What Aging Men Really Want

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BOOK REVIEW

WHAT AGING MEN WANT; THE ODYSSEY AS A PARABLE OF MALE AGING

Author: John C. Robinson

Publisher: Psyche Books

ISBN: 978-1-78099-981-4

The Iliad and The Odyssey are staples of the liberal arts, long poems written by a Greek 2500 years ago. The first tells the story of the 10 year-long Trojan War. The second, crucial to this nonfiction work, is about a hero experiencing its troubling aftermath (perhaps metaphorically analogous to what we call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). Men leaving the workplace battles today in this condition are improved by coming to a personal understanding of the monsters in these mythological tales.

Timely though it seemed, my husband refused to read this book with me. He is 72 and still teaching English literature to college students. He has had to concede that Robinson seems to truly understand the text, but he disapproves of using literary works “this way.” I reminded him that Hamlet has been used by many artists to stimulate personal growth, with varying interpretations to appeal to the changing needs of audiences. He had to concede that also. He just doesn’t want to think about retirement.

This is a beautiful book that is well-written and expertly designed to serve men meeting in groups to help each other ease into the last stage of their lives by recognizing its benefits. The ancient story of Odysseus is still exciting and terrifying, even in its condensed version here. What Robinson makes of it seems natural and now even obvious to me –it should be prescribed reading for all wives who are frustrated by their husbands’ refusal to give up the battles to enjoy the comforts of family. It may help to prepare a softer landing.

The author has written several books to document human growth in aid of his professions, both clinical psychology and spiritual counseling. In this one he does not stand above his audience; he confesses his own resistance to the aging process. He represents the experience of an entire generation of traditional males who came to crisis during the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Some of them broke with tradition then, and learned to pound on drums and to cry, as in the subsequent men’s liberation movement inspired by another poet in Iron John (Robert Bly, 1990). These are the men Robinson says now must reinvent themselves yet again.

Here’s how it works: In the poem, the war weary Odysseus is trying to reach his home, but there are challenges. While a college student might view these as “cool” (and sexy) fantastical adventures, Robinson says, “Each challenge comprises a threshold of understanding– an experience that must be admitted to consciousness, understood and accepted for the journey to continue”. He summarizes each dangerous encounter; gives it a psychological interpretation; discusses its relevance to contemporary male experience, e.g., the competitive workplace; then poses a challenge and “growth questions,” stimulating further self-exploration and discussion. At the end of the book there are several more chapters of discussion and guidelines for creating a group that can carry this exercise out in a supportive environment (i.e., with men who don’t mind talking about their feelings and personal lives). Importantly, Robinson does not paint retirement as all bliss waiting for them. He acknowledges likely troubles at home during the hero’s absence, complicated by longevity. “Retirement” is a matter of leaving wars we no longer believe in, and coming home to love, spiritual awareness, and death.

It will help the prospective reader to become reacquainted with the methods of “depth psychology.” We benefit only if we consider our own dreams important, and the Odyssey as a series of cultural dreams that have meaning for each of us. It is using stories as our own dreams that offends my husband, but I don’t think too many of us outside academia will have that problem. Many of us have read The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell, 1949) which Robinson also cites.

I love this book for what it offers and how clearly it is written, and I appreciate the author as someone careful to make good on a revered piece of literature. I do hope, though – and this is not a paid announcement – that readers take the trouble to read the entire work by Homer. Robinson has used Lattimore’s English translation, which my husband considers top notch.

 

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This review was written for and originally published by www.bookpleasures.com.

New Elder Incomers

Artist Trudi Heeb captures the essence of waiting in this montage.

Old age waiting. Montage by Trudy Heeb

As the news unfolds day by day about migrations from Syria and Iraq into Europe, I feel as if I am seeing our world a hundred years ago. The idea of the “huddled masses” arriving at Ellis Island is brought home in the tired and sometimes angry faces pausing at the TV cameras.

One distinctive characteristic is that the adults are educated. Some are qualified professionals seeking better opportunities and freedom. That was perhaps exceptional in the 19th Century, especially among the families leaving impoverished farms, but we remember that the United States benefitted from the importation of many great minds in the 20th, notably from Germany. Political and religious persecution has continuously driven the intellectual elite to our shores.

