70 …

February 25, 2019

Seventy today. Whoa. Already a year since I turned 69?

You only turn 70 once—you only turn any age once. The number 70, though, opens you to all sorts of mental time-lapse games like: what did you do for your 35th birthday, half your life ago? How about your 50th? Then the really tough ones: what are you planning for your 80th? Or 75th?

For my 65th we rented a place and threw a party. But looking back earlier, and since then, they’re mostly a blur. I can’t remember much besides cards and phone calls.

It’s a big deal to turn 18, then 21. Then there’s a long stretch of not needing to think about birthdays that lasts until you turn 65, when the government says you can get Medicare.

Noah and me

Sandy’s 65th last summer was a big deal for us. So were our grandsons,’ Noah’s and Patrick’s, last fall, when they turned five and two. Their birthdays will continue to be important and fun. Kids should enjoy birthdays—soon enough, when they get past 30, they’ll stop caring very much, like most of us.

If you enter athletic competitions, like 5K and 10K runs, swim meets, etc., you’re registered by age, 21-29, 30-39, and so on. As you get older there’s less competition. I’ve finished first in my age group in a few races by being the only entrant. Just as much fun!

I remember my 68th birthday because it fell on the same day as an ultra trail run I entered, not realizing that day was my birthday. Sandy said something to the race director, who bought a cake that the runners presented to me at the start and sang “Happy Birthday.” A nice surprise, meant a lot to me. The cake then was delivered to a remote aid station, cut into slices and given to the runners as they arrived. It was gone when I got there.

Last year (69th) same event, no cake, but three days in the hospital after finishing—although I actually improved my finish time.

Birthdays, other than those with legal stipulations, eventually become just occasions for chit-chat and social events. What should matter is what we’re doing with the passing of time, because it sure passes quickly. What do we want to remember as the years fly by? Not the birthday. We want to remember the people in our lives, and as we get older there are more of them: friends, sons- and daughters-in law, grandkids, more friends. And we hope they’ll all stay around as long as we do.

One well-worn notion about getting older is that you’re supposed to be smarter, or “wiser.” But you’re only smarter if you recognize that you’re not as smart as others may guess you are. By that convoluted sentence I mean that if you’re able to decide how to spend your time—called retirement—it helps to realize that being an old-timer doesn’t mean you always know what you’re talking about.

Being wise means understanding that younger people have it tough these days, probably tougher than you did. The world of work, which they have to go back to after visiting, is more complicated today than it was for us. Despite what the economists say, good jobs for young people are hard to find, especially outside big cities. New college grads are weighed down with debt. Technology and its creation, “social media,” have become near-dictatorial arbiters of personal conduct that can erode relationships or prevent them from developing. Public institutions, like churches and political parties, which once offered standards of belief and behavior, have been disfigured by scandals, probably permanently.

We old guys, now pontificating churlishly on the problems of the world we see, had something to do with creating, or at least not objecting to them. Sure, things weren’t always so great in the good old days. But now, at minimum, getting long in the tooth should impose a responsibility to appreciate, and to love, those who feel obliged to listen to our bellyaching. They listen because they love us. Lord willing, they always will.

Work, then Bingo

February 18, 2019

Kirk, a friend and fellow member of our THuGs running group, took me to my radiation session Wednesday. The routine: the techs block me onto the platform, I blink at the spinning lens for 20 minutes, get my weight recorded, then get out of there. We then stopped at Starbucks, a THuGs post-run tradition.

Sitting among the laptops, we talked about roots, experience, work. Kirk grew up in Chicago. After high school he got a union job with a company that dug deep sewage-line tunnels hundreds of feet underground, using giant boring machines. It was good for a while. He joined the Army and made it a career, then went with big federal contractors for a few years. He worked hard, did well, made good decisions, and bailed at the right time.

Kirk, kneeling, front and center

By coincidence, another friend just this past week celebrated his 15-year anniversary with the same company. How often do you hear of that any more, especially in the D.C. area? At the tail-end of my work life I put in 13 years as a contractor for a Navy agency. That was enough.

That’s work. We all take memories, lifelong priorities, and habits from it. The baseline for most of us who aren’t in the top job at the organization is ambition to move up. The longer we work, the more we feel we can do better—more money, better opportunity, more satisfying work, easier commute, maybe. We’re supporting families, most of us, but also are pushed by professional pride, confidence in our skills and experience, the sense of contributing value to the organization and, writ large, to the nation. Work brings relationships and friendships that may last lifetimes.

But eventually we want to get out—to sit in the sun, go fishing, start a business, run for office, volunteer at a charity, visit our grandkids.

Or play bingo, which is what Sandy and I did Friday night. Millions play, and not just seniors. Bingo raises billions, or probably could. We had nothing else to do, so we thought why not go to the church seniors’ group, have a potluck dinner, and play bingo. Sandy says she went with her mom many times. Many, many times. I never did.

So she made some chili, our contribution to the potluck, and we went and forked over our $10.00 each.  We got a short laugh when the woman taking the money asked Sandy if she is 55, the age minimum for the club.

