Old and Anxious in the Age of Anxiety

A while back Rollo May wrote a book called, as I remember, The Age of Anxiety.  In my mind, this is a sort of 60’s book, like One Dimensional Man, that cast a critical eye on the ills of our society.  His argument, in brief, was that as rules and conventions, governing, say, sex roles became ambiguous, and as religion lost its hold in our secular age, more and more responsibility would be put on the individual to determine his or her course in life or the contours of his or her “life-style.”  And this increased sense of responsibility, along with having lost the automatic pilot of rules, regulations, and traditional values, would lead almost necessarily to an increase in anxiety.  Or, yes, we are now freer than we once were, but we are also more lost.

I think this line of reasoning might be applied not just to our age but to “age” or aging period.  In retirement, at 72 years of age, I find that most of the rules that once governed and determined my daily routine are gone.  And they have gone, not because something as abstract as ‘the age’ has taken them away, but because the very material processes by which I might support and maintain those rules and routines have dramatically altered.  I can no longer run without endangering my ankles, and I can no longer jump because my knees swell up.  Sure, I could do these things I suppose, but then I would really pay for it, by becoming immobilized.  There are quite a few things—some of them very important—that I can no longer do, not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t.

It’s the strangest thing to watch young men playing basketball.  They run for hours flowing effortlessly, forwards and backwards and sideways, up and down the court.  And I remember and can feel somewhere in my bones that once upon a time I could do that and I enjoyed doing it too, but I no longer can. It hurts to watch.  I don’t know if it is worth it.  I didn’t understand before when people would say, “That was another lifetime.”  Now I do.  I look at those young men and I think of things I did when I was twenty and I can’t imagine how I ever did them.  That must have been another lifetime.

It isn’t just that “the age” is riven with anxiety—I think it is—but that anxiety is, as they say, baked into the process of aging.  It’s a sort of double whammy.  Living in an age of ambiguity at an age that itself is ambiguous.  I mean old people don’t even know what to call ourselves. I happened to mention that, according to an organization for seniors, people over 70 years old are “elderly.”  And one of the people sitting nearby said she was over 70 and be damned if she was “elderly.”  People over 80, she said, were elderly.  And identity concerns like this are small potatoes when contrasted with the really important ones like what are the rules and traditions for determining how long one should live (when in the past, not that long ago, one would have been dead already).  Or what the hell should I indicate in my DNR’s?

Counting the Dead

                                         Keeping Track

The flu seems pretty bad this year.  According to the paper, over 30 people here in California have died.  But, inevitably, it seems, the paper goes on to report that these 30 people are all under the age of 65.  And that probably the number of dead is much greater than 30 because of all the people over 65 who died of it.  But they don’t know how many of those people that might be because they only count the number of people under 65 who die of the disease and not the number over 65.

Frankly, I don’t understand this practice.  There must be some reason for it.  Is the number of people over 65 so enormous that they just can’t be counted?  Or could the paperwork produced by their deaths be too burdensome to doctors, clinics, and hospitals?  If this is the case—and I am not saying it is—surely there should be at least some reporting, some attempts to keeps tabs, on the massive number of people over 65 who die from the disease.  I really believe people, like me, who are over 65 might be interested.  Or maybe, they do know the number over 65, but they don’t report it because it would be just too depressing for words.

In any case, I am confused, and really wish they would clear up the matter.  I mean because I just can’t shake the impression that they don’t count the people over 65 who die because—I don’t know how else to say it—people over 65 just don’t count.  Isn’t that generally the case in all such matters: those who don’t count go uncounted?  Counting counts, if you know what I mean.

I am hard pressed not to infer that this is the case, especially when the headline to the article blares: 10 children dead while those over 65 who have died go not only unmentioned but also actually uncounted.  But the children clearly have been counted.  Somebody somewhere took the time and the effort to tally that score.  Of course, having a child die is a horrible thing, and, maybe, having an elderly person (somebody over 65) die is just not as horrible.  Still, would it take that much effort to count them?  Or maybe the elderly tend to die alone and penurious in their tacky apartments and nobody is there to count.  While people do tend to keep track of their children though occasionally they do get lost at the circus or something like that.

