Monday, July 29, 2013

Bruce Thornton-- Still Loud and Clear at Amtrak

At Amtrak's 30th Street Station this morning, I saw -- or rather I heard -- Bruce Thornton, the Amtrak announcer with the basso voice.
A year ago when I met him, he was counting the months to  retirement. “I don’t want to be a honeydew,” he had told me, as in “Honey, do this! Honey, do that!”
As soon as he saw me, he grinned and said, "I've got 11 months to go!”
What will you do? I asked.
“I’m going to work mornings for USAIR,” he replied, a job he had mentioned last summer. Unlike so many of us, some people walk a very straight line into their next great thing, never doubting their choice.
I’ll try to talk with him a year from now and see how his transition is going.
I hope it will involve his wonderfully deep voice and that he’ll keep articulating “in the King’s English,”  just the way his high school teacher coached him to do.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Revealing Secrets, Repairing Reputations at Our 50th High School Reunion

I dropped by my high school reunion last weekend for the part I liked best last time around, 10 years ago. That was a casual lunch where people talked emotionally about what their high school experience had meant to their lives. It proved to be a significant question for 1963 graduates of Scarsdale High School who revealed their embarrassment –and occasional rebellion – at claiming this wealthy community as their hometown, especially during the Civil Rights era.
This time, the event moderator was a classmate who had risen in recent years to an unexpected spotlight: judge in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case.
“Ten years ago, I had no grandchildren. I now have four grandchildren,” Jim Peck said. “Ten years ago I was a practicing lawyer in a big law firm in New York. Today I’m a federal bankruptcy judge. My life has completely changed in 10 years.” 
He suggested that this time our class topic for discussion be, “How we are the same, how we are different and where do we see ourselves going?”

 But first, he said, “Let’s talk about why we came back to this reunion, our 50th.”
Big mistake. The judge with the chops to manage a courtroom teeming with lawyers, had just lost control of a classroom of 67-somethings, who never got back to the theme.
Instead, over the next hour and 17 minutes, there would be tears, laughter and true confessions as classmates – many of
whom barely knew each other back then – sought to explain what had drawn them back.
For some, it was a chance to show each other the person they had grown into – not the teenager who’d only gotten B’s or done dumb things – sometimes so dumb and so secret that even their classmates had never heard the tales til now.
Like: “Pool hopping” –swimming naked in people’s backyard pools, then running down the street naked, trying to escape the cops that some neighbor had called.
Or the regular poker game played in an apartment in the next town, rented by 14 or 15 seniors for that purpose.
Or calling the geometry teacher, “stupid” – and doing so in front of the entire class.
“I came here to salvage my reputation,” said one classmate, after listing his own litany of detentions. “Because I don’t want you to remember those incidents. I want you to remember me as someone who helped kids in the juvenile justice system and foster care. I want you to remember me for working for 25 years to develop programs for families dealing with cancer. And I want to be remembered as a good father.”
 Me, at graduation
Said another: “I came because I felt good enough myself to do it.  I used to be ashamed of myself and now I’m proud --of everybody.”
Yes, “proud of everybody.” There was love in the air, though most had to squint at each other’s name tags to remember who it was.
Eric Baron, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's business school and a consultant specializing in corporate training (, said one of his biggest regrets –which he first realized at the 20th reunion -- was failing to take the time to get to know so many “intelligent, thoughtful, creative” people while he was in high school. “I was horrified I had never made connections with them.  One of the reasons for coming back is to see some of those missed opportunities and to grab a little of it during the few hours we have together.”

Or as Jim Peck said of the previous night’s dinner:  “I ran into people I hadn’t seen in 50 years and I had more meaningful conversations with them than with people I really know well for 10 or 20 years, but we didn’t grow up together.” 
“Magically,” he said, “we are more friends than strangers.”
What it is it about these teenage ties that brings out so much emotion after so many years?

“You’re my peer group -- who I feel I am, ” said one. Between 4th grade when he entered the school system and graduation, “I became identifiably me and we were doing that together and it’s created a kind of psychological reference point that’s very powerful.”

“This is the closest we’re ever going to come to time travel,” said another. Coming back in time to talk with each other.
And,  “The seeds of my life were planted here.”

For a few contrarians, what they did not do in high school became the kick-in-the-pants for the rest of their lives:
One who rebelled against all the academic pressure cruised through high school as an underachiever, only to discover that his 85 average wasn’t good enough to get into an Ivy League school. So for the first time in 50 years, he came to a class reunion, traveling from Hong Kong to tell us of his life’s success.
“I think it gave me the impetus later to be very very motivated to be successful,” he rose to tell the group.  “My mantra was to be as successful as I could be.
Baron, nagged throughout his life by the regret that he had never dared to try out for football, said it had made him determined to take risks, most of which have worked out.
Perhaps the teariest moments of that lunch,  the gregarious, laughing kid we knew in high school revealed himself as have secretly been reeling. Insecure in a new school, angry about his parents’ divorce, and suddenly diagnosed with Type I diabetes, he crashed his car and was saved just in time by a shot of glucogen. High school offered him the lifeline of a new best friend and his friend’s whole family, whom he adored, he said, tears welling.
“The microcosm that Scarsdale High School was to me was really to face adversity. Major, major adversity.
“A lot of you saw me as a very happy-go-lucky guy who seemed like life was easy, but I needed to put that out there because I needed people to like me.”
Wrapping it up, Peck said.
“Emotions are at the surface here, much more so than in an ordinary gathering of people some of whom I don’t recognize. Yet we are bound together. I think that’s really important. I’m glad I came here.  Especially for this conversation.  There are two truly important things in life: love and work,” he said, citing Dr. Oliver Sacks citing Freud. “There’s love in the room. I can feel it. I feel the connectivity in the room. Let’s not lose that.”

