TAKING MY PULSE AT 80 (April 30, 2023)
As my 80th birthday approached on April 15, friends asked if I was apprehensive about “switching sevens to eights.” [Not at all. I’m already completing my eighth decade, so I won’t miss the sevens.] As soon as the birthday passed, the lead question became “Did I feel any different?” [Not much. Not yet.]
Still, for me this transition was not a non-event. I do feel I’ve crossed a threshold from retirement to old age. This perceived passage is stimulating reflections – on my past, present and future.
In addition to sharing with you some personal impressions, I’d like also to profile a celebration of other octogenarians living in San Francisco just to the north.
REVISITING THE PAST
My nephew Thom and his partner recently sold their Southern California house in preparation for moving to Colorado Springs. He kindly asked whether I’d like to have an archive of family photos he’d inherited from his father, my deceased older brother. I said “Sure!” and up came two FedEx boxes of memorabilia.
I’d accumulated my own collection of family photos, but I’d never seen this batch before. My chief delight in sorting through them was plugging gaps. I found unfamiliar snapshots from my own childhood. But also charming images from my parents’ early days.
It was a hoot to glimpse time-traveling windows into my 1940s beginnings. There I was, a curly-haired toddler with Rags, our snow-white standard poodle. I only remember Rags as a ball-chasing blur. In this shot, we both looked as if we could hold the pose for two more seconds max. Nancy and I put this relic to work on the invitation to my 80th birthday party.
From the summer of 1948, someone captured older brother Bob and me returning to the States from England on the deck of the Queen Mary.
I found myself unexpectedly moved by a 1954 graduation photo of my Sixth Grade class at Third Street School. Thirty-eight kids, most of the girls taller than the boys. We all looked so young, even though we’d considered ourselves “the big kids” in the school. Teacher Florence Eastwood towered over all of us, smiling for posterity but a drill-sergeant in class. I hadn’t subsequently crossed paths with any of these childhood chums in 70 years. So I was surprised that I could immediately recognize most of their faces and summon their names as well.
More sentimental for me were early photos of my folks, both born in 1906. Mom as a child and a teen in Calgary, Alberta where her father was building bridges for the Westward-bound Canadian Pacific Railway. A young-adult Dad in topcoat, fedora and pipe. My parents’ lovely wedding picture from 1933.
Most evocative was a rousing 1947 group portrait from Florentine Gardens nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard. The occasion was Notre Dame’s decisive football victory over USC. (I googled this contest and discovered that the win awarded Notre Dame the unofficial national championship.) Champagne much in evidence around the table. For some reason, Dad was missing from the pictured celebrants, but Mom joined his business partners and their wives, plus four huge Notre Dame players. The ladies all wore cocktail dresses and hats. The gents – even the gladiators – were in suits and wide ties. At first I couldn’t figure out why Los Angeles produce brokers had been rooting against home-town USC. Then I remembered that most of Dad’s associates in the produce market were Italian-American Catholics, faithful backers of Notre Dame. On this evening, at the age of four, I’d have been home with a babysitter. My folks were both 41, out on the town. That’s not how I knew or remember them. From my childhood perspective, they were full-time parents. Here was a vibrant reminder they had a life of their own.
When writing my memoir, I attempted to capture the arc of my international life by collecting accumulated stories. This distillation process was complex and prolonged. First I’d lived the foreign experiences. Next I’d translated the experiences into tales recited to friends and relatives during our stateside visits. Now, years later, I was committing those tales to print.
One result of this retrospective selecting and reconfiguring was that, over the course of the intervening years (sometimes decades), the repeated stories had become my past. Ask what I learned from working in East Africa and I’d trot out my memoir vignette, “Mushumbusi Justice.” Ground-level impressions of UN peace-building in Sri Lanka? “Learn-to-Earn.”
Synthesized personal history could distort (or selectively recall) what had actually happened. Nancy and I both discovered that we sometimes wrongly remembered overseas details. We’d been telling stories for so long – sometimes the same ones — that specific timing or places were misremembered. Fact-checking in a family letter or journal often revealed that objective details had been replaced by subjective shadings. For me, a related risk was that, in my enthusiasm for lively story-telling, I might gradually have embellished less colorful facts. But even correcting for these flaws, increasingly my stories are my recollection.
