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?
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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…