Friday, October 24, 2014

Last one at the dinner table

Two years ago I retired from teaching.  My original Social Security card lays in the left side drawer of my writing desk.  The ballpoint ink of my signature as a fifteen-year-old is still blue.  I can remember signing it.

Officially, I’d been a college professor for 26 years.  Before that I worked as a grad school teaching assistant and an English instructor in Poland. I worked in libraries, bookstores, and nursery schools.  Along the way odd part-time gigs kept me going---serving as a Shabbos goy in a private home, an office assistant for an auctioneer, typing bills of lading in a shipping office out on a pier in San Francisco.  

More than forty years of work life passed in the blink of an eye, as the cliché goes.  

I was stunned when I reached “my full benefit age”---that foundational concept of the Social Security Administration.  

What hit me hard was how little life was left to do anything else.  Twenty five years remained if I matched my mother’s life span.  She lived to 91.  Fewer years if I lived as long as her mother, my grandmother, who lived to 88.  I call them my hardy matrilineals. I had less time left than the “blink of an eye” I’d just lived through.  

Time to go.  Now. 

Unfinished goals that still nagged me---a second promotion, a monograph in my field---what did they matter now?  More money, more points along an academic career graph. Did I want to spend my only years of life left on them?  I re-focused fast.

Since then I’ve settled into what we call retirement. I’ve pondered the language. In Jane Austen novels it meant to withdraw from social life, to live in seclusion.  Or to be diffident and quiet.  As in, “she’s a very retiring person,” or she lives in the country “in retirement.”  

When Germany pioneered modern social insurance for workers in 1889, we got the notion of retirement from paid work.  Historian Richard Gabryszewski narrates a video about the development of social insurance behind our Social Security system.  You can find it on the SSA website. It’s a noble story and I love it.  I’m proud to be a part of a history that (if we skip the workhouse era) includes Aristotle, olive oil, Frances Perkins, and FDR.

Thanks to them all, my monthly social security benefit slips silently into my checking account.  I have time to write, to cook and to garden, to read.  Few dates recur in my calendar---yoga classes, the dentist, the financial planner, and the doctor.  There’s time to understand point and figure charts, to practice long form tai chi.

All in all, my transition has been successful.  My daily life habits are comfortable. As I say, I have settled in.  Or so I thought.

One day recently, making the bed and gazing absently out the unwashed windows of my mortgage-free house, a surprising thought surfaced from my subconscious. It flickered, illumined, and then slipped below again. 

The thought is hard to re-capture, but the gist is this.  So much of the advice elders dinned into my once youthful and compliant head seems irrelevant now.  Family expectations and exhortations (and the views and values they rested on) aimed at girding me for the precarious path to a future successful adult life. 

My elders worried, I suppose, that I might not make it to this point.  Their worry has long since been laid to rest. What remains of their counsel has transformed completely, or just fallen to the side, shards of another era. Here I am.  Except that I’m someone else.  

Why would this thought emerge now?  

I think it has to do with the irony of retirement, maybe its paradox, or even a subtext, as the literary say.  

This is pretty heavy. I’m writing an essay to try to figure it out.

My parents and grandparents were well-meaning and I don’t fault them.  They wanted happiness and security for me. They survived the Depression and World War II.  They told their stories around our dinner table:  a job lost in New York City and pushing a Good Humor ice cream cart, dismissal from college because of debt, surviving in the Pacific during the war, a paralyzing stroke and no medical insurance, having to sell the family store and move in with relatives.
We lived together, three generations. I was the only child and much beloved, listening at that table.  I absorbed these family tales.  Accounts of disaster seemed normal to me.  My elders’ history was so real to me that growing up I thought everyone had these same stories.  

My parents had scrambled on to a narrow ledge of 1950s prosperity.  Their expectations for me centered on college, the education that history could snatch away at any time.  By 1959 I was on the march in my blue blazer, plaid skirt, and the Spaulding shoes of my Catholic high school uniform.  College meant the liberal arts---English and history, Latin and the classics, modern languages. Fields like sociology so popular among my girlfriends were beneath consideration.  (If I’d had any aptitude for math or sciences things might have been different.) 

