Thursday, July 18, 2019

At the End of My 80th Year

My father and I were riding in a car near my house in Pasadena when he quietly said, not long after I'd become a father myself for the second time: "The older I get, the less I know." It was not the kind of observation this man's man, who prided himself on his wide knowledge of practical matters, had ever made before. It surprised me then and has remained in my memory until today. Now I know what he meant.

If life is a journey then I'm nearing the end of it and I don't know where I've been going.  If life has any purpose, at least for me, I've never figured out what it was, and if I were a bird I've been flying blind. I've tried on numerous religious beliefs for size but none of them ever fit for very long. The rituals, though, were fascinating and fun, and the human propensity for religion intrigues me still today. I suspect there is an irreversible connection between the brain in my head and the identity I've been clinging to as "me." When that lump of tissue stops doing its job, I'll be gone like a puff of smoke. The idea of an afterlife strikes me as distinctly odd.  What or which "me" would survive? My current suspicion is  that the self is a mental construct resulting from the encounter of brain and body with experiences in the world. I never been very fond of the notion that life is suffering, or even filled with anxiety (or, needless to say, sin). There have been too many moments of genuine bliss and laughter to buy that explanation. Sure, times have sometimes been tough, mostly because of the mistakes I've made, born in moments of selfishness, pride or anger. But on the whole it's been a sweet ride, filled with love and the kindness of friends and strangers. I'm grateful for every minute of it.

I can be reasonably certain that almost everyone reading this blog post is younger than me. My longest and closest friend, who was by senior by three years, died last year. We'd known each other for over 45 years. Friends I see here in the flesh (as opposed to my virtual friends online), are all at least ten years younger. I feel a bit like the last of the breed. In these days of impending climate catastrophe and species extinction, that's not an unusual position to be in.

I've resisted this accounting until the final moments of my 80th year. There's no lack of distraction to keep an old intention like this at bay. As an elderly expat in Thailand with a loving helpmate to navigate the roadblocks and ease the way, I find myself in the enviable place of loving life with few regrets. Each dawn I scan the sunrise from my 9th floor window for inspiration. Sometimes a little rain must fall, for this is the monsoon season in Southeast Asia. But the clouds, oh! And the colors which are never quite captured by my iPad camera. Exceptional!

Now I'm facing what is supposed to be a significant milestone, my 80th birthday.  These calendar celebrations are mostly cultural inventions (Thais seem less interested in birthdays), but they serve a purpose. People probably know I entered my 80th year last July (we celebrate our 1st birthday at the end of our 1st year), so this month's birthday marks the end of it and the beginning of my 81st year. I've had a bit of time getting accustomed to being an octogenarian. It continues to be a surprise each day to find myself so old.  The mind, poor memory aside, feels much like the same mind I had when I was in my 20s and 50s, or so I recall. But the body! Oh!

When I began writing this blog in April of 2006, one of the reasons was to record and comment on the process of aging, not so much to pass on any tidbits of wisdom as to watch what was happening from the inside in order to deal with the difficulties more effectively. If my observations are useful, then good. I posted regularly each year through 2014. There were a few more posts in 2015 and 2017 which tried to sum up my life and experiences at that time. But by then I felt as if I'd said everything I needed to say, at least via the long blog format, in the over 550 posts I'd written during those 13 years.

Since then I've been furiously active on social media -- Facebook, Twitter and Instagram -- posting and commenting on a wide variety of topics that interest me, those in the title of this blog and also way too much about the current political drama in the U.S., Europe and Thailand (to choose only a few high spots).  Not a few of my friends, who haven't blocked or snoozed me for excessive posting, even read them and respond.

In Jerry's last months, as his body grew thinner and bonier from heart problems and perhaps cirrhosis, we used to sit at his kitchen table and celebrate our happiness at ending up in Thailand with women and their families we loved and who cared for us. We were close enough in age to share cultural references that others might not recognize, and our time in the music scene in the 1970s gave our friendship a grounding only occasionally shaken by his judgments about the many ways our views and opinions differed. Jerry had little interest in American politics after 15 years away, and he hated not only expats who wore shorts and flip-flops but also all social media other than email. Like many technophobes, he disguised his inability to understand with dislike. When he could no longer go out easily, a blow to his love of the Bangkok social scene, I would download movies for him from the internet to watch on the laptop in his bedroom, hundreds of them. I got him ebooks as well but he wasn't able to figure out the iBooks program on his Mac.

