Saturday, November 17, 2018

He writes what?

This happened once before. I know how it feels and I think I know what comes next. When it seems like I’ve worn out my welcome, and said about all I have to say……at least for now……it is probably a good time to become an ex-blogger for a while.
I’ve been doing this for six years, and it feels like we all need a break. Maybe we’ll get together down the road. Maybe not. Time will tell.
In the meantime there are stories I want to concentrate on. The twentieth novel-length book is almost ready to publish. Number twenty-one is in the drafting stage.
So, how to end this run of October Years posts? I had already reworked a couple of posts from 2013 and 2014 into the following article, hoping to explain my rather unorthodox approach to what someone called “late-life fiction.” In those early days it seemed to say what I wanted said. I believe it still does. As it notes in the first paragraph, I want to remind myself why I chose the path I did. 


                               He Writes What?
Do you ever pause to remind yourself why you do what you do? Perhaps it is an October/November thing. For instance, why do I tell the stories I tell? Since this has always been a “Writer’s Blog,” it seems like the appropriate place to remind myself why that is.
I will admit that I cringed a bit when my first e-book publisher wanted to list my story as “senior romance.” My God, I was an October guy at the time. Do they still call it “romance” that age? And even if they do, what seventy-some guy would claim to write “romances”? 
I can assure you, the tales I tell are not about muscular Alpha Males in torn shirts swooping across a book cover to rescue a swooning and seductive maiden. At best the tired old Beta Males who populate my stories are stumbling toward the promise of a late-life connection. In the process they may resurrect adolescent memories, ones they had filed away decades before and never expected to revisit. In the face of that October 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 our relationships work we thrive. When they are absent or injured, we suffer. Beyond that, relationships are often at the heart of a good story. So why should I be embarrassed about writing something that everyone can relate to? Would it be more authentic if I wrote instead about zombies or vampires, spy thrillers or who-dun-its——none of which are part of my personal experience?
I was sixty-nine when I set out on what I labeled an “October adventure,” telling my stories. Fact is, many seniors believe they have a story in them, one they want to tell. For anyone who has come to that conclusion the next question is……what sort of story? What does a wannabe storyteller write about? Let’s see if I can explain my answer to that question.
I called them the October Years, that time of life when sixty and seventy describes us. (Though some of us have since moved on to November.) I knew from experience those October Years were a time when priorities were changing and so were we. There was a landscape of new circumstances and unforeseen challenges, where tried and trusted answers no longer applied……when it felt like life was coming at us from a totally new direction.
Some of our October peers, alone for the first time in decades, found themselves facing surprising new relational circumstances……a late-life coming of age that I labeled Geriatric Adolescence. How would they react to the surprising realization that urgings they were certain they had outgrown still had a hold on them? 
To be sure, the world my October friends inhabit has changed dramatically since their youthful, first-time experiences in that often intimidating “relationship” territory. Yet one thing remained unchanged. They were seeking the same comforting affirmation they had longed for in a younger time, and hoping to fill that same existential void. 

So who are these October people?
The October Years stories that I call the Tanner Chronicles are set in Tanner, Oregon, a mythical location that happens to look a lot like my home town. Each of the tales I tell shines a light on a particular part of the Tanner population---those who have reached their October or November years. 
That universe of aging, often solitary survivors is larger than you might think. And though they are a disparate bunch, each of them has spent decades dealing with life "up close and personal," creating experiences that lend depth and texture to their stories.
You will meet the lonely ones---seeking the "someone" who can help him or her overcome the emptiness of life lived alone. Some, confronting those "first time" feelings for the second time, will be as timid and confused as teenagers. Others will find that "geriatric adolescence" surprisingly familiar.
Others will be coping with life-changing circumstances they had not seen coming---a spouse's infirmity, financial realities that threaten their very relationship, or couples torn apart by incompatible priorities.

But why these stories?
I realize that fiction is a favored form of escapism for both readers and writers. People read a vivid fantasy, a murder mystery, or time-travel adventure to escape the ordinary……a perfectly valid reason. On the other hand, reading a true-to-life relationship story, like the ones I tell, risks taking the reader to the very space he or she is hoping to escape. In that case, I can probably write off a sizable portion of a potential audience. How many folks are looking to curl up with a late-life relationship tale that’s not on anyone’s best-seller list---especially one that addresses head-on the challenges that come with that 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. I guess I’ll just have to live with that.

Late-life fiction in action
In closing I offer the following scene from a story I called Becoming to illustrate the inherent frustration that comes with writing “October relationship” stories. It’s a bit long, but it says what I want to say.

