THE VIRTUES OF ROUTINE

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At many points in my life I wanted so much to be free of my day-to-day routine. Those were the years when every work day was like the next in structure and stress and when every weekend day, almost equally stressful, was filled with all the routine boring tasks for which there was no time during the week. [Ah, for someone to make the beds, pick up and vacuum, do the laundry, shopping and occasional ironing, visit the dentist for me, run the errands that couldn’t be run during lunch hour!]  When was there going to be time for me, to pursue all my interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?

Then there was time.  Less money, but much more time.  Plenty of time for the routine boring tasks like bed making, laundry, marketing (which seemed to expand and occupy even more time than before). Plenty of time for sleeping in, lunching out, reading crap, watching television. Plenty of time for wasting time. And did I waste it!

So what about the interests, pleasures, curiosity, desires?  Well, there was certainly time for that too. Surprising how little actually got done, though — especially in that window of opportunity before “time for me” began to be time left over from doctor appointments (mine and Bill’s), “procedures,” visiting sick friends, and wasting even more time recovering emotionally from the visits.

When I flew to Florida to see one of my sons and his family earlier this month, school had already begun for his young children, ages nine and eight. I therefore had occasion to observe the value of their routine.  Since my son was still on summer break from work, the family schedule principally revolved around the children’s days: up, dress, breakfast, to school at eight, pick-up at three, after-school dance classes for my granddaughter, music lessons or practice for my grandson, homework, early supper and helping to clear, walking the dog, baths in sequence, some free time to play by themselves, reading stories aloud as a family, quiet time in their own rooms, lights out at nine.

Those children got so much done in a day!  And so did I when I was their age. As I watched them, I became nostalgic for a structured, protected day like theirs.  Not the routine of my working years, but of all the school years that preceded them — when life was about learning and growing and enjoying. Of course, that also presupposed a certain amount of luck in being born to parents who, whatever their other idiosyncrasies, would and could provide the protection for those things to happen regularly within the orderly sequence of the days. But in that particular way, I was lucky, despite my parents’ somewhat difficult life as immigrants in a country new to them.

And then it occurred to me that getting old needn’t preclude adopting a new and fruitful routine.  The fact that one can be lax and lazy when paid getting-to-work-on-time is in the past doesn’t mean being lax and lazy is a must.  All we need is to be our own parents, in the same way we were parents to our children when they were young. Get ourselves up, give ourselves breakfast, and send ourselves off on days of new experiences, mental and physical and aesthetic, as suits the “me” in each of us.

I’ve been truly slothful with the years of freedom I’ve been given. However many more of those years there may be, the sloth must stop. Of course, I’m really lecturing me, not you.  (Bill says I have a punitive superego.) But it’s true that as the weather has cooled down somewhat, I’m feeling energized and inspired by my trip.  So thank you, dear grandchildren — for unknowingly showing me how to get into harness again this fall.  A routine: who’d ever have thought I’d want one back? But what do you know?  I do.

WHY WE MOVED FROM ONE UNIVERSITY TOWN TO ANOTHER IN 1,000 WORDS OR LESS

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1.  We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts).  He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School.  I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week.  The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.

2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house,  which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce.  Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.”  So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave.  A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.

3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream.  It’s not that I loved my law practice  so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed.  In my condo on Brattle Street.

4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas.  So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.

5.  Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102.  (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.)  We could leave! But where should we go?

6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question.  We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one.  And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while.  Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up.  For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.

7.  Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka!  An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild).  Home to a major university (think Princeton),  the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state.  (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.)  It even had a Whole Foods!  How could we go wrong?

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Princeton University in the spring.

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This is the historic (and picturesque) part of campus. There is strikingly modern architecture elsewhere.

8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?

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University Chapel. Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are held here. There are half-hour organ concerts open to the public at noon throughout the academic year.

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A late April flowering. Outside a reading room of the library. (I think.)

9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older.   When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map.  If we really had, it would have been even braver of us.  But I guess it’s too late to try that one.

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Between Firestone Library (left) and the University Chapel (right).

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McCosh, where English and American literature classes meet.

“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]