3611– Wednesday, June 12, 2019 –  Fear of Death and Dying

 Have your ever cursed out an “old” driver for going to slow?  If so, I am sure that you are not alone.  I was once one of those who had no patience for the old folks poking along doing less than the speed limit on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  Karen would always remind me that “You will be old someday.”  I did not believe it.  The problem is that I am now an old driver.  I probably drive slower and more cautiously then I did years ago, but so as not to offend anyone, I usually set my cruise control about 5 mph over the speed limit.  I figure it is too slow to get a ticket but too fast to piss off anyone who hates slow old folks behind the wheel.  Of course, my logic sucks.  I am beset by mortals who obviously have both no fear of death and no fear of getting a ticket.   Why are people in such a hurry today?  Where the hell is everyone going?

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The subject of my blog today concerns the poor old guys and gals who want to live a few years longer.  One would think that at age 70 or greater, the elderly would be reckless and carefree.  After all, I have had 72 good years on this earth, why should I fret if I die tomorrow.  The strange truth is that the older we get, the more cautious we get.  It is almost like thinking that if I give up smoking, drinking, motorcycles, wild parties and wild women or wild men, I will be able to live longer.  I doubt seriously if the time to be safe is after age 70.  It seems to me that logically, the time to be safety conscious would be when you were young and had many potential years ahead of you.  Why be safe, when your heart or brain might blow out tomorrow.  This is a paradox that I do not understand, but I observe it all around me.

I have friends who don’t want to travel because it might be dangerous.  I have friends who have concealed carry permits because they might get mugged and this even in Frederic.  I have a daughter who has security lights all around her house and is planning to install a security camera.  I have friends who live in gated communities with security guards.  I have friends who will not drive in the city or at night.

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In each case above, my friends would not have thought twice about it a few years ago.  But something happens as we age.  Suddenly, we worry.  We worry more about things that in the past would not have given us a glimmer of concern.  Now we want to know what the weather will be like before we go out.  We want to know if a neighborhood is safe before we drive though it.  We want to know if a chosen vacation spot is safe to visit.

Why again I ask, would anyone with so few years left to live, worry about their safety?  They say that growing old is not for the faint of heart.  I can see why.  The older we get; the scarier things are.  Is it simply a bit of DNA that ordains old people should die safely in their beds?

A little caution as we age is no doubt common sense.  Old people are more brittle and less flexible.  We do not bounce when we fall, and we can no longer put one foot behind our heads while standing on the other foot doing a Yoga posture (not that I ever could).  We do not have as much balance and we should rightfully be staying off of high ladders and roofs.  We take more time to mend and with less time left on this earth, we don’t want to spend our last days in a cast or hospital room.  We will probably end up in a hospital room anyway, but I doubt it will be because we did anything foolish like bungee jumping or wing suit diving.

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Aging, for many of us, will be a process of pulling our blankets ever closer and ever tighter.  The days of throwing off the blankets in wild abandon and streaking naked through our gardens are probably over.  Somewhere between the two extremes we must find an accommodation with growing old.  To die or not to die is not the question.  The question is how to die.  I always liked the quote in Julius Caesar by Shakespeare “Cowards die many times before their death, the valiant never taste of death but once.”  Or to paraphrase Patrick Henry, “I know not what course others may take, but give me a party or let me die comfortably in my bed.”

“You can’t possibly be afraid of death, really, you can only be afraid of life.”  — Carl R. Rogers

3613– Monday, June 10, 2019 – Summer, Never Enough Time!

Calvin and Hobbes once described summer as “Never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”  Sometimes life seems the same way.  The older you get the faster time and things flow around, over and under you.  I have been back from Arizona almost six weeks now and after fixing the car, truck, yard, lawn mower and house, we seem to have skipped spring and went right into summer.  It was 85 degrees here yesterday.  I am still waiting to get started on my new business project and trying to motivate myself to be creative, dynamic and inspirational, at least to myself.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak to a student club at Metropolitan State University.  A good friend of mine (Israel) is one of the faculty advisers to the club and each month they try to hold some type of event to help the students with both life and school.  Israel noted in his closing comments to the group that he had realized school was more than just teaching subjects but that the students who went on to become successful in life had learned character and coping skills.  Israel asked me to talk to the group.  The subject of my talk was the role that discipline plays in our life.

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Discipline is often associated with punishment.  The discipline that I discussed is self-discipline.  I view self-discipline as the commitment and ability to respond to our goals and desires in a meaningful way.  Some people say that discipline is not needed but that motivation is needed. I see things more the other way around.  It takes discipline to become good at anything in life including music, art, sports, dance, acting and business.  It helps if you are passionate about what you are doing.  Karen enjoys playing her dulcimer and practices about an hour each day.  The amazing child prodigy Anke Chen practices five hours a day to play the piano.  She is now eight years old but started playing at four.  When you watch Anke, you see someone having fun and thoroughly enjoying what they are doing.

The problem I had when I was young was not realizing the discipline and dedication it took to become great at anything.  Regardless of how much of a genius you are, regardless of how smart you are or how beautiful you are, without discipline you will eventually fail.  You can survive on pure talent for only so long.  The same goes for beauty and brains.  They will only take you so far.  Look around and you can see the “A list” people who have had life too easy and the only way they can stay on top is with drugs.  Too many great artists and performers have succumbed to the perils of drugs.  Self-discipline is a drug free remedy for a happy and fruitful life.

Now that summer is here, my writing class will start again, although our grand instructor (Dr. Carolyn Wedin) will not be attending due to illness.  Carolyn will very much be there in memory.  Her spirit will hover over each writer and guide us in the use of language and syntax.  Over the years, I have leaned a great deal from these classes about writing and life.