Scrolling forward for a moment from past to present, I recently experienced an elder narrator’s disconcerting lapse that shook me to the core. Over a meal with wine in our retirement community’s dining room, I jumped to illustrate a comic point by delivering one of my standard tales from bright college years. As is too often the case, my recitation went on too long. Worse, when I closed the story with a punch line, two of my neighbors at the table questioned how in fact the episode could have transpired. Mildly stung, I found myself thinking, “Don’t be spoilsports! Just enjoy the humor.” But then, walking back to our apartment, I realized the listeners hadn’t been querulous. I had misremembered and flubbed the story’s climax. No wonder it had come across as a deflated balloon. Yet this story was one of my standard repertoire. I could narrate it verbatim. Yet I had forgotten its core. No mere dinner-table embarrassment, I had lost a slice of my past. If stories had become my reality, I was losing not merely my narrative grip, but my life.
NAVIGATING THE PRESENT
When I was standing on the threshold of retirement 15 years ago, several friends and even family members expressed apprehension about the prospect of abandoning satisfying professional activity and confronting humiliating decline. “What am I going to do, sit on the front porch with my feet up and watch the neighbors walk their dogs?”
As I celebrate my 80th birthday, idle aging is definitely not my problem. To the contrary, one of my chief concerns is how to unclutter my daily calendar to free up time for serenity. I’m finding old age full and fulfilling. My overall impression of my present situation is that there are major clusters of gains and losses. I’m gaining in life experience, equanimity, compassion and, hopefully, wisdom. I’m markedly slipping in judgment, attentiveness, memory, sight, hearing, energy and stamina. Agile aging seems to require both acceptance of the ticking clock and adaptation to this shifting balance of strengths and weaknesses.
Marriage and Homestead
Married for 50 years last October, Nancy and I have become more integrated partners, a truly symbiotic relationship. We frequently think of a word or subject just as our spouse is voicing it. Whether habit or telepathy, this conjunction demonstrates intuitive harmony. It helps that we have differing householding interests and skills. This allows us to divvy up chores. And where we share an enthusiasm like planning and cooking meals, we can trade off every other night. As a bonus, the one who’s not cooking gets the pleasure of doing the dishes….
Another key to domestic tranquility is our separate blogging projects. This promotes and preserves creative independence. We consistently assist each other with editorial feedback, but each blog is an individual passion.
For sure, we encounter irritations, but almost always these are swiftly dissolved. And when differences become more cumulative, we have learned to address them together in candid conversation.
It’s no exaggeration that our matrimonial partnership is more integrated than ever before. One minor but representative example: we start each morning sitting quietly together, chatting in our favorite living-room chairs. Sipping freshly brewed lattes, we admire the changing blooms in patio pots. After a while, we might coordinate daily schedules. Or a headline from the just-delivered New York Times might prompt serious discussion. But the main elders’ objective is to ease into the day.
For the first time in a previously healthy life, medical relationships are a current major preoccupation. In addition to post-discharge care for last October’s heart failure, I have regular in-person and virtual interactions with my family doctor, ophthalmologists, audiologists, dermatologist, radiation oncologist (to keep my prostate cancer in remission) and a sleep-health team (supervising my initiation to CPAP as sleep-apnea therapy.) My current main medical preoccupation is deteriorating vision. When I grow impatient with all of these medicines and appointments, Nancy reminds me it’s preventive maintenance of a high-mileage car.
I’m getting the knack of detecting the humor in fast-evolving medical technology. Early in April, a chirpy voice greeted me on the telephone. “Good morning, Mr. Sunshine. This is your Stanford Health Implanted Device Clinic. We just wanted to let you know we’ve been in contact with your Pacemaker/Defibrillator. You and your device are both doing well. No irregularities or incidents. Effective data-collection and reporting. Twelve and a half years of battery life remaining. You can be sure that we’ll keep you informed.” Of course, I was pleased for this affirmative report. But part of me silently groused, “Damn it! Next time talk with me before you interview my machine! Who’s the patient here, anyway?”
Composing and publishing my monthly blog continue to give me great pleasure.. At one level, it’s an electronic journal. But its main mission remains to encourage fellow seniors to celebrate our seniority, making the most of our golden years. Each post attracts feedback from different seniors with differing priorities: health, travel, loss of loved ones, politics, etc. My posts about last year’s heart failure generated an unprecedented volume of responses. Some from patients, several from spouses or other relatives, a few from medical specialists. It feels like a rolling international conversation on the potential and challenges of affirmative aging.
