Still on the Cobbler’s Bench

Scuffed and worn by the weight and pace of getting by and getting there, luster long lost, barely recognizable against their former new out-of-the-box perfection, there’s nothing like a pair of aged old shoes the way we used to wear them.

My oldest memories of shoes have them of leather, bought in an old-fashioned shoe store in the middle of the thriving downtown, back when downtown was where everybody shopped.

We polished them every Sunday, and wore those same shoes until they started coming apart at or getting holes in the soles, or the lining wore out or the stitches at the toe started splitting.

We would toss them in a paper sack and carry them down to the shoe repair shop in Woodlawn––a place whose  smell I remember as well is that of the store where we bought them.

A few days later, we picked them up looking practically new, and the only reason we stopped wearing a pair of shoes eventually was that our feet outgrew them.

Not lost to the metaphor as I remember where my feet have been, here I sit at the beginning of a new year of life–scuffed and worn but serviceable, with new stitches, and life left here beyond the repair shop––not quite good as new. But then, not in need of breaking in, either. I’m as comfortable as an old shoe with my lot, a good fit in my time and place, with a few more miles left in me, at a bit slower pace,  and taking a little more care with each step.

But I’m fortunate. A lot of old shoes simply get pitched into a bin when they show wear, ignored, housed together anonymously, with other marginalized old shoes. The pity, since so many are still worthy of good life with a little love.

I’d like to think I’m an old Red Wings boot of a guy, still nice to have sitting ready at the back door, improving with age, new stitching and all.

This “old shoe” video from Redwing is inspirational. Watch.

Losing It

I stepped out the back door yesterday mid-afternoon and as I typically do this time of year, I scanned the invisible column of space that rises in a hundred-foot-wide cylinder of the clearing in which our house sits nestled among the maples. There might be a boiling cauldron of migrating hawks (though if so, they’d be somewhat off-course for the thermals over the Blue Ridge Escarpment ten miles to our south.)

To my amazement, the invisible tube that is our air-space held hundreds of dragonflies–an almost-frightening aerial dog-fight of substantial X-wing fighters feasting on the recent hatch of what we call gnats for want of a better taxonomic epithet.

There were so many, I couldn’t miss getting at least a few in focus, so I ran inside to find my camera on the couch, just inside the door. Back outside, I commenced to set my shutter speed, ISO and such for the shoot. And in the data-viewer on top of the Nikon, the dreaded “E” for empty stopped me in my tracks. There as no card inside to accept the image I hoped to take.

It seems I have lost my memory.

In more than ten years of using Compact Flash for my lineage of exactly three digital cameras (four if you count the pocket Canon that is officially Ann’s) I have never even so much as momentarily misplaced the tiny cards: they are in the reader at the computer or they are in the camera they belong in–no in-between.

Now, my 8GB card is in-between, but not in any logical and conspicuous and safe temporary space that would befit its importance and reflect my general care in such matters.

And I have to wonder about myself with some considerable concern, as those of a certain age tend to do, when a younger person would be more forgiving and dismissive of such screw-ups as a freak circumstance of events ending in an oh-crap moment, and move on.

But this inexplicable loss of memory has really gotten to me, both because of the photographic inconvenience and unnecessary additional replacement expense and more so, for its being a new kind of error of intention and focus.

I can buy another compact flash card. If before shopping, I can only remember the pants.

To Vacation: A Lost Verb Reclaimed

Southeast Light is a Block Island landmark.
Image via Wikipedia

The skyline of New York City is fading in the blue haze, below and behind me, and I am headed home. Is it possible? I am pretty sure I just vacationed.

For decades, when we took a notion to travel (or far more often the case, were compelled by obligation to do so) it was to visit Ann’s folks, or mine. Then, time off was to take one of the kids to college, to visit them at college, or entertain them at home on breaks and holidays.

Less frequently now, we travel to see Ann’s 95 year old dad, my mom, our kids and their kids–far-flung and getting along right well a half-continent away without our oversight or help save for the occasional grand-baby sitting.

So when my college buddy, Steve, invited me to visit him in New York, I reckoned I was about four decades past due this kind of travel I’d been denying myself. It was okay, I tried to convince myself, to enjoy time with a friend in a fun place. Deferred gratification is a crazy notion at my don’t-buy-green-bananas stage of life, after all.

