Lack of Disinterest

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.

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I woke up a little while ago, let the dogs out for their morning potty run, and sat down at the laptop to write. Not sure what I’m going to do today, but this is a start. It’s also the second entry of the morning, so I’m on a bit of a roll.

I just stumbled across an article in Psychology Today, home of BS psychobabble, that describes anhedonia. It’s a term I’d not previously heard of, a depressive-like state that “comes not from a reduced capacity to experience pleasure, but instead from an inability to sustain good feelings over time…maybe pleasure is experienced fully, but only briefly.” I like this better than depression, a nasty catch-all label if there ever was one, and one that ignores most people’s ability to experience at least transient pleasure even in the throes of chronic and refractory moodiness.

As I googled for related articles, I came across this idea: “…my hobbies and interests are sleeping under my skin.” It’s one of those aha phrases, the ones that are at once succinct and (just maybe) profound. I don’t want to believe that being over 60 means we’ve lost the desire to do stuff we’ve always like to do, but rather that the paths we used to follow have gone from a bit overgrown and hard to follow, to so full of brambles and fallen tree trunks that they’re impossible to navigate anymore.

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Self-help for seniors suggests there are so many cool other paths to follow, if we just open ourselves up to them. Things like gardening. And starting a lifestyle company. Or giving back by mentoring the younger generation with advice they rightly put into the category of obsolete. How about putting on a blue vest and greeting people at Wal-Mart? Okay, that last one was a bit snarky, but it leads to my next point.

Which is this: Just because traditional paths to gratification are limited or closed, doesn’t mean we suddenly become capable of taking the new ones. People with social anxiety don’t acquire gregariousness because they need something new to do. People reticent to try new things don’t become adventurous because they’re too bored to live in stasis. People who worked for someone else, being told what to do throughout their working lives don’t suddenly become entrepreneurs because they have become otherwise unemployable.

My wife reminded me the other day of an experience that seems apropos. We were hiking to Delicate Arch in Utah a number of years ago. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hike, and we paced ourselves and reached the top of the trail in due course. Off to the right from the path we took was the arch itself, maybe a couple hundred yards away across a natural bowl in the sandstone. The natural bowl, which was hundreds of feet across and on a gentle slope, ultimately fell off to a thousand-foot precipice. My wife, who has no problem piloting a small plane but doesn’t like other kinds of heights, nevertheless bounded across to the arch itself. I, on the other hand, who generally have no issue with heights per se but have a very big issue with edges into the abyss, literally cowered behind a boulder. I.could.not.help.myself.

Delicate arch bowl

There’s a song by the Drive by Truckers I like, called “I used to be a Cop.” Well, I used to be a CEO. Nominally, I still am, but it’s as the head of a small lifestyle company, not the big consultancy I once ran that I built from scratch. I know how to be a CEO, I like it, but I’m not much of a mind to build the company out that much. Well, I am intermittently, but not on a daily basis. That’s over; I just don’t care enough to work that hard anymore. But I do like to think, and to make things happen, and I don’t like working for anyone else after much of a lifetime working for myself.

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I’ve compartmentalized this in order to do thinks like teach and run a program helping new startup companies, both inside a university.  I don’t have to pay much attention under these circumstances to bureaucratic nonsense, other than go through the necessary motions. I’ve had a good career, I’m comfortable in semi-retirement, and most of all I’m not dependent on their money so I don’t have to put up with anyone’s bullsh-t.

So there’s the push-me-pull-you of this part of my life. I want the CEO-ness and I know how but I don’t want the burden of it. I want to do something with my in-the-trenches knowledge of business, but many of the students I’m charged with teaching aren’t very good at learning. And I don’t want to work for anyone, because I’m too much of a control junkie to follow any directions that don’t make sense to me. (Not that this is a particular problem given rampant age-discrimination that ultimately puts everybody except the self-employed out to pasture.)