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 taken 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 want to write,” he began. “But what you’re doing doesn’t make any sense at all. Of all the things there are to write about, why would you choose a love story about old people? Why not something more..…..”
“More masculine?” I interjected, completing his thought. “More macho……with lots of fights and bad guys, maybe a homicide or two. Stuff like that, eh?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And why not 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 books 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. “They have 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. Still, there I was struggling to pay my bills, obsessed with the liberating freedom of telling my stories. 
Beyond that, 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,” I asked. “How many homicides and spies have you come across in your life? How many times have you been asked 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 your story 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  a story about ordinary people and some of their special times. It feels like it’s real. And most of all, it’s the story I want to tell.” 
“But can’t you see? It’s a “love” story 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, hoping to resurrect our conversation. “I’ve spent some time thinking this through. When that relational stuff happens again at our age I think some of it must be like the first go round. 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 own history, enough to render his judgments suspect. “As near as I can tell, a lot of people have those feelings, even at that age. If I tell my story 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.” I paused to drain my glass, looking for a way to put my confession into words.“
"Look, I used to apologize for telling a story no one wanted to read. I’m pretty well over that. I just keep doing what feels right and try to do it better.” With that I leaned back, stalling while Jack, my wage-earning buddy, dug in his wallet for the tip.

And so, friends, with that, here’s hoping you have a lot to be Thankful for in this Thanksgiving season. I know I do.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An October Bucket List --- Really?

Looking ahead to what?
In today’s sometimes upside-down world our October Years…..our 60s and 70s…..are likely associated with retirement. Certainly by our November years most of us have escaped the yolk of employment, even if we wish we were still on the job.
As someone who spent his September looking forward to what he expected to be the carefree independence of October, I can recall the seductive retirement dreams that tugged at me like a magnet. In my unpracticed eyes the main attraction was the promise of TIME…..lots of time to do the things I wanted to do and see the places I dreamed of seeing. 
What I perhaps did not understand in those heady moments was how that “promise of time” would require so many choices to be made. And we, Roma and I, would be the ones making those choices. No one else would create the future we hoped to have.

Hey, it’s our future
Yet, like most folks who look forward to the future they have constructed in their mind, our October reality turned out to be different than we expected. At every turn it seemed the carefree time we hoped would change everything was being usurped and redirected by an assortment of distractions. Unexpected issues…..healthwise, financial, and relational….. kept getting in the way. Heck, I even wrote a novel, Family Matters, about conflicting retirement dreams gone wrong.
Still, even in the face of those unscripted speed bumps, there was indeed more time for the two of us to pursue at least some of our earlier plans. To the extent our circumstances allowed we were able to live out some of our retirement dreams.
I suppose it says something about human nature, doesn’t it? That we are willing to endure forty years of often uninspiring employment for the right to spend our last ten or twenty years making what we hope will be better use of our increasingly precious time.
But what does it mean, “a better use of our time,” and “living out our dreams”? What would be a “better use”? And which of “our dreams” should we pursue? What choices do we have, and how can we decide which ones will work best for us?
Is it time for a bucket list?
The process of cataloging our dreams has been called different things over the years. But in recent times, especially since Rob Reiner’s 2007 movie featuring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, many of us have settled on a new label to describe the life goals we hope to achieve. So today I will be addressing “Bucket Lists”… particular an October Bucket List.
     An October bucket list? What would that look like? I have a couple of ideas I’ve been hanging onto for a while. But what about the many possibilities, and there are certainly lots of good ones, that have never crossed my mind? 
I know what you may be thinking right now. I have preached this sermon before. But the truth of it remains. It is all about “October Becoming.” No matter what our age or capabilities we have the opportunity, even the obligation, to move beyond our comfort zone. In age-appropriate ways late-life ought to have us stretching our mind and our body……taking us to places we may never visit again. That’s what October Becoming is all about. 
But how do we identify those new possibilities? Once again it is time to to prove that my eighty-one year old “November” mind is at home in today’s cyber world. When it comes to tough questions……such as “What bucket list ideas best fit an octogenarian misfit like me, ones that might help me make the most of my remaining years?”……where should I turn for answers? Why Google, of course. Why wouldn’t I?

