I’m Going to Live Like a Dog … Or a Goose

Every morning between 6:30 and 7:00 a passel of geese squawk noisily as they fly over my bedroom, presumably commuting from their riverbank home on the Potomac to the corporate campuses and golf courses where they congregate during the workday. For twenty-one of the last twenty-three September morns their honking has signaled that it is time to begin my own trek to work. Like them, I returned to Great Falls at dusk, only to repeat the pattern at the break of the next day. We are all creatures of routine after all.

But now I have retired, and if I am not already up and out of bed their beating wings and loud exhortations to stay in formation and flap harder suggest that it is time to get some coffee and my iPad in preparation for a leisurely catch up on the world’s doings overnight. I no longer need to find and work to keep my place in the human version of the goose pecking order made visible in their aerial V. Geese can live between ten and thirty years depending upon their circumstances, so perhaps some of the same birds are flying over me as were young when I moved in. I wonder, can geese retire, and what happens to them if they do? Do they get to stay back at the water’s edge with the goose version of social security, meals on wings and senior discounts at the marsh grass feeding area? Are they left in charge of the goslings or just abandoned after they can no longer contribute to the working age flock?

Questions like these about aging, longevity and vibrancy have hung over me like a shroud these last few weeks as I inch closer to the dreaded birthday that signifies that I am officially “old.” I don’t feel old, and most people are kind enough to say that I don’t look my age. I don’t really want to be young; I’m “comfortable in my own skin,” as they say, even if it does sag. But being classified as “old” puts things in perspective and forces me to consider big, philosophical questions that are hard. How much time do I have left, and what do I want to do with it? What is the right balance between living now and providing for a possibly lengthy dotage? What is the definition of “quality of life?” How will it change as I age?

Ever since my beloved terrier Sydney passed in March and his younger, devoted (if bratty) companion Addie had her own bout with cancer in May, I have become acutely aware that time is relative. I never used to think about a day as a unit of time in a dog’s life, busy and unconsciously living, selfishly perhaps, according to my own sense of what sunrise to sunrise meant in the 80 or so years that I might be expected to inhabit this earth. I know that Addie and Sydney have been loved, cared for and treated with patience in their infirmity — even if I was not always as sensitive as I should have been to the meaning of each day of their so abbreviated lives. Now I understand that a day in a dog’s life really does equal a week in mine, and I need to make each one count. Retirement has allowed me to insure that Addie has an adventure nearly every day, that I don’t waste whatever remains of her time at my side.

I’m trying to extrapolate this epiphany to my own activities. Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned physician and public health advocate so associated with the Affordable Care Act, has a riveting piece in the latest issue of the Atlantic explaining in detail why he wishes to die at age 75. Now 57 and in good health, he makes a compelling case for letting nature take its course after 75 rather than prolonging what is usually a debilitated and diminished endgame. He points out that while each of us think we might be one of the outliers who remains vital and productive until well into our 90s, the reality is that most of us will spend our old age in increasing physical and cognitive incapacity. Therefore, for him, setting a deadline by which he will have accomplished his life goals and will thereafter refuse all but palliative care is liberating rather than depressing. He will live as long as nature or God intends, but without benefit of modern medicine after age 75, except for the alleviation of pain.

When I think about this stance toward mortality as someone just hours from my 65th birthday, I come to the conclusion that I should live life like a dog, imagining each day as more precious than I have heretofore and assuming my lifespan to be just ten more years — Emanuel’s age 75 and the average lifespan of a canine. I am in excellent health and spirit and I love deadlines, so thinking that the next decade is all that I have focuses my mind and banishes indecision about which pleasures to partake of and which adventures to seek. Like Emanuel, I am not advocating hedonism in the meantime — that “We are all going to die anyway so why not eat that extra cupcake” mentality. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, not just because it gives me pleasure to be fit, but as an act of social responsibility. I won’t squander my limited but nonetheless ample resources on consumerism, but I will have the kitchen cabinets repainted because they need a refresh and because it will make me even happier to walk into my kitchen in the morning. I won’t get a facelift or a tummy tuck, but I will continue to spend a hefty sum on my hair. I’m giving my thirteen-year-old still perfectly working car to my daughter and buying a brand new one, because, well, because she needs one and I want one. I’ll spend the next ten years traveling as much as I possibly can, while I still can. I want to live to see grandchildren and to enjoy watching my daughters become mothers. I want to read, and write and cook to my heart’s content, but I am sick to death of cleaning and as soon as I can afford it I will pay someone else to do most of it for me. Money is really only useful when it buys survival, security or experiences, and while the temptation is to hoard it for the for the first two, with my ten year perspective and my newfound dog brain I want to use it for living, not staving off dying.

