Monday, May 25, 2015

These October Years are not for sissies

   You’ve probably seen the flashy commercials, the ones urging us to imagine our sixties and seventies---what I call the October Years---as a time of carefree relaxation, spiced by exotic travel and country club luxury. Madison Avenue even has a name for the seductive picture they paint. They tell us over and over that we’ve spent a lifetime earning what they call our Golden Years.
   I sincerely hope those glowing mind-pictures describe the future that awaits you. Sadly, however, too many of our October peers will find their autumn decades defined by a very different sort of reality, a stressful blend of upsetting ingredients---among them financial hardship, medical vulnerability, and depressing loneliness---that feels anything but Golden. 
     Still, no matter what form it takes for you, October works best if you are fortunate enough to make it a shared experience. That's why I've arranged for Roma to join me today.
     It can be a hard thing, making your way through that maze of October perils. Fact is, October is not for sissies. That is especially true if you’ve spent a lifetime in a more hospitable place. Yet sad to say, no matter how well we have prepared for what lies ahead, some of us are bound to experience the harsher side of October life---those times when once-robust health and always-reliable support systems are no longer effective, leaving us to navigate uncharted waters. 
   Even the fortunate ones---those who anticipate a storybook retirement---may find the normally favorable odds stacked against them.
   As one who writes relational tales about October inhabitants of a place I call Tanner, it is important that my stories reflect the truth of their sometimes unsettling circumstances. Even when, in the throes of their geriatric adolescence, my relation-seekers manage to find each other--- coming together for what may be their last “real thing”---you can be sure that new-found relationship will bear little resemblance to their youthful “first time” experiences.
   That’s not to say my October friends won’t have a laugh or two along the way. They certainly will. After all, a sense of humor is a necessary October ally. But even then I want to be sure their humor is age appropriate---with a slightly harder edge, tinged by the prospects of an uncertain future. And then, of course, there are those times we all face when there is no place for humor of any kind.
   For instance, in Best Friends and Promises I deal with Aaron Peck’s hurtful circumstances. For month after distressing month he watches helplessly as Leona's dementia robs her ability to accept his love or show her own---stretching their life-long connection thinner and thinner, until finally she is out of reach.
  Then, with Leona in retreat Aaron's best friend, Johnny Blanton, is again rushed to the ICU. By then Aaron is sinking into a lonely void so real that it threatens his being. In the pain of that loneliness he seeks comfort in a way that would never have crossed his mind in more normal times. Her name is Beverly, and her undisguised interest has Aaron caught in that fragile space between wanting the comfort of a best friend and remembering his long-ago matrimonial promises.
   Aaron Peck’s dire situation is full of storytelling possibilities. It is not, however, fertile ground for Pollyannish answers. As stories go it sounds like something less than happily-ever-after, doesn't it? And it is. Yet it is also upbeat, hopeful, and true-to-life---as October-real as can be.
   Like the rest of us, Aaron must carry on toward his own future. In spite of the pitfalls that await him he must advance boldly, because these October Years are not a time to be timid. They require our best efforts and an appreciation of small victories.
   By actual count I rewrote the ending of Aaron’s story seven times before I found what seemed to me the right one. I guarantee you, he does not take the easy way out. I hope some of you will take the bold step of reading Aaron’s story for yourself. I’d like to hear what you think---about his unorthodox response to unorthodox times, and perhaps your own “not for sissies” experience.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Is this who your were intended to be?

