New Year’s Resolutions in Old Age

The title of my blog site (When I Come to be Old) comes from a list of Jonathan Swift’s resolutions, made when he was a young adult, about how he was determined to act (or more specifically not to act) when he was old.  His list is worth reviewing by us seniors, just to see how the younger set may perceive us (no comfort there).  This new year, however, I am more interested in thinking about what kind of resolutions old folks should make about themselves?

What kinds of resolutions should old people make?  If you do a search on the web, most of what you will find are suggestions to improve your mental or physical health: take up crosswords, walk at least a mile a day, eat more vegetables.  Yes, of course.  These are common sense maintenance items, and we all are fully aware that learning a foreign language will work our brain harder than watching Brit Box.  I surely make such resolutions, but they usually (in my case) take the form of the negative.  No more than an hour of TV per day, no dessert unless I have walked three miles that day, no more than one restaurant meal a week – and so on.  Games we play with ourselves which (hopefully) make us a little healthier without undue deprivation.

On my doctor’s suggestion upon my query about any possibility of avoiding my mother’s dementia, I have gone back to French. (I once knew enough to pass a translation exam for a graduate degree, but those brain cells seem to have disappeared.) I am using Duolingo and pledged myself to a modest fifteen minutes a day.  I don’t have to worry about reminders; Duo is a pest.  I also continually contrive and amend reading lists and rules (e.g., at least one literary work of fiction or nonfiction for every mystery novel).

But how about other hopes and goals other than those aimed at life extension?  There are at least a couple of other categories.  How about creative endeavors?  Not to be published or hung on our grandchildren’s walls, but for our own satisfaction in doing something which draws on our experience, something, perhaps, that we have always wanted to do.  Most of us know what that means for us – which could be anything from adventuresome cooking to bonsai gardening to a full-length novel.  Here, too, I have found it necessary to set concrete goals for an enterprise which is not concrete at all in its reason or its results.  When I first started to keep a journal over twenty years ago, my resolution was ten single-spaced pages per month – and if I put it off, I had to write all ten on the last day.  It never came to that – but since that time I have produced the minimum (usually far more).  Similarly, when I started a blog, it was with the determination to post a blog at least twice a month and a new story every six weeks.  I have succeeded, at least on the average.

But there are more personal ambitions to do with our states of mind – our souls, if you will.  One of my resolutions this year is to start going back and reviewing my journal from the beginning to see what I can learn about myself.  (See my blog, “Rules of One’s Own,” for the wonderful Marion Milner’s advice in this regard.)

And how about resolutions that have to do with the very fact that we are aging, facing changes we cannot (wholly at least) control, coming closer to the end, however we might define it?  “Do not go gentle into that good night” was a resolve, made not by an old man, but by a younger man (Dylan Thomas) on behalf of his dying father.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children making resolutions for me.  And I don’t want to spend my last years in a “burning and raging” against the “dying of the light.”

Kay Boyle was already old when she formulated her “Advice to the Old (Including Myself).” Boyle, like Swift, warns us about not dwelling on old times or regaling others with our aches or disappointments – but she ends with a challenge to battle despair:

Have no communion with despair; and, at the end,

Take the old fury in your empty arms, sever its veins,

And bear it fiercely, fiercely to the wild beast’s lair.

This is a different kind of battle – not against inevitable death and age, but against self-generated despair, not against the reality of existence but against an antagonistic attitude toward what isFor me, it is not so much a battle (who wants life to be a battle?) as a matter of – resolution.

Resolution is a word with many meanings; at the new year, we often mean it in the sense of “firmness of purpose.”  But it can also mean the “solution to a problem” (as in “the dentist resolved my toothache”) or the “degree of sharpness with which we can see something” (think of the resolution level of your monitor or TV).  All the senses of resolution are related: firmness of purpose is only of use if we can see sharply enough to define the issue we are trying to resolve, and know what action on our part will “resolve” it.

Old age is, in itself, not a problem.  Grief or despair about the changes that old age brings can be a problem and is worth resolving.   But before we can resolve it, we must examine and define it.  Yes, bad habits can come with age and these need to be guarded against (just ask Jonathan Swift), but that is true of all times of life.  And again, perhaps the real sin is to despair at the facts of existence. I spent my childhood wishing to be older; I spent much of my middle age looking forward to retirement.  I am trying hard not to miss the opportunity to enjoy and make the most of my old age.  My resolutions will be to understand my own nature and changes (read the old journals), learn (French and patience, although not necessarily in that order), and work toward some form of resolution with age, provisional though it may be.