In other words, a lot of us are faced with a bunch of overgrown paths that used to be clear and tangle-free. So we tease in our minds other ones. I clicked on a link in Facebook yesterday that took me to the lifestyle in New Zealand. I saw an ad for St. Jude’s Research Hospital that made me want to help children with cancer. I wrote a manifesto for a new political party out of desperation for the direction our hopeless, inane government is taking us – that is, over that precipice I talked about earlier. And I ultimately landed on the baby step of writing this blog. It’s not big like I’m used to. But it does enable me to express myself, and maybe it draws in and creates a conversation around shared experience, and it gives me an outlet for writing (pending the emergence of that novel I’ve been saying I want to write since college).

Big - Tom Hanks

There are paths, they’re just different. Smaller. Ones that lead to quieter places instead of ambitious leaps. And maybe we build up to something bigger again.  Or not. I’m coming around to the idea that it’s all good.

Tapping

We can search for whatever lights up our brain all we want, but the reality is the best way to get there is to find it in front of us.

I’m compiling entries. I want to get a bunch of them done before I start publishing, so I have a backlog for when I get writer’s block.  What I noticed as I wrote two entries this morning is that mental acuity is variable and dependent on active engagement.  I was running on eight cylinders as I worked to finish a book last year, then more or less went into neutral with intermittent consulting sputtering the neurons back into life.  It’s easy to convince yourself you’re not as quick or as sure as before, but the reality is that it’s just inertia and just requires a downshift to higher rpms. For example, I did almost nothing yesterday (unless you count cleaning up after the nest full of starlings that’s been decorating our back porch), before I got things running again this morning. Such behavior is of course reinforced if we’re around others with a tendency to do the same.

Buick Fireball
Buick Fireball

It wasn’t inertia but weather that pushed me into neutral last week.  It was too rainy and cold to ride the two-wheeler much, but Sunday began with a glorious ride that took me past a Long Pond, a lake not far from here that was still and sparkling in the morning sun. I didn’t grow up around water, but there’s truth to the womb-like effect it has on most of us. My favorite place of stillness in the world is a magical, pristine lake on top of a mountain that I’ll only identify as somewhere in the northeast.

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I took a picture off the deck of our house a couple of weeks ago; we were at extreme high tide and the water was almost to our fence line in the back. Combine that with the climate predictions and breakaway Antarctic ice shelves and I guess in a few years we’ll be waterfront.  Depending on the timing and progression of age, that could be very convenient for putting me on a raft and pushing it out to sea.   (Kidding.)

It’s quite nice being away for the summer, but I tend to hang around the house more, and there’s an occasional feeling of displacement and pull to “go home” at least for a few days. I recognize the symptom as a desire for change rather than escape, because really what is there to escape from?  It’s pretty chill up here, nobody’s bugging me with any deadlines at the moment, and I’m having a really good time rehearsing for my second appearance in a community theater gig this summer. There’s a heap of dogs and cat around us in the evening, after a glass of wine and episode of House of Cards (we all thought it was just a TV fantasy), and the biggest thing likely to disturb my sleep is the early sunrise and chirping outside the bedroom window.  (I confess to being the “Princess and a Pea” when there’s any noise or light filtering into the room.)

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The only thing that’s really missing is a jolt of oxytocin (that’s not the same as oxycontin, look it up). We all seem to be most alive when we feel acutely in lust/love, because it’s the ultimate unbounded intermingling of desire and purpose. We feel it in a less acute sense but as the underlying drive behind other things we do, whether that’s as mundane as fixing something that’s broken, as mood-lifting as cocktails with friends, as psychically gratifying as getting on stage, or as professionally satisfying as getting plaudits for completing a client’s project, the finish line is feeling a sense of purpose.  It’s all perfectly explicable as behavioral science, but of course it’s really all determined by dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and other brain chemicals.

I reached a point after an unsatisfying spring in the classroom where I was feeling teaching to be pointless, and was pretty sure I didn’t want to do it anymore. I’ve been wrestling with this over the summer, and haven’t yet found the right, so I’ve been rationalizing the possibility of continuing based on loving the classroom and providing value to the subset of students that actually take some benefit from learning.