Writing is an art that requires great self-discipline.  There are many days when I don’t feel like writing.  It is not always easy to come up with ideas, words, adjectives, descriptions, narrative, characters, plots, settings and action that will be interesting and unique.  No one wants to hear a story that is boring or mundane.  We read something because it takes us our of our life and puts us into the life of another person.  (Of course, we may also read to learn something.)  We can live vicariously in the character of whomever we are reading about.  Today, you are living in my character.  For a few moments, you are absorbed in my thoughts and feelings and to some degree you know what it is like to be me living in Frederic, Wisconsin, the summer of 2019.

And once upon a time, in a time long ago, two hearts met, and the meeting changed the whole world.

Every time, a writer and a reader meet, it is like two hearts meeting and the world can never be the same again.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”  –Anais Nin

 

 

The 1st of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins: Wealth without Work.

Once upon a time in this great country, a model for attaining wealth and a set of rules to accomplish this objective stemmed from 3 basic beliefs.  These were:

  1. You worked hard, long and industriously.
  2. You attained as much education as you could absorb and afford.
  3. You treated all of your engagements with absolute honesty and scrupulousness.

Somewhere during the later 20th Century these 3 Cardinal beliefs (Above) about attaining great wealth were replaced by the following beliefs:

  1. Wealth can be attained at a gambling casino or by winning a lottery if you are lucky enough.
  2. Wealth can be attained by suing someone and with the help of a lawyer who will thereby gain a percentage of your lawsuit.
  3. Wealth can be attained by finding some means of attaining a government handout for the remainder of your life.

Admittedly, not all Americans subscribe to the second set of beliefs and fortunately there are many who still subscribe to the first. Nevertheless, I think you would be hard pressed to argue that gambling, casinos, government handouts and lawsuits have not multiplied exponentially over the past fifty years.  The following are some charts which I think illustrate my points rather graphically.

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The nature of human beings is to want things fast and with a minimum of effort.  This is normal and not to be thought of as deviant or unusual. However, as we age and develop more self-control and wisdom over our daily affairs, we learn to temper our desire for “Instant Pudding” with a more mature perspective.  Noted quality guru, Dr. W.E. Deming maintained that people wanted “Instant Pudding.”  For Deming this meant, change without effort, quality without work and cost improvements overnight.  Added together, “Instant Pudding” was Dr. Deming’s metaphor for the desire to obtain results with a minimum investment of time and energy.  Dr. Deming continually warned his clients that there was no “Instant Pudding” and change would take years of hard work and could not be accomplished without continued dedication and focus.

Unfortunately our media and even schools today seem to emphasize the possibility of achieving success and wealth overnight.  Sports stars are depicted as suddenly being offered incredible contracts. Movie stars are shown as going from unknown to overnight fame and fortune. Singers and musicians seem to suddenly achieve fame despite being barely out of their teens and in many cases barely into their teens. It would appear that everywhere we look fame, fortune and success happen overnight. All it takes is to be discovered. This might happen if you can get on American Idol or be found by the right booking agent or obtain a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.  In some cases, all it takes is the right YouTube video to accomplish overnight success. One day Psi was an unknown Korean musician and in a few short weeks, he was celebrating success by a dinner in the White House and appearing on the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.  How can anyone dispute that all that is required for fame and fortune is to be in the right place at the right time?

You may be asking “yes, but what exactly did Gandhi mean by this “sin.”  The M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence gives the following explanation:

Wealth Without Work: This includes playing the stock market; gambling; sweat-shop slavery; over-estimating one’s worth, like some heads of corporations drawing exorbitant salaries which are not always commensurate with the work they do. Gandhi’s idea originates from the ancient Indian practice of Tenant Farmers. The poor were made to slog on the farms while the rich raked in the profits. With capitalism and materialism spreading so rampantly around the world the grey area between an honest day’s hard work and sitting back and profiting from other people’s labor is growing wider. To conserve the resources of the world and share these resources equitably with all so that everyone can aspire to a good standard of living, Gandhi believed people should take only as much as they honestly need. The United States provides a typical example. The country spends an estimated $200 billion a year on manufacturing cigarettes, alcohol and allied products which harm people’s health. What the country spends in terms of providing medical and research facilities to provide and find cures for health hazards caused by over-indulgence in tobacco and alcohol is mind-blowing. There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed, Gandhi said.

There is a visual problem here that perhaps underlies much of the current thinking about success. The media loves to trumpet short success stories that will grab anyone’s attention. We are constantly bombarded with headlines such as:

Each of these sites (click on to hyperlink to the actual site) promises you overnight success or at least success in a much shorter time span than is realistic. These ads are in the news, checkout stands, on TV and just about anywhere you turn around. The constant daily bombardment of such ads creates a zeitgeist in which overnight success not only seems to be possible; but it actually seems to be the norm.  If you are not an overnight success, if you cannot become rich in days rather than years, if you contemplate a life of hard work to attain your fame and fortune, than something is wrong with you.  Anyone subscribing to the first 3 sets of beliefs I mentioned in the opening is a peculiar species today.  The most common belief about success in the new millennium can be summed up as:

I don’t have time to wait. I don’t have the patience to wait.  I don’t want to spend my life waiting.  I am entitled to success now.  Why should I have to wait?  I am as good as any of these rich successful people. If only everyone could see how good I really am, I would get the fame and fortune I deserve now.  If you expect me to shut up and work hard, I will leave and go elsewhere. You need me more than I need you.