Geese and dogs have much to teach. Both are extremely loyal, the birds mating for life and the canines closely bonded to their pack, whether human or other. Both have strong nurturing tendencies in each gender, sharing the care of young (remember that old adage “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”). Both like to work and love to play, being social creatures with the ability and intelligence to learn and to participate in complex interactions. As far as we know, despite their ability to feel jealousy, affection, sorrow and many other so-called “human” emotions, neither geese nor dogs have a dread of their own mortality. They can plan, but not for IRAs or 401(k)s or tax deductions. They do not live in the future. Whether my remaining lifespan matches that of a dog or a goose, I will try to be more like them, staying mindful of the now, of the ever-present “here” and enjoying the company of others. In my experience, you can teach an old dog new tricks, and I do love a wild goose chase! Wish me luck.

This is What Medicare Looks Like

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My Medicare card just arrived in the mail, sparking a variety of responses. Relief that soon I will no longer be paying my very expensive monthly COBRA bill. Delight that I will now be able to rejoin Kaiser Permanente after a seven-year stint elsewhere. Anxiety over the fact that I am now officially considered to be an old person.

Aging gracefully is an art. Women (and men) who try too hard to look like they did twenty years earlier strike me as foolish. Men (and women) who want their partners to look like they did twenty or thirty years ago strike me as despicable/disposable. (See this wonderful article by Robin Korth in the Huffington Post about this very topic.)

My goal is to remain elegant, strong, hale and hearty. Serendipity brought me good genes. I supplement my good fortune with a commitment to a rigorous physical fitness regimen and a healthy lifestyle. Nonetheless, no number of crunches or warrior twos will keep my fair skin from losing some of its tautness, but well chosen clothing and a continued zest for living can give me the radiance that came so naturally in my younger years.

I’m actually in better shape now than I was in my forties and fifties, brought about by a bout four years ago with piriformis syndrome, an excruciatingly painful condition that I vowed never again to experience. Once I could get up off the floor and walk more than a few paces without Advil and curse words, I went to a rehab specialist/personal trainer, who “fixed” me. In the process he got me addicted to working out and doing yoga; if I go three days without either a gym session or a vinyasa class I feel physically and spiritually depleted.

Every time I think about cancelling my once a week sessions with my trainer I remind myself that our workouts are the best insurance policy I have against future injury, frailty and loss of mobility. He tells me that I am in the top one half of one percent of fitness for my age, and that makes me feel better than saving the almost $300 a month would. And, thanks to him and to my awesome yoga teachers, looking in the mirror feels really good as long as I don’t glance above the neck. (And, of course, Nora Ephron had the last word on that subject).

Sometimes, when I do catch a glimpse of myself without makeup in the morning, I wonder who the hell that old hag staring at me is. I don’t have a wattle, or jowls, or flaccid shoulders, but the dark circles never seem to go away no matter how rested I am and the parentheses around my mouth are much more pronounced than they used to be. I’m still blonde, but I do get highlights now to blend in the darker, muddier, not quite blonde not quite grey hairs. I accept the lines on my face as evidence that I have seen a full range of human experience and chosen to persevere in the face of personal challenges. I have no interest in Botox or fillers, no desire for a tummy tuck or a knee lift. Concealer, a bit of mascara and I’m ready for the real secret to staying young: finding the daily balance between savoring the moment and continuing to set goals for myself.

My yoga practice keeps me robust and graceful, and more importantly centered. It has become a cliché that it’s not about the destination but the journey. For me, the journey takes me back to the “aha” moment I experienced shooting a bucket of balls into the lacrosse net for hours on end until I could target particular gridlines in the net. Or the split second burst of nirvana in midair knowing that I was going to nail the entry on my pike with a half twist low board dive. Achieving a new yoga asana through a combination of athleticism, determination, proprioception and practice, practice, practice fills me with gratitude for the breath that each new day brings. Knowing that I can count on my body to hold me up frees the rest of me to reach for improvement in other ways; I’m working on being more patient, more loving, more forgiving.