For a fictionalized account of a different kind of resolution, you might try “Nothing New.

I’m Dreaming of a Fifties Christmas

I’ve been thinking about technology (as is evident from my last blog), and I’ve been thinking about Christmas.  We have eight grandchildren, and Christmas wish lists abound with technology-related items.  For the younger children, Santa will bring lots of plastic gadgets which light up and make noise and require frequent battery changes. Santa’s helpers would do well to buy stock in Duracell.  For the older kids and adult children, the requests often involve gift cards so they can replenish their games (or whatever).  It all got me thinking about how Christmas has changed over my lifetime.  I found it a useful exercise to go back through the years (71 in my case) and try to remember what Christmas was like and how technology has affected it over the years.

My early Christmases were simple – in retrospect, we had few presents and little technology.  There were the lights on the tree and the impossible task of determining which bulb was causing the whole string to go out.  There were the amazing bubbling bulbs, and the cardboard villages with lights in each little house. (Why weren’t there more fires?) An old electric train chugged around the base of the Christmas tree. Presents were not complex or technical – dolls, sleds, cowboy outfits.  If the toy moved or played music, it was because you wound it up.  The highlight for me – up to the age of about eight, when we moved far enough away to end the tradition – was an extended family carol sing on Christmas Eve.  All the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather at one of our homes, and people would take turns playing the piano while we sang every verse of all the carols, which were printed in little booklets that the banks gave out in those days.  No presents, lots of food, not much drinking (for the most part that was a tee-totaling crowd).  Pleasant memories though.  Christmas morning was exciting but not extravagant, and not shared with anyone but immediate family.

My first Christmas present that involved any technology at all was a wristwatch in my teen years – not too exciting.  But this was followed the next year by a transistor radio – a radio I could listen to all by myself.  It only got three stations but was a joy to keep under my pillow and listen to surreptitiously when my parents thought I was long asleep.  In a way, the transistor radio was a turning point.  It was personal technology, personal entertainment.  In an era when homes had only one TV (black and white in our case), one phone, one stereo, and one radio (in the kitchen), it enabled my teenage self to sequester in at least one tiny respect. But transistors (and then the far smaller transistors on silicon chips) were not done with us.  

As a young married adult, I longed for a color television.  We bought one for Christmas in 1976, just in time to watch Centennial and Roots.  For reception, we had only an antenna with a rotor – which was high technology in those days.  For those of you who never had a rotor, it was an electrical gadget that enabled you – on a limited basis – to turn the antenna on your roof from inside the house.  Each channel (all three of them) had a preferred setting, and much time was spent watching a snowy screen and trying various locations while listening to the motor on the rotor hum.  No cable for several more years.  With the advent of the new color TV, however, we moved the black and white television to the bedroom, which began the proliferation of screens in the house.

When I had children, toys with batteries were more common – talking dolls, beeping robots.  The sea change, however, came in about 1983 when, since we now had a personal computer in the house (which I did not know how to use), my eldest got a copy of King’s Quest for Christmas.  For the rest of the day we could not tear his seven-year-old body away from the computer – except with force (parents) and tears (child) – for a family Christmas dinner.

The link between Christmas and technology has snowballed over the decades, with capitalism keeping right up with the trend.  In fact, I would say that Christmas has become a well-meaning celebration of capitalism.  What was once a tradition rich in ritual has been stripped to its most efficient return on investment.   It has been compounded, in our and many other families, by our adult children foregoing church.  When visiting at Christmas, we bundle up for the Christmas Eve service and ask if anyone wants to go with us – and for that moment only we have a completely “silent night” as everyone tries to avoid eye contact.  So be it.  Their Christmas ritual now includes a compulsory zoom event where we watch the kids tear open dozens of packages on Christmas morning.  I love the children and grandchildren, but the holiday has started to make me shudder.

I must pause to mention another truth, however.  My own children’s best Christmas memories include and cherish the technology I abhor.  I have lived long enough to see my son try to recapture the Christmas magic of King’s Quest for his own children.  So it goes.

Technology has come to bear on Christmas in other ways, of course.  On the bright side, we can stream Christmas movies and concerts without commercials.  But we are not sitting near our extended community when we watch them.  And maybe that is the main thing that has happened.  We no longer do things as families, as communities, as a people.  Technology can cater to the individual and it does.  From King’s Quest to virtual reality, we think we don’t need others anymore.  Maybe that’s true if we are determined to “do what we want,” but maybe we need others in order to figure out what it is that we really want.

