At 70

How did this happen?  Earlier this year, I reached the big SEVEN O. It was an unexpected shock to the system.  Why was this milestone any different than the many that had gone before?  I had already accepted the given that "we are all terminal." That death stalks us from birth.  However, there was something about turning 70 that created amazement at the "accomplishment" as well as giving pause for reflection on the past.

          My parents had both lived into their seventies, but they were "old." Lots of physical ailments and a myopic view of  new technologies. I feel like I am in my twenties, trapped in an old geezer body and driving an old geezer car (a Buick).  My health is pretty decent, and while I don't understand many of  the new technologies, I am not afraid of them.  My dad used to say that microwave ovens were "The devil's work!"  How could you cook food without heat?  I am cowed by many features on my smart phone, but I could program a VCR back in the day.

          This age thing is not that, despite all the good stuff, I will never have accomplished some of  the bright and shining goals I had in life and that my bucket list is barely crossed off. It's more how fast everything has gone by. I first listened to that new sensation, the Beatles, at 16 with a full head of hair and slim build; I listen to the Beatles now - bald and paunchy. Same songs. What happened in between?

          I am part of the generation that was to trust no one over thirty. Now I live in a world where you're not sure if you can trust anyone.  I've maneuvered  through the official stages of life: child, student, husband, soldier, teacher, father; and am now firmly settled into a final societal status: decrepitude,  second childhood, senility, the autumn of life and the golden years (if you like golf, whiny grand-kids and cruises to nowhere). I prefer to be seen as "well preserved."  I am not bitter or unhappy, just wondrous at how close I am to dancing with Jesus under that great silver disco ball in the sky.

          I can't catalog all life's ups and downs in a short reflection (that's what the memoir is for), but I do have a couple of thoughts. When your mother said wear clean underwear in case you ever get in an accident, she was on to something.  How we present to other people determines a lot about how our life will go. One of my father's admonitions was, "There is no excuse for being rude."  Being a jerk does not usually enhance your profile or your life. If seventy years has taught me anything, it's that the golden rule is more than a platitude on a plaque hanging on the kitchen wall.

          My father did not personify perfection, but he had several admirable qualities.  Another of his sayings came from the Brits (use the appropriate accent), "Everything matters, but nothing matters terribly." Or to quote an American parallel, "Don't get your panties in a wad!"  Slow and steady, with an understanding that at times life is going to crap on you, gets the job done. You can regularly use angst and histrionics to get to the finish line first, but behind you is nothing but scorched earth, and you have probably  peeled a few years off your life.  This is why many high achievers drop dead in their forties and fifties.  I may have been a turtle, but I left a lot of burned out hares by the side of the road.

          Seventy years have shown me that if you don't have a spiritual center, you're just an empty husk. Gotta believe in something larger than yourself. My first thirty years were roiled with questions about how I fit in the world's fabric. Did I exist for any purpose?  Was my name any more meaningful than just a scrawl at the bottom of a check?  Then the big guy, God, got hold of me. A large dollop of grace and a plan for my life. Huge improvement. I was no longer speeding toward a cliff with brakes that didn't work. Now, not everything turns up lollipops and rainbows, but with the Son of God riding shotgun, the journey makes more sense, now and for eternity.

          Another key life lesson: you don't have to become your parents when raising your own kids.  If you came from a Beaver Cleaver family, great, but most of us didn't.  My parents kept me clothed, fed and housed, but emotional support was parsimoniously given.  No hugs; I just took up space. With our kids, the wife and I turned a lot of pages. Plenty of hugs and encouragement. Involvement in their sports and school activities.  They may have been little people, but they were people.  The big payoff: family dinners without cell phones.

          When I was twenty-two, I remember thinking, with wonder, that I might still be alive at the turn of a new century.  What would have happened by that point in my life?  In the years that followed? What would be my legacy? Well, the word legacy is overvalued.  While I hope that I will be  kindly thought of  by those I leave behind, my physical imprint will be just a pile of dust. And  my name won't be on the side of a building or on a park sign, but it will be  clearly written in God's Book of Life. So now, I take a deep breath, exhale and carefully mull over much that has been deposited in a seventy year memory bank.

The Graveyard of Good Eats

         One way of defining lives is what goes in our stomachs. There is that old bromide, "You are what you eat." A slight variation of this might be, "You are where you eat."  Do you have champagne tastes on a beer budget?  Or are you comfortable in the slough of a meat and potatoes diet? Over the years a certain number of restaurants become family favorites and create enduring memories. And over the years many of those places cease to exist. Our own family story shows the downside of really liking eateries that then end up in the proverbial garbage pail.