We didn’t know anyone, so we shook hands and chatted. Then the bingo cards were distributed. We played and played, more than two hours, 12 games, two cards each game. People around the room kept yelling “Bingo!” We never did. Neither of us won anything but splitting headaches. Which is strange, for bingo truly is a mindless game. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular.

Yet knowing it’s a mindless game—as we cleared our cards to start each new game and the caller started yelling numbers and letters, we still had this vague notion that maybe this time we’ll get all five numbers across the card, vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or the winning wide or narrow numbers pattern or whatever. And win our $10 back. Playing bingo, we still felt the urge, however faint it became, to keep trying. It was the task at hand. It was, in a bizarre, surreal way, work.

I was surprised by the deadly seriousness of our fellow players, people who do this all the time. Ferocious would be a good word. Claims of winning cards were scrupulously checked, several were disqualified for errors. Jumping the call, I guess. Arguments broke out. Towards the end of the evening every holler of “Bingo!” was met with groans. After all, $10 was at stake at every round. Ties split the prize–$5 each.

img_20190216_1729270738272533388838273146.jpgIn keeping with our promise to each other to keep our minds open to learning from new experiences, we thought hard about this one. You really can’t compare determination to win at bingo with your personal ambition to make a million bucks by thirty, to cure cancer, to get elected President.

Yet for the regulars, the bingo sessions have authentic meaning. They offer the opportunity for a comforting conversation among friends about health or other deeply personal problems, or happy things—a new grandchild, a planned vacation. Like work, bingo, and similar pastimes that don’t seriously stress brain cells, meets some mysterious human need. The sympathetic human contact is close to what that is.

We pursue excellence at a job or career for 30 or 40 years, or more, to validate our life’s purpose at the end of each day to ourselves and to others, to seek to fulfill our destiny. Bingo doesn’t exactly rise to that standard. But if we play, it can engage us, point us to a goal, force us to pay attention to others, and to our surroundings. Sure, lots of things do that. But with bingo, fill five spaces, you win.













Moving Home …

February 11, 2019

                                                                                                                                                                   Our next-door neighbors, who we don’t know well, put their house on the market a couple of weeks ago. We saw the agent planting “for sale” signs in the lawn. She said they were asking $390,000, to me a crazy figure for this neighborhood, which in recent years has gotten a little sketchy. But early this week I saw a family walk up the driveway to inspect the place. The signs were gone a couple of days later.

Sandy and I went for a walk. We don’t know what the house actually sold for, but we wondered what we could get for our place, which we think is nicer, at least on the outside. We lurched into that familiar conversation: if we sold our house now, after 31-plus years, what would we do? Where would we go?

She long has wanted to say goodbye to the stress, costs, and gridlock of northern Virginia. Her priorities now are one-level, two bedrooms, large kitchen, within an hour of a major airport. I say we could find that almost anywhere—narrow it down. Our daughter and son-in-law, with the two grandsons, lobby for South Carolina. The older boy, now five, saw a house for sale on their street and reserved it for us. We didn’t bite.

Where you live is a clue of sorts to who you are. It might show that you like beaches more than mountains, snorkeling instead of skiing, cities over small towns, chic cafes more than barbeque joints. But every place has a culture created by the people who live there, their histories, livelihoods, and priorities, which form their political attitudes. Their politics creates either today’s bitter national divisions, or relative equanimity of—some other time. What’s our contribution?

689 newcomb rd-11218465310140860980..jpg
Ridgewood, N.J.

This isn’t very original, millions of oldsters and not-so-oldsters do something about it every day. We look at those “best cities/states to retire to” infomercials that pop up on the internet. We’ve gone to a couple “Living South” trade shows where you pick up brochures weighing up to a pound and business cards of people selling golf, beaches, lakes, mountains, more golf (not much snorkeling or skiing).

The old formula is that when you’re young you figure out the job/career you find satisfying or at least tolerable and settle where it’s achievable. We did that when we landed here. The opposite approach works for some: move to the place you dream of living and make do, teach mountaineering or surfing, wait tables, write your novel. But either way, it seems eventually you think about moving.

You make mental lists of places you know. Then remember what you care about in life, and try to assign those things to a city, town, village. When you’re in a place for years, it grows on you, I guess. I grew up in northern Jersey, as a kid it was my whole world, and my parents’ and siblings’. Parents and one brother are buried there, none of the other siblings stayed. Sandy and I lived in Nashville for 12 years, the first three kids were born there. We still visit family and friends. Nashville, once a friendly place proud of its music, hospitals, and colleges, now is an overpriced, traffic-choked tourist trap.

Our Nashville home

I went to school in New Hampshire, a lovely place, still visit St. Anselm when I can, and stay in touch with friends, Benedictine monks whom I’ve known since the late sixties. But January mountain runs here in Virginia have taught me to dread winter. We won’t be going to New England.

A few years ago, for three straight summers, we visited Montana for trail runs. Sandy developed a crush on Ennis, a cute, tiny place 70 miles or so southwest of Bozeman, on the trout-rich Madison River, and 80 miles from Yellowstone. Spectacular, but remote—long plane rides with layovers to go almost anywhere. In winter it’s routinely single digits or below zero. The kids would visit once, maybe.