I believe that Gandhi and many of my generation would find such ideas very peculiar not to mention that they contradict certain universal principles. Every time I hear of a new terrorist attack in this country or a new massacre at some workplace, I wonder how much the instigator was influenced by his or her desire for overnight fame and fortune.  In some bizarre out-of-this-world thinking, these maniacs equate their picture on page one of the news with a sort of glory that is accomplished by their bizarre and cruel rampage. The more they kill or maim, the greater they think their glory will be.  We can look for all the “reasons” why but we will never find any “good” reasons for anyone to take such anti-social actions against others. The paradox is that often the very people they hate are the ones they wanted attention or recognition from.

Ok, time for questions:

Have you raised your children to believe in hard work?  Are you one of the parents who want to make sure their kids have it easy?  How do you know how much hard work is enough?  Do you think you are entitled to success because or if you work hard?  What other factors play a role in success?  Is it fair that some people do not seem to have to work hard and yet still reap big rewards?  Do people today have it too easy compared to the immigrants that founded this country?

Life is just beginning.

Onwards Towards Death and Dying:  Part Two on Aging

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This is the second part of a blog that I wrote a few weeks ago.  Part one dealt with the issue of death.  I was surprised by how many reader comments noted that people do not usually talk about this subject.  I realized from listening to several remarks that not only do we face death inevitably as we age but that there is a “journey” to death that we all take.  It is the final years of our lives.  These final years are perhaps the most important years for many of us.  They will certainly be the most difficult.

In this second part, I would like to discuss some ideas for making these last years or twilight years of our lives as happy and successful as they can be.  By success, I am not talking about making a lot of money or winning the lottery.  Being successful in old age is about living our final years with dignity and integrity.  It is not about recapturing our youth, but it is about capturing the maturity that many of us (myself included) never captured when we were younger.  There is no merit to the comment that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.  I know too many older people who are continually learning and growing in their twilight years.

Letting Go versus Giving Up

Many people confuse letting go with giving up.  I know many people who cannot quit work, hobbies, sports etc., that they are no longer capable of doing.  A woman friend of mine (who is my age) has recently bought a new motorcycle after crashing her last one.  She has for many years had difficulties handling her bikes, but she still insisted after her last accident on buying a new two wheeled bike.  Many older people who do not want to give up the sport finally realize that they will be better off with a trike or a three-wheeled motorcycle.  They are not giving up the sport, but they are letting go of something that they can no longer do.  You are all familiar with the adage of the aging boxer who cannot give up his dreams of becoming a champion again.  It is a dangerous dream based on not being willing to let go.

There are going to be many things that we once did as we get older that we either can no longer do or that we cannot hope to do at our former level of performance.  Giving up is to quit.  I am not advocating quitting.  Quitting is a formula for simply accepting death and waiting patiently for it.  I have no desire to share such a counsel.  I am advising that we realistically appraise our abilities and decide when it is time for us to hang up our spurs or gloves and perhaps pursue some other activity.

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I have been running for nearly fifty years now.  I know that it gets harder to run each year, but I am still able to comfortably continue my outdoor runs.  When the time comes that it becomes too dangerous or too hard, I will either buy a treadmill, switch to bicycling or simply go out for long walks each day.  I will let go of running but I will not give up exercising.  Not letting go is generally motivated by too much pride and in the case of old age, pride definitely goes before a fall.  Witness the number of elderly people who still insist on climbing up on their roofs or getting up on that ladder to fix something.  The outcome is too often sadly predictable.  As Pete Seeger sang “When will they ever learn.”

Coping

When we were young, we did not put much effort into coping.  As we get older, it often becomes more difficult to cope with life.  We can become burdened by physical problems, problems with our loved ones, monetary problems, or many other social issues.  We need to have ways to cope with these issues as we get older.  I have found that we can break coping strategies into two categories:  Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness.

  • Mental Fitness

Perhaps the most difficult mental challenge we face as we age is to stay engaged in life.  Once we are no longer employed, it can seem that life has no meaning.  Suicide rates among the elderly are very high and attest to this loss of meaning and purpose as we age.

“Many associate suicides with young people, like troubled teens or twenty somethings who never quite got their lives off the ground.  In fact, it is much more common among older adults.  According to new figures just released this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the highest rate of suicides in America is among people age 45 to 64. There were more than 232,000 suicides in this age group from 1999 to 2016.”  — Forbes, 2018, Older Adults at Greatest Risk For Suicide

I believe that there are three keys to mental fitness.  We must stay interested in life, involved in life and active in life.

Staying interested might involve becoming interested.  Perhaps when you were working, you were so busy that you had no other outside interests.  You now have time to go to the library and find some area of knowledge that you are excited about.  The best way to stay interested in life is to keep learning.  It might mean continuing to read the paper or read some books or write some papers.  Write your memoirs for your family.  Too few elderly leave anything behind when they die except a box of lifeless pictures.  What about telling your children who, what and why you did the things you did when they were growing up.  Chances are they never went to work with you or really understood what you did when they were growing up.

My wife Karen has taken up playing the dulcimer.  She plays with a group of other dulcimer players (mostly retired women in Tucson) who go by the name of the Tucson Dulcimer Ensemble.  They play at churches, festivals, nursing homes and assisted living centers.  I have attended many of these sessions and I can safely say that Karen and her group are deeply appreciated by the older people at these centers who may be too frail to get out to concerts anymore.

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Staying involved might mean finding a charity or volunteer group to work with.  It might mean taking more time with your family and grandchildren.  A good friend of mine who is 86 has become quite involved with several groups including the Rotary, SCORE and a Marine Corp Honor Guard.  He told me this past week that he has participated at 451 funerals for former Marines.  Lou is involved in life and still making a difference in the lives of others.