The Mind Object: Writing 7

The Brain as Mind Object

Once upon a time, I read a lot of psychoanalysis.  I liked especially a form of it called “object relations.”  The basic idea is pretty simple; one’s mental health is in part dependent on one’s ability to form strong and stable relations with one’s objects.  An object might, for example, be another person, like one’s mother or father, or it might even be an object: like a car.  These relations stabilize us in the ongoing flux of experience.

One object relations theorist, the great D.W. Winnicott, wrote about the “mind object” or the mind as object. Took me a while to figure that out because, while most of the objects we attach to are outside us, in some sense, the mind seems to me something inside me.  Or maybe I couldn’t figure it out because I didn’t like what he seemed to be saying.  Some people, more than others, take their mind as an object.  For example, he wonders about people who think about such things as: if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound.  I am such a person.  I find it hard to believe that there are people who have not taken this question seriously.  I am consternated when I think about that.  Even though I know many people couldn’t give a hoot about such a question.  And many people haven’t even heard this question and have no opinion on it, consequently, whatsoever.

So I am heavily invested, perhaps even over invested, in my mind object.  But then I have never claimed to be balanced.  It’s just that at this point in my life I find myself more and more troubled by the state of my mind. It ain’t what it used to be.  I can’t concentrate all that much anymore, and I forget all sorts of things.  And I just can’t “cognate” like I used to.  When I was teaching, I would read something, think about it, and write up a whole lecture in my head.  I didn’t usually use this lecture, but it was there, if I needed it, but not anymore.  I can’t do that.  And I used to have some fun at it—at putting those thoughts together in some coherent form—and now that source of fun is gone.

When my mind object was working, I could be my own best company.  Now I am rotten company because my mind isn’t working.  I start trying to think something and I forget what I am doing.  “Words, words, words,” I think.  And they don’t add up to anything.  I just read an article about how stress can cause the brain to shrink.  I think maybe my mind object is shrinking….

The Paper Arrived! Writing 6


                                                 Mud on 101

My paper was there this morning all neatly folded and wrapped with a rubber band.  That was comforting because it seemed to prove the claim, made yesterday, that the freeway, previously blocked for two weeks, is now open for business.  That’s why, as previously indicated, I thought the paper was late.  It’s the LA Times and comes up from LA on the road that was blocked by the recent floods.  So I figured they had to drive the paper up the long way taking about four and a half hours, so by the time the contractor got it to deliver to my place it was necessarily late.  But now things are back in order because the paper was there waiting for me when I opened the door.

Still the headlines were not all that reassuring, and another body was recovered so now officially, I think, 21 people died in the flood.  And at the club, where I work out daily, the flood remains the topic of conversation.  One of the guys there was driven from his home by the flood.  And he can’t get back in because they still have no electricity, or water, or gas.  He goes around spreading paranoia, since, he says, he has talked to experts and other people who have walked the mountain trails, and they say (he says) that the recent fires have destabilized the peaks, and come the next big rain the whole area will be buried in errant boulders the size of Volkswagens.

I discussed this possibility with my wife and we agreed that probably boulders would not get to us since they would have to travel a real long distance, and then they would have to cross a freeway, and then they would have to go through a shopping center and the walls of a Costco before they got to us.  Living as we do about a mile and half from the Pacific, we are in far more danger from a tsunami—a danger that recently increased, when over the last two years, the nine hole golf course behind our place was dug up and replaced by a huge hole—intended to be the site, we have been told, for a bird refuge.  Right now there is water in it—from the flood—and some birds.  But it will make a perfect channel up to our door for the tsunami when it comes.

And, of course, this is California, and there is always the possibility of earthquake.  So while getting the daily paper again in a daily way was somewhat reassuring, I am evidently quite a ways from feeling completely secure in my current circumstances.

                                          Errant Boulder


Fire! Writing 4

Hmmm.  I don’t think this writing experiment is turning out so hot.  I had thought that maybe the activity would add an iota of the positive to my day.  But now I think that, not only is it not therapeutic, it may be making things worse.  Or maybe this feeling of things being worse has nothing to do with the writing per se, but with events and conditions that gave rise to this idea that I should write something every day in the first place.  I find it a bit odd, at any rate, that I should decide to exercise my brain in this way right in the middle of a local disaster.