Other family expectations remained hazy: a good marriage, dignified work (no real professional career), travel, maybe some artistic or creative pursuit.  By my senior year in college, I suspected that---unlike education---these expectations were shaped by social convention. With no immediate prospects of attaining any of them, and graduation imminent, I began to question my life. I embarked on my belated rebellion.

It wasn’t hard. The upheavals of the 1960s spurred me on.  I’d missed civil rights---a bit too young. One day my English lit professor stopped his lecture to explain Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement.  I went to anti-war rallies and sat in at sit ins. Women’s issues burbled below the politics. 

I sleepwalked through some of the counterculture’s colorful enthusiasms---pot and music. Concerts at the Fillmore conveniently combined both.  The movement years waned.  Institutions I’d been raised with papered over their gaps and fissures, and hobbled on. I graduated from college but was never the same.  

I wrestled with mistakes of judgment (a difficult marriage). But the education thing perdured---a word that time teaches you to love.  In midlife I plunged into grad school and completed a PhD. Through dogged determination and fortuitous circumstances, I got a faculty post, and then tenure. I supported myself, raised my son, cared for my aging mother, and paid off a house. 

Academe became my home, the source of meaning and a livelihood. I hung onto it tightly, clutched it as sure and worthy.  

When I retired, friends asked about my plans. They chirped excitedly about travel and  volunteering---eager to offer ways to fill time once hogged by gainful employment. Bring satisfaction and value to retirement, people said. Give back, do more, keep active.  

That’s where the irony came in.  Other people’s enthusiasm was unnerving.  After decades of marching through education, work and profession, this pressing you to do something else disconcerted me.    

I panicked.  Once untethered from a job would I drift into dissatisfaction and depression? Had I misjudged the whole 25-year rest of life thing? 

It took a year to accept this irony of retirement---that no one wants you to withdraw into quietness at all.  I’ve pretty much let that go.  My time obsession has shifted into its sister dimension.  It’s become more like space left to me---open and uncluttered, airy and agnostic.  I am learning to feel free, perhaps for the first time since adolescence.  I can explore again, without the anxious anticipation of adulthood. 

And there’s some work only I can do---understand how people and experiences changed me. I ruminate about my elders’ ideas of a successful life, chiseled in hardship and the demands of inherited social convention.  Maybe this is why the notion of their expectations surfaced in my mind.  It illumined something---that I’ve long been someone else.  It’s a paradox of retirement that now I can love them again, though their advice seems antique and their wisdom has transformed or just fallen away.

If there’s any subtext to retirement (a risky proposition), maybe it’s something structural.  If another phase of retired life follows this one, I won’t be surprised. But for now it’s time to get on with this inward journey.  

In dreams and in my mind’s eye I see those elders who drilled their exhortations and expectations into my young self.  Now I have the ridged nails, the crinkly skin, and the sinking chest of my hardy matrilineals. I wish they had told me more about their lives then, lives of middle age and old age, though I wouldn’t have understood.  But it’s alright.  I talk to them again.  I’m the last of those around my family dinner table.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Learning to fish

I have two friends who swim in Lake Michigan.  I know two more who ride in bicycle races like the Tour de Troit.  At least half a dozen acquaintances run or walk in the Crim races.  The parents of a dear colleague and friend skied in Idaho until they were over 80. 

Every year it seems the Flint Journal has a photo and article about old timer hockey games.  I am moved by the retirees who walk with difficulty to the rink, lace on their skates, and swoosh onto the ice---their crinkled faces light up as legs and ankles remember the moves. 

I regret that I do none of these things.   In fact, I have arrived at the end of my sixth decade of life with no athletic skill that, if learned young, you can continue to enjoy it at a later age. 

Then I discovered fishing. 

My partner Dennis would always remark on lakes or rivers we’d pass when we travel by car.  What a great place to fish, he’d say, wistfully.  I had no idea why he’d comment longingly about one body of water or another. 

No one in my family fished. 