Staying active.  I am not talking about physical activity here, but activity aimed at exploring the world.  Activity aimed at opening your mind to the world around you.  One way to stay active mentally is to go someplace you have not been before.  Go to a meeting of your political party.  Go to a church.  Go to a new restaurant.  Go to a park, museum, zoo or famous tourist sight.  Go anyplace, just don’t sit at home.  Become an explorer of life.  It is never too late.

Mental health experts will tell you that the best way to fight depression and thoughts of suicide is to stay active.  I know many people my age who are finally getting out to see the world.  They are taking Senior Classes at their local college, going on cruises, joining hiking clubs or other clubs that help them get out and explore the world.

Karen and I have been to thirty-three countries.  We are planning to go to Russia next year.  I know neither of us has the energy for the trips that we took forty years ago, but I cannot imagine my life without exploring some new places that I have not been before.  We cannot afford to go as frequently as we used to but with some foresight and planning, we can still manage to make a trip every few years.  By the way, almost every time we have planned a trip, someone has said “Don’t you think it is dangerous to go there.  What about the terrorists?”  I assure you that I would rather be shot by a terrorist then die a craven coward in my bed.

  • Physical Fitness

There are three components of physical fitness.  These are Exercise, Diet and Discipline.  I do not have to tell you why physical fitness is important.  I doubt if anyone in the world denies the importance of fitness.  However, let me tell you a story which I think (sadly) exemplifies the American approach to exercise and diet and discipline.

I walked into a Circle K one morning (Very typical for me each day) and poured a cup of decaf coffee.  I walked up to the cashier.  She was in her late twenties and quite obese.  She must have been following a protocol because she asked me (as all cashiers at Circle K usually did) if I wanted a donut.  I replied that “Yes, I wanted a donut, but I did not want the calories.”  She answered very solemnly “I used to care but I don’t care anymore.”

The gyms and athletic clubs joke each year about the New Year Goals Effect.  Right after New Years (every year) the parking lots at the gyms will be filled to overflowing with new members.  Newly minted exercise addicts who have decided to lose fifty pounds, build fantastic muscle and look like Supergirl or Superman.  The joke among the fitness crew is that this will only last about six weeks and then the parking lot will return to normal as the new members go back to watching sports and eating potato chips during the “big game.”  Every weekend there is a big game.  Americans have become the fattest and (dare I say) physically laziest people in the world.

  • Exercise:

It does not matter whether you are eight or eighty.  Physical exercise is good for you.  A good physical regime includes:  stretching, strength, balance and cardio.  An hour a day, four or five days a week for anyone over sixty is enough to keep you feeling fit and looking fit.  The problem you are going to face is that too many regimes are designed for younger people.  The idea of “exercise goal setting” is highly overrated for anyone over sixty.  I have written a blog on this aspect of fitness which has a great deal of useful information on setting up a realistic exercise program when you are over sixty.  Go to How Can We Set Realistic Exercise Goals as We Age?

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  • Diet:

Moderation and common sense are the two keys here.  Every other day some expert or study is telling you that something is good for you or bad for you.  Today, eggs are bad.  Tomorrow eggs are good.  Today gluten is bad.  Tomorrow gluten is good.  Today alcohol is bad.  Tomorrow alcohol is good.  Today butter is bad, tomorrow butter is good.  The conflicting studies, reports and information are enough to drive anyone crazy.  What I have found over the years is the adage “All things in moderation” is generally a good way to go.

True, some things are definitely bad for some people, even many people.  Smoking has no health benefits.  Excessive alcohol consumption is not going to do any good for your health.  In fact, though, excessive anything from donuts to beef to fish may not be good for you.  Our bodies seem to thrive on a balanced diet.

I am a calorie counter.  Every day, I enter my calories in an online software program called “Fatsecret.”  This program allows me to research calories for thousands of food items, enter them in a calorie spreadsheet and at the end of the day, it tells me how many fat, carbs, proteins and total calories I have ingested.  It is easy to use, and I find that when I use it faithfully, I can keep my weight and body measurements in acceptable ranges.  I use a weight scale at home which measures about six different body factors to monitor my health.  These scales are cheap to purchase and easy to use.  I calculate my body indexes about every six months or so.  It takes less than one minute on the scale and then I enter the data in an Excel Spreadsheet.   As of this month, my latest data is:

Body fat: 18.1

Muscle:  29.9

Bone:  4.6

TBW:  67

BMI:  24

Weight:  Average for this month – 149.42

I enter the following data from my annual physical into my spread sheet as well to help me track trends and to see whether I am maintaining, declining or improving.  Trend data is much more relevant for determining health priorities than single data points taken once per year.  Few if any doctors routinely track trend data for their patients.  My latest annual physical gave me the following data:

Glucose:  92

Total Cholesterol:  211

HDL:  71

LDL:  128

Blood pressure:  115/70

Resting pulse rate:  60

  •  Discipline:

 The last factor in staying physically fit is discipline.  You might think that some of the above is “overkill.”  What you need to remember is that you do not have to enter data every day.  If you manage to do two out of every three days in the month, you will still have plenty of data to manage your diet and health.  There are many days when Karen and I are traveling, when I forget, when we are busy with friends or when we are at someone else’s house, that it is difficult to chart any data.  I do not worry.  Just like you do not have to exercise every day to be healthy, you do not have to chart data every single day.  If you manage to get sixty percent of your days charted, you will be doing great.  I set my goal at sixty percent for the month in terms of charting as well as days to exercise.  If I miss my goal, I simply try again next month.  The secret is to keep trying and not to give up.  If I have a bad month, I get up and try again next month.