Which brings me back to Agespots. We can search for whatever lights up our brain all we want, but the reality is the best way to get there is to find it in front of us. My wife once brought me a t-shirt from a trip she took that was a parody of the “Life is good” brand – it said “Life is crap.” I felt curmudgeonly and ungrateful after being visibly underwhelmed by the gift, and I’m not sure in retrospect why I reacted the way I did…either something about it rubbed me the wrong way or maybe I just felt it wasn’t a message I wanted to billboard. Because even on those days when it really all feels like a nadir, there’s a recognition in some remote part of my head that it’s just not true.

Okay, we’re all aging (better than the alternative), and the joints need a little Tin Man “oil can” attention in the morning, and it’s a pain in the arms to lift the kayak onto the roof, and if we don’t keep thinking about cool stuff our brains get a little lazy. And I’m not even going to go there about the interesting conversations we have lately about not being able to hear each other. But it’s really all more good than bad. So what if I did almost nothing productive yesterday? It’s hardly a sin.

People have different ways of dealing with this thing called age. A buddy of mine, older than me, is concertedly sowing his oats and claims to be acting like a syrup tap in a forest full of maple trees. I get it, but I think I like the idea of that more than I’d like the reality, as it would surely make your back hurt afterward.

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Two Wheels and Freedom

I’ve resolved, at least intellectually, to stop wasting my time on activities that are not worthwhile, even if they are nominally gratifying in the moment. I’m going to try to move in another direction. To begin, I’m planning to raise some hell on two wheels this weekend.

I bought a motorcycle this summer. It’s a retro-styled Triumph, a “Bobber” in model name and vernacular. When I get off the bike after an hour or two I’m likely to be sore. But those couple of hours are joy. I think I’m younger, not 20 but maybe 40ish. I feel an affinity with Sons of Anarchy (absent the violence and incredibly vigorous sex.) I’m growing my beard back and my wife wouldn’t mind at all if I counterbalanced my diminishing feathering of hair on top with a ponytail in back.

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This is aging for me. I’m not athletic and perhaps less adventurous than I was once, but I want to continue doing the things I’ve always done – like motorcycling since I assembled my first mini-bike at 10 and got my first Honda at 13. I feel guilty that my skis are leaning against my closet wall instead of strapped to my feet. I need to come to terms with this: if I do this stuff there will be a price to pay in aches and pains. I might even break something, hopefully nothing critical. But to do otherwise is to give up the flavor. And while there are days without an inclination to even taste it, there are others where the need is overwhelming.

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I have been a CEO for many years, now of a lifestyle company but once of a large information company that I built out of a bedroom startup and fueled by raw ambition. It’s kind of a meaningless title now, unsupported by the scaffolding of employees and infrastructure, but it reminds me of whom I still am at some level. I don’t want the stress and burden of responsibility for employees’ livelihoods anymore, but I believe I still have the decision capacity and usually clarity of vision to realize important or at least personally meaningful things. If that’s a leather jacket and riding boots, well it’s something. I published a “business” book last year, and that was something else. It’s not the one I’ve wanted to write for 60+ years, which is a novel or collection of novellas, or something professionally informed but entertaining (along the lines of Oliver Sachs) – but the possibility is validated by the empiric evidence that I have done it.

My current conundrum is this: I’ve resolved, at least intellectually, to stop wasting my time on activities that are not worthwhile, even if they are nominally gratifying in the moment. I’ve been teaching occasionally for most of my adult life, and more regularly the last 10 years. I like smart college students, it gives me pleasure to be in a classroom and to tell them what it’s really like in business instead of spouting theory from a textbook. It’s gratifying to mentor and see those efforts pay off in new skills, a job obtained, a personal accomplishment. But I am firmly of a mind now that much of the student body politic has been allowed to morph into a “Confederacy of Dunces.” There are multiple causes of this – the idiocy of the Common Core curriculum in public schools, the overstimulation of an always-on electronic barrage of useless non-information, a generalized anti-intellectualism that has sprouted from the uncivilized discourse of politics – but that’s philosophical, causative and beside the point to my nominal decision. Too many students suck. They’re there because they don’t know where else to be, because there are no jobs if you don’t have a degree, because their parents want them to do well … whatever. But they really could give a rat’s orifice about actually learning anything, didactic spoon feeding is the pabulum they’re used to consuming, and creative thinking is a largely alien concept.