When it comes right down to it, I am lucky to be “old,” let alone in fine fettle. With luck I will grow to be as ancient as my 94-year-old father, inspirational as he is setting new physical goals for himself each day as he recovers from a recent medical crisis. As he put it, “As long as I keep improving, I am happy to be alive.” Word.

 

On a Lark

I am a lark and my partner Mr.D is an owl. It’s not because I am as happy as a lark, or because he is as wise as an owl, although both clichés fit. As far as I know, Facebook hasn’t yet had a quiz to determine which bird one is, and if one popped up in my news feed I’d be afraid to take it after finding out that if I were a dog I’d be a pit bull.

Nope, it’s all about our circadian rhythms. I’m a morning person even now, in retirement. I’m up and at’em at first light, down in the kitchen brewing coffee, cooing at the cats rubbing my legs and feeding the goofy terrier who is ineptly balancing on her hindquarters in anticipation of breakfast. By 10:30 PM I am past ready for bed, savoring appropriating the entire mattress acreage to myself before one, two or three other beings claim their fair share. Dan, by contrast, routinely sleeps until 9:00 AM and goes to bed closer to midnight. He is in charge of letting the dog out for a last pee and insuring that both cats are inside, safe from marauding foxes and prevented from terrorizing small sleeping animals and birds. (PS — Mr.D got Great Dane on the dog quiz. Jealous.)

While the saying goes that opposites attract, I don’t think we are well suited for one another primarily due to our sleep patterns, although they do afford each of us alone time at bookends of the day. As we age, we each have nights when the sandman forgets to sprinkle one of us. Lying awake, listening to the sleep noises of as many as four other beings, one can sometimes fantasize about using pillows for other than their intended purpose.

It’s interesting that sleep researchers have nicknamed morning people after a species of bird known for its grounded nest, beautiful song, and ability to learn as many as thirteen other vocalizations. Larks are favored pets in Asia and I saw and heard many in their ornate birdcages perched either on windowsills or hanging like lanterns from balustrades in Hong Kong and Vietnam. Poets have immortalized the lark as the harbinger of dawn, the gatekeeper of the space between heaven and hell, torpor and consciousness, ignorance and enlightenment. A humbling charge for this tiny feathered creature! On the downside, larks are a favorite delicacy in some parts of the world, eaten bones and all, and not just by cats.

I wonder whether larks, too, sometimes have nights of fitful sleep. If so, do their minds wander as mine does, from semi-consciousness to moments of clarity? Do they too suffer from the indecision of whether to rise (if not shine) or try to induce somnolence through a combination of will and relaxation techniques? I suppose I do feel a bit bird-brained at 2:30 AM as I review every possible thing I could add to my to do list or try to recall the main plot points of the dream I just awoke from.

My sleep patterns are, not too surprisingly, often ill-adjusted during times of transition. I well remember realizing that newborns first sleep through the night as a survival instinct, natural selection having chosen those who did so just before their mothers, psychotic from lack of sleep, flung them against the cave walls. In menopause I would sometimes awake in a puddle of sweat, needing to change not just my PJs but my sheets. At the time of my divorce I spent many an anxiety riddled 3 AM hour diverting myself by working a New York Times Sunday Crossword in a book I kept by my bedside. And of course we all know about jetlag.

It turns out that one’s circadian rhythm is probably inherited. I got mine from my father and my grandfather, both of whom — like me– could fall asleep instantly and sleep through the night for a solid seven hours until their late middle age. I clearly remember Papa napping on the davenport in the sunroom of my grandparents’ house. What I didn’t realize was that he never actually went to bed at night, leaving the big mahogany sleigh bed to my Nana, thereby sparing her his restlessness and insomnia. And now my aged father has as his primary medical complaint his own nighttime wakefulness, for which he is perpetually overmedicating himself, causing a chain reaction of other problems like impaired cognition and wobbly balance.

Will this be my fate? Will I lose my morning warble? My groundedness? Will I become not a songbird, but a misunderstood pit bull, snarling at strangers from the cumulative abuse of lack of sleep, banned from apartment buildings and public places because of my supposed unchangeable evil disposition?

