The idea for this essay came to me when I was approaching my fiftieth birthday. Oh, I groaned to myself, I?m getting old. You can't help thinking that as you approach your half-century mark. No matter how many times you tell yourself that you're only as old as you feel or that age is just a state of mind, there?s no getting around it. The years are creeping up imperceptibly because we either are so preoccupied that we don?t notice anything much less how we?re aging, or we don?t notice it because we?re in an extreme state of denial. But aside from the chronological years, the signs were all there: the failing eyesight, the creakiness in the limbs upon rising in the morning, the helpfulness of a nap in the afternoon.
It?s worth noting some dialogue from Ernest Thompson?s endearing play, On Golden Pond, when Norman, who is turning eighty, and Ethel, his wife of forty-six years, both sense their mortality. Ethel has just told Norman about a couple she met in the woods that has invited them over for dinner.
Ethel: They?re a nice middle-aged couple. Just like us.
Norman: If they?re just like us they?re not middle-aged.
Ethel: Of course they are.
Norman: Middle age means the middle, Ethel. The middle of life. People don?t live to be 150.
Ethel: We?re at the far edge of middle age. That?s all.
Well, there you are. While I wasn?t verging on eighty, there?s still no denying it: Fifty is getting up there. People don?t live to be one hundred either, or most of us don?t. So I?m coming up on the far edge of middle age, too.
Still, to some grand, aged people, fifty is just short of being a whippersnapper. And it?s not like I look that old. While I have friends whose hair turned salt-and-pepper in their thirties, my temples are just beginning to turn gray. And I?ve been told by too many people, who are shocked to learn my age and that I?m the father of two beautiful teenage daughters (one pushing 20) and said they would have guessed that I?m not older than thirty-seven, to believe that I?m old-looking. Looking almost fifteen years younger is something. Chalk that up to good genes. When I was in my teens and twenties and loathed my boyish looks, I was told that someday I would treasure my youthfulness. Those people were right.
Nor do I act that old, either. I think that?s one key to staying young. When people comment that I don?t look as old as I am, I joke and tell them that the secret to looking young is just act like a juvenile delinquent. I do prefer the company of younger people, and I do prefer the conversations of the younger crowd. Once I was at a neighborhood party standing with a group of men?all of us the same age but for some reason they looked so much older than me. They were discussing the importance of using fresh gasoline in their lawn mowers, and I remember thinking to myself, God, please take me now. Much more intriguing to me are the moral discussion of teenagers who are so intent on sorting out right from wrong and black from white, or the wanderings of a child?s mind, who intently choose his or her favorite color (this is more important than we realize!) or wonder why the ocean just doesn?t drain into the ground. Sometimes I think these are better questions to ask presidential candidates than the ones fielded by today?s candidates. ?Mr. President,? I wish the pundits and good-looking television reporters would ask, ?can you please explain why the ocean doesn?t just get soaked up by the ground, and if you can?t, what gives you the idea that you know anything about foreign policy??
So, I?m almost fifty. Getting old. Well, older, and I began wondering when I?d start displaying some of that wisdom for which older folks are known. It hit me then, that if it was going to happen?and I emphasize the word, if? if I was going to turn into a wise old man, it wouldn?t happen overnight. It would be a gradual process. There would be a general grouping of experiences that merge into knowledge that eventually would coalesce into wisdom. Given that, I surmised that some of this wisdom should already be present, and so I began jotting down things that I?ve learned in my life. I was looking for real knowledge about life that came from my own experiences, not clich?s or notions that could be boiled down to a bumper sticker.
Just so you don?t get the idea that I?m so full of myself, a lot of what I?ve learned throughout my life didn?t come about because I think I?m so smart. A lot of what I know came through mistakes. Big mistakes. Trial and error is a great learning tool that maybe we should begin utilizing in our schools.
