Tex, an honest to god real life in-law, and this is his honest to god real name, used to tell us, until he died, that “getting old is hell”. This was his mantra in later years right up until he collapsed driving over endless prairie of the Little Big Horn under the load of a myocardial infarction. His hell came to an abrupt end. Ours continues or not.
It seems age is everywhere. The only way you can get away from it is to surrender, and no one can confirm with certainty that this is entirely effective. Age is the water dropping of life, not the overwhelming death terror of waterboarding, but rather the unobtrusive, invisible even, endlessly relentless drip drip tick tick tock of life. Or is it ‘not’ life? You be the judge.
We can claim our private path through life. We can only guess at who that shadow may be, following us from place to place patiently waiting, gnawing, scraping and chipping away while we sleep. Others will judge how effective our path is in secreting us from age. Choose to hide? Confrontation? Invest in medicine and denial. Perhaps pretend not to care? We all give in, taking a side in the end. Most of us end up prostrate on our back. I do not know this authoritatively, just have my hunches.
The easiest political critique this year is that these people are just so old. I mean the Drumpf is in his 70’s if his schtick is to be believed. And Hillary has been around since we can remember. And Bernie just looks and feels so old. In Arizona, we have the preternatural question haunting us daily, ‘how is McCain still alive?’ These are the best we have to choose from in what appears to be an endurance contest gone terribly wrong. They are so old. Ancient mummified remains of humanity waxed tight enough to win the ultimate edition of the Mannequin Challenge. Sadly a few even win the fight to rule over us.
Which perfectly illustrates the alternative sides we can choose to take, we the raging rabble. Take the rational option, some would say the most rational, and arguably the more generous. Respect! Look at the experience these individuals bring to the considerable challenge inherent in being a leader in the world. The person we entrust with ensuring our safety and prosperity and preserving our cherished western values should be wise and experienced. We are fortunate to be able to choose from such considerable wisdom represented in the aged living corpses of 70 and more years. Only a profane to the core culture would not respect its elders.
Imagine the experiences earned by people who were alive and achieving before we were even born. My father does not speak of Korea, which to me leaves a blank slate filled in by his, my father’s mythical exile to a middle kingdom somewhere. Yes, I have been there, but not the way Dad was. He went at the innocent age of 19 years, dressed in the monotonous drab of green gone bad. He lost his father to a heart attack earlier the same year, and then becomes the ultimate orphan as part of a mash unit in the Punch Bowl. He took his place as a pawn on a battlefield far enough way that it might as well have been the moon. Respecting his experience and his silence, we must research and imagine what it is of which he will not speak. And he does not speak of it.
Years later I heard the great Michael Vance speak on a couple of occasions. A savant and gifted speaker, with credentials that include Frank Lloyd Wright, Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, he too was in Korea, nearly the same time as my father. I imagine they crossed paths. Mr. Vance received a medal for establishing an orphanage in Korea for dislocated kids of the war. I think if Dad had known Vance he would have been involved too. So probably they did not meet.
Dad was on the front lines, served in the PunchBowl, on Heartbreak Ridge and Hamburger Hill. The names are real and surreal, not the imaginary marketing of a silly Scottsdale suburb, but the real home of lead and steel and blood and kimchi in this practice incursion for our endless future. Dad fights the recall of one of his first patients in his mash triage. All he will remember the lone time this memory flashed in conversation, sitting around a quiet lake in the Dakotas one afternoon with my sister and her husband and me, is that of the lifeless face of his best friend coming in on a stretcher. Nothing can be done. The exit wound in the back of his skull is gaping. A sniper. Dad waked up later and went back to work with a lump on his head. He had passed out. That day decades later, we wiped his tears away; that was the only time.
Mysteriously, I lashed out years later, unbeknownst and probably without any connection at all to my father. I was taking a night class to pick up an English credit for my undergraduate degree. Somehow the conversation swung to popular culture references to war and how they influenced public sentiment. Somehow the serialized TV show, Mash came up as an example of how war could become normalized to the general public. I reacted harshly complaining that such a show hardly represented an accurate depiction of war. How could any show reflect the terminal brutality of political violence? Of course this was the point. Fortunately, the teacher intervened to save me and calmed us all down.