Social media has been like a candy store for me. When I was a returning student in the 1980s, I discovered a love for research in the library. I would find a location call number for a subject that sparked my curiosity and then would browse all the books in the neighborhood. Locating a comfortable chair, I would sit for hours with a pile of books to browse. The old card catalog was slowly moving online and I learned to use dumb terminals connected to the database to find books I wanted in other places, and I would would order them from inter-library loan. Then I bought a used terminal and a noisy phone modem and learned I could research libraries from home during the early days of the World Wide Web. In time I got my first Apple computer and later traded up for a color model when they were developed. I followed along as the internet technology picked up speed and gradually absorbed all the knowledge in the documented world. Only curiosity was necessary, and the world would reveal its jewels of information to the willing acolyte. I was hooked, for good and ill. As any user knows, the internet has a dark and an addictive side, and avoiding temptation was often a challenge.

So while the huge arguments surrounding the giant corporations controlling the internet have their merits, for me the benefits of a virtually-connected world outweigh problems like threats to privacy and monopoly control. I spend at least three hours every morning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google News and Feedly, an app that collects stories from a variety of sites I follow.  I've learned to skim news items, focusing on trusted sources and finding support when I come across questionable information.  It's not hard to separate reliable from fake news but it takes a bit of work.

The internet has made it possible to stay in touch with distant family and friends. My three children in the U.S. are not as addicted as I to the medium. My oldest son prefers Twitter, the youngest Instagram and my daughter uses email. I was not the best father. My first family suffered from my involvement in the music business, and the second from neglect when I returned to university study. I was often not there when they needed me, so I must work harder now to stay in touch at this time of in our lives. In another era it would have been by writing real letters (which Jerry continued to do). Besides family, I am Facebook friends with people from almost every stage of my life, including Barb from junior high school. I discover old friends all the time, although its probably true that my cohort is mostly technophobic or inept about social media.  Not a few are rabid right wingers who I try to avoid.

I've been in love with the written word, reading it as well as recording my own views and opinions in sentences as articulate and as elegant as possible, since I started writing a music column in my local paper when I was a teenager (and an aspiring jazz musician on clarinet & alto sax). I was a journalist for much of the 1960s. Publishing a book was another matter. I tried writing short stories and poetry, and poked away at a novel that never took off. The only extended writing I've done was at university in the 1980s and 1990s (I was a late bloomer) where I wrote many academic papers, an MA thesis and a Ph.d. dissertation. In the process I wrote up my research on saving the redwoods for a local land trust and the book was given away for donations. Still, it had my name on it which was something. Sometimes I imagine that I might turn my 550 blog posts into a book of some sort, but the thought of reading them all over again does not appeal.

It seems a bit pointless to make long-term plans for the future now.  I could keel over tomorrow and it would be completely natural.  No one would cry out that "he died too young." Having learned that habits are the brain's way to conserve energy, I have embraced routine lovingly.  Besides my morning (sometimes as early as 4 am) appointment with the internet, I walk up the street to get a cappuccino in the morning and late afternoon, and I swim twice a day in my condo's pool. While sipping caffeine or sitting beside the pool, I read books in my iPad (over 400 waiting for my attention). I miss the feel and smell of paper books but my eyes are too poor and I appreciate being able to enlarge an ebook's type. In the evening after dinner I choose something from a long selection of TV show, movies and documentaries I've downloaded. My lady and I eat out at restaurants in the area once or twice a week. Now that she has a car, I'm looking forward to trips out of the city. My 80-year-old life is very full.

So what did my father mean when he said "the older I get, the less I know"? I think he meant his realization that old age brings with it a lessening of confidence in the certainties that sustained us during our middle years.  There's a time for true beliefs and a time for questions. Few of us recognize at the time that most beliefs and certainties are provisional and subject to later update. Of course a fading memory helps! I'm not even sure what I used to be certain of. Certainly it including an ignorance of the aging process. Perhaps that are some senior user manuals available now but I've not read them. Not a day goes by that I don't discover something new about my body's disintegration or the holes in my thinking about some important. This I suppose is what is meant by second childhood. If so, it's not a bad state of mind.