STARTING OVER

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Some readers have expressed interest in where I went after the sale of the condo commemorated recently in a set of self-indulgent photos.  (“As I Was Saying….,” July 18, 2017.)  So this post, equally self-referential, is about where I live now. [Be advised there was no professional photographer at work here this time.  Just me with an iPhone.]

fullsizeoutput_b93When we first saw it together two years or so before he died, Bill thought it looked like a middle-class Miami hotel.  No way was he going to move here. Ever. A year later, when our stairs had become too much of a daily challenge, he capitulated.  We visited several “retirement” communities with apartments all on one floor.  This seemed the best of them, for a variety of reasons I can go into another time.

And it does look better (although still somewhat institutional) when seen from the front door:

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You could even imagine elderly people enjoying the sun, or shade, on one of the front benches near the fountain when they’re not quite mobile enough to get away:

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However, it was at least in part the presence of all those not quite “able-bodied” elderly people — with their walkers, or in their wheelchairs pushed by aides — that put us off.  (As if we weren’t getting “elderly” ourselves.) But eventually the condo stairs — and Bill’s fifty-foot oxygen cannula — got the better of us.  And where would we go if we sold the condo? The reason most persuasive for coming here was the apartments.  Many of them had interesting layouts, quite unlike the rectangular, unimaginative arrangement of rooms in the two other places we’d checked out.  Bottom line: We’d just have to learn to live with all the other aspects of a “retirement” community we weren’t ready for.

Then Bill got too sick to think about moving anywhere.  Until very near the end, just before they put him under with morphine so he could be intubated, when he wrote in a little notebook:  “Get Windrows apartment.” He wanted me not to be so alone after he was gone.  I can’t say I moved here because he said I should.  It’s that I finally decided he was right.  Even if I didn’t look and sound as old as I really was (nearly eighty-five when he died), sooner or later I wouldn’t be able to drag the garbage and recycling out to the curb. Sooner or later, I wouldn’t be able to drive, for one reason or another.  Sooner or later, I might fall. And then who would I call?

Apartments of the size you want become available at infrequent intervals at Windrows.  (Yes, that’s the name of the place.) You have to wait for someone to move nearer their children, or else to die.  But the two guys in the Marketing Department worked with me.  And I was lucky.  I managed to snag a one bedroom with den on the second floor that even Bill would have approved.  Affordable. (Just.) Spacious. Sunny in the afternoons. A porch off the living room.  I also had enough money left over from the sale of the condo to replace the carpeted and tiled apartment floors with wood floors, have everything but the kitchen repainted white, install pleated pull-up window shades plus many more ceiling lights, and switch the cable and television lines from one wall to another, in order to accommodate better placement for the computer in the office, the television set in the living-room wall unit.  So now it’s begun to look like home to me, especially as I was able to find room in it for the “modern” furniture — actually mid-twentieth century furniture — Bill and I bought after we began living together. (Perhaps you’ll recognize some of the pieces and pictures from the condo shown in the previous post.) The two cats and I moved in last September 23.

I try not to think of it as the last place I’ll ever live.  Unlike apartments in most retirement communities, residents here aren’t locked into any kind of continuing-care scheme. These apartments are bought and sold at market rates.   So I can always decide this is not for me, sell, and move away.  Where, I have no idea just yet.  But the possibility is there.  It consoles me, gives me a sense I can still go on inventing my life. Anyway, the apartment is certainly a good place to which I can withdraw whenever community living gets too much for me.

There are miles and miles of corridors.  Four and a half floors of them, each of which takes about ten minutes to circle in its entirety by foot. When you first move in, you need breadcrumbs to find your way back to wherever you came from.  Here’s a small part of the second floor near the north elevator: fullsizeoutput_bb2

But eventually you find the right door, and open it:fullsizeoutput_b98

Front hall of apartment (with Sophie at right):fullsizeoutput_b9b

Better view of living room area: fullsizeoutput_b9c

View from sofa of piano, dining area and kitchen pass-through:fullsizeoutput_ba8

I also managed to find a wall for our expensive Italian folly, the wall unit which had to be taken apart for the move and then put back together:fullsizeoutput_ba1

There’s a mandatory eating plan: one chooses either four, fifteen or thirty meals a month. This is allegedly to forestall reclusive tendencies.  True recluses, or those who prefer to eat at home, can circumvent Windrows’ paternalistic tendencies by ordering one of the prepaid plan meals by 3:30 in the afternoon (a menu is available online, on a special television channel, and printed out in the mail room), and then picking it up downstairs or — for $5 a pop — having it delivered. Be that as it may, every apartment has a fully equipped kitchen.  I had mine painted the same color as the kitchen in our condo, to give me the feeling that at least some things have stayed the same:fullsizeoutput_ba4fullsizeoutput_ba5

