert with you.” She started toward the front door, before adding over her shoulder, “Not if you don’t have the nerve to do the asking yourself.”
He stood rooted in the middle of the hallway, watching as she walked away. Replaying her words, he asked himself again if she had actually said what he thought he heard.

Boldness, in its October form, is not so much a physical thing. It’s a frame of mind. It can be a timid, but decisive decision to act in the face of all the reasons we have created over the years for not acting. The kind of October Bold I advocate risks only hurt feelings, embarrassment, and head-shaking snickers. It took longer than it should have to realize that my sometimes fragile ego can deal with those assaults.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Want to join the club? No dues and no meetings

So what brings you here to this blog site? Is this a first-time visit, or do you belong to the club? I’m referring, of course, to the members of the blogging and blog-reading fraternity. (Or is it a sorority?) I’m not sure what our members are called. Are they bloggers, blog junkies, or blog groupies? Whatever name we carry, it feels like we have stumbled onto a most engrossing, stimulating, and sometimes addictive diversion---a perfect retirement pastime. If blogs are not already a part of your routine perhaps you ought to consider them. In those moments when your present world is not big enough to suit you, latching onto a blog or two is a fun and painless way to expand your horizons. 
If you think that might work for you let’s begin with the obvious---a working definition. Blog (noun) - a website on which an individual or group of users regularly record opinions, information, etc on a particular topic or range of topics.
Of course, however it happened, you have managed to find this blog. and I thank you for that. But did you know that there is a blog, or blogs, for just about everything under the sun? The bloggers you choose to follow may be seasoned experts or overeager novices. But no matter what the subject there is someone out there offering their opinions and information about it, hoping to create a dialog. Take any interest, hobby, habit, or obsession imaginable and you can be sure that any decent search engine can locate one or more blogs that deal with it.
It is an internet-enabled pastime of course---a bit like visiting with your neighbor over the back fence. Except in this case your “neighbor,” the one who wants to talk with you about your favorite subject, may live on the other side of the world. Chances are he or she will bring unique insights and ideas to the conversation---something new for you to consider or explore. Best of all, you get to choose when to visit, whom you will visit with, and when to add your own input to the dialogue.
Perhaps you’re a “show me” sort of person. You know, someone who says “I’ll believe it when I see it.” If so, the test is oh-so-simple. No special computer skill is required. Just go to any search engine---enter a topic in the search line, then add the word “blog.” It’s hard to imagine a legitimate subject that won’t produce multiple responses. Simply review the results of your search, choose a site that appeals to you, call it up and read. If you decide to join the online conversation you will be coached through that process.
At once you will find that you have stumbled onto a new kind of community, a virtual village of folks who are excited by what excites you. For me that process began when I logged on to an inconspicuous website called Hitch Itch, where I was introduced to the world of full-time RVing, something that interests me a great deal. (Sadly my wife does not subscribe to the romance of making our home in a tin house on wheels.) She prefers her own fan collecting and genealogy blogs.
Anyway, there on Hitch Itch dozens of folks post their blogs---proclaiming the virtues of living full time in an RV, sharing their travel experiences, and staying in touch with each other. Though I’m usually a silent observer, I occasionally add my input to some ongoing dialogue. On an irregular basis I follow the travels and trials of folks I’ve never met, and probably never will. 
We have become new-age Pen Pals. (Remember those?) In the same way this blog allows, those Pen Pals have invited the rest of us to join them on their own unique journey---while we learn who they are and what keeps them going. It has the feel of an old-fashioned party line, an intimate conversation posted for all the world to read
As for myself, I have several reasons to be blogging. This October Years space is clearly labeled “a writer’s blog.” I use the format to explore, explain, and (gasp) promote my books. Hopefully that is enough to keep people returning to these pages. Personally, I enjoy resurrecting some story I wrote years before to ask myself why I used this or that device to make a point or advance a storyline---while gauging how well it worked. I’m always working on a new story, looking for ways to make them better. Writing a blog helps me do that. If, at the same time, I can nudge a blog reader towards reading one of my stories I’m okay with that.
Finally, whatever your reason for being here at this moment I hope you’ll return often, perhaps "follow" it, and tell your friends about it. As always, I’ll keep asking for your comments, though in truth few of you have taken me up on that. In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out other blog topics that interest you. There is a whole world waiting out there, tens of thousands of conversations going on at this very minute. Chances are there is one or more that you’d enjoy being part of. You have the computer and internet connection. (That’s how you’re reading this.) Why not visit Blogsville to expand your horizons?