War was normalized for some, just not for me. Who knows what impact Dad’s few stories had on me. Or had my reaction been organic, simply reflecting innate feelings. Nature or nurture? Who knows. Michael Vance would say nurture for sure. The theme of one of his talks had been “The Kitchen of the Mind”, the idea that we need to feed the mind to nurture our creativity. In Korea, he explained that he arranged his sleeping bag with a few trinkets and pictures from home to keep his emotional grounding. And his message was that even Korea could not steal his ability to control his environment. It made sense to me. And then I remembered Dad’s Mash unit, which was not like that. I wish he and Dad had met. Respecting experience is something we often do after it is too late.
Remember the “trust no one over 30” mantra. Depending on your age, you move around the shadow cast by this expression like you are following a sundial. It never made sense to me. To me, respecting everyone over 30 is how I was brought up. I have always had a reverence for the aura that age carries itself with. I have no idea why. I speculate that it is the way I and so many boomers were raised. It was yes sir, no sir, yes maam no maam, just as a matter of polite routine. I failed as a parent instilling similar behaviors in my kids, so go figure. But for us old ones, respect for our elders is instilled deep in our generation.
I helped Dad into the shower again this morning. A frightful sight if there ever is one, the human body in decline. He has been old for a long time. It does not get better, though it is always episodic with random eruptions. If you have ever cleaned up diarrhea on your hands and knees in a tight bathroom you have an idea what I mean. He cannot spell diarrhea anymore. The thing is he does not know this. Fortunately he can tell me he’s had an accident.
Naked, the body turns creamy white, at least for old white guys. The muscle tone goes soft in a mushy sort of way. The bones go brittle and he is wearing a sling right now because of a proximal fracture of the humorous bone in his right, and dominant arm. He knows he should put the dog on the leash, but he refuses, preferring to chase him down with his dizzying erratic shuffle. Which explains how he broke his arm. He smells like an old man too, even after his shower.
After my third mother passed away, we moved dad in with us. It was an interesting process. He could not function on his own, was depressed and eating poorly, drinking too much so it was not a choice really. Plus he had always like the desert and the mountains. After 79 years on the prairie, go figure. But the move went well. He popped a Xanax and regaled his seat-mates all the way from Omaha. Reminded me of his mouthing off after the Vikings game years earlier. Dad was never the quiet type especially if there were ladies present.
The first several years after the move south went well. Dad experienced a renaissance really. He joined several bands, became the conductor of another, and sang in two choirs on the side. We had to put a calendar up so the family could plan. He hiked around by himself covering miles of city blocks. Then he got a dog and the walks continued with even greater frequency. His weight dropped by 25 pounds and all his vitals improved. The change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered.
Life opened a new chapter as it is wont to do. We took trips everywhere. We took a road trip back to the Dakotas and Saint Paul, his birthplace. I took him to the Grand Canyon on the coldest weekend in years. We walked and took the sights in. Little did we know but we eavesdropped in on a planning dinner in a near empty restaurant for the Italian corporate takeover of the south rim. That is another story though. It is about age too.
I took him to Vegas and we enjoyed a David Copperfield show and a Dave and Tim show at Planet Hollywood. The latter was a huge mistake. I thought their virtuosity would appeal to his musicianship. It was not to be. They were fantastic and the crowd was relatively sedate compared to most live DMB shows. But a few people piled in to one of the rows in front of us and a bubble rippled through the audience of mostly seated fans, leaving us to either stand or remain seated behind our obstructed view. And Dad was not going to stand. He even started to holler to tell people to sit down. So yes, I took my old man to see Dave Matthews and can suggest you think twice if the opportunity presents. Imagine your old man trying to shout down a bunch of wooks?
Trips to Mexico and even Europe followed. Dad had not been out of the country since Korea. A lot has changed since then. He thrived for the most part. It was a bit much for him to keep up at times, especially on the group tours, but he took it all in stride. We visited the Salzburg cathedral and castle and even the Vienna Opera House for Mozart’s greatest hits. I tried to talk him in to a Hungarian bath, but he drew the line.
A few more years passed. Dad’s interest in the choirs faded with his voice. His interest in the bands followed a similar arc. This is the first October we missed the Octoberfest polka band extravaganzas. These were amazing and fun little affairs, like rock concerts for the walker crowd. And they served Hoffbrau so me and my brother could join in.