Is our future among the Google answers?
Without trying to judge the quality of its results, I hope we can agree that Google is very good at generating answers. Our task, when we set out to create a personal bucket list, is to choose the possibilities that fit the person and/or the couple that we are and the future we envision for ourselves……in terms of both what we want to do and what we are able to do.
With that in mind I turned on the computer, called up Google, and entered……”Retirement Bucket List Ideas.” If you are a regular Google user you know that my question did not produce an answer, or two, or three. It instantly offered thousands of “Bucket List” responses. (Though I won’t pretend to vouch for all of them.)
I selected from the first page three sites that seemed to match my request. In no particular order I found a “Full Retirement Bucket List,” from England, offering 50 items, “The Ultimate Retirement Bucket List,” which seemed to share a common source with the English site, and “61 Simple and Cheap Bucket List Ideas,” which fit both my budget and sightly warped taste. Taken together, those three lists offered a smorgasbord of bucket list candidates. But how was I to make sense of so many?
Create a future that fits you
At that point it seemed to me a series of filters were called for……tests that reflect the interests, age, and physical capabilities of the potential bucket lister. A healthy, adventurous sixty year old might put skydiving at the top of his list. I know at least one eighty-one year old who would pass on that. The point is, a functional, real-life bucket list needs to be appropriate for a relatively-functional ‘real-life’ person. Finally, we must understand that our bucket list goals will change over time. Our list ought to be a living, organic thing……that grows with us.
      With that in mind why not check out the online possibilities for yourself? If your health and budget allow, consider the more ambitious travel destinations or lifestyle possibilities that appeal to you, the ones you have dreamed about. If you have reached the age and stage where armchair travel is more appealing, learn more about that. My favorite source of travel information…… offers every one of Rick Steve’s episodes at no cost. That’s where I would go to start planning a Grand Tour, whether on the ground or from your armchair.
What other examples of things to see or do appeal to you and fit your profile? You have a lifetime of dreams to draw on. Why not make your bucket list as expansive and ambitious as your health and budget allow? Chances are there will never be a better, more fruitful time than your October years to spread your wings and enjoy those experiences. Those prime years for “doing,” “exploring,”and “traveling” may not last as long as you hope. In that case, my advice is to go for the gusto while you can.
October Gusto
     So what might “October gusto” look like? Again referring to the online lists from Google, it could include …… **revisiting your original honeymoon destination, **seeing the Northern Lights, **learning to play the piano or guitar, **taking cooking or painting lessons, **planning your own European or Asian Grand Tour. (Our 13-week European Tour was a wonderful way to kick-off what would in time become a less ambitious retirement.)
If, on the other hand, late-October and November have caught up with you, your bucket list ought to reflect the ‘new’ you. What I particularly liked about the “Simple and Cheap” list was the recognition that a bucket list, especially in late-life, does not have to be made up of great adventures. There are dozens of options that anyone, at any age, can opt for. 
         For instance………… **Write a letter to your future self, **do something that you are afraid of, **learn to use chopsticks, **learn the alphabet in sign language, **read a ‘classic’ novel (or one of Gil’s), **trace your family tree, **start a herb garden, **organize your old photos and film, **renew your wedding vows (if you are still speaking),

Why not co-create your future
The bottom line, however, remains the same. Each of us, as an individual or part of a relational team, is blessed with unique possibilities. Within the parameters of our personal circumstances we have the opportunity to help create and direct the course of our future. In my humble opinion we have an obligation to play a role in co-creating our remaining years. 
I believe that means it is okay, even fun, to read and consider what others offer as worthy bucket-list candidates. But in the end the choices we make are ours alone. Whatever your future holds I pray that you will be an active participant in choosing the path it takes.

I’m glad to offer a couple ideas of my own
Finally, if you are looking for bucket list ideas I have a couple modest suggestions of my own to offer. 
One, why not move beyond your comfort zone and consider becoming an October Years participant, by ‘Commenting’ on posts you enjoy or take exception to? It takes only a few minutes to be part of what I would love to be an ongoing, two-way dialogue, where readers help determine the course of the conversation. 
Two, if you come across a particularly interesting October Years post why not share it with a friend who might enjoy it too. In fact, if they agree, I would be happy to include their email address on my mailing list. As you might imagine I am always looking to expand our readership.
With that, my own bucket list seems to be suggesting an afternoon nap. Have a good day.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

We need an Attitude of Gratitude

It’s all in our head
Hey, we’re not kids you know. We’re adults, some of us very mature adults. We have known about the facts of life for a long time…..long enough to know that those 'facts' come in more than one version.
How about this fact? Simply put, we live life in our head, in our mind. It was that way as experience-seeking adolescents, learning to cope with an exciting new world. And it is that way today, after all the miles we’ve traveled.
By October and November we realize how much of our life's journey…..mental, emotional, and spiritual…..has been played out in our mind. If that time of life describes you, you know how those mind-trips can feel…..for instance, the mornings when you wake up wondering why it is happening to you…..again.