          I want to start out with a positive. Kathy and I met at a church singles breakfast at Village Inn, a chain restaurant that focuses primarily on the breakfast and lunch trade. We are still a couple almost forty years later, and bless their crepes, that Village Inn is still functioning, if more than a little worn for wear. Unfortunately the same can not be said of the staying power for most other such places we used to frequent.

          While the following list of now closed gastronomical establishments may be unfamiliar to many, the common associations may ring a few bells.

           Googs - Mid priced dinner house where I was a server. Took care of a three month  ladies bowling congress. Had to really pump them for tips. Lousy name for a restaurant.

          Carlos Murphy's - Irish Mexican restaurant in the old train depot. Kathy turned green when they brought combo plate with refried beans. She had recently moved from Ohio.

          Ponderosa Steakhouse - Buffet style - family friendly. Kathy and I went there the night of our engagement. A diamond in the rough.

          Lamplighter - Tucson favorite along old motel row. Stuck in the forties. Went night of our marriage. First time I said, "My wife will have ..."

          The Good Earth - Kind of a health food nirvana with lots of whole grains and eggs from free range chickens. Ambience was California hip.  Went under because of a trademark dispute.

          Bobby Mcgee's - Servers dressed up in costumes. Food just adequate, but getting served by Wonder Woman made up for it. Closed before our kids could experience being served by the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

          Piccadilly - Southern based cafeteria chain. Kids ate cheap. Always got take home containers when our crumb crunchers were small. Never knew if they would throw a hissy fit and we had to leave quickly.

          Coco's - Value priced chain. Kids would crumble saltines while sitting in high chair. Uber mess and revenge for my own time as a server.

          Sirloin Stockade - All you can eat, buffet style. Our kids loved it, but it went broke with folks going back for their fifth helping. Was turned into an office complex for urologists. Some kind of weird karma there.

          Swensen's Ice Cream Parlor - Was part of a large shopping mall.

Where you went with the kids when your dogs got tired. Great banana splits, but that toy train going round and round and round? Arrgggg! Place got traded out for a health and fitness store. Irony!

          Lunt Ave Marble Club - Funky name, great deep dish pizza, giant drinking glasses that resembled pots for plants. Not a marble in sight.

          China Rose - Yep, a Chinese restaurant. Great egg rolls and moo shu beef. Our two year old son cried very loudly after grandpa gave him spicy yellow mustard. Torn down and replaced by an auto body shop, trading rice for grease.

          Long John Silvers - A national chain. The only fish Kathy would eat because it was so heavily breaded, it didn't taste like fish. Loved the hushpuppies. Our youngest had a horrific poopy dipes episode there. Local stores closed over franchise disputes.

          Mimi's Cafe - Classy breakfast. New Orleans motif. Soft jazz, French lace table cloths, vibrant flower beds, Kate the super server. Change in corporate ownership. Switch to rock and roll, no tablecloths, no flowers, no Kate. Place finally bulldozed. Put up a drive through coffee stand.

          The Solarium - Lots of glass walls, water features and wood accents. Held my parent's fiftieth wedding anniversary dinner there. The next week the place burned to the ground. Kind of like their marriage.

          Mcmahon's Steakhouse - Very pricey. Their idea of a salad was a quarter head of raw lettuce sitting on a plate. They bellied up. Ya think?

          Marie Callender's - The pie place. Also had fill you up sandwiches and a decent salad bar. Started looking like a worn shoe. Chain went bankrupt. Didn't sell enough rhubarb pies.

          Anthony's in the Catalinas - Also very pricey, but at least their salad added a few carrots. Great for really special occasions. Extensive wine list. No MD 20/20 or Thunderbird. Went down because owner convicted of cooking the books.

           You undoubtedly have your own list of restaurants now consigned to the empty cupboards of history. They say nothing good lasts forever.  At the very least you can remember that first taste of linguini or that last savor of a medium rare steak at some long gone eatery. Now it's time to discover that new food emporium. Bon appétit.   



           I was invited by a British colleague to the ceremony for him to become an American citizen. It was held in a large wood paneled courtroom at a spanking new federal building. Around fifty people were being "citizenized." The inductees, in Sunday best, were grouped in the front of the courtroom. In the back, the ceremony was being witnessed by a large collection of family and friends. I was sitting on a hard wooden bench with a Polish guy on my left who was holding flowers for his wife, a soon to be American. To my right sat an older Hispanic  woman, all in black, who was working rosary beads as her husband and others took the oath of citizenship.

