On the First Day of My Seventies

by James Wallace Harris, 11/25/21

When I left the work world back in 2013 I thought I’d apply myself toward writing science fiction short stories in my retirement years. For some reason, I’ve hit a barrier that hasn’t allowed me to do that. Very few people succeed at new creative pursuits in old age. I still hope to beat that statistic.

I’ve decided to attack the problem with a different approach. For my seventies, my goal is to write a nonfiction book. This is kind of an absurd goal since I’m starting to have trouble cranking out blog posts. But I have an idea — aim low, but be persistent. I seriously doubt I can produce a commercially successful work of nonfiction, so my ambition is to write a book I wouldn’t be embarrassed to self-publish on Amazon.

Two things make me think this is possible. I’ve written thousands of blog posts. All I’ve got to do is write fifty 1,000-word essays on the same topic that ties together in a coherent readable way. I already have several ideas that interest me, but can I make them interesting to other people?

At seventy, focus, concentration, and discipline are hard to come by. This week I’ve been watching videos on the Zettlekasten method of taking notes. Those videos have inspired me because they use an external system to organize ideas and build connections. This might let me overcome my cognitive limitations.

The older I get the harder it is to hold a thought in my head, much less juggle several thoughts at once to show how they connect. I’m encouraged I might overcome this limitation with the software Obsidian. That software is designed to help retain what you study and build a knowledge base. To help me remember what I find while researching on the web I’ll use Raindrop.io. I’ve already been using the mind-mapping software Xmind to organize ideas visually. Combing all of these programs might let me construct a large coherent collection of related thoughts and ideas.

I need tools that map where I’ve been and hopefully reveal where I want to go. These tools need to quickly show what I’ve already thought through. I just can’t do that in my head anymore.

Of course, I could be deluding myself. I used to wait until I felt good to work on my hobbies, which is a terrible approach. Now, I never feel good, so I’ll have to push myself to work anyway. That should be good for me. I’m usually drained of all psychic energy by mid-afternoon. I’ve even quit going out at night because I’m no longer functional by late afternoon. Working on this goal feels like I’m rolling a rock up the hill.

I just don’t want to give up, at least not yet. I just don’t want to become a passive consumer of other people’s creative efforts. There’s nothing wrong with that. Consuming creative works still gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m just an old dog that wants to learn one last new trick.

JWH

On the Last Day of My Sixties

by James Wallace Harris, 11/24/21

Tomorrow I turn 70. Thinking about that made me realize that today is the last day of my sixties. Damn, this decade has rushed by. I retired from work in October of 2013 when I was 62, so for most of my sixties, I’ve had all my time free. I’ve taken it easy and did exactly what I wanted. Looking back I’m not sure that was a good thing. Taking it easy has become an addiction.

A few weeks ago I thought of an idea for a blog about turning 70, but I never got busy on it. Between 60 and 69 I slowed down. I wonder now if I would have been more active if I hadn’t retired. Back then I could work eight hours and still find time to do many of the things I wanted to do. Now I have all my time free and I get almost nothing accomplished.

I can’t tell if this is a natural aspect of aging or dissipation due to not working. Being lazy doesn’t hurt, in fact, it’s quite pleasant, but I do feel guilty. I guess that’s the Puritanical Atheist in me.

I was at my doctor’s office at 7:30 am for my annual physical, then did the weekly grocery shopping at 9:30. After putting the groceries away had a snack and then a quick nap. I went out to lunch with my friend Laurie at 11:30. After lunch, we played one hand of Skip-Bo at 12:30. I was home by 1:30 for a nap, then listened to Adele’s new album, followed by The Kings of Leon’s new album, and wrapped up the afternoon by talking with my sister for an hour on the phone. It’s now about five. Doesn’t sound like I did much, does it? But that was an extremely busy day for me.

I call this grazing of lite activities puttering around in a small land. I wished I worked at my hobbies more systematically so I felt like I accomplished a little something towards a goal each day, but I’m more and more undisciplined as I get older.

Many of my friends who haven’t retired ask me “What’s retirement like?” It’s sort of like summer vacation between fifth and sixth grade, but never having to go back to school. I don’t know if I’m in heaven or the Twilight Zone.

