Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
(This article appeared previously on the EngAGE blog)
I just turned 55. As in years old. Say it with me: 55, 55, 55.
Fifty-five. It’s the speed limit that singer Sammy Hagar just couldn’t drive. Of course, he’s still a force of nature on stage as a rocker at age 68.
Fifty-five. It’s the number of points Michael Jordan scored in his second game coming out of his ill-fated retirement from basketball to pursue, um, baseball. Of Michael’s encore, Spike Lee said it best, “Mike dropped a double nickel on my beloved Knicks.”
And 55, it’s now my age. What’s the big deal? Fifty-five, so what? Just another number, right?
Little did I know that the simple act of holding a mirror up to my grandmother would be the basis for my career.
Well, see, I work in senior housing. I started doing “this” in my 30s. I founded EngAGE, which turns affordable senior apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity like the Burbank Senior Artist Colony. And now that I’m 55, I am eligible to move into many of my own buildings.
An Unexpected Path
People often ask me how I got into working with seniors. I grew up in an (at least partly) Irish Catholic family where storytelling was like a competitive sport and older people simply told better stories than younger ones, so I ended up spending more time at that end of the dinner table. I have also spent most of my life seeking and finding mentors who have known more, have been around the block a few more times and could teach me out of their experience.
I had a cool letter-writing relationship with my grandmother, my dad’s mom, a simple farm woman from Iowa who spun a great story about her daily life. I would read her letters to my friends on my college dorm floor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, regaling her epics about hedgehogs that crossed her garden and suffered her wrath, and other odyssey-of-the-Midwest yarns.
People loved her funny, exciting tales, and I told her that. It made her feel valued. It made her feel like she had a voice to know that college kids liked her letters. Little did I know that this simple act of holding a mirror up to my grandmother to make her realize how great she was would be the basis for my career later in my own life.
Now I’m a “senior” much like the many sage ones I’ve served through EngAGE for 17 years now, and much like the people I’ve interviewed on our radio show Experience Talks. So what have I learned?
3 Life Lessons
First, loss shapes us.
My life has been peppered by loss like many of the folks in our communities. I lost my younger brother Scott when he was 32. I lost both my parents. And I lost my wife, Nancy, when she was 48 and our daughter Zoe was 8. Three of them died in my arms.
This was all hard. It also made me who I am — better at my job, created a greater need to build resilience, made me strive for empathy. As an added bonus, I have had to learn to cook, to be both a dad and as much of a mom as I could be to Zoe, who is now a teenager, to do laundry and operate the Swiffer while on a conference call.
Second, life also shapes us.
My life has been peppered with life too. I will never forget the day Zoe was born and handed to me in the hospital; my heart grew 10 sizes. I sang Zeppelin to her in her bassinet and knew that my life had changed forever. Her life and my life, woven together like a continually surprising beautiful tapestry.
Third, stop playing competitive basketball before the catastrophic third knee injury in your 50s.
A hero of mine, Carl Jung, co-wrote his last book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, while he was dying in 1962, the year after I was born. The book delves deeply and personally into the details of his childhood, his personal life and his exploration of the psyche, as he turns his gift for understanding and human exploration on himself. A favorite quote of his from that book: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
So here I am, at 55, kindling a light, cobbling away at a life, living, being. Bring it on.
A favorite film of mine about male friendship, and life in general, is the 1993 western Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, respectively. It’s a favorite I share with my best buddy, Dr. Greg Berkoff, the smartest guy I know .
In it, Doc Holliday quips nicely about getting older, hopefully, and living life as it comes (Holliday is dying of tuberculosis) as they are approached by a couple of younger guys:
Ike Clanton: Listen, Mr. Kansas Law Dog. Law don’t go around here. Savvy?
Wyatt Earp: I’m retired.
Johnny Ringo: And you must be Doc Holliday.
Doc Holliday: That’s the rumor.
Johnny Ringo: You retired, too?
Doc Holliday: Not me. I’m in my prime.
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