I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind that perhaps what I began writing down?thoughts, notions, values, lessons learned?was pure drivel. Who would care, I asked myself, what some schmo thinks or learned during his everyday life? Or even more to the point, who cares what he could have learned in his paltry, uneventful life that would be worth anything to anyone? I think that?s a trap that we all fall into. I think we depend so much on the so-called experts in the world, that we have lost sight of the fact that we?everyday people who get up every morning, make a cup of coffee, and take it from there?know a heck of lot more than we?re ever given credit for.
We depend on experts to tell us how to raise our kids, our dogs, and our flowers. After we watch the president give a speech, or watch a major event in the world unfold in the news, there are always experts, many times a man in a very expensive suit and nice hairdo, ?analyzing? what we just saw and heard with our own eyes and ears. It?s as if the network executives or the news media think that we are the most dim-witted lot they?ve ever run across. Do they honestly think that we are incapable of not only understanding complex issues but also drawing our own conclusions? And if we are able that we will draw the wrong conclusions? Nothing could be further from the truth, and for the life of me I don?t understand why we continue to let this go on.
As a matter of fact, when you think about it, there seems to be an expert for just about every aspect of our lives. There are experts on educating and raising our children, investing our money. My goodness, we even have so-called experts to tell us how to decorate our houses and cook a Thanksgiving meal!
And sometimes the so-called experts are so dead wrong that their actions have catastrophic results. For a time I served as a speechwriter for the president of a five hundred-fifty million dollar computer company. The company, obviously, was doing very well, and had quite a bit of money in the bank. So the executives decided that maybe they should use the savings to make the company even more successful, including making some acquisitions of other companies. Good idea, so far.
Now, speechwriters, if allowed, will pretty much act like their client?s bartender, barber, and therapist, and at times I found myself sitting in the president?s office just listening. And what I heard made my eyes bug out. One transaction sticks out in my mind. The company was going to purchase another company worth eleven million dollars for fifteen million dollars. Everything was above board; I?m not accusing anyone of any shady dealings, but already you?re asking yourself why would anyone pay three million dollars more for anything, much less a company? You wouldn?t pay more for anything?a car, a suit, a candy bar. What?s the adage of buying stock??Buy low and sell high? You don?t have to have an MBA from Harvard to figure this out. Long story short, a year later after a string of other decisions, the company was going down in flames with all four engines burning. There were massive layoffs of people who performed their jobs beautifully but were no longer needed, and the executives?the same ones who made the catastrophic decisions in the first place?stayed on to continue running what was left of the company. This is a story that?s been played out time and time across the United States. The experts, the people in charge, did nothing illegal, unless defying the laws of common sense constitutes a crime.
But one wonders what would happen if the leaders of our country or our large corporations asked the everyday guy or gal on the street what he or she knew or would do about what was facing the country or the competition. Or you wonder what the chairman of the board of the likes of General Motors or IBM would learn if they went down to the assembly areas and shipping docks of their companies. Maybe nothing, or maybe it would be earth-shattering. The point is they don?t do it because many people in charge think they are in charge for the same reason the medieval kings thought they were rulers: They think their position came through divine right. Our egos are incredibly seductive, aren?t they?
We do see some politicians make a stab out of running around their constituents? backyards, eating in diners, walking door-to-door soliciting votes, but most of the time it?s just for the television cameras. The only politician who I can think of in the past twenty years who really did that was the former Speaker of the House, Tip O?Neil. The third most powerful politician in the country would go back to his old neighborhood in East Cambridge, Massachusetts and talk and listen. And he was voted repeatedly back in office, serving in the House of Representatives for thirty-three years.
I also think we are way too enamored with the rich and the famous, and more dangerously, the semi-famous or popular. We think there is nothing in our everyday, humdrum lives that could possibly compare to the wisdom that a Madonna or a Donald Trump can dish up. We look at our neighbors and friends and think, if so and so is so smart, how come he?s not rich, as if the amount of money a person has acquired has anything to do with intelligence, and nothing to do with say, ethics, experience, morals, or common sense.