Friday, January 2, 2015

October Years - For some that means Going Poor

The wild and crazy shopping frenzy we call the Holiday Season has come and gone---unless you count the gift returns, after-Christmas sales, and a flood of gift card spending. For the last week it seemed that every network and news channel was busy totaling up and analyzing our national spending habits, trying to identify the winners and the losers---who had spent how much on what, and what companies had emerged as winners. Often as not the ones they measured were the winners, though some had won more that others.
But of course the sad truth is that in real life not everyone wins at the spending game. That was true when we were youngsters. It happens in the sometimes uncertain lottery that is marriage and raising a family. And now, as the calendar pages continue to turn, too many of our October peers are coming face to face with their own assortment of age-appropriate forms of “losing.” Their losses may arrive in the guise of health, relational, career, or retirement challenges, but whatever the cause the net result is likely to include a financial cost. 
You have seen the television commercials that continually repeat their dire suggestion, almost as often as some of us ask ourselves the same question---”Will our nest egg last as long as we do?” Though it’s tempting to dodge the issue there is no doubting its reality. 
But is that a reason to explore that unwelcome landscape in a relational story? I think so. It is, after all, the stuff of real life---both the unpromising circumstances and the need for a partner to help deal with that reality. The story I tell is called Going Poor, and I must admit it is one of my favorites.
As I’ve said many times before---the October Years can be an intimidating time of life. By the time I started working on Going Poor, and its straight-in-the-eye depiction of poverty’s impact on the October soul, I had written about relationships impaired by divorce and death, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, stroke and decades of separation. So why not explore yet another all-too-frequent element of October life? Why not take a closer look at poverty, in particular what happens to October relationships when they bump into the harsh realities of Going Poor?
I’m not exactly sure what prompted the idea in the first place, though I suppose it’s a child of our times. We read every day about how many people are unprepared for retirement, how many of us face an uncertain financial future. Still, by itself “poverty” is probably more depressing than interesting, not a likely topic for most storytellers. 
But what about the impact of poverty---its effect on the October unfortunates who are constrained by the fact of it and forced to live accordingly? Beyond our basic needs for food and shelter perhaps the most crushing impact of financial hardship is on the human psyche---the emotional price we pay for believing that in a culture like ours, where perceived worth is so often a function of dollars, we have not measured up in the ways we and society expected. What happens to dreams of affirmation and success in the face of late-life poverty? How does it affect self-esteem and willingness to take relational chances? It seemed to me those questions, and the answers they produce, provide the necessary ingredients for a worthwhile story. 
Can you imagine, or have you experienced the effects of poverty on a potential relationship? It struck me that perhaps no one is more in need of a caring and committed partner than a truly needy person? And what about the accompanying doubts of self-worth and one's ability to be a good provider? Satisfying relationships can thrive in any home, no matter how modest. Yet poverty and homelessness are bound to impair permanency, an important element of a safe and secure partnership. 
So what does that sad state of affairs look like? How must it feel? Of course every situation is different, a unique blend of circumstances. The following excerpts from Going Poor depict Lane Tipton’s efforts to deal with the hand that life and his own bad choices have dealt him---leaving him poor, with no apparent prospects.
Going Poor - excerpt 1

Lane Tipton is sixty, tired, and broke---nearly at the end of his rope. Asking for sister Sally’s help is definitely a last resort. Sadly, he seems to have no other choice.

Lane flinched a bit, remembering how much he disliked those moments when his sister’s questions turned back to his unfortunate circumstances. “So how are you doing?” Sally asked again. “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,” he continued. “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 that, there wasn’t room for me and the Honda in the garage. The Honda won out.”
“So where are you staying now? Have you come up with any new answers?”
He turned quiet, offering no hint of his normally upbeat banter. It took only seconds for Sally to put her own spin on Lane's silence. For years her brother had endured bad luck and hard times without complaint, relying on his characteristic optimism and an exaggerated bravado to mask the hurt. But now, as his stubborn silence continued, she was inclined to believe there was something different 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 know exactly how that feels. I’ve been there. Remember?”
His reply arrived in a hushed near-whisper, tinged with a hesitant resignation that was unlike him. “Yeah,” he finally 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. Truth is, an old fossil like me doesn’t stand much of 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.” He paused, scolding himself for sounding so down in the dumps. Still, he owed her the truth. 
“The thing is,” he said. “The few shelters in town are turning guys away. They don’t have any more 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, can you?”
Though neither of them wanted to be the first to put the truth into words, each of them 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 force himself to 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, back 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 out on the Bluffs.”
“Sal, don’t you kid me. You don’t have enough room. You’re still in the same single wide, aren’t you, the one you had at 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. Chances are I’d feel more comfortable having 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 very well what the real thing is like. Why would I ever settle for second best?”