Thinking back to the joke about health wannabees on New Year’s Day trying to get fit in less than six weeks.   It probably will not happen.  Some will make it to fitness, but it is not a six-week project, it is more likely (depending on your present level of fitness) a two to three-year project.  What will separate the winners in this battle from the “wannabees”, is simply the factor of discipline and determination.  Can you get up today and go to the gym?  If not, can you get up tomorrow and go to the gym?  Can you manage to go to the gym at least 35 percent of the days in this month?  Can you manage 25 percent?  My goal is sixty percent.   Many months I do not make this goal.  I try again the next month.  Goals are not etched in stone.  You need to be determined and disciplined but you also need to be flexible and fallible.  We are all only human and we will fail, time and time again.  It takes discipline to keep trying and not to give up.

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There are two more segments to aging that I would like to cover, but I fear that this blog has become too long.  In part three, we will look at what I call “Facing Reality” issues as well as the problem of “Economics.”  This latter issue will address money problems, budgets and finances as we age.  I specifically want to deal with those of us who are not rich and did not set aside enough to simply live happily ever after with no worries about money.  I for one need to be concerned about money every day, but I do not use the term worry since I generally have some things under control.  I want to share with you some of my strategies in these areas next blog.

Time for Questions:

What did you find helpful in my blog?  What ideas will you try?  What strategies have you found that you think help you to age gracefully?  Can you share your ideas in the comments section?

Life is just beginning.

“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”  ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I Die?

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“Every now and then I think about my own death.”  Martin Luther King was only thirty-nine years old when he said these words and shared his thoughts about what he wanted his life to stand for.  I think about these words a great deal these days but more in connection with my own life.  The thought that someone only 39 years old had to contemplate the ramifications and implications of death is alarming.  No one should have such worries until old age.

“It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”
― Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before

I don’t know when I started to think about dying but at age seventy-two, I suppose it is worth reflecting on.  Wasn’t it Socrates who said that the “Unexamined life is not worth living?”  Death is one part of life that many of us may put off thinking about until perhaps it is too late.  I have had ample evidence that death is inevitable.

My grandfather died at the age of fifty-six when I was only eight years old in 1954.  My father died in 1985 when he was 60 years old and I was not yet forty.  My mother died in 1994 when she was 68 and my oldest sister died in 2002 when she was fifty-five years old.  I have had many other relatives and friends who have already departed this world at an earlier than expected age.  I seldom am surprised anymore by anyone else’s death.

Every now and then I think about dying and how I will succumb to Charon.  Will I go willingly? Will I go honorably?  Will my life have meant something?  Will I have made a difference in the world?  The how, when and where of death holds fascinating opportunities for reflection.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
― Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Occasionally, I think about going out of this world, fast.  I had a Yamaha FZ1 up to 160 mph on the I35 going to Duluth one morning.  A crash at that speed might not have been going out in a blaze of glory, but it would have been quick.  I wonder if it would have been painless?  That would be a plus.

Sometimes I think about going out heroically.  I dive into some icy river or rush into a burning house to save some poor soul.  I don’t make it.  Will the world remember me as a hero or some idiot with heroic aspirations who failed at his hero task?

Part of me would like to die in bed.  I think of the remark that Clive Cussler made that the best way to go is in bed with your accountant telling you that you are ten dollars overdrawn in your account.  I would die peacefully with my beloved Karen and sister Jeanine at my side.  I would use my last breath to tell them how much I love them.  No pain but no heroic antics either.  Sort of a blah death in a way but it does have an appeal.

I was doing a morning run this week when the thought of dying kept intruding into my run.  I sometimes think about how long it would take a bullet to hit me when I run in the mountains and desert.  There are always some folks who seem to prefer shooting near the park rather than in the approved shooting ranges on the other side of the Casa Grande Mountains.  I can hear the boom of their shots echoing across the desert valley.  I wonder precisely how long it would take a stray bullet to strike me?  A friend of mine said much less than one second.  I count the seconds anyway after I hear a boom and wonder what my last thoughts will be.

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Death accidently shot while running in the mountains would no doubt be a fast but ignominious way of dying.  I am opting for something a little more glamourous.  I think about the headline in the Casa Grande Dispatch the next day.  “Man accidently shot while running trails in the mountains by MORON exercising his Second Amendment rights.”  Man and MORON would be linked for all eternity.  How will anyone weave this into my eulogy?

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
― Banksy

Some of you reading this might be thinking “This guy is really morose, maybe even suicidal.”  The experts say that reflecting on death too much might not be healthy and might be evidence of suicidal tendencies.  However, (as you might expect) other experts say that reflecting on death is a normal and even important aspect of aging that may help prepare us for the coming trials of old age.  A quote I rather like goes like this “Old age is not for the faint of heart.”

My sister (who seems to know everyone in the State of Rhode Island) is five years younger than I am and manages to go to at least one or two funerals a month.  I avoid funerals, but I prefer them to weddings.  While funerals may be no more honest than weddings when it comes to the things people will say about the departed, at least funerals preclude any errant delusions of grandeur (For example, living happily ever after).  How many newlyweds will manage to live happily ever after?

I have always said (half-jokingly) that I want to go first.  I want Karen to live on long after I pass away and have a good life.  Many of the things I do today are in a sense to help prepare for that eventuality.  I had expected that Karen would no doubt survive me as women generally live longer than men.  Besides, my life has been lived much faster than Karen’s and thus I have used up more of my “thread of life.”  However, with old age I have had second thoughts on this expectation.