As a ten-year-old kid, Dennis went with his parents in the summertime to the Sierra Mountains in California. They’d camp for a week and spend the days fishing at one of the lakes.

Fishing organized the day.  Out in the boat in the early morning, return about noon to the campsite for sandwiches, then out on the lake again in the afternoon.  They would come back with the day’s catch on a stringer.  Dennis and his dad cleaned the fish; his mother fried them in cornmeal for dinner.

In those years, the 1950s, the limit was 15 fish per person.  Some days the three of them would get their limit: 45 fish.  Dennis said that often his mother caught the most fish, even though she often took a book with her out on the boat.  She’d cast her line and then sit in the middle of the boat and read while she waited for a tug on the pole. 

Dennis pondered my non-athletic background; he concluded that I might enjoy fishing. 

My first experience was a couple of years ago; we drove to the Kern River in the western Sierras, about three hours north of Los Angeles.

Dennis packed all the camping gear---big tent, air mattress, stove and kitchen set up, and “sky” chairs.  The sky chairs are a hippie-artisan invention Dennis discovered at the Renaissance Faire one year.  A spider web arrangement of ropes and seating that you hang from a tree like an armchair hammock.  You get up in it and sway in the breeze. 

We had a big ice chest stocked with good food.  Red wine for the evening and an old Bialetti moka pot for espresso in the morning.  Camping with class and Dennis knew how to do it all. 

My task was to learn how to fish. 

We camped by the river, under trees but with enough sandy shelf to walk out into shallow water.  Dennis had equipped me with a rod and reel; he taught me how to cast into the rapidly flowing stream.  At first I got tangled on the rocks, but gradually I cast out farther into the river.  The icy, rushing water cooled my legs in the heat of the July day. 

To my surprise I reeled in a small rainbow trout.  Dennis scooped it into the net.  We caught a few more and we had enough for dinner.   

Alas, this inaugural fishing experience was cut short.  In Bakersfield, the last ice stop before we drove up the twisting mountain highway to the Kern, I’d eaten something that made me very, very sick.  I was feverish and weak, able to fish only for short periods; I needed to sleep much of the day.  The sight and smell of fried fish turned my stomach.  We had to break camp after a couple of days and come home earlier than planned.

My initiation into angling was put on hold.   

Then last week we tried fishing again.  This time we drove further, to the Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierras about five hours north of Los Angeles.  We returned to Lake Mary, one of the lakes where Dennis had gone years ago with his family.  We rented a motor boat and set out on a cool, sunny morning in late September.  

Dennis steered us to a quiet spot not far from shore, shallow water.  Through the green glassy water we could see the mossy bottom about 12 feet down.  On the shore, two older men had set up their poles and lines on the rocks at the water’s edge. Their anglers’ hats shaded their faces in the morning sun and their conversation traveled across the glinting water.  When one of the two codgers caught a fish, his pal took pictures.

Over and over, I cast out, reeled back a bit to make the line taut, and then waited.  Over and over, I picked up weeds and bark.  I’d reel in, balance the rod to grasp the line and carefully tease off the mossy tendrils tangled around the fluorescent yellow power bait of my hook and sliding sinker. 

I must have cast out four or five times.  Then came the jerking tug-tug-tug Dennis told me I’d recognize. The fish pulled the pole first left, then right and then in a sharp arc as he dipped downward under the boat. Dennis coached me, “play with him,” “keep reeling in,” “let him get tired out.”   I moved from one side of the boat to the other.  He was now close enough to see his speckled silver sides gleaming.  The smacking tail.  Dennis netted him and into the boat about 12 inches of rainbow trout sputtered and flopped.  

The old guys on the shore applauded. 

Dennis threaded my line onto an orange “disgorger” tool to extract my hook, all the while talking to the squirming fish. "Take it easy, little guy," he murmured as he gently nudged out the hook. When the hook was out, the little trout settled a bit and then lay still in the net on the bottom of the boat, his gills pumping.  Dennis pulled out our stringer and poked its metal point through the fish’s jaw and hung the stringer over the side in the water, anchored in the oarlock. 