Serving on the Residents Association Board gives me an opportunity to contribute to strategic planning for our retirement community and its campus. For example, our property sits 100 yards from the San Andreas Fault and directly below a vast open-space reserve highly susceptible to wildfires. So, emergency preparedness is a top priority. Practical consequences include the necessity of modifying residents’ apartment patios and gardens to reduce combustibility as well as practicing rapid, all-hours evacuation. Corporate Management has lead responsibility. But our Board and its relevant Advisory Committee are actively engaged in coordinating and mobilizing residents’ readiness and response.
Hitting the Road
During our 16-year Italian sojourn, Nancy and I took weekly excursions that we dubbed “Magical Mystical Tours.” We’d drive off on country roads, visiting some unknown hilltown guaranteed to please with history, architecture and a reliably tasty trattoria lunch.
We’ve made a start on reactivating that hobby here. One get-acquainted guidebook has been Floriana Petersen’s light-hearted anthology, 111 Places in Silicon Valley that You Must Not Miss.
Last week was a representative MMT. Twenty minutes from our apartment, we revisited San Mateo County’s Huddart Park. On a spring Wednesday, we had the 1,000 acres mostly to ourselves. As I was reading the admission instructions, a shriveled, Russian-accented figure in a Robin Hood hat – picture Rumpelstiltskin — shouted, “STOP, STOP! NO PAY!” And in fact, the fine print confirmed that park entry was gratis for seniors on week days. We proceeded to a handsome, isolated picnic ground and dived into fab, crunchy Italian sandwiches freshly procured from Woodside Deli. The park brochure informed us that Redwood felling had begun on these slopes in the 1830s. Then, second-growth sequoias had been cut to rebuild San Francisco structures after the 1906 earthquake. What we were sheltering under were third-growth giants. We wandered among spring wildflowers along dirt trails. How could you not marvel at blossoms called chaparral peas, chamise and yerba santa?
Pausing for Friendship
One of retirement’s many gifts has been the freedom to slow down and give thanks for precious relationships. In recent weeks, we’ve been blessed by visits from long-time friends. Maryellen Herringer’s parents were very close to mine. (In fact, they hosted the 1947 Notre Dame victory bash.) She and I began our own 60-year friendship as law-school classmates. Diane Hamlyn has been a loyal friend since Sacramento days in 1970. She visited us in Laos and Italy, the latter with husband John. Ben Steinberg and Alexandra Terninko were fellow development-assistance practitioners in Kazakhstan in the mid-1990s. Our affection has flourished from country to country ever since.
My 80th birthday party was graced by the enthusiasm of retirement-community pals. Thirty friends gathered in our neighborhood parlor to sip prosecco, nibble savory treats and even applaud a poet’s commemorative ode. The shared conviviality was physically perceptible: one moment the room was empty; two minutes later it was full and generating cordial energy. We see these folks every day. But on this special occasion, we made time to appreciate our togetherness.
Our new Play Readers group has started gathering to enjoy the pleasure of informal readings. The key objective is to have fun together, with no Tony-winning aspirations. Early participants range in theatrical experience from professional careers to strict beginners. For me, the distinctive sparkle is watching total novices take risks at 80 and above, joining a cast of strangers and trying something new.
ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE
Already, turning 80 may be influencing my attitudes toward the future. Even with fast-developing medical advances, my lifespan is likely to continue for no more than 10 years. (Both my parents died at 83.) I’m not complaining. Nancy and I have long accepted that death is natural, normal and unavoidable. We’ve done our best with estate planning, have Life Care contracts at our retirement community, and talk candidly between us about surviving spouses. Our shared aspiration is quality of life, not longevity.
I find that recognizing this personal time frame is fundamentally changing my approach to public affairs. For 40 years, promoting international development was my continuing professional commitment, on the ground in India, East Africa, China, Laos, Central Asia and Sri Lanka. In retirement, I kept up a steady stream of donations, petition signatures and letters-to-the-editor. In old age, I remain intellectually engaged, faithfully reading the New York Times and The Economist, as well as watching Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square. But I’m no longer furious or dismayed. I will scream with despair if Trump is reelected. But I won’t plunge into debilitating despair as I did in 2016. I hope that climate change will not provoke the Sixth Extinction. But I won’t be around for the tally.
