Thursday, April 27, 2017
I’ve often talked about my “dual life” as a Southern Yankee, born and reared in the US heartland, and almost magically transported to a brand new life, first in Europe and then in South America. But it’s not as two-staged as it sounds. Like life itself—and I suspect that this happens to a lot of people who end up living in places and cultures that are far distant from those of their birth, whether they ever live abroad or not—this has felt more like a three-stage existence, not two.
I think this has to do partially with the fact that life, as such, tends to be divided this way: young, middle-aged and old. But having reached “a ripe old age”, as it were—to my utter surprise, since I spent most of the first stage and part of the second convinced I’d be unlikely to make it to the third—I no longer think of these milestones in that way, but rather, merely as stages one, two and three. That’s why I’ve always liked, and now subscribe to, a Spanish-speaking school of thought that refers to stage three not as “old age” but as “la tercera edad” (the third age).
There are those of my own age and some of slightly younger generations who sometimes try to pull the wool over my eyes by saying I shouldn’t think of myself as old. Sixty, they say (somewhat self-servingly, I assume), is the new forty. When I point out that I passed the sixty marker many moons ago, they remind me that if sixty is the new forty, then seventy is the new fifty and since I’ve still to attain that lofty number (all things come to those who wait), I’m “just middle-aged.” Well...perhaps...if I plan to live to be a hundred and thirty-four. I have a friend who entertains that goal. She seems convinced she’ll live to be a hundred and fifty at least. More power to her. I mean, having come this far, I’m clearly not ruling anything out. But I figure, statistically at least, it’s highly unlikely.
I mean, statistically speaking, the average American male lives to be around seventy-seven. But I have to consider that I’ve spent most of my adult life in Argentina, where the average male lives to be seventy-three. When sixty-eight is staring you in the face, these figures can give you a sudden adrenalin rush. Statistically—just statistically, mind you—I could surmise that I have between half a decade and a decade left to live. But the secret that third-agers seldom share is that it’s not like you’re suddenly enlightened on reaching stage three. Okay, yes, you may have learned a few tricks by this time that the young and the middle-aged don’t have a clue about, but the fact is that you’re still pretty much as clueless about the mystery of life as you were when you first started searching for its meaning and you certainly don’t go around running the stats in your head and saying to yourself, “Holy crap! Five more years? I’d better get a move on!”
It’s more like what Shakespeare said through the mouth of Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But also, and less depressingly surely, like Alexander Pope said:
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast...”
So that just when we thought we would have everything neatly figured out, we still find ourselves going, “I wonder what life has in store for me?”
That said, however, it’s not like I’m throwing in the towel. Not by a longshot. And that’s why I have fully embraced—quite recently, actually, since I found sixty and the first couple of years after that decade first descended on me to be particularly depressing landmarks—the idea of “a third age”, rather than old age, as a philosophy worthy of incorporation.
And although I might try and make it sound like I don’t give a damn about statistics, you do have them in the back of your head, if not, perhaps, as sharply focused as they should be. By way of example, I remember a TV show I liked a lot as a teen—a rather dark, existentialist teen, admittedly—called “Run for Your Life”. It starred Ben Gazarra as attorney Paul Bryan, who, in the first episode (1965) receives news from his doctor that he has a terminal illness that will only allow him to live for another nine to eighteen months—despite which, the series’ success kept it on the air until 1968.
In it, Paul decides to leave his successful law practice behind, walk away from his life and, like the proverbial guy who goes out to buy cigarettes and never comes back, opts to take the money and run. His vague idea when he sets out is to “do all of the things he never had time for.” But what happens in reality is that, along the way, he meets up with a wide variety of people who end up touching his life and him theirs, leading him through every situation from bittersweet romance and passion to high adventure and imminent danger.
I enjoyed all of the human dramas that unfolded with each new episode, but what attracted me most was the point of view—that of a guy who pretty much knew how far his “non-renewable resource” was going to carry him and so could face each new day with no illusions about the future. The future simply didn’t exist, so he was free to live life on his own terms and stepping into others’ lives with no commitment but the one he was willing to make to them in the here and now.