Briefly, starting in early December, 2017, a fire broke out that raged for weeks in the hills and on the mountains nearby.  Looking back, in retrospect, it’s clear my wife and I were never in any immediate danger.  But at the time, things were not so clear.  Yes, the fire remained miles away, but it was also moving quickly.  So while I calmed myself by thinking it was far away, I was panicked by the idea that it could and might move very quickly.  Big winds were coming, they said, offshore sundowners, I think they were called, and the tension in the voices of officials made it clear to me at least that they didn’t know what might happen when the winds hit.  This was a big fire they said; they hadn’t seen anything like it in recent memory.

Many homes had burned and many people had died in a fast moving, out of nowhere fire, up North, in Napa.  One old couple had been trapped by the fire, taken refuge in a swimming pool, and been suffocated by the smoke.  Our fire, though, seemed a bit different.  Yes, it might move very quickly, but, unlike the fire up north, it was not coming out-of-nowhere.  We were prepared or at least know it was coming.  And it was day light, we could see the smoke.  The people up North had been asleep when the fire struck.

These thoughts or ones like them circled the edges of my consciousness with varying degrees of intensity for nearly two weeks.  They might all be summed up by the question: are we going to be told to evacuate. Many people had already done that.  The motels in town were filling up with displaced persons.  Others were getting ready, putting together bags or suitcases with their most valuable possessions.  And putting those right by the front door.  And making sure they knew where their car keys were because if they had to evacuate in the dark (with no electricity likely) they might have a hard time locating their keys.

Every time I thought about this, about having to evacuate, about having to gather belongings, and credit cards, and cell phone chargers and so on and so for, and getting in a car, and driving somewhere, and trying to find a place to stay, I was overcome with an immense sense of fatigue.  I just didn’t know if I could do it.  I just didn’t know if maybe I was too damn tired to do it anymore.

Intolerable Liberty: Writing 3

Rats!  I am squeezed for time and won’t be able to put the time into this post that I might like.  I have about 20 minutes I guess.  Actually, I have all day.  There’s no place I have to go or anything I have to do.  Being retired, I am at liberty.  For what? I am not sure.  But to tolerate this empty liberty I have found it very important to have a routine.  A routine is a must; otherwise I might just drift off into oblivion.  Once upon a time, my work imposed a routine.  Now I must impose the routine on myself.  And I had wanted this daily writing thing to be part of the routine.

I am attempting to make this writing thing a “practice.”  I have other practices too, such as cleaning my teeth and washing my face.  I also meditate daily for twenty minutes.  I have read about meditation, how to do it, to breathe and so on.  And occasionally, when I meditate, I think about these things.  People ask, does meditation help?  Frankly, I don’t know.  It’s a practice is all.

I also practice twice daily with a device call a “Heart Math.”  It’s a biofeedback device.  I stick it to my ear and it monitors something.  I think it’s a scam.  But for the time I use it I am listening to my breathing and letting thoughts come and go in my brain, as the device “registers” the coming and goings of my thoughts.  I am pretty sure I am not damaging myself with this routine.

I don’t know if doing this helps either.  I guess the point of a practice is to get better at whatever one is practicing.  That used to be the case, I suppose, when I played basketball as a youth and young man.  But honestly, while I have been meditating for five or six years, I don’t believe I am any better at it now than when I started.

I also exercise daily.  This too is a practice and a routine.  That’s why I am squeezed for time today.  I need to start getting ready to practice my exercise.  I do it at the same time every day.  I get on a stationary bike for 80 minutes, I swim for 30 minutes, and I take a steam bath.  I have done this nearly every day, excepting holidays and breaks for illness, for about seven years.  And I am getting no better at it.  No, I am getting older.  Not better.  What can I do about that?  I am not faster now, or trimmer, or stronger.  I am slower in fact, and I ache much, much more.

My old therapist, from many years ago, retired when she was 80.  I think I wore her out.  One day I asked her the key to aging, how to tolerate it; she said “Adjustment and Discipline.”  That was that.  No explanation.  But she had formerly been a concert pianist, and still into her seventies, she practiced piano two or three hours a day no matter what.  Maybe that’s it.  Practices… Routines?  You do them and insist upon them as discipline, as about the only way you have to exercise control over this intolerable liberty.