We know about those late-life speed bumps
The particular complaints are an individual matter. They might be physical. Maybe your aging body is again rebelling and you know for sure that your youthful resiliency is no longer in play. Perhaps it hurts to simply move around, especially at that early morning hour.
On the other hand your problem may be mental, something as simple as remembering what the coming day holds for you….. important details that were indelibly etched in your memory just hours, or minutes ago, but now seem just out of reach.
Or what about the most aggravating stumbling blocks of all, the emotional rumblings that so often contribute to a restless night’s sleep, then remain to haunt our waking hours? They come in many forms, those nagging concerns we label “worries.”
You know the routine. We may fret about our family. Who knew we would still be worrying about kids and grandkids at our age? Money, or the lack of it, may be a worry. And what about our health.....those concerns comes naturally at our age, don’t they? Yet no matter what creates the anxiety, most of us know that once those distressing thoughts take hold they are hard to shake.

When the negative takes charge
       At any age, but especially in late-life, there are so many things to be anxious about, if we are so inclined. Though we may consider those concerns to be warning signs, telling us that something in our life needs to change, we are rarely thankful for the ‘worry’ they create. 
       No matter what the “problem de jour” may be, it is likely to include one distressing is probably negative, something we wish would go away and leave us  alone.
How do those ‘negatives’…..petty or not …..affect us? I suppose that depends. I believe that in the course of a lifetime experience and our own natural inclination have combined to create a personal understanding of the world we inhabit. From an early age we learn to view our world through that filter… welcoming and friendly, dark and threatening, or somewhere in between. Given where we are on that positive-negative continuum we will usually act accordingly.
Still, though we can’t simply turn off those negative worries, who wants to stay in that depressing space when there might be a better way? Why not turn away from that, to a more positive and accepting view of the world and our place it in?

Can we make way for the positive?
We can do that, you know. It’s not easy, but even in our darkest, most depressing moments we can take time to recognize the ways we have been blessed, the reasons we have to be thankful in spite of our problems. 
Still, when a truly distressing worry gets its hooks in us simply reciting an off-setting blessing, no matter how real it is, may not be enough to chase it away, at least not at first. 
       The logic is simple enough. We tell ourselves that we are supposed to be blessed. Good things are meant to happen to us. That is the way things ought to be. Why then should we be especially thankful for what is ‘supposed to be’.….. especially in the face of a worrisome problem that is most certainly not ‘supposed to be’?
In spite of that fragile logic we have to carry on in the face of aging reality and concerns that are not easily dismissed. No matter how hard it is, seeking and living out our blessings, the positive moments that are part of every life, is a powerful way to make the most of our Becoming. Whatever path we rely on, whether religious faith, our own meditative practice, or stubborn will power, the goal of existential thankfulness seems worth the effort.

How about a change in attitude
As I said up front, I have something to sell today. Perhaps like me your mother used to remind you to "count your blessings." That seems to me another way of addressing the "existential thankfulness" I mentioned above, especially in this season of Thanksgiving. Hopefully that is something you can buy into.
     To help make that notion more real I have given it a name. I call the mindset I want to earn for myself and hopefully sell to you, an Attitude of Gratitude.....i.e. Thanksgiving in action. 
      Of course, simply counting your blessings will not end our worries, though it can help put things in perspective. Still, I am convinced that focusing on at least some of the reasons we have to be grateful is an effective way to move beyond the negative burden of our accumulated worries. 
      Truth to tell, it was one of those affirming moments that brought me here today, putting these thoughts on paper.         
      We know there is more than one way to draw the positive into our lives. For instance, I happen to appreciate compliments. Who doesn’t? Everyone likes them, especially when they seem sincere. Whether about my stories and blog posts, my family, or my feeble efforts to lose weight, It feels good when folks notice, and are willing to express their opinion. 
        With that, perhaps you can imagine how blessed I felt the other morning when this brief scene played out.

Hey Good Looking
Nearly two years after his original diagnosis the doctor, who had just viewed my once-cancerous bladder up close and personal, set his scope aside. He was smiling as he said, “That is a good-looking bladder you have there, with no sign of trouble.” Then, lest I get too cocky, he added, “Of course, we’ll want to continue the periodic treatments to be sure it stays that way.”
Look, I’m a low-key sort of guy, not the kind to brag about such things. I’m just not used to doing that…..whether about my bladder, kidneys, liver, pancreas, or whatever. 
         But let me tell you, when it comes to an ‘Attitude of Gratitude moment’ the doctor’s apparently sincere compliment of my “good looking, cancer-free bladder” was about as positive as it gets, more than enough to push aside the low-grade anxiety that usually accompanies my six-month check ups. 
         Truth is, because I live life in my head, I expect this bit of Gratitude Attitude to last a while. For now any reasons I have to worry about anything at all will just have to wait a while