I think not. I’m not much of a napper now, but I can learn, just as I have learned to really let go during the savasana phase of my yoga practice. After all, my pit bull profile tells me that I’m sincere and extremely versatile, and larks are one of the smartest members of the species, able to mimic the tones and behaviors of other birds. And who really cares whether one sleeps between 2 AM and 5 AM or between 2 PM and 5PM? Whole cultures do this in the form of a siesta, and medical research has it that this is a partial explanation for the longevity of Mediterranean and Latin American populations.

My grandfather, the expert napper who just went with the flow instead of trying to change it, was the sweetest most loving man, like Dan, a Great Dane “ genuinely humble . . .extremely smart . . . approachable . . . the kind ruler of [his] own kingdom.” So, chronotype is not destiny. Circadian rhythm is not fate. All twenty four hours are there to be lived whether as a misunderstood but lovable and fascinating pitbull or a happy song-filled lark. Or maybe both. 

Milestones and Memories

Today is my Dad’s 93rd birthday. He has his mind, and his body is (relatively) healthy, if a bit frail. I live several hundred miles away and due to work don’t visit as often as I should. Over the Christmas holidays he gave me some precious items as part of his passing of the torch to the next generation.  On the one hand, this was a lovely gesture, but on the other it was a bit sad to see him not decluttering (one of my favorite topics on this blog), but in some way preparing for the day when he is not around to make the decisions. Admirable, but poignant as well.

We had a lovely time going through an old photo album and he expressed delight that I recognized so many of the people and could reminisce with him about folks long gone. It made him so happy to know that I would be able to recount these stories to my children.

Aging is hard.

I am on the cusp of it myself, observing the wrinkles as they decorate my face, working ever harder to preserve my fitness as an insurance policy against old age disability as much as in vain desire to fit into my size 27 skinny jeans.

I have hung my Dad’s medical school diploma and a fun original cartoon given to him at a surprise 40th birthday party in my home office. I only have images in this space that remind me of who I am and where I have come from and who I love. Instead of a mood board or a “decorated” room it is my identity space, inspiring me to be my best and truest self.

IMG_9006

IMG_9010

Like so many men of his generation, my dad  is not given to many words of praise or outward expressions of love and affection. At times I have felt the sting of his critical temperament, and at times I have checked that tendency in myself — remembering what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a sarcastic comment or a cutting remark.

But there is much to admire in my father, and much to be grateful for. He had the kind of inseparable, loving sibling relationship with his two – years – younger brother that most of us could only wish for. He instilled in me a work ethic that not only contributed to my own success, but made me respect and acknowledge hard work in others, be they custodians or astronauts or students or drywall hangers. “All work is noble” he always said, and he really believed it, and so do I. He was his best self in his own work.  As a physician he had patience for the human foibles that lead to obesity, addiction or failure to comply. He was revered by his patients and his colleagues.

IMG_9003

Happy Birthday, Dad, and thanks for the life and the values you have given me. While I don’t expect you to say it, I know you are as proud of me as I am of you.

Trees

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”Joyce Kilmer

ImageTrees.  They pose in the forest in all of the states of aging, sometimes graceful and sometimes in a tangle of sudden felling.

ImageDuring a lovely long hike in the park this cold, raw March afternoon I saw this:

ImageAnd this:

ImageAnd this:

ImageAnd wondered.

Did these trees consent to be tattooed? Did it hurt?

I learned this about bark:

“Each year a tree essentially grows a new “coat of wood” over the older wood. The outside layer of the tree is dead bark which provides protection from the environment. The inner bark layer is composed of live tissue that transports food downward. Between the bark and wood is the cambium layer which is responsible for increases in tree diameter (by creating annual rings) and responds to injury by producing callus tissue.” http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/trees-new/text/tree_anatomy.html

I’m guessing that the bite of the knives that carved these mementos, or messages, or signs of personal ego was not stronger than the bark.

But what of the scars brought about by quick, unexpected bolts of lightening? Or of the slow and steady, chronic irritation inflicted by woodpeckers and tiny insects invading the cambium?

ImageWhen I do a tree pose next I will think about, not my precarious balance, but the strength of my cambium, which has been so tested by the lightening bolt of marital infidelity, the steady irritation of a thousand tiny bangs and cuts and sappings of energy brought about by daily life in the forest of humanity.

No sapling I, may the gnarls of time make me as majestic as this:

ImageAnd when I am cut down by time, may my fall be heard . . . and respected.

Image