I’m expecting things to get even more surreal in my seventies.

JWH

Bellyaching & Whining While Crying in My Metamucil

by James Wallace Harris, 8/4/21

TRIGGER WARNING: Don’t read this if you’re under 65 or prone to depression. I don’t want anyone blowing their brains out because I’ve bummed them out.

This past year I’ve been sitting in countless waiting rooms with other sick souls waiting for the M.D. After our name is called, why do we say “Great” or “Fine” when the nurse asks us how we’re doing? Aren’t we all lying? Are we so overjoyed the waiting is over that we lie? How do we really feel? What if we actually told her.

The next time the nurse is in the doorway and yells “James Harris” and then asks me as I approach her, “How are you doing today?” I’ll give her this blog.

People ask me all the time about how I’m doing. I’m afraid to tell them. Oh, I make up funny anecdotes about the urologist, or laugh about my gallstones, but is it socially acceptable whine about how we really feel?

Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How do I feel?” Mostly I’m stoic even to myself. I don’t want to admit that life is starting to suck. It’s not all bad, but so many of my organs are breaking down that I want to trade my body in for a 2022 model. I’m retired and have all my time free – which my young friends envy, and I’m not suffering like many folks on the nightly news every evening. But retiring and getting old is nothing like I imagined.

When I was young I thought turning old meant going bald and becoming wrinkled. I figured I could handle that. Then in my forties and fifties I started having various medical “issues.” However, doctors would fix me, and there would be long periods of feeling good. I realize now that getting old is when the periods of feeling good get shorter and shorter. I assume old old is when we give up hoping for symptom-free days.

I haven’t had a day where I felt normal, much less good, in so long I can’t remember. There’s always some body part yelling or kicking about something. Luckily, it’s been mostly little slaps to my innards, but they are starting to get a lot more forceful. I can’t imagine what daily life will be like in ten or twenty years.

And I have no reason to whine. I know people with all kinds of horrible cancers, chronic pains, conditions with scary names, failing body parts needing replacements, mental maladies, or worse. A quarter of the people born the year I was, 1951, are now dead. Of course, I know people my age, even ten and twenty years older, that are still healthy (if they aren’t lying). Aging begins in different decades for different people. And I keep hoping I can get my current broken parts repaired so I can feel normal again – for a while at least. I’d love a whole normal year, or even a couple months. Hell, right now, a week would be wonderful. I’m starting to worry that some of my ailments might be chronic. I’m like an antique car that runs but is always up on the rack.

Aging wisely I suppose, is learning to accept the increasing time required for parts maintenance. I sure it took Sisyphus time to adapt to his task too.

It used to be simple. The head aches, take an aspirin, it stops. My stomach complains, I change my diet, it shuts up. My heart has tachycardia episodes, I get a cardiologist to zap the right spot, it ticks like a clock. That’s what I thought would happen with my pee-pee-peeing problem. I’d see a urologist, have an operation, it would be fixed. That didn’t happen this time. I had an operation. It didn’t fix everything. My doctor is still trying, but things aren’t simple.

Right now my bladder is driving me nuts daily, every few months I have a gallbladder attack, and I’m getting rather gimpy because of my spinal stenosis. For years I’ve had stomach problems, but if I gave up certain foods my tummy would play nice, sometimes for months (until I started sneaking in junk food). I’ve now given up all the fun foods gurus told me were bad, and my stomach still bellyaches. I suppose it’s the gallbladder, but I don’t know. My doctor is wait-and-see watching me. It used to be docs would just rip out the gallbladder but they don’t seem to be so quick with the scalpel anymore. They’ve discovered there are long-term consequences to living without your GB. I’m trying to find if I can live with my gallbladder and stones or need to have that sucker laparoed out, but while I ponder I have indigestion, reflux, and sometimes painful attacks. It’s a quandary. It’s certainly taken the enjoyment out of mealtimes. I never know when I’ll eat a culinary grenade.

I’ve been taking a drug that helps me piss less, but it gives me dry mouth, and nasal congestion. If I stop taking the drug I pee over thirty times a day and have all kind of weird sensations in my bladder, prostate, and penis. Taking the drug quiets all that, but the trade-off is those head symptoms. Right now I’d rather feel bad above the neck than below the bellybutton.