As for me, I later wondered: Did I choose to come for only a fragment of the reunion weekend because I didn’t want to open myself up to so much emotion? Had I come, instead, more as a voyeur than a participant, to capture this moment in this essay? Was I still carrying the baggage of my own insecurity, afraid, as I had been in high school, of not being accepted?
Disbelieving, as I had 50 years before, that these people had elected me “Most Likely to Succeed,” because I hadn’t  believed in myself.

Do you go to class reunions? If not, why not? If so, what's your experience?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Oliver Sacks on his Mercurial Birthday

                                                                                 Photo by David Aaronovitch

UnRetiring author and neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, Hallucinations) just can't stop writing. Even though he's nearing 80, a landmark he believes should be symbolized by mercury, the 80th element. In this NY Times essay --  here --  he relishes his upcoming fete with a joie de vivre worth emulating.

Of course, Oliver Sacks sees life through the oddest lenses.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Unexpected Pleasures: The Surprising Perspective of Wendy Lustbader

Wendy Lustbader
Wendy Lustbader delights in upending stereotypes, especially when it comes to aging. She does so in a big way in her book,
Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older.
“What could those pleasures possibly be?” I asked Wendy, a professor of social work at the University of Washington and Huffington Post contributor who has devoted her career to understanding and explaining the inner feelings of older adults.
“I tackled the book because it seems like the opposite message is in our media, in all our conversations,” Wendy said, as we chatted on the porch of her island home near Seattle. “People are always apologizing for getting older and making fun of it.”
Instead, she said, “I challenged myself to write a book where I explored the ways, literally, that life got better. I spoke to so many people who said they’d never want to be in  their 20s again. As one woman said, ‘I’d take the body but I wouldn’t want the life.’”
Wendy determined to tackle the topic head on. “I didn’t do the bubble-gummy stuff. There’s a chapter on loss because there are so many losses you deal with as you get older. Friends die, which is really difficult. But loss itself awakens us to the preciousness of time. Many people have told me that they’ve become more alive… taking time that they wouldn’t have before…and wasting less time.”
Relationships -- whether among siblings or old friends or between couples -- often get better; quarrels are shorter and fewer. “The common thread is that as time passes, you gain a history together, and gaining a history together is such a precious possession.” 
Aging also means that “our self-knowledge grows … and if you’re self aware, you’re a better partner, you’re a better sibling, you’re a better friend. Because you know your own foibles and hopefully can stop a fight or a conflict and take responsibility and say, ‘Well, I actually did that thing again that you find so hurtful and I’m sorry.’ Oops. What happened to the fight? It’s gone. That’s a very serious way that life gets better and you’re very lucky if you’re in a longstanding relationship. If you have a partner who’s truly a life partner because that gets sweeter and sweeter as you sort of burn off the superfluous with each other. That’s a huge privilege.”
Another positive: Many “elders” (as she calls them) don’t care about doing what’s expected or “normal” anymore. “They just care about what’s meaningful to themselves and to the people in their communities. I think that’s really interesting… that privately people say their lives are better but publicly we have very little serious discourse on the internal ways that life gets better. So I’m trying to start that discourse.”
Her focus is internal growth – “sage-ing,” (a term she attributes to  Rabbi Zalman Schachter)  -- rather than   “positive aging,” a term she dislikes.  “Almost all the books are about people who ski in their 90s and do huge bike rides when they’re 75. It’s too much emphasis on the physical. “I’m thinking about internals when I say life gets better as you get older, and the positive aging movement isn’t focusing internally.”
Sage-ing  refers to “people who know how to live and the people whom younger people should turn to for guidance, and yes, wisdom. It’s the idea that we become more and more substantial as we get older on a spiritual level, broadly defined, and that we ought to be able to use what we know about life on behalf of others.”
“Unretiring,” is a concept Wendy also likes -- “the movement where people are sort of reinventing themselves.”
So how do you move from a life of busy career to a life of meaning? I asked her. How does that happen? Is there a refocus? Is there a stepping back? What have you watched as people try to do this?
“It’s a good question,” Wendy said, “because it’s not without struggle and sometimes some suffering because our former identity could have propped us up for a long time.” That identity was rooted in the nonstop working, the accolades we may have gotten and the status received “based on how much you earn.”
Leaving a career, she said, “could be seen as a plummeting.” If you’re not in a society where becoming an elder is venerated, even celebrated, what a plummet to find yourself a so-called nobody in the eyes of your very own society and even your community. So there can be suffering.”
She told me one of her favorite stories, about a man who left a top government job and was “feeling so much like a nobody that he became powerfully depressed.”
Then a friend suggested that he volunteer as a crossing guard at a nearby school. “ ‘Since you’re not doing anything, it will get you out of bed,’ the friend said. And the man made himself do it, even though in his former life he used to actually drive by there and kind of laugh derisively at the ‘old guy’ crossing the street with the little kids and their orange vests. But there was a little kid who was scorned by the other kids, overweight and lonely looking. He made that kid his deputy crossing guard and he couldn’t wait after awhile to get there every morning in order to make this kid smile and make this kid feel like somebody. Eventually he fell more in love with that work and the children and helping them cross the street than anything he had ever done. He had never influenced anyone’s life…
“I’ve met many elders who after a period of emptiness, sadness kind of reach down into themselves and try something else that they’ve never done before. So I think that’s the way life gets better, to try to live a dream that you have, try something you’ve never done. Just that search for meaning itself is a beautiful thing, though it could be hard.”

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