I know I sound like a nostalgic old lady.  I am.  When I tell my children and grandchildren about these old Christmases, they look at me with pity.  In truth, I can remember my own mother telling me that Christmas used to mean just some candy and a piece of fruit in her stocking, and I found her story hard to believe.  How could Santa be so stingy? Maybe it is just a normal disjunction between the generations. However, I am determined to spend my remaining Christmases in the way that means something to me.  So, I’ll attend Christmas concerts in person, go to church on Christmas Eve, and burn real candles.  And I’ll rant a little.  Thanks for listening.

I have written a number of Christmas stories over the years, and if you are looking for something appropriate to the season, you might try “Cookie Crumbs” or “Epiphany.”  Or look at one of my old blogs about Christmas.  And if we can’t do anything about “Peace on Earth” after all these years, let’s at least try to find a little inner peace.


Missing the Escape of Work – Musings from Camus and Yehoshua

I have been retired for a number of years.  I have never admitted that I “missed” work; I have acknowledging regretting the loss of regular personal interaction, perhaps missing the structure, slightly missing the challenge.  I had reason to bring this all to mind when I read an essay by Camus and a current novel by the Israeli author, A. B. Yehoshua.  First, consider this paragraph from Camus’s “Love of Life.”  He starts by talking about travel, while comparing the escape of travel to the escape of work:

For what gives value to travel is fear.  It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have.  One can no longer cheat – hide behind the hours spent at the office or at the plant (those hours we protest so loudly, which protect us so well from the pain of being alone).  I have always wanted to write novels in which my heroes would say: “What would I do without the office?” or again: “My wife has died, but fortunately I have all these orders to fill for tomorrow.”  Travel robs us of such refuge.   Far from our own people. Our own language, stripped of all our props, our deprived masks…we are completely on the surface of ourselves.  But also, soul-sick, we restore to every being and every object its miraculous value…,(54)

What Camus says about travel could also apply to retirement.  Work gave us an excuse to be tired, distracted, absent.  I know someone who continues to work well past the standard age for retirement – he admits that if he were retired he would have no excuse not to spend more time with his elderly mother.

Work also often gave us a sense of place, esteem, belonging, structure.  Of course, once we retire, it can be disillusioning to find out how little we were needed and how seamlessly we were replaced.  Many retirees initially respond by filling their lives with volunteer work, clubs, book groups, exercise classes, travel – anything to replace a work-like structure and feel like there is a place we belong.  There is nothing wrong with any of that, except perhaps the escape from the soul-sickness that Camus describes – the dropping of the “deprived masks” that restores the real world to us.   Perhaps, in retirement, we should let ourselves get “soul-sick” enough to revert to the “miraculous value” of the world that we might have felt as children.

Yehoshua’s novel, The Tunnel, is about a retired engineer experiencing some mental confusion. The main character, Luria, and his wife meet with a neurologist about Luria’s brain scan, which shows a “spot” that may be the reason Luria is losing his memory.  (This has come to a head when he takes the wrong child home from the daycare center where his grandson is enrolled.) When Luria refers to himself as having “dementia,” the doctor objects:

“Please, why dementia?  We’re not there yet.  Don’t rush to claim something you don’t understand and don’t raise unnecessary fears, and above all, don’t get addicted to passivity and fatalism.  Retirement is not the end of the road, and so you need to find work in your field, even part-time, private work. (3)

Luria used to work for the state designing roads and tunnels, and at the urging of the doctor and his wife signs on as an unpaid “helper” to a young engineer in his old department.  This has its ups, downs and adventures, but he finds that when he is actually working at his old desk (now possessed by the young engineer), he slides right back into his old persona – at least for a while.  Of course, this temporarily relieves his anxiety and distracts him, but he soon realizes that he cannot go backward.  Somehow he needs to go on.  Though the “spot” on his brain will grow, so will his appreciation of a world beyond roads, tunnels, and logic.

Retirement need not mean “addiction to passivity and fatalism.”  It is an open door – but an open door can be scary.  Both Camus and Yehoshua realize this.  And some sense of purpose and structure is necessary – but for many of us, retirement is the first time in our lives when we can design our own structure, set our own goals.  Simone de Beauvoir said that every old person needed their own “project” in order to stay sane. (See my earlier post about de Beauvoir, “Projects of Our Old Age.”)  We should just hope to be strong enough to choose that project rather than succumbing to distraction and expectation. And it is only to ourselves that the project needs to have meaning.