Months ago I told myself there would come a time when I would run out of things to say about October. What happens then?
Now, as I come closer to that moment, I know exactly what happens then. When I have nothing more to say, it's time to stop talking. But before I do that there are a handful of entries from a couple years back that I want to post again for readers who were not on board then. Then, having restated those October observations, I can ride off into the November sunset. What follows is the first of those “one more time” posts.
The last day or two I have been processing a recent post about “thriving” in our October Years. In my own mental shorthand I define thriving as “coming closer to being the person I was meant to be.” That in turn leads to questions like---Am I thriving? Should I expect to thrive? Does it even matter one way or the other? I’ll admit, there are times when I’m inclined to forget all that and settle for being the person I am. But those nagging questions won’t go away.
Of course, thriving is a very personal thing. My thriving won’t look like your thriving. If you’re already an October thriver, chances are you’ve found the proper balance in your life. You can look ahead, while remembering the past. You can accept the person you have become, but hope to be more.
Yet from time to time I see, and perhaps you do too, October friends who seem not to be thriving. Perhaps they have been beaten down, or given up. Still, we must realize that such judgments are fraught with danger. Who has the right to judge? Who can say that his or her sort of thriving is the most acceptable kind? Thriving, and the change that often comes with it, are very individual matters. Your change need not look like my change.
I’ve mentioned “change” before on these pages. It seems to me an important part of October life---it’s still allowed at our age, you know. Take a moment to consider life  as an unending chain of choices and adaptations---in other words---change. Though we shouldn’t judge what change is appropriate for someone else, I am confident that adapting to life’s changing circumstances is an important part of thriving at any age. To use our October status as an excuse to stop “becoming,” is to sell ourselves short. It is a sad thing to see, or tell a story about---the person who believes it is too late to become something more---that change is not worth the effort at this late date?
One way to integrate change into late-life experience is in the context of a life lived on purpose. Do the concepts of “purpose” or “intention” resonate with you? Have you ever wondered if you have become the person you were meant to be? As you may have guessed by now, I’m a Wayne Dyer sort of guy. In Dr. Dyer’s life-view there are no accidents---things happen for a reason. To resist the changes implied by life’s “non-accidents” is akin to resisting our destiny.
As a storyteller I am constantly creating change in the lives of the characters I imagine into being. In a hopefully entertaining way I lead them from one place, with its particular circumstances and outlook, to another, hopefully more desirable, place. More than once I have used the notion of life’s “intention” to link someone’s beginnings (think childhood) to a much later October event. In the same way that it happens to each of us, I ask my characters to follow the continuous, perhaps twisted chain of change and adaptation to where it leads them.
Take for instance Jack Benz in Becoming. For fifty years, half a century, he has nurtured his improbable dream of knowing Her. During their high-school days at Tanner Southside High she had been Cindy Welton---social diva, miles out of his league. Later she became Cynthia Larson---socialite wife, living life in the fast lane. Until, that is, a devastating stroke changed her into someone her husband could no longer love. From the beginning the odds had been stacked against Jack---yet he had been willing to stay the course.

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

You can tell that I’m selling change---becoming something more---what I call thriving. You may not agree, but I am willing to believe that more than a little October change happens because a small voice is telling us we should keep striving and thriving, becoming closer to being the person we were meant to be.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Looking back -- an October luxury

  Remember, this is a writer’s blog, about October and November---which means, of course, that March and April are sometimes part of the conversation.
For instance, Imagination -- the mind’s eye. It’s a mysterious, sometimes magical thing. Given free rein it can take us to places we’ve never been, recalling things that perhaps never happened (at lease not the way we remember them). With a bit of prompting imagination can conjure up stories of the ancient past---all the way back to our adolescent school days.
The last couple months have provided an opportunity for me to revisit my own often hazy memories of that earlier time. Reconnecting via the internet with a few dozen high-school classmates has stirred decades of mental overburden---exposing youthful recollections and fuzzy images of folks staring at me from the pages of a long-ago school annual. Like me, they have become someone very different than the person I remember. Still, it’s been an interesting, if occasionally frustrating exercise---a pleasant excuse to return to my altogether unglorious glory days.
Ours was a large high school. For a social misfit like me close friendships might have been numbered on one hand, with a couple fingers left over. Most of the former classmates who checked out the online ‘Class of 55’ website were strangers to me in school, and are strangers now. We are, however, strangers who happened to share a particular time and place. What is it they say about ships that pass in the night?
Still I’ve been surprised to find an unexpected reward in the pleasant reconnecting with those folks. You see, the stories I tell are not set in those heady days of old. But my own impressions and recollections of that time and those experiences---the insights and sensibilities, the highs and lows---are a part of every story I tell, sometimes an important part. So lately it’s felt like I’ve been given an opportunity to compare my own recycled recollections to how my fictional proxies have remembered those times.
An example of how bits of the past can make their way into a story is this scene from Best Friends and Promises, where Aaron Peck and Johnny Blanton are driving off to meet Press Fletcher, twenty-five years after the last visit with their old friend.

They were fifteen minutes down the interstate before Johnny’s quiet remembering turned verbal. “Ole Press was always a cool one. There weren’t many like him, at least not that I knew. God, even as a kid he had a way with the ladies. He must have been born with it.”
“Yeah. He had the touch all right. There were a few times when he even managed to fix me up with the leftovers.” Aaron let those pleasant recollections rattle around in his head for moment, tracking back to the beginning of his friendship with Johnny. “You remember how I was then, back in the ninth grade. I was a gawky damn kid. I stuttered. Had terminal acne. And there I was, just beginning to understand why I liked girls.”
“I knew you’d eventually figure that part out.”
“Hey, that’s just who I was back then. That was the Aaron Peck everyone knew. What girl was going to get excited about being around me? Without you and Press to help me out I might have ended up being a hermit.” Aaron paused a moment to recall how he had managed to overcome that unfortunate possibility. “That’s just the way it was, at least until I had a chance to start over.”
“Start over?”
“Sure.” Aaron nodded. “It wasn’t a plan or anything. It just worked out that way. I went off to college, where no one knew anything about me. I didn’t have to deal with all that baggage I’d packed around through junior high and high school---all the stuff that made the old Aaron who he was.”
“So you reinvented yourself. Was that it? You became the new, improved Aaron Peck?”
“Well, maybe new. Probably not all that improved. The thing is, I didn’t have to live down anyone’s notion of who I was. I was starting from scratch---making first impressions for the second time.”
“And that seemed to work, eh? Being the ‘new’ you.”
Aaron was grinning at the thought of it. “Do you think a girl like Leona would have paid any attention to me in high school? Not a chance. You remember how it was back then. By the eighth or ninth grade everyone had been given a label of some kind. Once they pinned that on you, there was no getting rid of it. 
“Think back to our last reunion, fifty years after we graduated. There were lots of folks there who still remembered us by those old labels. That’s all they knew. In their minds that’s who we still were.”
“So what kind of bad stuff could they have said about you back then?” Johnny asked. “That you ran around with me?”
“That, and a few other vices I’d picked up along the way. Anyway, I went off to college and bingo---I met this very classy and really cute girl who had never heard all that stuff about me. Turns out she liked me just the way I was, without ever knowing who I used to be.”