          A world weary judge admonished the inductees to not screw up this opportunity; vote as if your life depended on it. A video played with stirring music and patriotic visuals of flag waving, amber fields of grain and Mt. Rushmore. Another video had President Trump congratulating the new Americans, "You are hugely important, hugely, to making this country really great."  Finally, the oath of allegiance was read in a glaring monotone by a stick thin female clerk at the front of the room.  Thankfully, the participants were much more animated as they repeated the oath, their right hand raised. The oath basically said that new citizens would be all in for the good old USA, and would defend it if needed.  Probably not politically correct, but at the end of the oath, the folks agreed to do this, "so help me God." Following the oath and a moving recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance,  each newly mintied citizen received a certificate of naturalization, as relatives crowded around to take photos. A little chaotic, but hey, this is hugely important. Glad that I was there to support my friend and the other new citizens.

           Depending on the time and place, officially being a citizen can be a big deal.  During the Roman empire, claiming citizenship got you props: ability to vote, advantages before the law, freedom from certain taxation, you couldn't be whipped or tortured. The apostle Paul got out of a few jams because he could claim Roman citizenship, having been born in Tarsus, a "free" city, which was under the control of  Rome. Modern nation states began to form in Europe in the 17th century. It was a matter of pride whether you saw yourself as French, German or an Englishman (women had almost no rights as citizens). European wars were often over territory so that there was more room for a country's growing citizen population. Hitler was focused on a new Germanic empire which would encompass most of the world. He wanted Herr Franz to open a Nazi uniform store in Brooklyn.

          Being called "citizen" can be a two edged sword.  During the French revolution, Citizen Jean and the rest of  the hoi polloi got hold of the government and offed the king, the queen and most of the nobility. But during the Reign of Terror these citizen leaders of the revolution turned on themselves and quite a few got an unwanted visit to the same guillotine where Marie Antoinette lost more than her cake. Native Americans were "citizens" of their particular tribes with plenty of cultural rights, but the white man came along and made the Indians worth less than dirt (they were after their lands). It wasn't until 1924 that Native Americans were given U.S. citizenship. Women had finally attained the vote, constitutionally, in 1920. Now they both could vote for the corrupt power structure. 

          As a welcoming gift, I got my "new citizen" friend a blue polo shirt with a raised American flag on the left breast, right over the heart.  May he always be aware of the good far outweighing the bad in America's long journey.

Out of Place

            As I step in the shower and turn on the water, I notice in one corner, a tiny frog, about the size of a nickel.  How did it get past the glass door? Is there a way that it came out of the drain? Whatever path the frog took, it is certainly out of place in a big way. That makes one consider other places and situations where there is a sense of not belonging, of being "out of water."

          Growing up, many kids experience situations where they feel alienated in some way. They don't possess certain desirable toys or stylish clothing. Depending on the era, they don't have the right phonograph, cassette or CD player or their smart phone/tablet is off brand.  You are what you consume. This goes beyond things, to personality and who you run with. In high school, there is a hope to be part of the in crowd, or if not, at least hang with the jocks or the greasers. Nerds tend to operate on their own island, marooned with abilities that will eventually make them money but probably won't get them a date to the prom. Feeling out of place is even more endemic with the barrage of social media now telling kids that they don't measure up to shifting ideals.

          As adults, rugged individualism was supposed to be a positive trait; however, the lemming model is usually more revered. Go along to get along, as the edge of the cliff looms nearer and nearer. You are out of place if you alone stand on the street corner shouting, "The emperor has no clothes," while there are thunderous cheers from the crowd as the royal carriage passes by.  While traditional societal values continue to fracture, opening up more acceptable "alternatives," it may seem ironic that alienation is ever increasing. But it can be hard to fit in when rules and expectations are inscribed on the walls of sand castles.

          Still, being out of place has its benefits.  Many geniuses; be they great inventors, incredible musicians, artists, or entrepreneurs, did not fit in with societal norms. They are and were outliers, marching to a different drummer whose rat tat tatting helped them churn society in a positive way.  These brilliant iconoclasts often have prickly personalities and/or strange personal habits.  Einstein couldn't tie his shoes; Van Gogh thought he only needed one ear. Even if you are in the Joe Un-average category, there are benefits to not fitting in. You can pursue your own muse without catering to the boring regimen of those around you. Drive a restored Edsel rather than a Lexus. Wear only clothes that you buy at the Goodwill store.  Put peanut butter on your bananas (an Elvis thing).

          During my college teaching career I was big on cowboy hats, boots and vests (I have almost thirty). I carried my office with me on a hand cart. Was plugged into a fifteen year old iPod classic. Drove a Buick old geezer car before I was an old geezer.  I was out of place, but in place with my comfort level. I rocked the idiosyncrasies.

          After my shower, I get a small container and flip the little frog into it.  I take him outside, put him in the grass and hope he will make it through the day without a lizard viewing him as lunch. Because just making it through the day is more than enough.