Writing Experiment: Part 2


I experimented yesterday with writing something.  Putting words after words, as it were.  In some sort of syntactical arrangement, and, at this moment, I am unable to reach any conclusion about the therapeutic effects, if any, thereof…  I guess it was OK.  I didn’t hurt too much in the doing of it, and that is one of the rules I have made for myself.  Don’t write if it causes anxiety.  So, well, OK, it was a little anxiety producing…when I started writing about my cluttered garage and the cleaning up we had to do after our parents died.

And then reading over what I wrote yesterday, I had to do some cleaning up.  That was anxiety producing.  I always had to do some cleaning up after I wrote, but not like now, not like today.  I remember a colleague who was a really good writer who started sending out memos with all sorts of mistakes.  Words left out, for example, that sort of thing, indicating a failure of concentration.  And I remember thinking, so that’s what happens when you are 65 for she was 65. You are in the middle of a sentence, and suddenly, you can’t remember the name for the device that has your music on it, and you lose concentration and leave out a word.   And it’s like you have tripped on your shoe lace and you are stumbling down a step.

Of course, I know…it’s not as bad as that.  You aren’t going to break your ankle or anything, but it is alarming, and a consistent and persistent reminder that your brain is not what it was.  I guess your brain never is, as you age, exactly what it was.  I remember back in college I would hear a new word, I would write it down in my notebook and look it up later and wham! It would just stick in memory.  No effort at all, no repetition or anything like that.  And other words I picked up without even that little effort.  But when I reached 35…that just stopped.  I may have added a dozen words to my vocabulary since then.  Anodyne…I added that word in the last year.  Though, as I was looking it up, it seemed to me that I had known it at one time, but I had forgotten.

So just writing a sentence can plunge one into the pits of anxiety, as you remember and forget, and forget what you have remembered.  It’s a bit like when I get out of bed, and first walk across the room, and I hear this concatenation of snaps, crackles, and pops in my knees.  And sure I get across the room, but all this noise, in the very effort of doing so, puts me in mind of the day…when I won’t be able to get across that room.  So—to sum up—I guess this writing experiment is fraught with all sorts of potential for anxiety…

Potato Salad

Easter Day in Santa Barbara turns out gorgeous, clear skies with a little haze, and 75 degrees.

Usually Carol and I go to an Easter party a friend holds every year with plenty of food and Easter eggs stuck everywhere for the children.  But this year he and his wife did not have the party because she is recovering from major surgery.  I had been thinking about him and wondering how he was doing and his wife too.  So Carol and I went to the Farmer’s Market and bought some white roses, and we drove to their house.

Carol had called ahead the day before to ask if it was OK if we dropped by for a few minutes, and I made up some potato salad to bring along.  They have always been so generous with their food.  That was all I could think to do.  The potato salad, I mean, that I made Southern-style I think with eggs, pickles, onion and plenty of Real Mayonnaise.

I enjoyed seeing them.  But we started somehow into talking—I have known my friend and his wife for nearly 30 years—about people who had died and when exactly they died and of what and whether it had been expected or not, and if expected, how long had the end gone on exactly.  And what of the wife or husband or whoever had been left behind, and did one know if so and so was still on this earth or not.

Like that.

I wasn’t depressed or anything.  This just seems to be how the conversation goes when one reaches, I guess, a certain age.  I remember back in my callow youth being around some elderly people in a damn Jacuzzi somewhere or other—and all they could talk about on and on in the minutest detail was their most recent surgery.  This was back in the day of the triple bypass; so there was a lot to talk about with livid scars as visual aides.  And I remember thinking, Jeez, is this all these people have to talk about.  I know better now.

We were there an hour I guess.  Another couple came over too; and we started in on another round this time less about people who had died and more about people in the process of dying or suffering from some major physical problem with significant implications for continued quality of life.

 Then we drove home.  And I vacuumed the living room carpet.  The vacuum had been standing there next to the entrance to the living room for a couple of days.  I had managed to vacuum the upstairs carpets and I had vacuumed down the stairs and I don’t remember what happened exactly but I got stuck there and didn’t get into the living room.  So as soon as we got back in the condo I changed clothes back into my every day walking around duds and finished what I had started.

Still a gorgeous day.  And there’s some potato salad in the refrigerator.

December 14, 2007

So I have just returned from my birthday dinner.  On the way we stopped at an auto shop to get a new brake light for Carol’s Honda, since she had been cited for not having one.  I am bloated and somewhat groggy because we went to the nearby Sizzler that was held up by some crazy person a few months back.  I mean who would hold up a Sizzler:  hand over all your steak!