This week’s story, “This Little Light of Mine,” is about meaning that a woman carves out of her widowhood and old age.  From the outside it is silly, but…  think hard.  It is perhaps no more ridiculous than some of the ways we spend our precious last years.  It is not intended as a model, but just a reminder that we should make meaning in our life in some ways.  Hopefully, yours will be a little less far-fetched.

The Dagwood Generation

I was recently at a social event with other women in their seventies, and I realized that almost all of us had at least one parent, stepparent, or parent-in-law still living.  We talked about our children and grandchildren, but we spent more time talking about the sometimes difficult and often hilarious process of relating to and helping to care for our elders.  This is a relatively new problem.  When my parents and in-laws were in their seventies, their parents were already gone.  Years ago, they used to talk about the sandwich generation.  This term seems to have been coined in 1981 and referred to women between the ages of 35-54, who had young children and elderly parents (at that point elderly meaning over 60).  Now that sandwich generation has turned into a Dagwood concoction with great-grandchildren, grandchildren, children, and parents all out there looking for love and support of various kinds.  And the stress is not all on the women.

This is all made more difficult by the fact that most often families are stretched out across the country or the world.  Dropping off a casserole once a week isn’t an option; neither is babysitting regularly so your married children can have a date night.  People of our generation can, and often do, move to be close to at least one other member of the family, but that still leaves others in far-flung places, others we try to keep in contact with, visit when we can, and for whom we feel both guilt and empathy.

And it is only going to get worse as life spans increase.  I have written previously about how much older grandmothers are now than they were a couple of generations ago (“The Age of Grandmothers”).  Our children waited to have their kids; in my seventies I have babies among my eight grandchildren.  What does this all do to the concept of family?  Who gets priority – the nonagenarian or the new mother?  And in such situations, can we even effectively measure need?

I recently read a novel by Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter. It is in the voice of an old woman, a Vollendungsroman about old age and the winding down of life.  She does go back and tell us the story of her life, but from the point of view of the old: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.  So close to the end now….”

This excellent tale reminded me that some families have been more stable in location and attachments than our generation is.  Hannah Coulter lives in the Kentucky farmhouse where she raised her family, next door to her in-laws and her husband’s uncle.  The sadness of her life is that none of her three children stayed on the farm, and there is a touching scene in which the last son tells his father, Nathan, that he is going to graduate school:

There was nothing more to say, Caleb didn’t need a graduate degree to be a farmer, and Nathan did not say anything.  He went on eating.  He had his work to do, and he needed to get back to it.  Tears filled his eyes and overflowed and ran down.  I don’t think he noticed he was crying.

 The book’s provisional happy ending comes when a black sheep of a grandson returns to the family home to try farming.  I don’t know what the author thought, but the reader is far from sure that the situation will turn out well.

Of course, there was no expectation that our children would stay close.  We educated them, hoped they would become adequately and gainfully employed, and spend at least some holidays with us.  Common wisdom among many oldsters is that it almost never works to move to be close to your children.  They may ignore you; they may move themselves.  But I wonder sometimes.  I love my privacy; I was never much of a baby person.  But as I spend my time among the old, I wonder what we have lost.  Hannah Coulter is sure that she has lost much, but that her children have lost even more.  I am not sure.  There is no way to be sure.

This week’s story is a fairy tale for old folks: “Tale of Two Grannies.”  These grandmothers live in an enchanted village where the children and grandchildren never move far away, but their experiences are not the same.

No-Fly Zones and Old Fears


The current talk about no-fly zones in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war take me back to 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.  My family was living in Florida then, and I think our terror was greater than some farther away.  The missiles that were being installed in Cuba were medium range – they might have been able to hit Washington DC but maybe not NYC.  In Florida we definitely felt at risk.  The fear was palpable.  The adults talked of nothing else.  We had exercises in school where we crouched out in the hall or under our desks.  Somehow, even at 11 years old – we all knew our desks would not protect us.