At times like this I think of my mother. Mom was the original day-care provider. When my sister and I hit our teen years and didn?t need all of her attention, she started babysitting other people?s kids. Times were tough for the family and raising kids was the one thing she felt she knew how to do, although there were plenty of other talents she had, she just didn?t realize it. Professional women started using Mom to take care of their kids during the day. And these professional, college-educated, successful women started seeing how Mom handled their kids, and at times I remember them asking her advice. So here was Mom, with her eighth-grade education, advising these other mothers with the knowledge and wisdom she had gained through her life. They saw Mom as an everyday expert based on her everyday experiences, and I defy anyone to say that she, or the millions of other loving parents in the world, can?t be considered experts in raising kids. I use to tell her she should write a book on raising kids, and she?d just laugh and smile.
And of course, anyone who goes through the Catholic school system knows that nuns have a way of hammering dictums into the supple minds of their young charges, and I was no different. Forty- some years later I can still hear a nun saying to me that there is a reason why God made me a person and not a chair. I?m not sure which commandment I had broken at that particular moment, but the outcome has stuck with me this long. Open your mouth. Speak up. Speak out. Do something. Don?t just sit there.
A lot of us have forgotten that we all are unique and therefore each one of us has experiences and therefore knowledge and wisdom that no else can claim. Don?t we have some sort of responsibility to pass that along? It?s a stretch, but what if one of us knows something that can actually save the human race? It?s like that business about how a butterfly alighting on a flower can ultimately cause an earthquake. I know it?s a bit loopy (loopiness is one of the things this essay is about,) but maybe one of us actually has knowledge or wisdom that, if maybe not today but farther along the chain, might actually affect the outcome of something important. That ?something important? could be a historical event with worldwide ramifications, or a human being kept out of trouble.
This essay is a direct result of my professional writing career that encompassed writing a magazine column about the exploits of being a father, and being a contributor on the op/ed page of the MetroWest Daily News since 1990. In both jobs there were times when I wondered just who the heck I thought I was to have the audacity to think I actually had anything to say to people about subjects ranging from politics to the weather. And, on occasion, I probably was completely justified in wondering that. But there were times when I?d get one or two calls or emails from people who said something to the effect of, ?I?ve thought about that, too? or ?Thanks for writing.? As human beings, that business about not being an island is true. We have shared experiences. Actually reaching out to one another, even if it?s only to one or two others, is something that, personally, I believe is a responsibility we all carry.
So, I?m a middle-aged man, or rather, a man on the far edge of middle age, who has both won and lost at love, had it easier than some and harder than others, been lucky at times, been successful at work and hit bottom and had to start all over, had dreams come true and some just fizzle, experienced the joys of having a family and suffered through the tragedy of divorce, and buried both parents within the span of two years. Because of my Catholic upbringing, the practice of which I?ve since discarded, I stubbornly insist on the inherent good that I believe exists in all people despite what my eyes tell me almost daily. I believe in a Creator, simply because I see no proof otherwise. Those are just the highlights. Simple logic tells you if I have half a brain I had to learn something through all that.
I would urge anyone to do what I did. Sit down and write down everything you know. Take stock. See what you got in your brain. It?s no different than taking stock in any other possessions; you?d be surprised to know what you got, how wealthy you really are. If that is all this essay does for you, well, frankly, I?d say that?s enough. You can stop reading here. Close the book and get on with your life.
But if you?re interested in the shared experience of our lives, read on. The following is what I?ve learned so far in my lifetime. There are no guarantees here. I just happen to believe there is a reason God made me a person, and not a chair.
Most people are just doing the best they can.
Believe what people do, and not what they say. People will tell you anything, but watch what they do. Actions cannot lie.
Ninety percent of the population is just waiting for the other ten to tell them what to do. You might as well be part of that ten percent.
It?s important to keep an open mind about things like the spiritual world and the paranormal. Just because a dog can?t see color doesn?t mean that color doesn?t exist.. We haven?t been around really that long, and we?re not that developed. There may be other dimensions, other worlds, and our senses just aren?t developed enough to detect them?yet.