“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
― Shannon Alder

A few weeks ago, I was sharing a bottle of Brandy and some cigars with two friends, when I said that I hoped that I would go first as I could not think of being alone in this life without Karen.  One of the other men astonished me when he said, “I want my wife to go first.”  I immediately assumed that he was being selfish but being curious I asked him why?  He explained very sincerely that his wife had been quite sick and that he had no one else to take care of her.  He did not want to leave her alone without his help.  I was moved by his charity and unselfishness which suddenly made my position seem quite the opposite.  Selfish!  Selfish!  Selfish!

Another joke I have often made was that I married a nurse so that she could take care of me when I was old and feeble.  I always thought this was funny.  In the last few years, I have had a different perspective.  My spouse (who really is a nurse) is getting older and frailer.  The wear and tear of aging is very visible in new creases, new lines, slower movements and lower energy levels.  The realization hit me like the proverbial brick a few years ago that I might be taking care of her rather than the other way around.

a course in dying without bird

I doubt that anyone who knows me would ever think of me as a “caregiver.”  But I have always been a pragmatist and so I have started taking some caregiver classes and classes on aging.   I have also taken one on the various aspects of Dementia and Alzheimers.  I will grow old along with my spouse and do what I can to take care of both of us.  I may not always believe that the “best is yet to be” but I will do my best to help make this possibility a reality.

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“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
― Socrates

I don’t want to glamorize getting old but neither do I want to disparage the possibilities that old age has for many of us.  I will never know the how, when or where of my dying, but I can live my life the best I can and each day try to be the best person, husband, friend, father and neighbor that I can be.  Each day life offers me more choices to grow old with dignity.  To face the difficulties of aging more boldly and maybe even heroically.  To paraphrase Martin Luther King, when I die:

  • Don’t tell them about my titles
  • Don’t tell them about my degrees
  • Don’t tell them about my jobs
  • Don’t tell them about the books I wrote or the places I have been
  • Tell them I wanted to be a good person and was honest enough to know that I usually fell short.

Time for Questions:

Do your ever think about dying?  What do you want to be remembered for? How would you like to die?  Do you think you will go fast or slow?

Life is just beginning.

“In the end, I won’t say that I have ‘NO REGRETS’ because that would be bullshit.  I have more regrets than I can count.” —  J. Persico

 

 

Four Remarkable People on a Quest

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Part 1 – The Meeting

Once upon a time, there were four remarkable men.  Well, actually there were two remarkable men and two remarkable women.  A confluence of circumstances brought them together in perhaps one of the strangest coincidences in history.

Jamal was from the north.  He was one of the highest scorers to ever take the Mensa Genius Examination.  When he was only four years old, he developed a program to block credit card companies from calling his parents on their cell phones.  When he was seven years old, he developed a new form of cryptocurrency which was impossible to hack, easily transferred, had high usability and presented a respectable means of acquisition.  The currency was so popular that Jamal became a billionaire when he was 15 years old.

Isabella was from the south.  She graduated when she was 12 years old from the University of São Paulo with a Ph.D. degree in Physics and Philosophy.  She burned through required credits like a hot knife going through butter.  She had no problem paying for her tuition since she was hired by the University of São Paulo physics department to help with a particle research project they were undertaking, while she was earning her degree.  When she graduated, half of the physics departments in the world tried to hire her.

Li Na was from the east.  She was born in Chengdu, a sub-provincial city which serves as the capital of China’s Sichuan province.  She was the only child of an older couple who really wanted a boy.  Li Na learned to play soccer, baseball, table tennis and hockey at a young age.  She wanted to please her parents.  She was an excellent athlete who competed in all four sports in the Olympics.  However, her athletic abilities were far overshadowed by her intellect.  Li Na had mathematical abilities that rivaled any mathematician in history.  She could take any number and give you the square root of the number down to 1000 roots without a calculator or even an abacus.

When Li Na was fourteen years old, she decided to tackle all six of the remaining Millennium Prize Problems set by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000.  Li Na was able to solve all six of them within a month, but she decided it would be unfair to accept the prize money as the solutions were so easy.  She therefore rejected the prize and kept the solutions to herself.  Corporations all over the world engaged her with solving problems that defied normal mathematical solutions.  She gave her money back to her parents to help support them and to put into savings.  No one knew what she was worth, but it was assumed that she was a mega millionaire.

Elijah was from the west. He was born in California in a commune that practiced a form of communal marriage.  Elijah was never sure of who his father was, and he seemed to grow up with several mothers.  At an early age, Elijah showed a talent for music.  When he was three years old, he taught himself to play a violin.  At four, he learned to play an oboe and at five, he learned to play a harp.  When he was six, he took first place in the Menuhin Competition beating out every other contestant regardless of age.

As remarkable as his talent for playing music was, Elijah’s skills and abilities in the area of composing music were even more incredible.  He had written six operas, twenty movie scores and five symphonies before he was 16 years old.  Orchestras all over the world were playing his compositions when most people did not even know his name.  Elijah hated publicity and avoided any of the usual celebrity events.  He donated most of his money to help other aspiring musicians.  He was well known among musicians and performers for his humility and kindness towards others.

cafe-wrenEach of our four remarkable people were into their middle years when by chance they met at a small cafe and restaurant in a town called Luck in Northwestern Wisconsin.  Luck is a small town of about 1200 residents, which in its heydays was the home of the Duncan Yo-yo.  In fact, it was once known as the Yo-yo Capital of the world.  Sadly, Yo-yo’s had declined in popularity and so had the fortunes of Luck in terms of prosperity and jobs.  Now perhaps, the high spot of Luck was the Wren Cafe.  A place that had excellent food, good beer and a unique ambiance imbued by its extremely creative owner Stephanie Lundeen.