But I was concerned that Steve’s agenda for two sixty-somethings was more appropriate for the fit and resilient me he remembered from college than the wimpier and more arthritic me with grandchildren. I hated to tell him: I am no longer the Energizer Biologist.

We would kayak down Rhode Island’s Narrow River to the ocean one day, Steve told me enthusiastically and without concern, and the next, take bikes on the ferry to Block Island about three hours from his home in Westchester County north of The City. A co-worker friend of his from work had a condo we’d be able to use as a base for three days. We’d gorge on seafood. It would be great, he said. And he was right.

However, I was not comfortable with kayaking, mistakenly having thought my canoeing experience would make me a natural. Like a fish on a bicycle. Had we not been fighting both the tide and the wind that first half hour, I’d have been less apprehensive, my initial exhilaration far greater. Discovering quickly that the river was generally no deeper than my knees in most places was reassuring. I have long since gotten over my youthful illusions of invincibility, but it didn’t take long to relax into the effort of muscles long unused at my writing desk, and to be thrilled by the mild risk of this uncommon adventure in a picture-postcard setting with a good friend.

The destination of our paddle that day was the half-mile long sandy spit where the river meets the Atlantic–the place we would take out, have lunch and explore. The flow was stronger here than any seaside current I’d known–an order of magnitude stronger than the undertow of childhood beaches that infamously sucks the unwary child out to sea. So when Steve invited me to plunge intentionally into this rush of water and allow the torrent to carry us like hunks of driftwood a quarter mile towards the rocky crashing-wave islands just off shore, I balked.

But after a dozen ten-year-olds body-surfed past us in this gushing current, I got braver and decided to go with the flow. The river swept me away, and then the waves washed me back into shore with the shells and seaweed. It didn’t matter that a gull stole my sandwich while I was thus at sea. What a rush!

The next day, we ferried two bikes to Block Island and there traversed 12 miles in the rain and hiked a couple more to the north lighthouse along the rocky beach, gulls wheeling and scolding overhead. Bike seats are still the anatomical insult I remembered, and I really thought I’d be so sore the next day I would at least whine a lot, even if able to walk. Nope, I’m made of sterner stuff at 62 than I had thought, even after too many tame years since the kids fledged and I started acting my age.

So I have discovered that I remember how to recreate. I can vacation! I have a new confidence in my bones. I still feel the common bond to this good earth with my friend that drew us together to discuss Thoreau over a bottle of wine for the first time more than 40 years ago. And I am now disabused of the notion that there could not be the least reason for anyone in the far-northern state of Rhode Island to own a bathing suit. Ocean State, indeed. And I’ll be back.

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Retirement: Just Another Rite of Passage

Beautiful Bubble
Image by fred1st via Flickr

I expect any day now to find in our green mailbox an official-looking envelope from the federal government. It will mark both closure and commencement.  The message it brings will lay before me a kind of life-stages symmetry, a bell-curve, this notice punctuating the far right end, the final period on a long yellowed page of paragraphs called my career. And it will be the capital letter at the start of a new unwritten page.

This future monthly feeding from the crumbs that my paychecks have dribbled under my own table over the past forty years will mark the end of my participation in the work force. It will not mean I no longer have a force of my own. It will represent the end of my working life. I have life yet ahead. It will be an anticlimax, a whimper, not a bang. And maybe a bang as well.

My movement towards this end of the working curve has been by gradual degrees, intentional (mostly), and anticipated for years. I’ve not given it much care until now when the date looms large on my calendar. Huge, actually. Dang. Is the party over or about to begin? Retiring minds want to know! I need to wrap my head around this thing. My personal rumination here may in its generalities already have been or soon be your own.

To see the pattern in this bigger-picture of a life, I have to think back to my highest hopes after grad school. Even then, trapped temporarily in Birmingham in our mid-twenties, my pharmacist wife and I both weighed more heavily the WHERE of our future, the ambience and natural amenities of our life-setting, than our career tracks. Our first almost-home was in Helen, Georgia—in the mountains. In 1975 we found Wytheville, which was perfect for the location in (or at least near) the mountains and fair for the teaching job. In 1989 we moved to Sylva, NC because it was in the Smoky Mountains. It was a great location for my field botanist and photographic interests. And so-so for my first job as a physical therapist.