People will tell you, ?it?s never too late,? but sometimes it is too late. You can only go back so far in time, because things?people, relationships, situations?change. Seize the moment. Seize the day. Don?t put off. Say you?re sorry. Climb that mountain. Take that trip. One of my aunts told me at my mother?s funeral that she and my mother were planning on traveling together when my aunt retired. ?What the heck were you waiting for?? I wanted to ask.
You?ll hear people say that they?d never do something. They?re sure they?d never cheat on their spouse or break the law. They?d never run if one of their kids were in danger.
The best we can say is, ?I hope if I?m ever in that situation that I won?t do that.? You never know how you?ll react in an extreme situation until you?re in that situation.
Misery loves company, and I?ve never been able to understand why. Just because one person suffers, I don?t understand why another one has to. An example is people will tell you they hate their job, why should you expect to like yours? Everyone, they will tell you, has to put up with this or that to make a living. It seems to me that if someone suffered, that person should do everything he or she can to make sure no one else has to go through what they went through. But people aren?t like that. They think they?re being fair, which is another way of keeping score.
You will have days or even long stretches that will absolutely stink. There is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes days are just bad. Sometimes, the only thing to do is lower your head and push. Put one foot in front of another. Take it a day at a time.
Every day do three things: Do something for yourself, someone else, and the world.
If you don?t treat yourself well, why should you expect it from anyone else? Respect starts with self-respect. Once you respect yourself, you?ll demand it of others.
Work to live, and not the other way around.
Most people can?t stand their jobs. Blessed are those who like their work.
We basically trade our time?our lives, really?for a salary. Figure out how much money you make a year, and that?s what your life is worth to your employer.
Business is not war. It?s business, and anyone who tells you differently is an idiot with some sort of Napoleonic complex.
Most people you?ll meet in the business world aren?t as tough as they want you to think they are, so there?s really no reason to be scared of them. They?ve probably been watching too many movies. If they really were as tough as they think they were, they?d be mercenaries in some war zone. However, if they really are mercenaries, look out.
Encourage your spouse in his or her passions. They might even leave for a while. But if you don?t, they will leave for good.
Partners should laugh together. It?s a serious warning sign when you cease seeing things together as being funny.
Opposites may attract, but there has to be more than just a little in common to make the attraction last.
Dreams can come true. Just don?t give up hope.
Read the New York Times every day for a year. After the year you?ll be a different person than when you started.
Our society puts way too much emphasis on a formal education, and a degree to get ahead. Travel and experience is a better educator than any school. But you need school to fill in the blanks.
You will make mistakes. It happens. As a matter of fact, it?s a rare occurrence when mistakes don?t happen. American society, for some reason, is intolerant of mistakes, and it?s inability to deal properly with them. What?s important is what happens after the mistake is made. What?s important is that the mistake gets fixed, and that you learn from it and move on.
It really always does come down to money. That?s the way our society is set up. But wouldn?t it have been nice if, during the days of the Phoenicians, another standard was chosen rather than money? Think of where we?d be today. In the United States, a person?s health or education would be more important than the hospital?s or university?s bottom line.
Don?t be afraid to make mistakes. Our society puts way too much emphasis on success, to the point where people are afraid to fail. But sometimes failure has a way of putting us on a different track, or getting us to look at a problem or life from a perspective that we never thought of before. Look at mistakes and failure as just part of the process.
Good leaders also know how to follow, and they should never give an order that they wouldn?t do themselves.
Success in life comes from first and foremost knowing what you want, or who you want to be. Living is like sitting next to river and watching stuff float by. Only by knowing what you want will you know when something important floats by, and you should swim out for it.
Life presents opportunities almost daily, and only by knowing what you want will you be able to recognize an opportunity when it comes along.
Don?t give up your ideals or your idealism. People will tell you when you talk idealistically that you should grow up or be realistic or something else along those lines. But once you drop from your life your vision of what life or the world should be, you?ve pretty much resigned yourself to the status quo. The world, or a life, was never changed by a contented person. Always look to see how you can change the world for the better. Or not let the world backslide.