What I think is particularly tragic now is the uprooting of the grandparents who see their families greeted by quickly erected lethal fences and steel batons. Of course adult children today do not want to leave their elders behind. It goes against the grain, and is impractical if the grandparents are providing childcare or domestic help. Neglecting elders is illegal in some societies. But what do these migrants think they can offer them under these conditions?

And what do the elders think? Do they really want to start life over again in their seventies and eighties? It’s not as if they are moving from New York to Florida like my fictional Sophie and her friends, or to California, Nevada, Texas and Arizona as “active retirees” looking forward to snow-free winters. If they are lucky, they will be sitting silent and bewildered in the corners of apartments, perhaps in kitchens just like our great-great-grandparents did back in the 1870s and 1930s, wearing their old-fashioned clothes, wondering if the children they brought into the world are going to make it through the economic storms. They can’t go out on their own as they won’t recognize the neighborhoods, the patterns of daily life, or even the language.

Urban Development in London

Urban Development in London

It is easy to understand why incomers colonize, living cheek to jowl with their countrymen and countrywomen, in strange urban settings. The rapid influx may be frightening to the natives, but unless the natives offer to bring the new arrivals into the fold, teach them the local ways, these immigrants are going to build their own communities within the larger ones, making them larger and stronger, and safe for asserting their cultural identities.

Seaside houses at Chichester

Seaside houses at Chichester

Perhaps this is not unlike Florida in earlier decades, and perhaps not unlike Britain, where three times as many retirees will live in rural villages seacoast towns as in the cities. But there is one difference. The new immigrants with grandparents in tow are flocking to large cities where there are jobs, while American and English elders have been resettling in pastoral areas where it is peaceful. There may not be sufficient services in these rural places to accommodate their needs, but our secure elders will survive as long as they drive cars. The immigrant elders have no choice. They are set down in strange and complicated environments as helpless as babes.

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For more on this subject see http://theweek.com/articles/462230/how-elderly-are-treated-around-world

On England’s elder resettlement see http://www.theguardian.com/society/2000/dec/14/housingpolicy/communities

 

BOOK REVIEW: Nurse Recalls Scottish Isles in Fragile 1970s

NURSE, COME YOU HERE! MORE TRUE STORIES OF A COUNTRY NURSE ON A SCOTTISH ISLE

Mary J. MacLeod

Arcade Publishing, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-62872-536-0 (PB)

ISBN: 978-1-62872-543-8 (Ebook)

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person's dream.

To read a book is like opening a gate into another room, another country, another time, another person’s dream.

There are many layers to the enjoyment of reading this book and its predecessor (CALL THE NURSE, 2008). First, you learn about district nursing, an enviable aspect of the National Health Service in Britain. In this case, it provides care in a remote part of the kingdom, those dozens of raggedy-looking islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, known as The Hebrides. Nurse MacLeod, relocated from southern England with her husband and two younger children, seeking a more peaceful life, is drafted as what we in the United States call a Rural Health nurse. However, it is in the 1970s we see her on her calls, and if you were to look into her profession today you would find it much changed. In the last 15 years, the number of district nurses has dropped by half, and it is feared to be a nearly extinct profession. All the more reason for this now-80-year-old nurse to write about those days when health visitors cared for people in their homes, especially the elderly.

Secondly, the misty island in the prehistoric archipelago where for six years she lived and worked, was 20 miles long and split by mountains, and a long way from civilization. Today you can fly in for wildlife tours, but in the 1970s just getting supplies required two ferry boat rides and 100 miles by sometimes impassable roads. It is no surprise, then, that the islands and islets were being deserted as agricultural lands. There were sheep, but fishing was not sustainable and tourism too narrow a window for opportunity. The energy industries had yet to take off. Children were leaving to survive, and the only people remaining were old.