So far it’s been a good birthday because I have not hit anything or banged my head against the wall or thrown anything.  I haven’t even cursed out the TV.  But then I haven’t watched it yet.

Yesterday I started cursing out this while guy seated in my car.  I wanted to turn right as did all of the five cars in front of me.  But here comes this pedestrian and the first person in line being ultra polite I guess didn’t cut in front of the guy, so we had to all had to sit and watch this jerk amble, nay saunter, across the walk with an ipod wire sticking out of one ear and his cell phone plastered to the other yakking away as if there was nobody in the damn world other than his holiness.  And in the middle of the road he pauses to let fly a “snot rocket.”  Not only was he slow; he was damn disgusting.  I wanted to rip out his heart out and shove it down his throat!

But so far today, I have thrown no fits nor have I felt particularly fit to be tied.  I was annoyed at the club when the guy at the front desk, whom I don’t know from Adam (not like my student who works there) wished me a happy birthday because somehow when he typed in my ID number the computer told him it was my birthday—the personal impersonal touch you know—and so he said, happy birthday but without much conviction, I must say. 

And the only workout machine left was the oldest one of all and it doesn’t ask you your age or weight, so I didn’t get to punch in 62, as I had planned and was looking forward to doing.

At the Sizzler I said I was a senior and wanted to order off the senile menu which I did, getting a 6 ounce steak and a baked potato with every damn thing in the world on it, what with real butter and sour cream, and then there is the salad bar where I had real Thousand Island dressing on a salad with real bits of bacon sprinkled on top as well as some sort of macaroni.  I used to make my own Thousand Island dressing years ago, by throwing some real mayonnaise into a bowl and mixing in some catsup to get the right sort of color and then I would pour in sweet pickle juice and pepper it up a little.  Now I used your damn balsamic vinegar something or other, one serving of which is 15 calories.

When I ate my baked potato I also ate the skin.  I was told that the skin was the most nutritious part, so I always ate it and it helped to fill me up besides.  I don’t understand it when people don’t eat the skin of the potato.  That’s the best part.  And when I had my fried chicken leg—back in the old days—I would always eat that crunchy part at the end of the leg and then I would bite off the end of the leg and suck out the marrow—because I was told that was the best part and it helped to fill me up too.

But now I am all growed up and have my own money and go to the Sizzler and eat till I am bloated—my god they even have onion rings!—and all for 8.99 off the senior senile menu.

If I remembered any of my other birthdays—which I don’t—I would probably rank this one in the top five, I guess.

Thanks to all who have sent me birthday best wishes.  I appreciated them.

Thank you.

Systematic Labor Unrest

So March—just about a year ago—things get stranger.  The boss says she will retire, and I am starting to feel overwhelmed, what with WB’s death, and Joan’s health, and the need to sell the house.  Really overwhelmed.  So I figured I needed to cut back some though there is not much to cut back on, but there is one thing.


So I let my colleagues on the Executive Board of AFT Local 2141 know that I will not be able to serve as the President of the local anymore and that they will have to get somebody else.  I had been President for three years I guess, and it hadn’t been that much work.  But I had to call meetings and get people together and I had to go to meetings over in the Administration building to talk about Lecturer workload and I had to fly up to Oakland to testify, I guess it was, at some sort of hearing.  I forget what that was about; but they had lawyers there and that made me nervous.  And I kept insisting that we turn out our local newsletter that we had been doing since the union began way back in 1985, I think it was.

Well I did a bit I guess, but really there wasn’t that much to do.  But still there was stuff to do, and I just didn’t feel I could do it anymore and feel I was doing it responsibly. So I quit being President of the Local; I thought I would keep going to meetings but stuff would come up about the time of the meeting and I even stopped going to those.  That was a bit strange because I had been going to meetings for about 8 years maybe.  Before that I had taken a few years off, and before that I had been at it about 5 years, having been one of two people to get the Local started at UCSB clear back in 1985.

Looking back, I think dropping out of the union like that—when it had been part of my almost daily work for years—was a pretty big thing to do and a sign of just had worn down I was getting to be about that time.

 I put up the sign in that picture when the we lecturers engaged in a couple of days of systematic labor unrest when our negotiations with the UC Administration completely stalled.