Similarly our weekly family musical sing-alongs began to taper off. The quartet of dad on bass, my son leading on the guitar and overall musicianship, and me and my brother filling in with vocals, guitar and even harmonica. We spent many a Thursday morning working on our small repertoire, Dead Flowers, Long May You Run, Wish You Were Here, Ring of Fire and others. We could be pretty good at times.
This spring dad put his bass away after the final spring concert. Summer came on fast, and I was traveling quite a bit. He had hernia surgery and then broke his arm. Everything came to a standstill with nurses and therapists and a bout with prescription painkillers. And he came through it ok. Except that now he was old. We were never in denial. We just had not been introduced properly.
Now he is aged and flaunts it. Little did we appreciate the role his tuba had played for him. Now he sleeps a lot. He grumbles if his routine changed. He is slow, gets in the way. I help him bathe and get dressed in the morning. His memory, and his hearing too, is still sharp for things he wants, beer, wine and dog treats – for the dog. Dad is now old and pathetic. And we are frustrated, depressed, and annoyed by his agedness. We have plenty of time just sifting through our emotions during the long waits at the many doctors’ office visits; like saying the rosary. He doesn’t go to church anymore, just listens online.
We still are able to share family meals nearly every evening. We feed him well, despite his addiction to daily McDonalds cheeseburgers. Before our evening meals, we always say grace. Most days he delivers a beautiful grace. Sometimes we sing it. Less frequently still one of the others of us, perhaps my daughter, will say grace. But dad’s grace is the mainstay of our family meals. And I wonder to myself if we appreciate what we have? Father’s grace is all we have left. Soon it will be gone, as we know it today.
Reconcile or Deny?
Age is disgusting. Age is pitiable. It is decay and rust and mold and mildew and those are the positive attributes. If your aged loved ones are in rest homes, extended care facilities, or just in the care of your siblings, you know what I am saying though you may choose not to. I understand. This is natural because we are humanly averse to aging, specifically to losing our agency, our raison d’etre, the mandate to be alive. So the fight goes on. It happens in your body, and it happens in your mind. It happens to you. It happens to your family. And it happens to your boss.
There is an iconic picture of Bob Galvin and Akio Morita preparing to windsurf the choppy waters of a Chicago lake in the crisp climate of fall 1985. Iconic, ironic, metaphorical, all of the above. Remember when Japan was taking over the United States economy? Quality is us, as in Japan. We were terrified. They each wore wetsuits to insulate them from the chill of reality. These two aged titans, reflecting the practiced norms of excellence and accomplishment, to me represented the virtues of age. Epitomizing my romantic notion of age as this picture did, I shared my naïve idolized notion of respecting age at all costs with my boss at the time. The response was telling and perfect, “respect age, expect performance”.
Hardly a cryptic notion, yet the foreboding question it implied, hardly reinforced my blind faith in this covenant of age under which I had been raised. She was correct though and I began to pay closer attention as dreams of tomorrow were increasingly held hostage, to a waiting game of frustration; or starved to death. So many people have grown old in their jobs without seeming to notice. Worse, boards and hierarchies seem to prefer the old you can control over the youth you cannot. I watched Bob Galvin fritter away his later years nuzzling with his co-triumvirates of Mitchell and Weiss as they groomed a baby Fauntleroy also named Galvin. I watched a leadership team grow slowly blind and deaf squandering the seeds of so many technological firsts with no vision to nurture, integrate and exploit them in the first decade after their birth.
At the same time, the many patented management training workshops were at full peak. Profiles were taken to match each other with likes, so all the like-minded could debate with each other, in apt symbolism. We discussed and played games to settle on our vision of the future. Allegorical training makes for a gymnasium, but to what future? Mr. Weiss listened politely, at least he was quiet, to our dreams of a global future of closed loop on-demand manufacturing and distributed manufacturing sites matching up to major markets, managed virtually from the beach. Some of you remember that video if nothing else right? The factory of the future joke circulated freely, and we laughed at our own vision.
Weiss fielded our questions about arbitrary corporate dictates prohibiting the rental of Japanese cars and trucks, about mandatory random drug testing, about human rights in China, about the dearth of women in management and various sundry items. I recall someone even asked about prayer? Somehow respect diminished. Perhaps it was the drug-testing response that we must do what ever necessary to protect our “human resource assets”, or his denial that there was any sort of corporate involvement regarding Japanese rental cars. He was either out of touch, misinformed, outright lying, or perhaps he was simply getting old?