The café is well known to locals and to many of the cabin people who come up on the weekends to enjoy their sojourns from the “big city” of Minneapolis.  Li Na, Elijah, Isabella and Jamal were each brought there by friends who were locals and who knew that the Wren was a very good place to eat.  The Wren being a small place and small towns being where everyone knows everyone, introductions were soon flying like falling Wisconsin snow.  Our four remarkable people sensed that a new chapter in their lives was about to begin.

Thus, at 12 PM on a cool summer day in Luck Wisconsin, Li Na, Elijah, Isabella and Jamal experienced a nuclear fusion of intimacy.  The result was like a billion tons of dynamite going off at once or the largest fireworks display in the world.  The talent that each had was like a magnet that created an instant bond between the four.  Finding other people of comparable abilities and demeanor was something that they had only dreamed about.  They all found the rapport and affinity they had for each other to be amazing.

After an hour or so of rapid conversation intermixed with more general discussion with others in their parties, our four remarkable people decided to meet again when they could have more time to discuss their lives without anyone else present.  Unbeknownst to their friends and families, Li Na, Jamal, Elijah and Isabella all had serious inner doubts that they had never been able to share with another living soul.  Each believed that they had found some kindred souls with whom they could share their secrets and perhaps find some piece of mind.  They agreed to meet again at the Wren the following week.  It was a week they knew they must spare from their busy lives.

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Part 2 – Four Doubts

For several years now, Jamal had begun to feel that there was no meaning to his life.  He had even contemplated suicide because he felt that he had nothing left to live for. The world did not seem to have people that cared about anything but their new smart phones or how fast their Internet speeds were.  Life was one vast merry go round with people constantly jumping on and off and reacting to whatever the current fads and trends were.  Nobody cared about anything but how much money they had and how many things they could buy.  Jamal desired to know if there was a true Purpose in Life or if life was simply meaningless.

Elijah had many of the same feelings as Jamal.  Elijah no longer found value in anything in life.  Everything he had ever owned or purchased soon became worthless in his mind.  The best yachts, cars and homes that anyone could buy could not make him happy.  Fame and talent and beauty all seemed to fade over time.  People were fickle.  One minute they loved you and the next minute they loved somebody else.  Elijah knew what it was like to be famous and admired but it had lost any value to him.  He thought that being known as the greatest musician in the world would satisfy his inner longings.  Even though he had obtained this goal, it did not seem to provide the value that he had hoped for.  Elijah longed to know if there was any true Value in Life or if everything was really worthless.

Isabella had once believed that there was a hidden truth to life that remained to be found.  She had studied physics and philosophy thinking that they would lead her to this truth.  She had spent many years searching for this truth.  However, every time she found a truth, she soon realized that it was also a lie.  The prophets and great religious leaders had always taught that “The truth will set you free.”  Isabella could never find the talisman that would set her free.

She desperately wanted to believe that there was some truth to existence and that life was more than just a series of lies and deceptions.  She had a desire to find this truth, but she had become increasingly discouraged.  Each day she read the news and only found “Fake Facts” and deceptions masquerading as truth.  The world seemed to have misinformation and disinformation but no truth.  Isabella wanted to find the Truth of Life.

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Li Na was another tormented soul.  A brilliant mathematician, she could not discover a single constant in life.  Every time she thought she had found a concept in mathematics that would provide such a constant, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem would rear its ugly head proving still again that it is impossible to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for mathematics.  If mathematics had no constants, how could life have any constants.  Was is simply true that death and taxes were the only constants in life?  Li Na wanted to believe that there was more to life than simply death and taxes.  Li Na desired to find the one Constant in Life that would really make life worth living.  If she could find this constant, she believed that it would put her soul at rest and she might find true peace on earth.

Part 3 – The Doubts Unfold

To Be Continued:  I will publish the next part of this story when it is finished.  I appreciate your patience. 

Time for Questions:

What do you think so far?  How do you like the four people in the story?  Have you ever shared similar doubts?  What did you do about them?  What do you believe about life?

Life is just beginning. 

“Doubt as sin. — Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

Endless Horizons:  How We Learn and Develop

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I have a theory about life and about how we grow as individuals. I call this my theory of “Endless Horizons.”  I developed this theory through experience and observation.  I would like to share it with you this week.  It has been a big inspiration in my life and provided a great deal of motivation for me in my journeys.  It involves the ability to accept the unknown but with a difference that is important.  Whereas many theories posit an “unknown and unknowable,” my theory says that what is unknown may just possibly be “over the next horizon.”  Let me explain more.

Once upon a time, I believed that what we see, feel, taste and smell was all that there was.  It did not get any better or worse than what I was already experiencing.  I was usually a very angry guy.  I was ready to physically fight at the drop of a hat or some perceived slur or insult.  My temper and lack of anger management got me into a lot of trouble.  I was arrested for assault and battery.  I had more fights than I can remember.

“Those who improve with age embrace the power of personal growth and personal achievement and begin to replace youth with wisdom, innocence with understanding, and lack of purpose with self-actualization.” — Bo Bennett

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Perhaps worse was the constant state of fear that it kept my first wife and daughter in.  I never realized how hurtful my temper and lack of anger control was to them.  From my throwing things, to yelling and punching walls, I was like a volcano that might explode at any moment.  Even my sleep time was violent.  I was constantly having nightmares of someone chasing me and trying to kill me.  I would wake up drenched in sweat with my pulse racing a mile a minute.