At my 80th birthday party, I responded thankfully to toasts by confiding that I’m coming to encapsulate my life as a three-act play. First, childhood and adolescence. Second, adulthood and career. Scene 1 of Act III was retirement, from 65 to 80. Now the final scene begins, unknowable in length, plot and resolution.
80 OVER 80
It felt like serendipity when I ran across a reference to this innovative San Francisco project. As its handsome website (https://80over80sf.org/) makes clear, this initiative was dedicated to showcasing vibrant seniors residing in all the distinctive neighborhoods that give the city its character:
Our city, our community, is the people who live here. There are more people than at any other point in history living in this part of elderhood in our city. Our population is reaching new chronological heights: nearly 30% will be 60 or older by 2030.
We want to get to know our older residents and celebrate those who have passed the remarkable milestone of reaching 80. We think that even the ordinary is extraordinary after 80. While we are used to celebrating young achievers, we are a society rich in age diversity and that adds to everyone’s experience.
Over three years starting in 2019, the project compiled and published interview profiles of 80 representative elders. The website presents links to video, audio and written formats.
Especially because I’d spent a formative year in San Francisco as a Coro Foundation Fellow, I was charmed by this affirming, grassroots initiative. I reached out to the project to ask if I might chat by phone with an officer or senior staffer to gain a deeper appreciation for their approach and achievements. To my delight, 80 Over 80’s founder and Director personally responded. The following notes from our conversation give a taste of the creative energies behind the website.
Dr. Anna Chodos is a geriatrician and Medical Director of Outpatient Geriatrics Services at the San Francisco Health Network. She is also an Associate Professor at UCSF in Geriatrics and General Internal Medicine.
I began by asking what sparked her original inspiration for this project. Dr. Chodos explained that her geriatrics practice gave her continuing exposure to San Francisco elders, their situations, values and experiences. These largely positive stories stood in stark contrast to what she perceived to be pervasive ageism, marginalization and disrespect from the larger community. (Asian Americans were a marked exception.) Mass media and social media both seemed to be preoccupied with young San Franciscans. She wanted to counter this bias in a personal way, presenting and celebrating local elders’ “faces, voices and stories.”
Dr. Chodos floated her vision with friends and professional colleagues, then developed a feasible concept. Implementation steps advanced in steady progression: crafting a proposal and securing seed-money funding; refining the interview format and content; recruiting and training volunteer interviewers; identifying and selecting diverse and willing interview subjects; conducting and editing the interviews; finally, compiling and publishing the data.
Ironically, COVID helped much more than it hindered. Elders trapped at home grew comfortable with video and phone communications. Volunteers didn’t have to travel. Despite those advantages. Dr. Chodos conceded that steering the project took “100 times” the effort that she had anticipated. Since she was a full-time physician, this meant devoting evenings and weekends.
The original intent had been to use subjects’ identity to achieve survey diversity. But identity turned out to be layered and, for many candidates, private. Since San Franciscans pride themselves on distinctive neighborhood affiliations, geography became the chief criterion for varied representation. In the interests of preserving personal safety, the project took care not to pinpoint individual addresses. Within these general guidelines, interviewees were recommended by dozens of sources.
For a grassroots outreach initiative, grant funding is always make-or-break. 80 over 80 received crucial seed-money support from a local non-profit, SF Senior Power. Main sponsorship came from Metta Fund, dedicated to philanthropy on aging. The Community Living Campaign donated in-kind contributions. To Dr. Chodos’s disappointment, the project’s book synthesizing neighborhood interviews was never a money-maker. With hindsight, she thinks the project might have made more effective marketing use of social media. However, even with these shortfalls, the overall experience gave her “great joy.”
Dr. Chodos reported that the project is currently “in hibernation.” She thinks a documentary might be one sequel. But for a possible second round, she’d need a dedicated partner, “with vision and resources.” To my surprise, no other city has imitated or adapted this creative initiative. It’s possible that Dr. Chodos’s professional vocation and personal energy are difficult to match; ditto, San Francisco’s combination of compact geography, neighborhoods’ distinctiveness and ethnic diversity.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Anna Chodos for a gracious interview and evocative photo.
Let me hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org