We were mollified. We wanted to be mollified and for the moment, in the cold Chicago winter we stuck with the program. Coincidentally since we were in town, we were invited to attend Weiss’ retirement soiree. It was an huge gala and nicely done. The reception line to get in was lengthy, circling outside the hotel lobby. So we decided as the young will do to skip the line. We had shaken hands and shared lunch together already, so it was not a big deal to us. Yet I still cringe when I recall that he noticed us and made a point of our hijinks in his speech as he admonished us and encouraged the audience that there would be no good coming from cutting corners. You know what to expect from the old, but the young will often surprise you. He died soon, a few years before Motorola died.
It happens to your boss in ways you can not see at first, almost invisibly. They stand before you commanding your presence even as the reason they called the meeting is forgotten. About half of my bosses, a sympathetic calculation, were old in a disgusting and pitiable sense. They were incompetent in the ways we needed them most. We were distracted in ways they needed us. My first two bosses were fired for making up sales numbers and clandestinely taping one-on-one meetings, respectively. Weiss’ love for analog and Mitchell’s love for satellites may have been scientific alzheimers. Others lit trash cans on fire, forgot what EBITDA was, walked into ivory tower glass doors, laid in the back seat throwing up while you drove them home, organized huge renewal publicity campaigns and general corporate debacles. Still others mistook website hits for customers and endowments for re-modeling budgets and board members for lackeys.
Disgustingly old bosses revulse, and yet they persist. They loom. They aggravate. They are slow and cannot hear and will not listen. Their vision is suspect, and they lose their ability to drive – safely. We are willingly distracted in precisely the direction they would like us to be misled. Leadership is an art; what we often get instead are coloring pictures of bloated old geeks at the center of adoration and sycophancy under which only the willing succumb. This image of Hank Greenberg is in my mind as I write this. Or of Sheldon Adelsson. Or of Donald Drumpf’s chin. Hollywood bows down. How reviled can we be by those who lord over us? President Barack Obama was new and fresh and black. Hillary was old and stale and nothing else it seems. Drumpf is a fraud, except for his chin, the rest is deception. And Bernie? Please grow up you old phart, just not on our dime.
We want young and new, because we deserve life. Yet we slave under old and dead because we have no imagination to see through fraud. We are weak and need to be led so badly we willingly accept fakes and frauds and settle for the bloated screed of the teleprompter. We own our poor leaders, just not as much as they own us. Is there societal therapy? Oh yeah, war.
So if we respect age, if indeed that is what is expected, our natural inclination, what then when we ourselves age and refuse to accept it? Either in us or others. If we can fool the world even a minute beyond the expiration date of our incompetence, then what is it that we must cure to find both respect and competence in the aged, that which we will all become?
The answer comes in a couplet. It is two things in the same proportion, first is the negative; it is denial or resistance. The second is the positive and ameliorating influence of the beauty of decay. Entropy is the natural order of the world. What if we took care of the aged. What if we did not penalize the aged. We have to step up and take over. Throw the bums out. It is weakness to look at incompetence and turn away. Let the worms take over, and love the decay instead of us. Worship decay in the privacy of your own recline.
I never knew my dad, but I know I respected him. And I resented him. In the end he came to disgust me. And then he was gone. The best of the best leaders know when to die. Good leaders know when to leave. Unsurprisingly this is not the free choice of those gifted with the highest intelligence; less the wisdom of course. Indeed, no one is the intellectual equal of Mr. Vance, at least of the many smart people I have encountered. One of his time-tested exclamations was the wish that his end would be swift and completely, like a motorcycle into a brick wall; his analogy of choice. Yet he died of old age in the Keys? At least he was not leading anyone. He was smart enough to know better than that.
For much of our lives we suffer under the others. Bonds without connections, we labor and accomplish the impossible. We carry so much and together can carry more that can be imagined alone. Could we do more? Could we achieve a better world? The last century has been a grand experiment of accomplishment. The chasm between the quantitative and the qualitative has been revealed and we are on the wrong side. What now? It needn’t be this way. Perhaps what the world needs is more exit strategies? It makes you wonder. Perhaps it even makes you hope?