Think of how we have changed over the years. Elly Warren was reminded of that in this bit from Second Chances. She has returned to Tanner after a long and bitter divorce. Now, in the company of her great-niece, Tricia, she has run into a high-school best friend she has not seen in fifty years.

“Mike and I never had any children,” Elly explained, grimacing a bit at the tone of Esther’s unsubtle question. “So there are no grandkids in my life. Tricia is Don’s granddaughter. You remember my brother Don, don’t you? Anyway, she’s here for a week or so to help me unpack and get settled in.” Turning to the girl Elly explained, “Esther and I grew up together, honey, here in Tanner. We were Club Brats together.”
“Club Brats?” Tricia asked warily. 
“That’s right,” Elly laughed. “Our parents belonged to the country club. That's where we hung out. A bunch of us spent our summers and weekends there. We called ourselves Club Brats. You haven’t seen the club yet, but you will. It’s just down the hill from here.” Then to Esther, “I suppose it’s pretty much the same. Isn’t it? Or has it changed like everything else?”
“It’s even better,” Esther grinned. The remembering smile that spread across her face was framed by long, nearly white hair. She was staring out the window as she continued. “Those were good times to be young, weren’t they---especially at the club? Swimming every day. Getting great tans. Flirting with all the boys.”
“Esther,” Elly exclaimed with a joking gruffness. She was shaking her head as she winked at Tricia. “You’re going to give her the wrong idea. I’m sure she can’t imagine her Aunt Elly flirting with anyone.” 
Aunt Elly was right of course. There was no way Tricia could create a convincing image of her great-aunt as a flirty teenager. True, she was still a pert little thing---attractive in a mature sort of way. But the wrinkles and the gray hair were more than Tricia could fit into the youthful portrait Esther was describing.
“Goodness, I haven’t thought about any of that in ages,” Elly said. It had been a juvenile, silly time. She remembered that much. Even now, after all those years, she recalled how that close-knit clique of country- club youngsters had considered themselves rather special. In those carefree teenage days it had been easy to think of themselves as different than, even a step or two above, their classmates. Being part of that select group had been a defining given in young Elly’s life.

Finally from Becoming, here is Carl Postell’s recollection of the night he and Jack Bentz first connected, forty-some years after the high-school days they had shared.

The two of us were never buddies in high school. As I remember those times we were both a part of the same niche group---bit players, hanging around the fringes, wanting to belong, with neither the self-confidence or social skills to make that happen. 
Ironically it had been our individual isolation that brought us together in the first place. Our fortieth class reunion was a couple years after my divorce from Sandra---the first I attended without her. She was there, of course, making sure I noticed that she and Tom Ryan were being more friendly than necessary. She might have been disappointed to know I was silently wishing Tom the best of luck. As near as I could tell they deserved each other.
Anyway, while they were refusing to act their age, I ended up at the same table as Jack that night---each of us alone, each of us lonely. After a few awkward glances at the other’s name tag we got talking. Actually we got drinking, then talking. In fact, the more we drank the more we talked.
For a couple of naturally insular guys like Jack and me, a real conversation was a nice change of pace---especially with someone who felt no need to “one up” everything the other said. Both of us still lived in Tanner, so once we became acquainted it was an easy thing to get together every week or so, which we had continued to do. When we had time we visited over lunch. If we were in a hurry we chatted over a beer.

For most of us those adolescent days were a launching pad---a place from which to begin a life journey we could scarcely imagine back then. We were taking the first steps toward becoming the person we are today. Now, in the October and November of that journey, having recently reestablished  contact with hints of that past, I am inclined to enjoy the luxury of looking back. At the same time I give thanks for the way my personal journey has played out. Hopefully yours has been just as good.