Still, its culture was alive and kicking at many a ceilidh (spontaneous party) in crofters’ kitchens and in everyday coping with the winds and wilds of the barren landscape, dangerous crashing of waves carrying boats upon boulders, night arrivals of strangers, and closely guarded family secrets. The inhabitants themselves cast a safety net by relaying urgent news and cheerful gossip. Their white cottages scattered over the terrain were still kept warm by peat fires that streamed dark ribbons from their chimneys. And up in the hills there was blessed — or cursed — emptiness.

MacLeod’s prose is mesmerizing in describing the beauty of this otherwise timeless place: “The sea moved sluggishly, restlessly eddying into caves, slushing among the pebbles, the waves continuously folding and unfolding in their timeless dance.” She writes of wildlife: “Our peace was shattered, momentarily, by the singing wings of a pair of swans flying in perfect harmony, their long necks undulating as they wheeled towards the small lochan where they had been repairing last year’s nest.”

For all its ethereal beauty, this was not an easy life. Though it was George’s family heritage that had brought them here, he had to leave periodically for assignments in places as far as South Africa. And though nursing was not in her plans, Mary J. realized her skills were badly needed. Helping people out of cars tipped into the boggy ditches seems dramatic from here but became as common to her as cleaning wounds and giving baths. She had to be ready to take on almost any medical challenge because the only doctor was miles and hours away. She adapted, though it took her a while to realize wellies were better than shoes when calling upon her neighbors, and that an umbrella was useful only as a walking stick. Storms came up suddenly, and it was cold and wet most of the time, leaving the roads a mess. The old men especially were undaunted by the hazards, especially after a drink or more. Old ladies bravely became isolated. Sometimes childbirth took girls and their mothers by surprise. Occasionally an emergency involved one of her sons. Wherever there was trouble, whoever was aware of it arrived to help.

A special treat in reading these stories is local language. “Ach! The bodach! He’s that cantankerous.” The older patients spoke a “quaint” form of English while others spoke only Gaelic. There’s a glossary in back, but I enjoyed the Kindle’s ability to find the meaning of obscure and ancient usages, and thus more history.

Before the end of this second set of stories, the company George worked for went bankrupt and after six years at home in The Hebrides, the MacLeods left for California and Nevada. Here Nurse MacLeod had time to reflect on the contrasts. Now she lives in Cornwall.

 


 

Find this and other reviews by Karen Dahood at www.bookpleasures.com.

 

 

 

 

Grieving Without Feeling

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Widow to Widowed and Life After Loss are two of several organizations to help people through that bleak period when they are left behind after someone close to them dies. Group counseling by sharing experiences cannot change the way they feel, but it can put things into perspective. We are so unlikely to be prepared, even when the departed has been ill for ages. We seem not to be able to anticipate the emptiness and sometimes meaninglessness of life alone.

“How long will it take?” one woman asked a pastor I interviewed. Another told him she was proud of the fact she had not needed a group, that she is “doing it on her own.” You never get through grieving, he told me. “You get through the hard part.”  Grieving is work, he warned. It’s not as if one day a fog is lifted. You wake up every morning still lacking something that defined you for so many years.

What makes it doubly hard in many cases is that the grieving may have two different reasons. The current separation is one of them. The other is some former, not-quite-forgotten loss.

My character Harold Garber, in WINDOW BY THE POND, has been a widower for some months when he meets Sophie George in Bok Tower Gardens. He explains that he is in Florida visiting his daughter, helping her around the house. It isn’t long before Sophie sees that he has transferred his sense of importance to the needs of his only child, a young accountant in a new position, and freshly divorced. He thinks maybe he should stay down here instead of returning home to Boston.

He had found his wife slumped down on her knees in her garden. There had been no warning that her heart was weak. He now feels abandoned, cheated out of the rest of their life in his retirement. In time we learn that he also carries guilt about having disappointed her. He grieves for himself at the end of his crumbled career, so pitiful in his wife’s eyes.

Sophie is witness to Harold’s gradual healing, which takes another woman to hasten. She doesn’t quite approve of his dependence on women to make him feel whole. When Sophie’s husband died, she started to find herself, who she really was, what she cared about most, and what she wanted to finish. We know her as fiercely independent, holding her worried son at arm’s length, and reluctant to fall under the seductive powers of attractive Captain Sam, though she respects and admires him.