Everything is top-down. Whoever is at the top sets the tone, whether it?s the president of the United States, the head of a corporation, or the leader of any small group.
Don?t be afraid to play dumb. Our natural inclination is to show others how smart we are. That?s ego at work. But if you act as if you don?t know something, people sometimes will react by telling you more than they intended. You can learn a lot by acting like you don?t know anything.
Even by saying you don?t believe in God is in some way acknowledging that God exists. The simple act of denying something is saying that you believe it exists.
People who, for whatever reason, believe in only religion or only science and not both are really being disrespectful to the Creator. To believe that the world was built in seven days or not believe in the fossil record or that humans didn?t evolve from apelike beings is denying the beauty that the Creator made. To reduce the universe to terms that a common person can understand is reducing the Creator?s greatness. There is nothing wrong with saying, ?We don?t understand.?
To say you hate gay people or Jews or black people or any other human on earth is as ridiculous as saying you hate trees. The Creator made everything. Ours isn?t to judge. Ours is to marvel.
Prayer works. Don?t ask me how, but it does.
The Western world has done remarkable things with technology, but it seems at the expense of our spiritual beings. Remarkable is the person or the culture or even the product that can meld both technology with the spirit.
The only real sin in world is to not work at becoming the very best person the Creator intended you to be. It?s a sin to not use your talents to their fullest.
Don?t think about qualities like hope, love, kindness, sympathy, gentleness as weaker qualities. Our very survival depends on them in the true Darwinian sense. Just as the polar bear developed its heavy coat to protect it from the snow, its wide paws to act like snowshoes (actually, it?s the snowshoes that are mimicking the polar bear!), or its ferocious nature that ensures it will eat in an environment where food is scarce, so have we developed personality characteristics that will ensure our survival. We are the only species capable (and sometimes it seem, intent) of destroying ourselves. Without these qualities, we?d surely destroy ourselves.
Give your teenager every opportunity to say, ?No.? Can I help you? Can I take you and your friends to the mall? Do you want to have dinner? It gives them the control they?re looking for in their lives, but lets them know you?re still there if they need you.
Kids don?t have the right to privacy. Look through their rooms when they?re not there. Read their journals. Eavesdrop. You?re the parent, you have the right to know what they?re doing and if they?re in trouble. Teens will try to hide it; it?s part of their attempt to be independent. You?d be shirking your duties as a parent if you didn?t do otherwise.
No one?s parents were perfect and we go through two stages to deal with understanding that. First we blame them for all of their mistakes, and sometimes justifiably so. But eventually it reaches a point where you can?t keep blaming your parents and you have to deal with the problem yourself.
At some point everyone realizes his or her parents just aren?t going to cut it, and if we?re going to make it in this world we better start doing it ourselves. The sooner you learn that, the better off you?ll be. Every person alive wanted something from his or her parent that the parent wasn?t capable of doing or giving.
No one knows you like your mother. This isn?t to say she knows you best, just like no one else.
And no one can hurt you like your kids.
Teach your kids how to live by living your own life. In the ?olden days,? kids learned from their parents. If the parents played golf or sailed a boat, the kids usually followed suit. They became golfers or sailors. That isn?t to say that we shouldn?t nurture our children?s interests, but somehow, this got turned around. Parents would pursue their own passions. Nowadays, parents cater to their children and put their own lives on hold. Unfortunately, it seems we?ve raised a generation of spoiled, entitled children at the expense of our own lives.
Television is an advertising vehicle, and not an entertainment medium. As soon as you can wrap your head around that concept, you?ve got it made. It?s all about the advertising. The shows on television are designed and programmed to deliver an audience to the advertisers. If the most popular television show didn?t deliver the right people for say the toothpaste sponsor, it would be off the air in one season or less.
by John Greiner-Ferris
August 30, 2005
When a man turns fifty
August 17, 2005 02:42 AM EDT (Updated: August 18, 2005 05:13 PM EDT)views: 1176 comments: 3
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