This time Dennis and I caught five trout---all rainbow.  Dennis even reeled in a 19 inch fish, nearly 4 pounds.  He cleaned them all and we brought them home, packed in an ice chest. 

The skillet is sizzling now as I write, but I am not sure if I can eat any of the fish. 

I like my fish speckled and glimmering, breaking water in the lake in the warm sunlight.  For the rest---the eating part---it’s not my sport yet.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Summer solstice

This is the sun setting in southern California

Friday, April 18, 2014

Cliché---until it happens to you

It’s the stuff of chick lit and rom-com. An event so cliché-encrusted it sinks right down, sucked into the seabed of ready-made metaphors. 

But that’s the thing about clichés.  Like many life events (divorce being another notorious one) it’s a commonplace---until it happens to you. 

This one is a marker you can’t avoid.  Not a wedding or a funeral---no relatives involved either.  Still, you casually check out plane fares online.  Then in a moment of merlot-induced nonchalance, you snap down the credit card (metaphorically, that is), locking in a five-bill ticket to fly across the country for it. 

Even if you cancel, you’ll be upset for a week just because you got the news.

Welcome to your high school reunion!  The fiftieth.  The merlot does not help with the number.

So, dear reader, I went.

My experience with reunions is limited. The first one was ten years ago---the fortieth from this high school. I confided my apprehensions to my Michigan dental hygienist, Annette.   Italian and well-traveled, Annette immediately grasped the import of the situation.  She geared me up with a regimen of professional grade Crest white strips so I’d be in good toothy shape for pictures.  I wore black and swathed my neck with a silk scarf.  Bella figura, said Annette.

This reunion was hosted by a classmate, Wally, at his historic home in the town of Ross, the most secluded of a string of once sleepy summer towns that stretch across Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The town was named for Gold Rush era adventurer, James Ross, a Scot who’d first tried his luck in Tasmania, and then struck his own gold in California as a wholesaler of wine and spirits.  He took his fortune and retired to the Rancho Punta de Quentin---part of the huge land grant parcel that later became Marin County.  He died in 1862 at the age of fifty.

Over later decades, other settlers followed. The newly prosperous from San Francisco built summer estates in styles that reflected their aspirations and fond recollections of the East they’d left behind. The 1906 quake and fire brought another wave.  Prescient city fathers enacted ordinances to protect trees and prevent noise at the first Board of Trustees meeting in 1908. 

Today large wooded parcels of land still shield residents from highway sounds. The leaves of tall, dense hedges obscure street numbers.  This enclave of old affluence looks untouched since the nineteen sixties when I was in high school.
And so it begins. 

An unseasonable heat wave has settled on Marin County this September Saturday, just when people celebrating fifty years of anything in their lives struggle to look their best.  Small consolation that even residents of Eden suffer summer weather from time to time.

My partner, Dennis, is driving me to the shindig.  His nature is frank and forthright and he’s a reunion veteran, having attended two high schools.  Classmates from both keep in touch and get together every year.  His complete lack of anxiety bolsters my spirits.  “Guys can always shoot the shit,” he says. 

Hand this man a beer.

Meantime, we’ve found what Google maps says is our destination.  A gate opens.  In we roll. 

Velvety black asphalt guides us along a graceful curve and past a gate house to the right.  Beside it, in the dappled shade of the trees, I can just make out a small cannon resting on a two-wheeled gun carriage.  We dead end at a turnaround.  A carport sheltering antique cars on one side, a fountain on the other.

I open the window and ask for guidance from a woman stepping smartly across the pavement, a small florist’s arrangement clutched against her robin’s egg blue shirt, fine dun-color hair pushed back behind her ears. 

“Parking is supposed to be down at the school,” she says, probably exasperated at having to repeat this yet again. I mumble my thanks and close the passenger window, relieved to seal in coolness and composure.  

Dennis backs and fills.  I recall that we’d passed the Episcopal Church down the road on a corner.        

We are not here yet. 

It’s trickier now to retrace the driveway and exit; people spill out of the gate house, clusters  gather on the pavement.  Clearly, they all must have parked somewhere else.   