Group counseling aside, grieving is a solitary process, a road that is longer for some than others. Harold, Sophie thinks, is not willing to to do it. He wants to look in another direction, forget about his unfulfilled plans to travel with Dorothy. He is willing, it turns out, to forgo his original bucket list, substituting it with a different list, a new way of being, or no list at all. He glimpses a future he never could have imagined in his marriage, and sets off on a road charted out by a stronger person than himself. He will feel safe with her.

Who can say for sure that he is wrong?

Fulham Palace May 4 2014 (31)

We All Are Orphans

My Life

My Life

Lemony Snicket delivered the prime example of what critic Lenika Cruz called “postmodern literature for children” (Atlantic, October, 2014). The Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (a snappish baby with sharp teeth), endured thirteen volumes of misery in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” starting with a house fire that killed their parents. They managed to escape a sequence of unreliable relatives and wannabe guardians, depending instead on Violet’s inventiveness and Klaus’ reading habits to move toward independence. Our granddaughter outgrew them, but when they were her bedtime companions I heard enough to worry about. Among other things, postmodern literary works contain “a sense of alienation and fractured identity.” The bright child put it more succinctly: “I like to read about kids with difficult lives because of my difficult situation.” She is a victim of divorce, but agrees with the author Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), that whenever you are in trouble you head for the library.

There are lots of kids with serious problems populating kid lit these days. I heard another grueling adventure in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. At Camp Half-Blood, the abandoned boy learns he has a father, Zeus, for whom, with friends who also have roots in mythology, he sets out across the country to find the Lightning Bolt, fighting a multitude of monsters and even passing through Hades. I seem to recall they rode part of the way in a VW bus, but that may be from my own nightmarish memories.

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 3

Scary Thing 3

 

What I now recognize is that heroic children in books have to be orphans, or nearly so. If they had helicopter parents, they would never have any dangerous fun. I was able to put this in perspective when I woke up the other day thinking about my own series under construction, in which Sophie George is a widow.

Sophie remembers her husband with dreamy affection but also annoyance. He liked to deep-sea fish, but never seemed to get the boat in condition early enough in the day to do so. She felt their home on the Gulf of Mexico was more trouble than it was worth so she sold it when he and his illusions passed away, then moved inland where she would never again have to scrape barnacles off the sea wall.

It is quite a surprise, then, for Sophie to feel an attraction to another man when she retires from her job as a librarian and starts to assist Detective Samuels with his more difficult crimes (SOPHIE REDESIGNED, 2010). In the rest of my series (not yet published), their romance gently twists in the wind rather to come to fruition. Having a sweetie is one thing; having to cook for him is another. You can’t just drive off or fly away to investigate hunches without explaining yourself.

I thought about this again last week as I read THE OXFORD INKLINGS by Colin Duriez. While most of the men in this literary group had female attachments, they were socially and intellectually independent of them, Oxford being what it is. The meetings in college rooms and in pubs to discuss their works in progress were never undermined by having to get home at a certain time. I suspect today’s dons do take their turns shopping at the supermarket, as their partners undoubtedly have equally demanding jobs, and I suspect it is thus much harder to find time to philosophize. Too bad. Tolkien and Lewis and their friends were much concerned with the battles between good and evil in their fiction and in their lives. Beneath the storm clouds of two world wars, they were questioning their faith, girding it with collegiality and respectful encouragement.

This experimental painting by Constable has a gold moon sjpwing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

This experimental painting  has a gold moon showing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

I think that is what the purpose of fiction writers might be in any decade for any audience, to tell stories based on confrontations with monsters. Children need constant reminders that they can handle them, and in our sunset years, when we still are hounded by self-doubts and fear of the unknown, we also are haunted by failures, disappointments, regrets, and unresolved resentments.

One hopes that by parading bad situations before readers of any age, they are reduced to size, and that the hands and minds that hold the book will feel more capable moving forward.

“Well-read people are less likely to be evil,” Snicket tells us. That’s nice to know as we approach the Pearly Gates.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

Staircase at the Courtauld.