It seemed to me a brilliant way to live. And although many would have tried to tell me that it was a good story, a good escape, but hardly realistic, I would have argued then (as I still might now) that Paul Bryan’s stance couldn’t have been more realistic, and that people might be a lot happier in their lives if that were precisely how they lived...as if tomorrow might never come.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all these years, it's that living like Paul Bryan in “Run for Your Life” is, quite possibly, the best and happiest way a human being can live. But I’ve learned it by observing other lives, not by practicing what I preach. Indeed, some of the happiest and most successful people in their fields have lived precisely that way. Many of them have been artists and, as some people might point out, they’ve had to make certain sacrifices, in terms of what others might consider “a normal life”, but have, I believe, reaped other satisfactions that most of us only dream of.
You might be asking where on earth I’m going with all of this. The answer is, I’m not sure. I’m thinking out loud, as I have been thinking to myself for many years now. And I guess the best response is that I’ve come to the conclusion that grabbing life by the tail and riding it to the stars requires risk. In fact, it requires risking life itself.
But the other part of that response is, perhaps, that those of us who are lucky enough to make it through stages one and two and reach The Third Age need to remember the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra who had several great observations to make about waking up and going through life with constant awareness: One was, “You can see a lot just by lookin’.” Another was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” And the last one was, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Admittedly, as in Willie Nelson and Leon Russell’s A Song for You, “I’ve been so many places in my life and time...” But still, I can’t help having the feeling I could have risked more, lived more, done more if I’d lived every day like it was the last one and let the future take care of itself.
But as Yogi said, it ain’t over till it’s over, and I’ve seen clearly, finally, that the way to look at this new third stage is as a liberation from the enslavement of a future that simply doesn’t exist...nor has it ever, anywhere but in my mind.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
We recently had our first spate of wet weather for the autumn season here in Andean Patagonia. Summers are typically dry, as are the early weeks of autumn. But then you start getting shifting winds and warmish wet weather rolling out of the northwest across the Andes from the Pacific or cold, bone-chilling rains blowing up “from down below”, as they say here, meaning out of the southeast, which is where a lot of the heaviest snows come from in the wintertime.
I keep my eye on the sky at this time of the year to make sure I get in plenty of dry firewood before the season changes completely. That usually happens in late May and June, when two or three weeks of heavy rain at a time are not uncommon, giving way to snow in the high country, which eventually falls lower and lower on the mountainsides until we, down here in the foothills, get our share of white stuff as well. This year, I was johnny-on-the-spot and already had over six and a half cords of excellent firewood cut hauled and stacked under cover by the end of March. In other words, I’m set for winter whenever and however it comes.
But I digress. What I was going to say was that, with the recent first rainstorms, we had abundant electrical activity. Anybody from my native west-central Ohio would say, “So what else is new?” But here, thunder is an oddity—something about the tall mountain peaks attracting opposing charges first and grounding out the lightning bolts at high altitudes, so that they seldom strike in the lowlands. I don’t know. I’m not a meteorologist, but that’s what they tell me. When I first moved down here to the mountains nearly a quarter-century ago, hearing thunder was even more rare than it is now (sometimes you’d go a few years without hearing even the most distant thunder). And that was something I missed from my Midwestern childhood. Because there was a point in my childhood when I grew fascinated with storms and, to my mother’s dismay, wanted to go out and play in them, to walk in them, to feel their power. But I wasn’t always that way—as you’ll soon see.
So anyway, the other day, which seemed like a perfectly nice day, if a little muggy and with a treacherous little gusty breeze kicking up, it suddenly started getting dark, with black clouds rolling in from the invisible Pacific, over on the other side of the cordillera. “It’s going to rain,” I thought. But thought no further, as I was sitting at my desk working and knew my firewood was all well-covered and tied down. Suddenly, however, a thunder clap that seemed to happen right above the house, shaking its timbers and setting every dog for miles around howling, scared the bejesus out of me. It was kind of like somebody rolling a howitzer up behind me and firing it with no warning. It’s natural. You almost literally jump out of your skin.
It was at that precise moment that a distant memory leaped to mind and started running in my head like an old movie that I’d filed away for future reference, only to have it “come onto the screen” accompanied by the exact same feelings and sensations of that far-off time and place. It was the precise moment at which I first became actively aware of thunder. I was, perhaps, three and a half or four years old. I know this because my little brother didn’t exist yet. It was just my sister Darla and me. We were sitting on the couch (which back then we called “the davenport”) in the living room of our house on Defiance Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Whitie, my dad, was working late and Darla and I were sitting on either side of Reba Mae, our mother. I don’t know what time it was, but it was already dark out. Reba Mae had invited us to sit there with her for the ostensible purpose of her reading us a story “so we wouldn’t be afraid of the storm.” But the truth was that she was reading to us to calm herself down because no one was displaying greater fear of the veritable symphony of lightning bolts and thunder claps outside than Reba Mae.