The “den” has just about the same square footage as my office (aka the third bedroom) in the condo, although the windows are on a different wall and it has no closet. It therefore serves quite nicely as a more-or-less familiar place in which to work, with the added perk that I get a view of the porch and the tree beyond it when I sit at the computer. The double doors can be closed off from the view of guests. When there are guests. fullsizeoutput_ba0fullsizeoutput_ba6

The oblong red box on the floor was a Danish magazine holder that Bill acquired by mail, possibly even from Denmark!  Alas, once it reached us it never did get to hold magazines, as it filled up too quickly beside his chair with Kleenex boxes, eyeglass cleaners, and various gadgets for now never-to-be-discovered uses.  Emptied and transported to Windrows, it now serves as a place for Sophie to snooze when I’m online and she wants to be nearby:fullsizeoutput_ba7

Looking out at the porch from my desk chair:fullsizeoutput_baa

Heading down the hall, past a second (guest) bathroom, towards the bedroom:fullsizeoutput_ba9

The guest bathroom is sort of a small shrine to Bill.  His bigger Calder mobile sways over the toilet. (It used to be in his office, aka the condo second bedroom.) One one wall is a Hebrew rendering of the Physician’s Oath of Maimonides: “Inspire me with love for my art and for thy creatures. In the sufferer, let me see only the human being.” Behind the toilet is a numbered photograph of Balliol College, Oxford, which Bill liked very much. We had it in the bedroom, facing the bed. The two small framed photos taken at the base of the Acropolis are mine, from the year before we met. But we spent six happy summer vacations on a Greek island together.  And Greece is Greece. So why not hang them here?fullsizeoutput_bab

The bedroom, which is large, is not so different from the bedroom I shared with Bill in the Princeton condo. (Except, of course — a very big “except” — he’s never seen this bedroom, never been in it.  I still keep strictly to my side of the bed, though.  Habit? Hope?)  That’s Sasha curled up in comfort on her two Shaker chairs by the window. She first began to do that, in the condo, when she was a kitten:fullsizeoutput_bac

The lesser Calder is in the bathroom attached to the bedroom. You can tell which bathroom I use the most:fullsizeoutput_bad

Sasha and Sophie use the same bathroom as I do.  The two boxes are not “hers” and “hers.”  They both use the one on the left more.  I don’t know why.  I can switch the boxes but they still favor the one on the left.  The right box only gets the occasional dump.  Even in the interests of full disclosure, do you really need to know that?  Probably not.fullsizeoutput_bb1

I can see the porch from the side bedroom window too:fullsizeoutput_bae

But it looks best when you step outside through the door from the living room:fullsizeoutput_bb6

The two potted boxwoods (one at each end of the railing) were a housewarming present from my older son:fullsizeoutput_bb7  

And the tree conveniently planted outside my line of apartments shields most of the windows from views of the rear parking lot:IMG_2280fullsizeoutput_bb3

It wouldn’t be real life, though, if there weren’t another view from the right hand living room window.  Fortunately, I can’t get too close to it.  The sofa and cat tree are in the way.  So this, less aesthetic, view is best seen by Sasha, from the top of her cat tree.  She finds it interesting.  I find it illustrative of the fact that nothing in life is perfect.fullsizeoutput_bb4

And there, dear readers, I shall leave you for the time being — your curiosity over-satisfied.  What life is like at Windrows once I walk out the door of the apartment, down the carpeted corridors and into the north elevator I shall leave for what will likely be many other posts, although I hope not all of them.

Bear in mind that I am now a recently-turned-eighty-six-year-old malcontent who is not at all happy at having disbelievingly found herself over the border of that far country described by geriatricians as “old old age.”  How could it have happened?  I am going away to the Berkshires for four days tomorrow — plays, Yo-Yo Ma, museums — to forget about it for a short while.  Will reply to comments, if any, when I get back.  

xoxox

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MARCIA ANGELL ON LIFE IN HER SEVENTIES

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As far as I know, Marcia Angell is no relation of Roger Angell, who recently wrote of life in his nineties for The New Yorker (as I noted last week in this blog).  The identity of last name is simply a happy coincidence — happy for me and maybe you, because both of these people have had something of interest to say to those of us who are getting older.  Marcia Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She is also both a physician and an author, whose principal areas of investigative interest are the pharmaceutical industry and end-of-life issues. Last year, she was seventy-four.