I turn my head and look back across the grass toward a rambling three-story Victorian house.  Freshly painted and startlingly bright, its wrap around verandah and white wicker furniture inviting on this hot day.  I’ve lived so long in the East that I recognize where these multi-storied frame houses with their Queen Anne turrets and elaborate friezes came from. 

Tables are set for dinner out on the grass. It is the deep, even green of professional landscaping, a miniature of the perfect English lawn that gardeners mow and roll with heavy metal drums for generations.  Across the grass and opposite the house is a pool, its corners bracketed with ornamental cypress like a Roman villa. Beyond the pool two pergolas extend from each side of a pool house. 

I live in Flint, Michigan, a notorious rust-belt GM town. Over the last thirty years it’s become my home, its grit and catastrophe my “normal.”  It is a place pervaded by economic decline that seeps into daily life.  Without realizing it you choose your route to the grocery store by how much urban blight you are willing to pass along the way. 

Five decades away from my native land, its vernacular and costume, and today I feel like a tourist on formerly home turf.  

We find the church parking lot, ditch the car with relief, and walk down Shady Lane (yes, a two-lane road arched with trees), and re-enter through a gate hidden in the hedge. 

From the gatehouse across the grass, a woman calls out my name, her arms raised in joyful recognition; unease evaporates and I am captivated. No one has called out to me this way for many years.  I am here at last.  More exclamations follow, like pops from small fire crackers.  We hug and clutch one another’s hands, reluctant to let go. 

I am moved to see so many people and to remember them by name, to see their faces contoured by time but their eyes and smiles immediately familiar. 

We query one another with a kindly curiosity, gesture our empathy with sighs and laughter,  and then cut short our conversations each exclaiming to the other, “I want to talk to everyone.” 

Our age feels comfortable, while our high school years seem (as indeed they were) closer to childhood than to being adults---so much younger than we thought we were, with our striving to be older.  Some in our class had met in first and second grade.  Others felt like outsiders when they confronted uniformed dyads and triads of primary school friends.  No matter now.   As Dylan wrote in the mid-sixties, “Ah, I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”

A male classmate reminds me about a time when he’d brought me home after a dance.  All I remember is that I had a crush on him; of the dance or the impressive, gentlemanly transport home?  No recollection.  Again no matter.  As he says “this time our achievement is just getting here, upright and coherent.”  We are grateful.

The classmates who still live nearby get together between the big landmark dates.  Widow and widower, divorced and remarried. Some now tend one another after surgeries. Parkinson’s and MS have appeared. I watch as a former football player gingerly supports the arm of a former songleader. 

As dinner begins, one of the organizers calls for our attention.  In a little speech he asks us to remember those of our number who have died, and also our parents and to think of them with thanks for having sent us to this school.  Succinct and effortless, without pretension.  Better than academic receptions I attended before retirement. 

It is dark when we leave.  The clusters of people standing on the lawn or seated in the white wicker chairs on the porch have vanished; the driveway is quiet.  Lights from inside the carriage house suggest lingering conversations.  The small illumined structure glows in the darkness like paintings of nighttime scenes in Japanese landscapes. In the shadows by the tall hedge I can see five or six people huddled together beneath pool house pergola.

I am tired, my conversation spent.  I want to absorb all the sensations and impressions and then spread them out before me all over again.  To stand back while the others talk and laugh, to have the afternoon linger as the sunlight fades.  To savor it bit by bit, like the concluding moments in a movie where the story has found resolution, and in slow motion the last frames seal the image in our minds. 

Months later the many close-up pictures that Dennis took now roll across my computer screen saver.  Each morning when I open my laptop I greet my classmates as we greeted one another that hot day. Again and again, I look at the faces and the smiles.  And wish them well.

The California that I left no longer pulls me back.  

And Dennis?  He met everyone---not with me, of course, but on his own. Now he’s looking forward to the next one.  Besides, he’d like to talk more to Wally about that cannon. It’s a Civil War replica and Wally fires it---minus the cannon ball---on special occasions.   

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