Friday, April 20, 2018

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #7 Winding Down Years

April, 2011

It started before I got out of bed this morning. I woke up thinking about what someone once wrote: “…never was a man so unafraid of his destiny”.  That quote played an instrumental role in my journey many years ago by allowing me to think about my own destiny. Until then, destiny was an idea I attributed only to larger than life historical figures. It was a revelation to realize I too could claim what I considered to be my destiny - a life that combined both medicine and art.

Lying in bed it occurred to me that although I have been living it, I no longer had that confident grasp on my destiny. The solid foundation underlying my life for the past 30 years was slowly beginning to weaken as doubts and insecurities began to find there way into my head. I thought of myself as being in those “winding down” years, where it is difficult to look very far ahead. I approached my morning journal intending to write something about this and was immediately struck with doubt and misgivings.

What am I thinking, that it is time to pack up and dust off the rocking chair?  That instead of exploring and pushing at the boundaries with new work I should be content with looking back and reminiscing? This is absurd. Is there some biological clock that tells us it is time to slow down and begin looking back instead of ahead? I don’t think so. Granted, there is a natural tendency to do this as we reach these later years, approaching work, and life, with a bit more deliberate and critical thinking. And if we’re lucky, there may be some wisdom somewhere that we can draw on (no pun intended). Yes, it is difficult to see a long-term destiny when we reach the 80th decade and beyond, but that only means our energies are focused on the work in front of us today. We not only can, but must continue to explore and create. Long-term plans now span 1-2 years and not 10-20, and what the work may lack in terms of grand, sweeping ambition it makes up for in its intensity and commitment. I once made a promise to myself and to every patient that I left behind that my goal was create the best art that I am capable of doing. I intend to honor that promise.

Friday, April 13, 2018


AM I OLD YET?    Some notes
July 2010

When do we become and “old man”, or an “old woman”? Does the transformation take place at a certain age? Are there criteria that we can use to make that call, and if so, what are they: physical appearance, functional status, mental acuity, attitude and personal outlook?

The old man I see so clearly in my mind wears a wrinkled face topped with thin unruly hair, including wisps in his ears and nose. His back is slightly bent and his gait slow but certain. His trousers are baggy and his flannel shirt is encased in a loose cardigan sweater. Although his hearing is impaired, his vision is adequate with glasses, and his appetite for companionship, conversation, and good food and wine is undiminished. As a young boy this description fit my grandfather in his mid 70s when he lost his eyesight due to complications from diabetes. One of my jobs was to take my grandfather on a daily walk when weather permitted. He held my hand in one hand and his white cane in the other, and together we walked the quarter mile to the highway and back. I remember my grandfather as an old man.

The years passed, and I watched my parents grow old. Sadly my mother died at the age of 76, never reaching the status of an “old lady” in my eyes. My father died at the age of 82, about a year after suffering a stroke that left him partially disabled. In spite of that he was never the old man I saw in his father. And as I’m writing this, it occurs to me that the difference between my perception of my grandfather and my parents is not due to anything on their part, but is a reflection of my own age.

Friday, March 30, 2018


December 2009

As one would imagine, I have been pondering the significance of being seventy years old since my 69th birthday last year.  Turning seventy has some emotional significance that was not there during the decade of the sixties.  Seventy sounds so much older than sixty-nine and conjures images in my mind of men with white hair and thick white mustaches, walking slightly bent forward, wearing a button down sweater and lace-less shoes. Shamelessly I have found comfort in hearing from friends and family that I do not look seventy, or in their surprise when I tell them my age...”I never would have guessed”, or “are you kidding me?”

I imagine that all who have had the good fortune to reach this milestone shares these thoughts.  Observations on turning seventy are as varied as the folks who offer them, from embracing their age and rejoicing in its advantages, to rebelling against it and bemoaning lost youth. I see and understand both points of view. There is indeed a sense of freedom that accompanies age, as well as a feeling of relief from having navigated all the years with reasonable success. For me, that offsets the loss of physical capacity as well as the enthusiasm and nativity of youth. 