In our suburban neighborhood, everyone was constructing a fall-out shelter. My father dug a “shelter” in the dirt floor of the crawl space and stocked it with rice and canned goods.  It was pretty rough, and I could not really imagine how we all – and the dog – would live down there.  But I did try to imagine it – what it would be like to live in the fallout shelter for months, what it would be like to take a direct hit (even as children we knew this was the preferable way to go), what it would mean to die of radiation poisoning (not pleasant). It was the first time I heard (or thought about) people owning guns, as there was talk that you needed to have one stashed in your fallout cellar to deter your neighbors from taking it over or stealing your food.  Scary stuff. 

For the first time, perhaps, we felt like we were all confronting our mortality together.  But the crisis lasted 13 long days, and when it passed, we gradually forgot about it. Kennedy made some concessions in this instance to bring us that peace.  The concessions were never overtly acknowledged, but, in these times, it is good to remember that concessions can be a valuable tool for peace. In any case, the US and the USSR proved that they could work together to avert catastrophe This is when the hot line/red phone was installed between Washington and Moscow.   In the 1950s and 60s, there was a spat of movies about a nuclear apocalypse – try watching On the Beach or Fail-Safe. But, over time, we gradually forgot or repressed the danger.  We forgot, that is, until the discussion started about what we could do to help Ukraine, and how the use of no-fly zones would lead to nuclear war with Russia.

It seems inevitable that once we had nuclear weapons, someone would eventually use them.  We used them in WWII, with horrific results for the Japanese.  Scientists who worked on the bomb had remorse, and Oppenheimer and others saw no point in mankind building bridges, carrying on – as they felt that it was inevitable that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.  The great polymath John von Neumann said: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  He also said: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

That being said, it seems amazing that there has been so little general discussion of nuclear weapons over the decades since Kennedy and Khrushchev faced each other down.  I have to admit, they have not been much on my mind.  It is not a comfortable subject.  Maybe, like death, the Damocles Sword of possible atomic annihilation is something we know but do not acknowledge, do not allow ourselves to acknowledge. (Is climate change in this same category?)

In his “Thoughts in Time of War,” Freud talks about how war – even a war in which we might not be participants – forces us to acknowledge death, and considers whether this might be a good thing:

It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death.  Death is no longer to be denied; we are forced to believe in it.  People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day…. Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?

I am indeed lucky to have reached the age of 70 without witnessing an atomic apocalypse, nor have I suffered much anxiety about it since 1962.  But I am thinking about it now again, and – as Freud says – war forces us to acknowledge our own mortality, even though most of the time “we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise.” 

I have never written a story about nuclear war – although I have ended the world with an asteroid (“Back to the Garden”) and an epidemic (The Last Quartet).  My story, “Last Things,” though, expresses one way of looking at the end of things – or the possible end of things.

Does Everyone Die Young?

I just read an intriguing book by Marc Augé, entitled Everyone Dies Young. Augé is a distinguished and famous anthropologist; he was eighty-one in 2016 when he published this slim volume of essays about old age.  It starts with the story of Mounette, his first cat, who aged without the psychological constraints that human beings struggle with as they age, and this cat yet knew her own limitations.  As Mounette aged, she gave up leaping to the beloved mantel and contentedly spent days in the sunshine in a soft chair by the window. When she could not leap onto the chair, she lay on the floor.  The old cat was not perturbed.  Like the elderly human, it had time.  Unlike the human, it had no age: “Time is a freedom, age a constraint.  The cat, apparently, does not know this constraint.”

We all feel the “constraint” of age in various ways.  Aches and pains remind us.  Other people remind us.  And then there is the mirror.  In medieval literature (Langland, Gower), the mirror is the vehicle which confronts us with our own age.  In “The Uncanny,” Freud tells of his surprise that the reflection of the old man in the window is his self.  Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy write poignant poems about what they see in the mirror.  They are alternately puzzled and outraged.  And why does the mirror sometimes surprise us?  Because we feel young inside.  That continuing self, the “person” that we were at twenty, is still there somewhere, but now is enshrouded with a wrinkled and faded façade. 

It is a truism that “you are only as old as you feel.”  Nevertheless, one of the worse things that our culture can say about our older comrades is that “they are showing their age,” which usually means they are “acting old” (never a good thing).  Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, posited that feeling younger psychologically would have a positive effect on the physical body and did the famous “counterclockwise” experiment in which she moved a group of elders into an environment that mimicked (or maybe mocked) the world of 1959, the world of their youth.  They watched old television programs, read old magazines, discussed old headlines.  And there were no mirrors.  The staff treated them as if they were young; no one helped them with their luggage or condescended to them.  At the end of the week, they showed improvement in almost all measurable areas – cognitive, physical, perceptual.  Of course, there was no control group and perhaps the group just profited from attention, socialization, and respect from the staff.