One reason I don’t blog as much is I don’t feel like blogging. But today I’m making myself write because I’m starting to believe that another lesson to getting old is just pushing through, learning to ignore shit.

When I see sick young people, especially tragic ones that have to stay at places like Saint Jude Hospital, I feel how it’s unfair they didn’t get their decades of normal health. I wish I could tell the healthy under forty crowd not to waste or jeopardize their future vitality, because I certainly regret my six bags of M&Ms a day habit now (and all the other tons of junk food I massed consumed).

It’s weird, but I felt my best when I was eating all the things health nuts said things were bad for you, and now that I’m almost vegan, I feel bad all the time.

If you’re healthy, do everything you can to stay healthy. Don’t worry about getting old, worry about wear and tear on your body parts. If I had to spend one day a month when I was a teen feeling like I do now, I would have given up drugs and junk food, and joined a gym in 1964.

JWH

Why Am I Peeing 30 Times a Day and Other Mysteries of Getting Older?

by James Wallace Harris

I am being forced to become a detective, but the mystery I must solve is not one of who did it, but why is my body out to get me. Sometime in the future we will all die, but before we’re done in we’ll fear many possible assassins. For most of us, our murderer will be a natural cause, but which one? Our last years will be spent running away from various suspects, always looking for clues to who our real killer will be. But the older we get, the more suspects show up, complicating the mystery.

All my friends in my age group suffer from something, many have dodged several bullets, and a few haven’t. Like all the machines we’ve owned over our lifetime, our bodies will wear out, part by part, until they can’t be fixed anymore. Unfortunately, being a machine that’s breaking down is not a fun experience. Like an old car, we never know which part will need repairing next. And continuing this metaphor, most of us aren’t skilled repairmen. We can only guess about what’s causing our breakdowns, and even when we do hire an expert, we never know if we’re getting the right repairs.

I’m currently dealing with two medical mysteries. The primary one is why do I pee thirty times a day. I went to a urologist and had a Urolift assuming it was a common male problem of an enlarged prostate. Although the Urolift improved flow, the procedure failed to stop my excessive peeing. Evidently, I had two problems.

Before the Urolift I had hoped the procedure would fix me and I’d be back to normal. However, I’m learning in old age we seldom get back to what we once were. Atul Gawande analyzes that hope of returning to normal in his book Being Mortal. We all believe doctors can fix us, but that isn’t always true, especially the older we get. That’s when we try to fix ourselves with sleuthing our own medical mysteries.

I’ve been watching many videos on YouTube about the causes and cures of frequent urination. I feel myself grasping at straws hoping to find any help. For example, Dr. Oz recommends consuming ground flax seeds to calm an overactive bladder, and Dr. Berg recommends following a keto diet to reduce insulin resistance that can cause frequent urination. My own urologist has prescribed Myrbetriq to relax my bladder muscles but it made my prostate/bladder ache, and my urges to pee stronger and somewhat painful. Katy Butler warned in her book The Art of Dying Well against anticholinergics, the common medicine prescribed for overactive bladders, because of their dangerous side effects. My own internist is against them too. Evidently, a large number of older people have overactive bladders and we’re all looking to solve the mystery of why it’s happening to us and how to fix it.

I’ve taken a different approach. I had hoped the Urolift would have left me peeing like a teenager again, which the sale testimonials promise, but when I informed my urologist that magic hadn’t happened, he said it took months and years for my bladder to learn its current habits, so it might take just as long to break them. I went home feeling relieved with this bit of hope. In fact, for several days after that office visit I only peed 24 times a day. But then the frequency went back up.

I wondered if that was a clue. Could that sense of relief brought on by hope have relaxed my bladder, even just a bit? Could I consciously try relaxing my bladder through stress reduction or meditation? I bought a chem flask with a milliliter gauge and have started measuring my output, along with logging my frequency. A healthy person will pee 250-400 ml when they go and maybe up to 800 ml when they really hold it, but I only produce 50-70 ml during my frequent visits to the bathroom, and even less when my bladder is having fits.