In the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, she reviewed Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, a book by George E. Vaillant (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press), which summarizes a study of 268 Harvard sophomores  — at that point in time all male — who had been selected from the top of their classes in 1939 through 1944.  Although the original aim of the study was to determine what constitutes the best possible health (which it was assumed that these highly privileged youths would possess), it was later broadened to identify which early characteristics predict a successful life.  Most of the survivors are now in their nineties, which makes the Harvard Grant Study one of the longest and exhaustively documented studies of adult development in existence.

In the course of her review, Angell raised several interesting points, one of which is that the study showed that the marriages of the participants were happier after seventy.  She further agreed with Vailliant (the author) in his belief that “the empty nest is often more of a blessing than a burden.” Then she added an additional speculation of her own, which my own observations support.  (I do believe that, with exceptions, men are less resilient than women, especially as they age.)

A more speculative possibility: it seems to me that old age takes many men almost by surprise: it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that.  In contrast, women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle.  By the time they’re in their fifties, they’re well accustomed to the losses that come with age.  That may make them better able to help and support their husbands as the men find that having been a master of the universe is no protection against old age.

However, it’s her last four paragraphs which led me to save a clipping of her review for almost a year.  Except for her interest in now learning Italian and taking a course in astronomy, I ‘m almost completely on the same page with her. (Our paths diverge only at her last thirteen words.)

Like Vaillant, I am in my seventies, so a book about aging holds special interest for me.  Ultimately, old age is bad news, of course, and I would rather be young.  But like many of the Grant Study men, I find offsetting advantages, one of which is a sharper sense of what is important in life.  Perhaps it is analogous to Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Anyway, I believe I have a clearer sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

My sources of pleasure are different, too, and more varied.  For example, I take great pleasure in beautiful vistas, something I did not when I was young.  Ordinary daily activities, like reading the paper and discussing the news with my husband over breakfast, have taken on an added pleasure beyond the activities themselves, just because of the ritual.  Although I continue to be active professionally, I am less concerned with maintaining a professional presence, and I look forward to learning Italian, taking a course in astronomy, and finally reading War and Peace (I have no interest in cultivating an actual garden).

But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm — the state of the world.  We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious.  Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming.  Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits.  Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile.  Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.

Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception.  Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows.  Perhaps this is the reverse — as our bodies slow, time speeds up.  In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood.  I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings.  It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories.  Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run.  Like the men in the Grant Study.

It’s the “that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run” part I can’t agree with.  I don’t find that consoling at all.  It’s rather like telling a hungry person that he’s had plenty of good juicy steaks in his time, and now it’s someone else’s turn.

But then, I was always a sore loser.

“ENJOYING OLDER AGE” REVISITED

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Sixteen years ago, when I was somewhat younger than I am today, but not yet old enough to leave the work place for greener pastures, I practiced law in Boston.  Part of that, the easiest part, was joining the Boston Bar Association (hereinafter “BBA”).  I was an entirely passive member.  I paid my dues, gave the monthly newsletter a quick read, and got back to work.

One day a real estate lawyer named Harold Brown called me up.  Harold was chairing the BBA’s “Senior Lawyers Division”  and wanted some entertainment for its December lunch meeting.  Harold was then eighty-five (as I found out later), and his idea of “entertainment” was a panel of five aging lawyers talking about “Enjoying Older Age.”  He needed a woman on his panel.  Gender discrimination was already on everyone’s screen.

Back then it wasn’t easy to find a woman lawyer who qualified as “senior.”  Enrollment in law school these days is at least 50% young women.  But to be a “senior” woman in 1997, you would have to have gone to law school in the late fifties or very early sixties.  Fat chance. There was one such woman, a very distinguished one — Rya Zobel — but she was already on the federal bench and probably had no time for “Enjoying Older Age.”

On the other hand, I had gone to law school in my early fifties.  (Another story, in some other blog.)  Which made me old enough for Harold’s panel in 1997.  And I was a woman!  Was he lucky, or what?  Was I really “enjoying” my older age?  My boss was ecstatic that I’d been invited.  How could I say no?

The Big Day arrived and the room where “Enjoying Older Age” was to take place filled up. By then Harold had assembled a panel of five — four senior male lawyers and me. No more than five minutes each, he instructed us. That was twenty-five minutes of talk!   Under the circumstances, I chose to speak last.  Maybe everyone would wake up when they saw a skirt walk across the stage to the podium. They did.  Stayed awake, too. Right to the end.

Enjoying Older Age

(Five minute talk presented [by me] at a luncheon of the Senior Lawyers’ Division of the Boston Bar Association, November 12, 1997.)