We know this kind of thing works.  In this digital age, when our cell phone can design a radio program based on the music we listened to in our youth (and isn’t that the music we all love?), we get a lift as one old favorite after another conjures up scenes and emotions from the days when our whole life was in front of us.  We like talking about old times, particularly with someone who was there.  We enjoy re-reading the books and re-watching the movies that shaped our lives, and all of it is available to us with a few clicks.  We can bring 1959 back all by ourselves.

There is also the matter of memory.  Many old people have much better memories of fifty years ago then they do of last week.  True, we have had time to polish those memories, but they are there.  Augé says that “with regard to our pasts, we are all creators and artists.  We advance facing backward, forever observing and reconstructing the times gone by.”  We can remember the lyrics to a song we haven’t heard for decades and the name of the friend who bought us our first cigarette.  But, for dear life, we can’t remember the name of our neighbor’s husband.  We are youthful in memory.  Except in the face of physical ailments, we all feel young.

Augé ends with this from the title essay of Everyone Dies Young:

Time, as old age experiences it, is not the accumulated, ordered sum of the events of the past.  It is a palimpsest; everything inscribed there does not reappear, and sometimes the earliest inscriptions surface most easily.  Alzheimer’s disease is only an acceleration of the natural selection process of forgetting, at the end of which it seems that the most tenacious – if not the most faithful – images are often those of childhood.  Whether we delight in this fact or deplore it, because there is a share of cruelty in such an observation, we must nevertheless admit it:  everyone dies young.  (85)

I recommend Augé’s little book.  He approaches old age from the vantage point of being old and being trained as an anthropologist/ethnologist.  He encourages us to look at old age as a cultural as well as a biological construction. 

If you are interested in people and mirrors, you might try my old story, “Reflections.”  I don’t like looking in the mirror myself, but don’t seem to be able to avoid it.


Father Time and Airport Security

I traveled over the holidays – probably not a wise decision, but it seemed like a necessary one at the time.  As I double-masked, waited in long lines, and prayed that our flight crew did not call in sick, I pondered why I was doing this at seventy years of age.  Open question.  But the question of age and its benefits and disadvantages kept coming back to me during this time as we approach the end of 2021 and the prospect of another year gone.

Nothing has changed in the past few decades as much as air travel.  So, I separated my liquids and made sure our fruit cake was not wrapped in aluminum foil.  When I came to the front of the airport security line, I asked a TSA employee if I needed to remove my shoes.  I tend to get dizzy bending down so I would have liked to avoid untying my sneakers, not to mention pattering around on my socks on a dirty airport floor.   The nice young man asked how old I was, and I told him (70).  He smiled and said that the limit was 75, but I should just lie next time because they never check.  Nevertheless, I make it a policy never to fib to people who can put me on a “no fly” list, so I guess I will keep taking my shoes off.  But the encounter got me thinking about uses of age – we want to be old to qualify for keeping our shoes on, for Social Security and Medicare (especially Medicare!), for early Covid vaccinations, for senior discounts, but we don’t want any age restrictions on driving, employment, credit, or any other parts of our lives.  I have a 95-year-old relative who says she is too old if confronted with something she doesn’t want to do, but alternately asserts that she is so old that she can do anything she wants to do in the face of any kind of limitations (regardless of protest from the near and dear).  Ahhh….  In a way, this is all of us.

Centuries ago, there was little concept of age restrictions on the old; neither was there much sympathy for retirement.   Pope Celestine became the first pope to “abdicate” at age 79 (in 1294) for which he was much maligned; he wanted to become a hermit.   Celestine even makes it into one of Dante’s circles of hell for his “great refusal.”  The whole point of King Lear seems to be (at least at first glance) that the old man let go of the rei(g)ns too soon.

Early modern times did make some allowances for the old.  At sixty, one could not be forced into military service and at seventy an elder was exempt from jury duty.  (The latter is of interest to me as I have a jury duty notice and, in my state, the automatic exemption age is 72 and I don’t quite make it.)