From what I’ve learned people of all ages can have urine retention, but it’s more common in oldsters. I already know that several of my organs are wearing out, so why not the bladder? But if it’s a matter of muscles, either for contraction or relaxing, can I make changes with exercise, diet, or mind control?

By the way, those are some of the many approaches we take when trying to solve our own medical mysteries. There’s several, often approached in this order:

  • Time will make it go away
  • Prayer will heal it
  • Diet will help it
  • Exercise will overcome it
  • Pills will cure it
  • Surgery can repair it
  • Meditation can relax it
  • Alternative medicine might fight it

When you have a medical mystery you keep trying to solve it like a complex Sudoku puzzle. We always want to believe we can fix something and return to normal, but part of aging is the realization that some things are out of our control.

But what’s particularly frustrating is assuming something can be fixed if only we can find the right evidence and clues. The trouble with medical problems is all the variables and interactions. It’s almost impossible to get a definitive answer.

While working on my pee problem my gallbladder said, “Hey, pay attention to me!” Turns out I have gallstones. I’ve had a couple minor gallbladder attacks, but since I’ve seen someone with a major attack I’m positive I don’t one the kind requiring an ambulance. At first, I thought, let the doctors rip out my gallbladder because I’ve known a number of people that’s had that procedure. Then I started learning about possible consequences of living without a gallbladder. After ultrasounds, bloodwork, and a CT scan, my doctor has recommended a wait and see attitude. While doing all that poking around though, they also found fatty deposits and a cyst on my liver. So I feel like a ticking time bomb. But these new issues only adds to the list of my failing parts and systems.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m boo-hooing in my blog. I’m just reporting on a mental process I find interesting about getting older. And like I said, I know so many people with all kinds of medical problems, nearly all of them worse than mine. In fact, I can’t think of anyone my age or older I’d trade bodies with.

I’ve just reached an age where stoicism is the only practical philosophy. I know one of my organs will fail, and murder me, but not which one. But does it matter? It will be out of my control. The frustrating thing is thinking we can control things, and we can to a very limited degree. But evidently, part of aging is learning when we can’t.

JWH

How to Flourish and Avoid Languishing in Retirement and Old Age?

by James Wallace Harris, 5/5/21

Languishing and flourishing are two words that have been banging around in my consciousness since reading two essays in The New York Times: “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing” and “The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing.”

The first article was geared to people suffering a sense of stagnation, emptiness, and muddling through caused by the pandemic. Adam Grant says languishing is the state of mental health between depression and flourishing and explores the emotion in detail, along with advice on how to beat languishing. The second article, by Dani Blum gives us seven ways to promote flourishing.

I immediately resonated with the word languishing, but not because of pandemic confinement. I realized languishing is a state I have fallen into because of retirement and aging. I am not depressed, but often I am not flourishing either.

What I realized was the confining lifestyle required to avoid Covid-19 was similar to the lifestyle of being retired. Both involve spending most of our time at home. Both involve seeing fewer people. Both involve limiting what we can choose to do. Sheltering at home from Covid-19 was no great effort for me because I was retired. I no longer needed to go to work or school, and my social life shrank drastically after I stopped working. I felt sorry for the millions that had to put their careers, businesses, and education on hold. But what I understood now, being retired had put my future on hold too. That’s where the sense of languishing grabs us.

On the front side of life, when we are young, the future is full possibilities. We flourish by chasing all our wants.

But on the back side of life, possibilities dwindle, and opportunities disappear. After retirement our wants become fewer. As our health fades away, so do the desires that drive us. We begin to languish.

I believe wanting people, places, possessions, and proficiencies make us flourish. But how do we thrive with vanishing vitality and dissipating desires?

I need to think about this. I do know when my health fails, I languish, and when my wellbeing returns, I start flourishing again. Unfortunately, the frequency of poor health episodes are increasing.

The answer to the title question needs two approaches. One for retirement, one for aging. Retirement gives us more time but less of other things. Aging is a diminishing of being, a natural state of not flourishing. Yet, I hope to find ways to flourish right up until I’m dying. Is that even realistic? Or some Pollyannaish belief?

I could speculate now and make this essay much longer, but I believe I need to contemplate the problem deeper before philosophizing further.

JWH

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