And when our nest was empty (is it ever, really?) as we entered our late 40s, from all the places our marketable professions could have taken us, we chose a place where we’d be happy in retirement, a decade or more ahead of need, and before we lost the will or the strength to make that place ready for the day on down the road when we’d get our first social security checks . We’d already be living in Floyd County, where we’d be content to retire. Now down the slow road, here we are, waiting for the mail man.

The beauty of this is that no transplant shock has been required. We are well watered here as we come “of age”, deeply rooted, and thriving in the sunshine of this place called home. The retirement facility here, and its grounds, are familiar and comfortable, and it is paid for. We’ve worn paths in our soil here, literally and figuratively, and this placed-ness eases the transition considerably since this piece of ground has become what at least one of us here does “for a living” now.

I should be quick to point out that I have pre-retired my wife, who, bless her soul, carries our regular income stream for a few more years (not to mention what passes for health insurance) until she too wakes every morning to an unstructured (or at least self-structured) day. Thought bubble: the two of us at home all day every day is a matter ripe for non-fictional speculation whose mental cinematography waffles between Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen with a faint hint of Gary Larson. But that, for another time.

I thought my working life had ended forever in 2002. I’d burned out on health care and couldn’t imagine myself back in the classroom again 17 years since I put away my chalk-dusted tie and biology lecture notes. My retirement angst—the sudden loss of self-identity, purpose and structure—happened with some ferocity those first few jobless months that year. It was tough. I started writing it out to make sense of it. And I got the worry and perplexity over with at 54. And to my great surprise thereafter, I re-entered education, teaching for a few semesters at RU and returned part time for five years to a physical therapy clinic who stopped needing me only in the fall of 2009.

So when that check comes any day now, I will think of it as a kind of grant, a small reinforcement to do what comes from the heart, to use life skills from here on for other purposes than paying the bills, and to live in an older body with a beginner’s mind. 

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…May Be Closer Than They Appear

So peaceful and serene, when only seconds before...

Gary Larson’s Far Side animal caricatures have ruined me for life. I swear, the instant before I rounded the curve on this Floyd County back road, the cows were walking upright, leaning on fence posts, one or two smoking cigarettes, when they heard me coming.

“Car!” the sentinel cow called, and they instantly assumed the quadruped habit for the benefit of romantic humans who think they look better that way, grazing peacefully in a lush pasture.

Vegetative Phase

This is the time of year dominated by the tyranny of the mower, hoe and watering can. We’ve been blessed by regular rain so far. The grass is finally past that initial surge of first growth powered by stored winter organic decay, and has leveled off to just routine but unrelenting summer maintenance cutting. We’re wondering how to do less of it, but have it to a bare minimum for access to the house, garden shed, compost pile and barn. Perhaps, a goat?

My Ship Has Come In

I’ll be getting my first wee Social Security check in the mail next week. And while I’ve eased into the role of the post-employed, that check pretty much punches my ticket. There’s been an element of denial, I realize now, and I’ve not fully accepted that I’m about mid-way into the “Third Age”, a time of “fulfillment and renewal.” It is said to run from age 50 to 75. At 50, we had sunk our teeth into this place where we knew we wanted to be living (but not working quite so hard) when we got that first S S check in the mail. Now, here we are—or at least here I am, while SHE keeps us afloat, buoyed up by our so-called health insurance should our fitness for this work turn south. I’ll say more about this transition by and by. If you have thoughts about the pros and cons of retirement, send them my way.


Crows have discovered the chicken food in and around their pen. I hear one cawwing now, and know if I so much as crack the front door—a hundred yards away and through the maple tree-the guard crow sitting on the chicken pen fence would flush, followed by 3 or more waiting their turn in the tree line nearby. But they don’t eat much. And if they come to prefer this to plucking up my beans and corn seeds sprouting in the garden, they’re welcome to a bit of laying crumbles now and then.

I Never Knew Ye

It has been a sad irony how many new species have been discovered in the past two years, even as the extinction rate reaches unprecedented rates never before seen save for cataclysmic geological or astronomical causes, whereas this one is caused by one sole species. This is the so-called International Year of Biodiversity—a sad joke. Meanwhile, life flounders, limps and slinks along and new forms of life discovered off Tasmania, off the Australian coast, including fish with hands. The NatGeo images are, of course, impressive.

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