But, in general, the old were expected to carry on to the extent of their capabilities.  To be excused from service to the House of Lords, for example, age was generally not enough.  The important imperative to persevere, however, was more ethical than legal, and in it was embedded the assumption of the duty of the old to be wise and to impart that wisdom to the young.   When the Fool admonishes Lear that “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” he paraphrases the words that Lucrece addresses to Priam as she views a tapestry depicting the deception of Sinon (in the Bard’s “Rape of Lucrece”): “Priam, why art thou old, and yet not wise?” Regardless of her age, no one expected or wanted the Virgin Queen Elizabeth to retire in Shakespearean England (and the current Queen Elizabeth apparently assumes this is still the case).

Again, I am also focused on numbers because we are headed toward the countdown for a new year. (I will be asleep when the ball actually falls.)  What will 2022 bring besides making me another year older (if I live through it)?  I have a habit of making resolutions in my journal every year, but last year’s entry was mostly about my hope that Covid would disappear.  That has been a disappointment for us all.  I hope for more good days, more ordinary days.  I pray with the Psalmist that life will even out, and that God will “make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (Psalm 90), that there will be a return to normality, good days to make up for the bad, normal to balance the abnormal.  But maybe such strict accounting is not necessary; as Frost says, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”   If Frost is right, numbers surely do not matter.

My new year story, “Amnesia at the Airport,” was prompted by memory and my recent air travel.  It compares the fantasies of youth with the realities of age, and I hope it also points out the advantages of each.  You might also take a look at my blog on Baby New Year and Old Father Time.  Cheers!

Holidays, Holy Days, and Old Saint Nick


The holidays are upon us, and – as usual – we will be traveling to see relatives.  I am looking forward to the family, but not the airports, highways, hotels and car rental firms.  I am getting too old for this, which means I spend December dreading the season when I should be celebrating the coming of the light. 

Christmas itself is a disappointing holiday in many ways.  One of the most awkward situations over the years as we have visited our children’s homes is the moment when we are about to leave for a Christmas Eve service at a church we have located on-line and ask if anyone – child or grandchild – would like to go with us.  The question clears the room rapidly.  So we go to church to try to feel what Christians and Druids felt as the dark days start to get light again, and everyone else remains home and dreams of the glories of capitalism that will appear under the tree in the morning.

I recently heard Rebecca Solnit use the term “the tyranny of the quantifiable” (which she attributed to Chip Ward).  What a wonderful description of the world we live in!  Democracy may be trouble – I am not quarreling with that.  But the biggest winner of all is capitalism.  For a holiday that celebrates the worth that can come out of a cow’s manger, the indoctrination of us all to a season of excess is pitiful.  And in an age when you can simulate sunlight and set your thermostat at 70 (no matter the weather outside), perhaps the turning of the year does not seem like such a miracle.

Don’t get me wrong, we looked forward to Christmas presents when I was a child.  Expectations were lower but ripping paper off packages was just as passionate as it is now.  But we had other memories of Christmas – church nativity pageants, family carol sings, the smells of cooking that went on and on.  I know that I sound like an old grump.  I will keep these thoughts to myself when I visit the grandkids and help them put batteries in the multitude of plastic that will emerge on Christmas morning.

Even Christmas decorations have gone downhill (says the grumpy old lady).  Our neighborhood is filled with those blow-up Santas and elves, which require a light and a noisy compressor to keep them inflated during the evening.  During the day, the deflated Saint Nicks look like piles of garbage bags on the lawn.  Our neighbors have an inflatable Holy Family, which is sad to see in its deflated daytime state.  It would be more of a “joy to the world” if we acknowledged global warming and cut down on the Snoopy Santas.

Santa, as you probably know, traces his origins to Saint Nicholas.  Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of – among other things –merchants and children.  So maybe he would not have disapproved of a holiday which made both children and merchants happy.  He died in the 4th century at the age of 73 – a ripe old age for those perilous times.  He is usually depicted with a white beard, but little body fat.  It was Coca Cola ads that originally made Santa chubby. (Of course, he does have to eat all those cookies.)  Santa is always depicted as old, but never as decrepit, never as tired, never as sick.  But think of all that traveling (magic reindeer or not)!  I only have to face air travel for a few hours, but it will age me.  It always does.  I am sure that my grandchildren wish that I were jollier and came with more presents that I can fit in my carry-on luggage.  I am definitely not aging as well as Santa.

Some of my grandchildren celebrate Three Kings Day on Epiphany.  Artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.  But it should be noted that the eldest brought the gold.