Her panic was, of course, infectious in children so small. There was a feeling that if we felt always safe and protected under our roof and with the adults in our lives, this thunder and lightning thing must be something against which our home, our fortress, had no special powers. If Reba Mae was quite clearly scared silly, invincible as we believed her to be, then this outside force must be something very major indeed.
So we hunkered close to her as the storm raged outside. I was so impressed by her fear, rather than by what she was reading, that, for this reason only, I recall exactly which stories she read us from the Childcraft Collection. They were both fables, one about a dog proudly carrying a prize bone in his mouth as he crosses a bridge over a brook, only to look down and see another dog just like him and carrying his very same bone in its mouth, and in response he barks, dropping the bone from his mouth into the brook, where it is lost forever. And the other one about a stork who offers a fox a drink from a long-necked jar into which his muzzle would never fit and how the fox repays the stork by offering him a drink from a flat shallow pan from which the stork’s long pointed beak could never extract a single drop.
But in my child’s interpretation, the image the dog sees in the brook is at night and reflected in a terrible lightning flash and the stork and the fox are only accidentally sheltering together in a cave in order to stay out of the storm and that’s why they end up at the mercy of each other’s irony. Because if it weren’t for their fear of the storm, they would simply have gone their separate ways and gotten a drink of water elsewhere. The stories stick in my mind because I hear them being read in my mother’s tense, brave but quaking voice and I can still feel my cheek pressed against her arm and the piece of her sleeve that I’m gripping in my hand.
Eventually, she gave up trying to deal with her fear and, in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, she said, “Come on, kids! Let’s go to Max’s for an ice cream cone. We’ll take Grandma!”
Even though it was clearly bedtime, she bundled us into the car, drove us to her parents’ house on the other side of town, picked up her mother, and off we went to Max’s Dairy Bar for a custard ice cream cone which we ate in the stifling car with all the windows rolled up as the storm continued outside. And then it was back to Grandma’s, presumably until time to pick up Whitie from work. But by then, I couldn’t have cared less. Grandma Myrt spread a couple of her lovely handmade patchwork quilts on the rug in the front room for Darla and me and covered us with a light blanket. At last, I felt, we were safe. No bad voodoo was stronger than Grandma. She was a giant-slayer. I dozed off contented and safe.
It wasn’t until many years later that my mother explained to me how her irrational fear of storms stemmed from a childhood experience. A day when she and her little brother Kenny were on her pony, out on the land where he father was a tenant farmer, when a storm blow up suddenly and, in the interest of being the protective big sister, she could think of nothing better to do than to shelter under the only tree in a very large field. A bolt of lightning—with the deafening thunder that accompanied it—struck the tree and split it down the middle. Reba Mae and Kenny narrowly missed being killed.
Nowadays, her abnormally heightened terror of storms would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and therapy would be prescribed. But back then, if you were a tenant farmer’s daughter, you sucked it up and moved on. And you didn’t tell your father about it because he was likely to “give you a good lickin’” for being an idiot and standing under a tree in an electrical storm.
For a brief time, I was as frightened as Reba Mae was of thunder and lightning. As soon as the first great clap sounded, I would begin to tremble and start looking for a place to hide. Until, that is, I was home alone with Whitie once during a thunderstorm. He found me cowering behind the davenport and, in a rare moment of patience, he said, “What’s goin’ on, bud?”
I told him I was scared of the thunder. He invited me to come out and talk about it. He sat down and I climbed up on his lap. He told me there was nothing to be scared of. That thunder was nothing more than a noisy upstairs neighbor. It just so happened that we lived right under the kitchen in Heaven, and that every time I heard that rumbling sound, it was just the cooks pouring the potatoes out of their sacks onto the floor. That sound was just the spuds rolling around. Lots of them, because there were a lot of folks up there in heaven that needed feeding. Soon he had me laughing and saying, “There go them spuds again, Daddy!”
“Yeah,” he’d say. “Gonna have to go up there and tell those guys to hold it the hell down!”
After that, I could never again, as a child, hear thunder without thinking of big sacks of potatoes spilling across a wooden plank floor. In fact, I still can’t.