But more than anything else, positive or negative, what resonates the most is the threat to the “some days” that have been so much a part of my life. Those some days were my fall back, my promises to myself; they were there to keep my dreams alive. They are not completely gone, but their expanse, their range, has been severely narrowed by knowing that most of my years are now behind me and that the once unlimited future has become both limited and vulnerable. Mentally I have been processing all of this for several years, but that magical number, seventy, seems to have crystallized these notions into a simple, concrete concept, the timer has been set. It is on and running, and I don’t know where it has been set to turn off, 6 months, 6 years, or 20 plus years. Of course the same can be said for all of us, regardless of age, but few of us pay any attention to it until we reach a certain age, which for me appears to be seventy.

Saturday, March 17, 2018



Good grief! Who knew that turning 70 would provide so many issues to deal with (and write about). I will be lucky if I can get all the emotional and psychological stuff cleared away before I reach 80.

Maybe when I’m 80, 70-year old women will be more appealing.

I have 9 months left in which to milk this 70th birthday. No one gives a shit about 71!

I’m 70 years old and rarely does a day go by that I don’t think about my mother and father. Oh how I would love to go back into time and reclaim those years that I took for granted. With the wisdom of the retrospectoscope I realize how precious and special they were. But of course that is what the years bring to us, the wisdom to appreciate that which is has past: family, friends, community, and perhaps greatest of all, freedom from responsibility. My childhood was wonderful and glorious because my parents carried the burden of responsibilities for me, for themselves, my grandfather, and the farm. I realize now, that for them, those years were tough and trying, and that they protected me from their struggles.             

I cannot help but feel some f guilt for not realizing this sooner, but mostly I feel gratitude, gratitude to them for being the parents that they were and giving to me all that they did.  I imagine they knew that my turn to shoulder responsibility would come soon enough.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Power of Prayer 1976

It was now or never. For 10 years I was a steadfast member of the Methodist Church as I constantly struggled with a faith riddled with doubt and disbelief. After years of sermons, study groups, and prayer groups, I came to realize that I was spending all of my time reading, listening, and talking about other people’s experiences with God, while I had none of my own. I was puzzled, and wondered, if God is all that He is said to be, why haven’t I experienced Him? Why is it so difficult for me to know Him? It didn’t make sense, and I decided it was time I “found” God for myself. I had a plan.

I’ve always been an early riser, and every morning I could count on at least 30 minutes of solitude before the rest of the family awoke. My plan was simple. I would sit quietly in the empty spare room and open my heart to God in silent prayer. My goal was to remove all the intellectual barriers I had erected between me and the faith I was seeking. Although this was during a period of significant personal turmoil marked by intense introspection, I was about to engage in something entirely new for me.

Every morning I would sit comfortably on the carpeted floor with my legs crossed, remove my glasses, and spend 15-30 minutes in prayer and/or meditation asking (pleading? Begging?) God to reveal himself. Although there were no epiphanies, revelations, or voices calling my name, I was not disappointed or frustrated, and each session left me with a feeling of serenity and contentment. I was confident I could achieve my goal, and felt good about what I was doing.

Several weeks into this program I ended my quiet time in the usual fashion, sitting peacefully on the floor and reaching for my glasses, only to find that somehow I managed to sit on them. My favorite round, gold-rimmed glasses were damaged beyond repair, and my immediate reaction was a stream of profanity unmatched by anything in my personal history. I’m ashamed to say that I used God’s name, and others, liberally in my wail of frustration and disbelief. Serenity and contentment didn’t stand a chance when confronted by such a major personal catastrophe. To say I was very fond of those glasses would be an understatement. I was surprised and quite chagrined by this totally unexpected outburst of emotion. Needless to say, I realized there was a great deal more work to be done on my quest for spiritual fulfillment and enlightenment. Mumbling my apologies to Him, I picked up the pieces of my glasses and quietly left the room, wondering if I would return the following morning.