I am posting a new Christmas story – “Cookie Crumbs.”  The tale of a Santa for an old person.  There are other stories about Christmas here; you might try “Epiphany” if you are dealing with young adult children returning home for the holidays.  As we head to the New Year, there is also the post “Baby New Year and Old Father Time” from a couple of years ago.  Here’s to a meaningful holiday season and a peaceful and healthy new year. 

Uncertainty and Old Age


In his old age, Einstein was perplexed by quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  “God does not play dice with the universe,” exclaimed the great genius.  Bohr, another great genius, answered (less famously) “It’s not our place to tell Him how to run the world.”  We want to believe that life is not subject to blind chance, that the world is reasonable and just.  If we live long enough, we learn otherwise.

I recently finished When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (highly recommended).  This somewhat strange book explores the scientists of the twentieth century and the consequences of their science.  It filled a gaping void in my education by detailing the development of quantum theory up to the point of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Scientific advances have done wonderful things like cleaning our water and delivering us from polio, but science was also responsible for the atom bomb.  One of the first stories in the book concerns Fritz Haber, who both invented a way to fix nitrogen out of the air (making chemical fertilizer possible and warding off global famine) and also engineered Germany’s gas attacks during the first World War. 

Labatut eventually moves on to Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle – the theory that the underpinnings of the universe are based on chance, on odds, on probabilities.  How that threatens us!  How it threatened Einstein!

Labatut writes:

For Einstein, physics must speak of causes and effects, and not only of probabilities.  He refused to believe that the facts of the world obeyed a logic so contrary to common sense.  Chance could not be enthroned at the expense of the notion of natural laws.  There had to be something deeper.  Something not yet known.  A hidden variable that could dissipate the fog of Copenhagen [this refers to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Heisenberg and Bohr relating to quantum mechanics] and reveal the order that undergirded the randomness of the subatomic world. (167)

Einstein struggled with this proposed randomness for the rest of his life.

Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.  In 1939 the Nazis asked him about the feasibility of an atom bomb – he said it was not possible within the duration of the war and was apparently surprised when one was dropped on Hiroshima.  One might hope he was lying to Hitler to stop him; my guess was that he was just wrong.

The reader should be aware that Labatut’s book is a mixture of fact and fiction, and I don’t know enough about the subject matter to differentiate.  But it is a good read.  And it forces us to think again about technology and science and what we know to be true.  And how much of life is pure chance.

Although our parents acknowledged that “life is not fair” (after our cries of “it’s not fair”), the subliminal message was always that life is not random, that we have some significant level of control. People who fared badly did something wrong (didn’t finish college, didn’t work hard enough, ate too much, etc.) – if we will only get that degree, get that job, find that husband, have that baby – everything will be okay.  And yet everyone has had the experience of watching bad things happen to good people.  Lung cancer sometimes comes to those who never smoked, husbands leave loving wives, and one wild child in a wonderful family causes endless grief.  Uncertainty principle indeed.  Shakespeare has the poor Earl of Gloucester acknowledge that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” 

The world has never liked to think that the human life is based on probability, chance.  When in the 17th century “bills of mortality” were first used to create actuarial tables for such things as life insurance, people bridled at replacing individual providence with en masse reckonings.  Fate in the hands of mathematics is quite different from providence in the control of a deity.  Identical numbers/probabilities would be used for you or your neighbor or the sinner down the street; there is nothing individual or ethical about such calculations.   It might have been a scientific approach, an enlightened approach, but it was not comforting.

No one wants to hear about wanton boys and flies.  No one wants to think that life is random on some basic level.  No one wants to believe that technology gets away from us and has repercussions that we cannot predict.  But, those who have lived long, know that this is true.   

Lost Horizon and the Purpose of (Extreme) Old Age


Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life.  A good read if there ever was one.  As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet.  Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later.  The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.

The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors: 

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation.  We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.  And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)

The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal).  As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway  questions the purpose of such a long life:

…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense.  I can’t look so far ahead.  I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy.  I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point.  I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)

And then the old lama tries to answer him:

There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed.  It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years.  We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy.  We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that  all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)

And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:

We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.  Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.  We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.  Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.   (110)

I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me.  What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints.  To live longer, yes.  Out of fear of dying, of course.  But what are we doing with all those additional years?  Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?

And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate?  The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.”  Is that the purpose for extreme old age?  I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.”  Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner.  Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me.  For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth.  And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.

There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life.  It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life.  St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.”  Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning.”  With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no?  And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it.  Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.

 Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old.  I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here.  Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus.