Barely Begun at Seventy – Part Two

BLOG #29, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY – Part Two
July 16, 2014

Most Americans still act as though they inwardly believe they are living under the old template: productive vibrant goal-driven life ends at age 65. Most likely they don’t articulate this in mere words–indeed, they don’t have to: their actions confirm that they are living under the old template.

Some years ago, during a period when I directed an Adult Degree Program in Texas, I realized that there was little correlation between teaching college students and teaching adult students. Since our program included an incredibly wide age-span (students in their twenties all the way to students in their eighties), I was forced to reinvent my inner concept of what teaching was all about. Heretofore I had to relate only to students in their late teens and early twenties. Now, I had students who were older than I was! Those years forced me to deal with the aging process for the very first time in my life, for I was no longer concentrating on a small slice of life but rather all of life. My life has never been the same since.

One study really jolted me. It revealed that the average American tends to die within seven years after retirement. The only exceptions being those who, in effect, never retire at all, but merely shift gears, set new goals, new trajectories, and follow new dreams. Or, in the words of a dear friend of mine, Dr. Phil Burgess: “When your career comes to an end–Reboot!” if you fail to institute such a transition, a command goes out from the Commander in Chief of your inner armed forces (your white blood cells); in essence it reads: Demobilize your defending armies! There are no more dreams or goals left to protect! And you die.

There is no such thing as retirement in Scripture. But rather, it is clear that God expects us to live vigorous, creative, caring, helping, growing, becoming lives as long as we draw breath. We deviate from such divine expectations at our own peril.

Several years ago, I shared the results of another related study with you: The body essentially reinvents itself every hundred days. In other words: At the end of every hundred days–at any age!–, I am either measurably stronger or measurably weaker than I was a hundred days earlier. The difference? Daily exercise (vigorous exercise). Up until the time that study reached me, I had been steadily deteriorating physically due to a predominately sedentary lifestyle. Oh I knew full well I ought to exercise–I just kept postponing doing anything about it. But on that day, around fifteen years ago, when I fully assimilated the significance of that study, I made a vow to God that, starting that very day, I’d vigorously exercise every day! No exceptions. Reason being: I knew myself so well I was absolutely certain that if I missed but one day–I’d miss another . . . and another . . . , and all would be lost. Thus if it’s midnight and I haven’t yet exercised, I’ll not go to bed until I have. Result: When I had my last major operation, the hospitalist said, “You have the cardiovascular system of a much younger man! You’d be amazed at how many patients your age do not; in such cases, we don’t dare operate on them.”

My wife and I love to travel. And on cruise ships we can’t help but notice the difference between those who are physically fit and those who are not. Those who are not (sadly, the majority), are obese. They line up by elevators rather than take the stairs; they don’t take day-trips that involve much walking; they graze continuously; they avoid the walking/running tracks on the ship, they loll around for long stretches of most days by the pool, or on the top deck. They are ferried around, even on the ship, in wheelchairs. They, too, are just waiting to die. And everyone who sees them senses it won’t be long.

But it’s all so needless! It’s all so self-determining. I see the difference in every alumni weekend we attend. Former classmates who today can barely walk across the street without help. Who look at you vacantly when you ask them what they’re doing with their lives.

And it gets worse. Just look around you in the local supermarket or mall, as children, teens, and young adults who ought to be in the prime of their lives are already old. Remember the first part of that question?

“A life may be over at sixteen, or barely begun at seventy.”

Untold thousands of young lives today are over–not because they were killed by someone or were involved in accidents–but because they have ceased to grow or become, and have given up on vigorous daily exercise and healthful diets.

So what would it mean to be “barely begun” at seventy years of age? Tune in next week for the conclusion to this series. Its subtitle is “How to Never Get Old.”

A TREMBLING WORLD – Part Three

A TREMBLING WORLD

Part Three

Wednesdays with Dr. Joe

About twelve years ago, a high-ranking Colorado state representative spoke to our local Kiwanis Club.  He was uncharacteristically somber, as he put on his prophetic hat.  In so many words, he predicted that within about ten years—even if relatively flush times continued—Colorado would begin running out of money: “We are coming to the end of an era, Friends.  Social Security, born in the depths of the Great Depression when life expectancy was around 45 to 50, was feasible and possible for our nation to continue; but FDR had no way of knowing that life-expectancy would move up and up and up until today it is nearing 80, with many Americans living on retirement for a longer period of time than their career years (many into their 90s, and even 100s), placing an insupportable burden on a retirement system based on 65.”

He continued, “Mark my words, we are fast reaching the time when Social Security and guaranteed medical assistance will have to be curtailed.  You will no longer be able to assume the state will cover Mom’s late life medical expenses; we will once again, as Americans did up until the Great Depression, face a world where families took care of their own, where all three generations lived in proximity to each other—they had to.”

So it is likely that Obama’s dream that all Americans will henceforth be guaranteed cradle-to-the-grave healthcare may very well be the swan song of Social Security as we once knew it; now we are discovering that the money just isn’t there for such a utopian concept.  Exacerbating our fiscal plight no little is the double whammy of America’s continued substance abuse  (drugs/tobacco, alcohol) and out-of-control eating, together, through diseases such as lung cancer and diabetes, killing close to a million of us a year..

Metaphorically, it’s like America is waking up after a sixty-year binge (made possible by credit cards and houses used as glorified ATMs).  In Christmas in My Heart 13, my wife Connie tells of a Christmas during the early 1950s when en route from California’s Monterey Peninsula to her home in Fortuna (near Eureka), a major storm blew in, the Eel River flooded and washed out Highway 101 in places; so Connie and others were stranded in Garberville.  The lady who was driving them home hadn’t banked on a flood, having just enough money to cover the gas costs to get them home.  Not for motels and extra food.  So what did they do?  They agreed to do the motel’s laundry, make up the bedrooms, etc., in return for having a room to sleep in.  For since the motel manager didn’t take checks and credit cards didn’t exist yet, you either had money or you didn’t.

As our son Greg said recently, “Dad, for 50 years we’ve been spending money we didn’t have.’  Up until three years ago, at least twice a month we’d get calls asking us if we didn’t want to take out another loan on our house.  Those days will most likely never come back, at least in our lifetimes.

More and more of us today are either using only debit cards or charging only what we can pay off at the end of the month.  We do this because many of us live in perpetual fear that we will join those who owe more than their homes are worth, so that, if we lose our jobs, we too will be forced to declare bankruptcy and be evicted from our own homes.

Across the nation today, our grown children, unable to even get a job, are forced to remain at home with Mom and Dad.  Those who predict the economy has rounded the corner and heading up are proven wrong again and again. The world’s leading economists are grave, warning that it might be years—even decades—before we regain what we had three years ago.

Just as was true with the Great Depression of the 1930s, this one is global too, so there is nowhere to escape to.  Also, just as was true when Teddy Roosevelt became President close to 110 years ago, never has the gap between the rich and the poor been as great.  Even while the banks and corporations are failing, unbelievably they continue to pay their CEOs millions a year.  Same for sports stars, landing contracts in the hundreds of millions while schools, libraries, parks, post offices, etc., are being forced to lay off employees or close.  Misplaced priorities are all around us.

However, if a crash does come—it won’t be all bad.

More on that next Wednesday

Caribbean Sea Days – Part Two

THIRD SEA DAY

It would be five days before we were blessed with another sea day—reason being the distance between Grenada and the Netherlands Antilles.  It proved to be a quiet day in which to recuperate from getting up early in order to explore island after island: St. Maartin, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Barbados, and Grenada.  Needless to say, it was needed.

We did little but play a game of “O Henry” (also called “Aw Shucks,” and worse), a variation of dominoes.  Other than that, we loafed, strolled around, and watched the sea gulls lazily circling the ship.  In the evening, a second formal night.  By now our waiters (Lazaro from Honduras, and Michael from Serbia) were old friends.  Since our table is right next to a window, we’re able to watch the sunset, followed by immediate equatorial darkness.

Afterwards, I hit the upper deck for fifteen laps.  An unknown beauty passes me again and again in the half-lit track; in dramatic contrast are the obese walkers who can barely move, the smokers who can only sit, puff, and idly watch those of us walking or running off our calories.  Then back to the room.  Tomorrow will be a long day.

FOURTH SEA DAY

Once we bid good-bye to Bonaire, we’d not make landfall for two and a half days.  Dinner, dominoes, listening to Jasmine and her trio perform Latin classics, followed by a forgettable torchy singer and a comedian who managed to be funny without resorting to night club language, completed our day.

We woke the next morning to heavy seas.  So much so that pre-breakfast on the veranda was impossible.  Whenever the hallway door was opened, and the veranda sliding door was open, the wind would shriek through like it was a wind-tunnel; in the process smashing glasses.

After breakfast buffet, I headed down to the purser to settle accounts (I’ve learned to check out early in order to avoid having to stand in long lines on the last day).  Made sure that Tondi, Lazaro, and Michael received generous gratuities, along with support staff.  We’ve learned that most of those who work on cruise ships are paid precious little, consequently, unless passengers are generous with their tips, the room attendants and waiters are likely to return home after nine months at sea with very little to show for their work.

FIFTH SEA DAY

It’s always sad to wake up to your last day at sea.  As a writer, it is the time when I reflect most, watch people most, and devote the most time to my journal.

On this day, I was once again overwhelmed by the obesity epidemic (two-thirds of Americans being classified as obese, one-third already with diabetes).  The situation tends to be even worse on cruise ships.  On the decks, day after day you see the same obese people flopped out in lawn chairs like so many walruses (hour after hour, dawn to dusk, there they remain, when not eating).  Even on shore days, there they stay, unwilling to go ashore because there they’d have to walk.  On the ship, they line up in lines waiting for an elevator; almost never will they take the stairs.  I couldn’t help thinking: What a national tragedy: Two thirds of Americans now classified as obese, one-third of all Americans now diabetic.  Almost half a million dying every day—same as for smokers.  The two epidemics are killing almost a million every year.  What a waste!  How many bright futures blighted and snuffed out!  How many sorrowing families deprived of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.

And as I couldn’t help but notice how many stayed on the ship when in port, unable or unwilling to experience another country and its people, I wondered why they’d spent all this money to travel here in the first place.  I wished I could freeze the action on the ship and shout out, “STOP!  Wake up and save yourself before it’s too late!  From this moment on, monitor every bite you eat, count the carbs, and limit yourself to no more than twelve choices a day.  Vigorously exercise a minimum of 30 – 45 minutes a day.  Take the stairs instead of the elevators.  Never smoke another cigarette in your life!  Wake up and live so I can meet you again!”  But of course, I didn’t; I could only weep inwardly.

And I thought again about the incredible difference friends make in our lives.  Each one (noted by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves) opening a door into our personality that no one else ever will; when that friend is gone, the key to that door goes too.  As John Donne put it long ago: each one that goes takes part of us with him, with her.  So as Bob and Lucy, Ed and Jo, and Connie and I explored the ship and the islands together, dined together, watched programs together, played games together, and shared memories together, I thought again about how very much friendships like these enrich our lives, and how much we treasure each one.

I thought too about what little money each of us had, and how some might consider travel to be a waste of money.  Yet it is said that when each of us comes to the end of our life’s journey, we may have many regrets—but none of us ever regrets the memories we made, the friends who enriched our lives, the insights we gained and the difference we made in the lives of the people we interacted with in our travels.  Always, in travel, we should give more than we take.

Our head-waiter Lazaro -- from Honduras

That last dinner was poignant as we looked at each other around the candlelit table.  At our ages especially, how many more times might we be privileged to travel like this with each other?  Our waiters who were not now mere waiters but friends we’d come to love and appreciate; same with Tondi and the support staff.  They’d come into our lives, and in fourteen short days, we’d left them.  Would we ever see them again?

Jo and Ed waving napkins as waiters brought in the Baked Alaska

At the conclusion of that last dinner, suddenly the waiters all disappeared, then in a long succession of bearers of Baked Alaska, they streamed down the stairs, and we clapped our appreciation as they came.  For each of them lived for more than meager pay and inadequate tips: each of them yearned to be appreciated, cherished, loved.

As did we.

Bob and Lucy at dining table

Next morning, we woke to the prosaic Fort Lauderdale dockyard.  It was over.  Our island in time—all cruises are that—was but a memory.  Yet, each of us, when life closes in on us, may  retreat through those memories into those all too short days and nights on the Caribbean Sea.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we invite you to vicariously come along with us to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia as we guide you through our 29th annual Zane Grey’s West Society convention.

BREAKTHROUGHS

Once in a long while in this thing we call life, we experience a real breakthrough. Sort of like breaking the sound barrier—which for a very long time was deemed an impossibility. Nowadays, because of regulations that deal with the effects of sonic booms on people below, we rarely hear them. In January, during a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, in Barbados (one of four regular stops in the Americas for the legendary Concorde), I was privileged to explore one of those iconic super-airliners—and to experience a virtual flight re-enacted, complete with sonic boom.

Interestingly enough, the Concorde’s ability to fly at twice the speed of sound was touted as the reason it was such a technological breakthrough: it was expected to pave the way for ever faster passenger planes (more like rockets than traditional planes) and passenger travel into space. It was the world’s gold standard for several decades, during which only the super rich could afford to travel in those semi-rockets. Instead, it was proven too expensive to operate, and air travel reverted back to pre-Concorde flight expectations. Nevertheless, it was a major technological breakthrough, and engineers continue to build on it, and learn from it.

In my own life, I remember such a breakthrough during my college years. Because of a negative mindset, I floundered through my first two years. Reason being, I’d convinced myself I was incapable of earning anything higher than a B in college courses. As a predictable result, that assumption turned out to be a self-fulling prophecy.

Until one memorable day, in a history class taught by the well-known Dr. Walter C. Utt of Pacific Union College in California’s Napa Valley. For reasons that made no sense to me, my exam paper was returned to me marked A-. Surely, I thought, Dr. Utt must have made a mistake! Utt evidently gave me someone else’s grade (someone, unlike me, who was capable of earning A’s).

Unable to make sense out of it, I took the exam to Dr. Utt, and asked him if I’d actually earned an A-. Smilingly, he answered, “Yes, Joe, you earned that grade. Best work you’ve ever done for me.” Back in my room, I just couldn’t get this miracle out of my head, pondering it night and day. Then came the life-changing epiphany: If I’m really capable of earning A-s, if I study a little harder, why couldn’t I earn an A next time?

And so my life changed forever: Amazingly, during the nineteen years that followed, through a bachelors and masters in history from Pacific Union College, a masters in English from University of California – Sacramento, and the Ph.D. in English (History of Ideas emphasis), from Vanderbilt University, in only two or three isolated instances did I ever earn anything less than an A! The barrier had simply been mental; once I’d broken through it once, I was able to soar wherever my dreams would take me.

A second crucial breakthrough took place in stages, each essential in my own life trajectory, for if I failed to conquer that giant called procrastination, little could be expected of me. First came the Eight Magic Words, “If not now—when? If not me—whom?” articulated by the Rabbi Hillel (a contemporary of Christ). Before every opportunity, challenge, invitation, request, etc., is dealt with, first pose these two questions before I either pass or act on them. Second, Kalidasa’s “Salutation to the Dawn,” written over a millennium and a half ago by India’s greatest writer. In this poem, Kalidasa postulated that every day is a miniature lifetime, with a beginning, middle, and end; and only when we so treat each day can we stop frittering away our life energy in our yesterdays, bemoaning the mistakes we made in the past, and worrying about our futures. By concentrating all our energy into our todays, Kalidasa pointed out that we’d thereby cease to waste our times in two dimensions of time we can do nothing about. Third, Helen Mallicoat’s timeless “I Am” poem, in which God declares He is not “I was,” nor is He “I Will Be,” but rather He is “I Am”—only in the “I Am” present may we find Him. Fourth, Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who Am I? Where Did I Come From? Where Am I Going?” Only as we continually pose these to ourselves can we avoid veering out of our desired trajectory.

These four anti-procrastination tools did not come to me all at once, but rather over a third of a century. Without them, neither my advanced degrees nor our 74 books would have ever come to be at all.

A third equally significant breakthrough in my life occurred about five or six years ago. Significant because in life we may coast to a certain extent while we are young and have vast stores of vital energy in us; but, inevitably, we can only coast so far and so long before we begin paying the price. In my case, the problem had to do with my addiction to workaholicism. Always I’d assumed that exercise was merely an option rather than a necessity in life. It took me two near-death experiences to wean me away from that error in judgment. And a catalyst: a major health study that resulted in a conclusion I’d never heard of before: that there are no plateaus in life: each of us is either becoming stronger than we were or weaker than we were, every day. Indeed, that our bodies reinvent themselves every 100 days, at any age! It was that “any age” that merged (in my mind) this study with the true life experiences of specific contemporary Americans such as California’s Hulda Crooks and Mavis Lindgren who, late in life, decided to run: Mavis Lindgren in races and Hulda Crooks in running up mountains such as Mt. Whitney and Mt. Fuji, each running circles around those a quarter their age. Over time, they actually became stronger in their 70s and 80s and raced on beyond that.

I was then in what would have become a free-fall health-wise, exercising only sporadically. But I wanted to remain healthful and creative and alive, it was just that until that “100-day study,” I’d never found a tool that was strong enough to reverse my decline. Looking at myself sans rose-tinted glasses, I concluded that I was doomed unless I awoke out of my deadly inertia and vigorously—rain or shine, cold or hot—exercised for 30 – 60 minutes every day of my life! For if I failed to do so, missing days here and there, I’d be lost, for inevitably I’d slip right back into inertia. For close to five years now, I haven’t missed a day, and I feel better than I have in years, and have more energy.

Which brings me to a lateral related breakthrough five nights ago ( the night preceding the Super Moon on March 19—not to be that near or bright for another eighteen years). The moon was gloriously close and brighter than I could ever remember it. I retired at 10:30 p.m. and awoke at 12:30 a.m. by the moon’s radiance. Got up at 1:00 a.m. Concluding that a reason for waking so soon was my failure to get enough vigorous exercise in shoveling four inches of snow off our upper deck, I decided to do stairs (I usually do around 2,100, half up at a semi-run—that 2,100 turning out to be a wall I seemingly could not break through). Keep in mind that we live at close to 10,000 feet elevation so our hearts have to really work to keep us functioning at full torque. However, on this particular night, for some inexplicable reason, I had so much energy I felt I’d never get back to sleep unless I put more pressure on myself; so, for the first time ever, I exercised 5-pound barbells during about a third of the stairs, doing so on the upward segments. Even so, though I broke a sweat sooner, I just didn’t get tired. Not even when I hit the proverbial 2,100-step mental wall: I just smashed through, not stopping until 2,800 steps (a quarter more than ever before); even then, I could easily have topped 3,000!

Which taught me a lesson: even in my 70s, it was possible to keep growing stronger and stronger.

Thank God for breakthroughs!

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.