Going Poor - excerpt 2

Lane has returned to Tanner, to stay with Sally. There, on a cold and drizzly morning he makes his way to the downtown Job Market, where eager, strong-backed men from the neighboring homeless shelters and hillside camps gather---waiting for trucks and buses from the region's farms and nurseries, coming to hire needed day-workers. 

“So tell me,” Lane said, turning to the only other fellow waiting in what appeared to be the senior section of the Job Market waiting area. “What are the odds of making a connection here? Is there any work to be had 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,” the man replied, rubbing his gray-stubbled face and pulling his cap over his ears. “Most of the outfits that come in here are looking for young guys, like that bunch over there. Those farms have crops to get in, or plants to tend. They need help and they’re not fussy about age discrimination issues and stuff like that. Those young kids, especially the Mexicans, are hard workers. They’re the ones they’re looking for. Hell, I’d hire them in a minute if I had work to get done.”
The rain had picked up again, sending the two of them down the wall, under the wider awning in front of the fitness center. “During the summer,” the fellow 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 working 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 up here. Except for the Christmas tree farms, everyone will be going with a skeleton crew.”
“Does that mean you’ll be going south, like the others?”
“I don’t know,” his new friend answered. “I’ve done that the last couple years. Mostly because it’s warmer. But the truth is, I’m at the point where my body can’t take that kind of beating year round. I turned sixty-one this summer. Been dealing with bad knees for years. And they’re sure as hell not getting any better.”
“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, 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 shelter, keeps us going when there’s no work.”

Going Poor - excerpt 3

Climbing the front steps of Sally’s trailer, Lane was home from his first day of Job Market employment. His clothes were soaked, he could not stop shivering, and his back felt like it was on fire. If he actually believed he could hide his distress as he came through the front door, his sister took about two seconds to shatter that illusion.
“Are you out of your mind?” she was asking even before he closed the door behind him. “You’ll catch your death of cold. More likely pneumonia. What were you thinking, trying to work on a day like this?” 
In no time at all Lane’s jacket, shirt, and tee shirt had been deposited in a soggy pile just inside the door. When Sally turned on the stove-top burner to warm some water for instant coffee, he was there beside her, holding his hands over the propane flame. 
A moment later, from deep in his pants pocket he produced four twenty dollar bills, a bit damp, but none the worse for wear. “This is what I was doing, Sis,” he said as he spread the bills across the counter top. “I’m getting back in the game. Paying my own way for a change. At least part of it.”
“And for that you’re willing to ruin your health? What kind of deal is that? Where is your good sense?”
“I’m not ‘ruining’ anything. I’m just fine. After a hot, soaky shower I’ll be good as new.” 
Sally had gathered his wet clothes and carried them down the hallway, where the stacked washer and dryer unit was wedged into a narrow cubicle. “Now get your shoes and pants off.” She was in her semi-command mode. “And get in the shower before I use all the hot water washing your things.”
She looked up to find Lane still standing, making no effort to remove his shoes. Before she could prod him into action, he was asking his own question. “Do you suppose you could pull my shoes off?” he asked timidly. “I don’t think I can’t reach them. Even if I got down there, I probably couldn’t straighten up again.”
Why had she not noticed sooner? Seconds later, on her knees, Sally was still in a scolding mood as she untied his shoes and pulled off his wet socks. “You are out of your mind. When will you realize that you’re not a kid any more? It makes no sense at all, wrecking yourself like this for a few dollars.”
Grabbing her shoulders, Lane helped her to her feet. “Sis, I told you before---I need to do my part. That means bringing home some dollars. It’s not that much, but at least it’s something.”
“But, you don’t have .......” Suddenly her brother’s hand was clamped over her mouth.
“But nothing,” he growled. “I got wet and cold today, because I wasn’t dressed for the weather. That’s what made my back tighten up on me. It’s still messed up. But once I get a hot shower and a little rest I’ll be fine. Then I need to round up some rain gear for tomorrow. I’ll do that after.......”
“Tomorrow?” It was Sally’s turn to be interrupting. “Are you crazy? I’ll bet you won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
“Yes I will. I have to.” He unbuckled his belt and lifted his foot to let her pull off his pants. “By then I’ll be good as new.”

I will admit, it was an interesting process, creating a relational story from such unpromising fabric. Fact is, stories like that---normally-hidden reflections of the times we live in---are being played out all around us every day. The challenge was to focus on the inconspicuous bits of hopeful possibility that are always hidden among the makings of a tragedy. I hope you’ll take time to check it out.