I ought to tell you at the outset that I’m sixty-six. I will also admit that when I see a description of someone in print that reads, quote, “a sixty-six year old woman,” unquote, I react stereotypically. “Old,” I think.  ”Finished.”

But then I forgive myself.  After all, we were socialized to think that way. In fact, as a “sixty-six year old woman” I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life, except maybe during the time when I was having babies.  [I loved that.]

When I think of myself, though, I don’t think numbers.  I don’t think “older” — or “old.” I am me, I’m alive, I live my life, and I pretty much do whatever I want to do, within the financial constraints of needing to support myself for a few more years, and the very few biological limitations that come with having been around for more than six decades.

And I find that the more kinds of things I do, the more kinds of things I want to do. I’ve shed almost all preconceptions about what is possible for me, and I’m working on getting rid of the rest. I can’t tell you how liberating it is not to think about what other people will think. You get to talk to just about everyone.  You get to do just about everything. So maybe it would be interesting to you if I tell you a little bit about how I reached this place.

In 1980, I was forty-nine years old, and living in a dilapidated house in Duxbury with a husband, kids still in middle school, and a dog. I would have described myself as a pleasant-looking middle-aged woman who was entering menopause and biological uselessness. Oh, I had a couple of degrees in liberal arts subjects of high cultural and very low commercial value, and had worked, in L.A. and New York City, first as a college instructor of English, then as a copywriter for products bought by women –”Second Nature: the bra to feel you’re not wearing a bra in” — and, when the children were small, as a free-lance book editor. But none of these occupations were satisfying for very long.  And they certainly didn’t produce major money.

Anyway, in 1980, my husband had lost his job (for the third time) and seemed unlikely to locate another in the foreseeable future.  I was reading in what used to be the “Women’s Page” (now called “Style”) of The New York Times about women younger than I  who were beginning to embark on real professions, and all I could think was: “If only I had been born ten years later!”

In some circumstances, I’ve been described as having a mind like a steel trap.  But about other things, even some perfectly obvious things, I’m very slow. Here, it took a couple of years for the light to dawn.  But then it finally hit me, like a flashbulb exploding:  I was NEVER going to be born ten years later! All I had was now.  Now until the end, whenever that came.  So if there was anything I really wanted or needed to do, I had better get to it. Compared with that perception, what did it matter what was deemed “age-appropriate?”  Or “gender-appropriate?”

That was the beginning.Thirty years out of college, I took the LSATs.  I applied to law schools.  I applied for loans.  I got into the schools.  I got the loans.  And much to my own surprise, I did extremely well. To my even greater surprise (and I truly mean that), I was offered a 2L summer clerkship at Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, which turned into a job offer.

And so, in 1985, at the age of fifty-four, I became a first-year associate at a firm where, in the trial department anyway, only two partners were a little bit older than me.  Everyone else — the other partners, all the associates and support staff — was younger.

Was it hard?  Sure it was hard. Was it worth doing?  You betcha. Because my life began to change, in more ways than I can possibly list in the five minutes allowed each of us. Not because I had become a lawyer.  But because now there were new possibilities.

As my life changed, I changed too.  I’m no longer the middle-aged woman of 1980.  I’m no longer the somewhat apprehensive woman of 1985. I’m probably not even the woman I was earlier this year, when I voluntarily left Goodwin, Procter to join a small litigation boutique, where I was offered the opportunity to begin to wind down in the law, gradually, by working only four days a week, thereby freeing up some time for something I’ve wanted to do all my life but never had the guts to try before.

[No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. ] <g>

I’m just getting younger all the time!

But if, like most of you, I had been practicing law for thirty, or forty, or even fifty years, perhaps I’d be wondering if there were any other possibilities for me. In that case, I guess I’d think back to all the other things I wanted to do when I was very young. What did you dream of when you were a very young man, before the law closed in on you and your life? That young man is still alive in you somewhere. Talk to him.  Listen to what he wants to do. And see where that takes you.

I have a thirty-eight year old lawyer friend who recently went through a dark night of the soul.  Now he’s thinking of leaving the law to teach young children. The other day he sent me an e-mail containing a haiku — one of those little three-line Japanese poems — that he had written.  Fortuitously, it illustrates very well what I’ve been talking about here.

So let me conclude by reciting this tiny, but pregnant, poem:

Memories decay

Like leaves on the forest floor.

Each twig has a bud.

End of poem.  End of speech. Each twig has a bud.

[Haiku credit:  David Barlow, Esq., Boston, MA]