I did return, and continued with my morning prayers and meditation. My efforts were rewarded several weeks later I felt I actually experienced God’s presence. Apparently He was big enough to overlook my little outburst, although it was elsewhere and not in that room. Perhaps He felt it would only be re-enforcing my use of so much unpleasant language.  Or not.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

NOTES FROM THE 8TH DECADE #3 The Heaviness of Years

April 2009

Last night listening to folk music from the early 60’s I was immediately transported back to my college years (1957-1961) and how time has transformed my psyche. The phrase, the heaviness of years, came immediately to mind and has been with me ever since. And, as I am inclined to do, I began exploring this idea in my journal. I thought about how age tends to diminish ambitions, aspirations, and willingness to take risks, and encourages distrust and suspicion of anything new. And if that’s not enough, it promotes a growing reliance on daily routine, confusion over an evolving youth culture, and uncertainty over the extent of our personal future. How depressing!

But even as I was writing this bleak scenario of aging, which carries a modicum of truth, I realized it was only one side of the coin; there is an equally compelling argument to make for the benefit of age. The weight of the years is well balanced.

The uncertainty of the future - I have difficulty dealing with the loss of the “some days” of my youth. As a younger man I could cling to the notion that someday my dreams would come true, and my goals achieved. The future was limitless. At some point in my mid 60s that began to change, the future was narrowing and the “some days” began to diminish. Disastrous? Perhaps, but there is another way to look at this. With a diminishing and uncertain future, one is forced to focus on the present. For someone who tends to spend too much time thinking about the tomorrows, this is a positive step. With each birthday I move one year closer to learning to live in and appreciate my “todays". In the end, it is the journey, and not the destination that matters.

Following the dream and taking risks - I know something about this. At age 39 I decided to leave my medical practice and work part time in an emergency room so I could pursue a career in art (I had no formal training). At age 53 I opened a medical practice in a converted barn on our farm, and at age 62 moved 950 miles away from family and friends to Paducah Kentucky to sign up for their artist relocation program. I made each of these decisions, and many others, without fear or trepidation because I was confident that they were the steps intended for me. I knew that as much as one can know something.

But now, six years later, when I think about these moves I wonder, could I do that today? Does our spirit respond to age the way our bones and joints do? Does it tend to get a little slow and more inclined to remain comfortable and secure rather than jump ahead into the unknown? Those decisions were made with the security of the “some days” to fall back on if needed, “some days” that become more elusive with the passing years.

Although taking risks to pursue dreams become more difficult and perhaps more stressful, the years provide us with a new resource…experience. And if we pay attention it’s possible to convert that to wisdom. Together they can help guide us through the transitions and changes faced in these later years. We are better equipped to assess risks and have a more realistic notion of the consequences of our actions. Perhaps my spirit and my personal aspirations have been buffered a bit by the years, but they remain intact, and I pursue them a bit slower, with deliberation and determination that these same years have provided.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


 December 2008

Castelnuovo della Daunia   watercolor
I left Italy thinking the Italians knew how to live. Not just because they enjoy their food and wine and their outgoing attitude to friends and family, but because they seem to be less uptight about life and less concerned with pretentious displays of wealth or position. However they are concerned with fashion and style, and they dress with fastidious care.

I returned home from my first trip to Italy 2 months ago, and have been addicted to a fantasy of returning to Italy to spend a year writing and painting in the tiny village of my grandfather, Castelnuovo della Daunia, located in the northern part of Puglia. I find myself clinging to this fantasy because it gives me hope that my life is not at a dead end, a disturbing thought that has been creeping into my consciousness lately.

The truth is, I don’t know what to think anymore. I will soon be 70 years old, an age that looms large and carries with it a lot of heavy emotional stuff. Mostly stuff like I am too old to be thinking about my “somedays”, or scheming about how I can spend a month let alone a year in Italy. And I’m too old to think I can become any more than I am in the world of art.

On the other hand I remind myself that it is not the numbers that count, it is how you feel.  It is what is in your heart and your head that determines how old you are. If I think that I am too old for all of the above, then I might as well just roll over and die, and I am not ready to do that.

I don’t know if I really want to spend a year in Italy. Maybe what I really want is something to look forward to, something to add excitement to a life that I fear is growing increasingly dull and mundane. This may be a good time to remind myself of important lessons from the past: if you don’t think something can happen, then it probably won’t. But if you nurture your ideas and give them time and space, those that were meant to be will grow with a chance to bloom, those that weren’t, will die.

Perhaps the years ahead won’t be so dull after all. Who knows, I may even make it back to Italy some day.