Lots of places are “interesting”—a nearly useless word for getting to a decision. Texas is interesting, no—fascinating.  North Carolina is interesting to lots of Virginians, we have friends in Wilmington, another in Asheville. Florida is warm and pretty half the year but unbearable the other half, and flat year-round (like much of Texas). Readers may recall we visited Greeneville, Tenn., in October. I couldn’t stomach the local worship of native son, second-worst (formerly worst) President Andrew Johnson. Chattanooga, though, is interesting, and about sixty miles east of Sandy’s hometown. She nearly moved there after college. Maybe we’ll take a look.

So we’ve been paralyzed by this conversation. The one-level, big kitchen, two-bedroom concept is OK with me. But when you’re hitting 70 and a little sick, when each day is defined by memories of family, in this place, even as our kids pursue their own challenges far from here—change is a scary, almost violent thought.

I’m making this complicated. I’m probably paranoid as well as old. It’s just the two of us. Friends are always friends, at any distance. But can we replicate the vague sense of mundane comfort, of tolerance of this place, someplace else? When we’re strangers to strangers around us? Where is that magic place?  If home is no longer here, where is it? And for us, what is it?

Medicine Man

February 4, 2019

Wednesday night, the night before chemo, we went to the annual reception to support the Arlington Catholic Diocese Bishop’s Lenten Appeal, Bishop Michael Burbidge’s annual pitch for his charitable programs. We’ve been going for years, always on a cold January night, but never this cold, something brutal like 8F. Most of the other folks are older than us, which is rare anymore.

Bishop Burbidge, a Philly native and one of the great men I’ve met, made his serious but light-hearted pitch for help with the BLA, which funds education and helps troubled kids and families, and the urban and rural poor, mostly invisible in this generally affluent diocese. The crowd, the affluent ones, listened quietly, then stood and thanked him.

Afterward Sandy and I went up and said hello, briefly. He had just had surgery for prostate cancer, we wished him well. Sandy then mentioned my chemo/radiation date. He touched my chest and whispered a short prayer.

But we went for the treatment anyway. Sandy rubbed some lubricating cream on my port, installed in my chest two weeks ago. The nurse sat me down in the classroom-like space furnished with lounge chairs for a half-dozen customers. The first step is the usual: they need blood. With the port, no needle-sticking. “Port works great,” she gushed—the right word. “Nice flow.” She took three quick vials.

img_20190202_1509579926426575373780275276.jpgMore preliminaries. I get a ten-minute dose of several medicines intended to help counter side effects, which are described in a five-page handout. The least unpleasant is fatigue, the worst, well, never mind. Then 50 mg of Benadryl. I felt the drug rush immediately and started nodding off.  Then 500 cc of saline solution for hydration. Meanwhile, I’m guzzling Gatorade.

The nurse takes a break at her workstation, checking email, I guess. Then she’s back with the chemo. Two drugs, back to back, Taxol and Carboplatin, both scary. For the Taxol, she explains: if in the first ten minutes I feel dizzy or flushed, tell her and she’ll stop the flow, pause, then restart it. It needs to go in eventually. She opens the flow, I’m okay with it, still sleepy from the Benadryl.

Like a zombie, I stare at the ceiling, then doze off. An hour passes. I’m done with Taxol. Before I feel anything, I’m getting Carboplatin, another hour’s worth. I can look up and watch it drip, clearly, evenly, through the tube that feeds the port. Time passes slowly when you’re watching chemo drip.

Eventually, my head on my chest, I’m done. “Great job,” the nurse says. She unhooks the tube and applies pressure to close the port. Ouch. Then we’re out of there.

Radiation is downstairs in the radiation oncologist facility—the “Rad-Onc,” our son Michael says. A medical physicist, he does this work. Still groggy from the drugs, I struggle into a hospital gown. They lay me on the slab underneath the device—the linear accelerator, for techies. My arms and legs are stretched into position on blocks. The lens looms in my face and,  using lasers on the walls and ceiling, triangulates on my chest precisely where the Rad-Onc wants to target the beam. For twenty minutes the accelerator spins, I feel nothing, then I’m sound asleep again. Then we’re done. A young woman, the staff dietitian, cheerfully hands us literature on meal planning. The point: don’t lose any more weight.

We’re back Friday for another session on the slab.

I’m down for eight chemo sessions, one per week, and 30 radiation treatments, Monday-Friday, through late March.  On Friday we met with the doc. She says she’s aiming at the tumor left after my December surgery. Then she may add a few extra sessions, “narrowing the beam,” she says, to get the c-cells that have strayed—wherever. Then she’ll reevaluate.

Michael had given me some technical questions for her; she gladly answered them. I relay her responses back to him, he’s pleased they’re using the newest technology, whatever that is.

I recall the chemo supports the radiation, but chemo is supposed to find the bad stuff, too. Either can come first. Insurance pays for something like 80 percent of all this, we’re on the hook for the rest. I’m really hoping the bishop took care of it. No charge.