My first wife and I divorced after sixteen years.  My daughter who was fifteen at the time eventually cut off all contact with me.  I have not seen or talked to her for over twenty years now.

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“Building a better life for every child is a lot harder than becoming a world champion. Both goals take dedication and commitment.” — Kim Yuna

I knew I needed some help and I joined a treatment program for violent and abusive men.  About ½ of the men were in treatment voluntarily and about ½ were court ordered.  It was sponsored by the Wilder Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I completed the program (which met weekly) for about 16 weeks. After that I continued with a support group for another two years or so.  The support group also met weekly and was restricted to men who had finished the regular treatment program.  I had a buddy (Jerry) whom I could call if my temper flared up.  Jerry was part of my process or control plan for dealing with my anger issues rather than acting out.  There was more to the plan that included walks and other means of cooling off. 

I do not know whether my marriage would have been saved if I had gone through this program earlier.  I do know my wife would have been a lot happier and my daughter would probably still be speaking to me.  Another thing I know is that my nightmares went away.

Getting back to my “Endless Horizon Theory,” I first observed it in the anger support groups that I went to weekly.  Before coming to these groups, most “angry” men were in denial.  It was always, “they or she made me do it.”  “It was not my fault.”  The horizon of most men in terms of their awareness of themselves was very short.  After they went to treatment, they made it to a new horizon of sorts.  From this new horizon, many men could now understand that it was their fault not the fault of others around them.  If they chose to, they did not have to go through life angry, violent and abusive.  Standing at the horizon of having accepted their responsibility for their anger, they could see a new horizon.  This horizon was one of equanimity and if not happiness, at least not misery.  The support groups offered a way to get to this next horizon.  As they say, “Rome was not built in a day.”  Well, dealing with anger problems involves a trip of years.  It would not be an easy journey for many of these men.

I stayed in the group for nearly two years.  Many of the men I met during these two years were also long-timers.  Our support group seemed to grow together as friends and comrades along the journey.  I think many of us made it to the next horizon.  When I arrived there, I saw another horizon just beyond the one I had reached.  We had all assumed that the best we could get would be a life without being constantly angry and explosive.  When I came to this new horizon, I began to understand that there was more that I could accomplish.  The next horizon promised happiness and a positive outlook to life.  Many of us had gone from a negative outlook on life to a neutral outlook and now saw a horizon that promised a positive outlook.

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell

Unfortunately, the Wilder Center did not see that as the role of these support groups.  They saw their mission as helping to curb domestic abuse.  They did not see their mission as helping men grow and develop beyond their ability to control their anger issues.  With the lack of support and even hostility towards our new goal, many of the long-termers in my group simply quit and went away.  I kept in touch with a few men, but the years have melted these relationships away. 

“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” — N. R. Narayana Murthy

I realized that when I reached one horizon, I could now see beyond it to a new horizon. It was clear to me that there was possibly an infinite number of new horizons.  If one has the tenacity, discipline and determination, there is no end to the development that we potentially can reach.  Another experience gave me more proof for my theory of “Endless Horizons.”

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My second wife Karen and I have both been to two Marriage Encounter weekends.  We went to our first Marriage Encounter weekend about five years into our marriage.  The second weekend was about ten years after the first.  Both weekends had very positive impacts on our marriage, friendship and lives.  My horizon theory was further strengthened by events that happened at both weekends.  I will relate the events at the first weekend.

I was long past worrying about anger issues by the time of our first Marriage Encounter weekend.  I had been trying to be more tolerant of Karen and some of the things that she did that annoyed me.  I had reached what I will call a Horizon of Tolerance.  I thought I was doing pretty good when I could practice tolerance.  When I could not, I would be sarcastic, rude and frustrated.  We went to the first weekend as a means of improving our marriage.  I will forever be grateful to the organizations and volunteers that put these weekends on.  We have found that both these weekends helped us to be better lovers, parents and friends.

Well, during the first weekend, we were having some discussion about the issue of tolerance.  I was pretty pumped up because I thought I was doing pretty good with dealing with this issue.  I made the remark that I thought I was very tolerant.  The response I received caught me by surprise.  It was something to the effect that tolerance falls short of respecting the other person. The speaker explained that tolerance simply accepts what is.  Respect on the other hand sees the benefits and appreciates the value of what is.  There is a significant difference between respect and tolerance.  For instance, we can tolerate minorities or people who are different than we are but that is not the same as respecting them.

I was confronted with a new horizon for my relationship with Karen and our marriage. Again, I realized that this new horizon further supported my “Endless Horizon” theory of growth and development.  I had finally accepted (and thus my theory was born) that there is an endless number of horizons.  Each horizon presents a new possibility for growth.  We cannot see beyond our present horizon, but we can be sure that something new will await us once we reach it.

“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.”  — Napoleon Hill

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What does it take to reach a horizon?  I said earlier that you must have determination.  It helps to have support and coaching along the way.  As the song says, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”  It also takes commitment to keep trying.  There are lots of potholes along the way. There are dead-ends.  There are large crevasses, boulders and obstacles to overcome.  There are no straight flat highways to the next horizon.  It is not a straight-line journey.  There are times when you will get lost and times when you will go backwards.  But the journey is not to the fittest but to the ones who are most determined.

Time for Questions:

What horizon are you at in your life?  What new horizons have you found in your life’s journey?  What obstacles have you had to overcome?  Have you given up on finding new horizons or are you still searching for new horizons?  Why or why not?

Life is just beginning.

“The journey is never ending. There’s always gonna be growth, improvement, adversity; you just gotta take it all in and do what’s right, continue to grow, continue to live in the moment.” — Antonio Brown

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