The fact that I get some satisfaction from being in a classroom is secondary to the frustration of trying to teach the willfully uneducable. So I’m going to try to move in another direction. Of which this blog is one piece. Like the first step in a twelve-step program. I’ll keep you posted as the other steps develop.

Meanwhile, I’m planning to raise some hell on two wheels this weekend.

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Scott@agespots

Ties that Bind

Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Immediacy.

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I think it’s overrated. Yes, it’s quite wonderful and gratifying in a subversive way to be able to access the universe on a 4×7 sliver of technology in your pocket. But is it really so great to be able to know everything there is to know about anything on a moment’s whim?

You don’t have to be very old to remember a time of card catalogs and trips to the library; of asking someone with more knowledge about a subject than you; for that matter of the “phone a friend” option on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The universe still had mysteries, and specialization meant unique access and value. Instant access to everything there is to know may be a form of democratization but it has diminished the value of expertise, with devastatingly predictable results. Fake news. Zero quality control on published information. Less person-to-person communication. Access to weapon-making skills on the part of insane people who always should have been locked away from society, but who now have the ability to cause untold damage because skills are at their fingertips that were formerly reserved for professional war-making machines like governments.

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Now it seems the only way to actually possess an information advantage, at least in terms of raw information, is to become an expert in something so arcane and technical that no one without formal training can actually understand it. Like nuclear physics. Or molecular biology. Or how the damn smartphone actually accesses a universe full of information virtually instantaneously. (Lots of us remember a quaint construct called a switchboard where wires had to be connected to make things work.)

I’m not railing against modernity, or being overly wistful about some gauzy mental movie set in the past. I am, however, suggesting that technology has got us all by the throat with an ever-tightening noose. We are at once able to access all of the information in the universe and, if the college students I teach are any indication, becoming completely unable to hold or articulate a substantive body of knowledge about anything. This is probably the inevitable outcome of the loss of a common body of experience.

Take the news, for example. Three channels of vetted, professional, credible evening news and major newspapers in every city once provided a common body of information. Today it’s 24/7 muckraking, with a focus determined by the ability to titillate rather than the obligation to inform. Or consider public service. We have a government that’s been so shredded by decades of prevaricating and dishonesty that we have no expectation that either political party is acting in the interests of the people. We were once horrified to the point of expulsion by Nixon. Today we’re barraged with horrifyingly obvious misbehavior, yet can’t muster more than a news cycle’s indignation over a candidate punching out a reporter. A frightening proportion of the “body politic” probably couldn’t name the three branches of government.

And it’s not just public issues. The loss of an essential knowledge base has swept into our personal lives as well in the age of apps that do it all. We’ve abrogated responsibility for such basics as monitoring our personal expenditures and budgets to the point that lots of college graduates can’t even balance a checkbook. Worried about something so basic no longer being taught … hell, how about basic arithmetic? Or that basic social interaction on a face-to face basis has been replaced by Instagram? Look, we’re all guilty to some extent; you’ve probably stared at your phone instead of your dinner companion at least once in the last few weeks.

What happened to thinking? Caring? Mattering? It’s all being swept away in a continually cresting tidal wave of information and misinformation. There’s a play I have acted in a couple of times called Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, where the protagonist goes on a 15-minute rant about the loss of shared experience. The essential message is the one that’s common to those who look behind them for meaning: We’ve lost the ties that bind. It’s not the things we do or the tools we use but the importance of a common body of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

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Maybe, just maybe there’s an answer in our shared history of growing up in the amazing second half of the twentieth century. The wiring is still there. And more important than the specifics. It’s not particularly helpful to wistfully stare at the past, but that doesn’t make the past less valuable. The neural wiring of past experience, of shared memory is still there. The future doesn’t need to fixate on precedent, but our past is not a bad guide in considering what we should hold onto.

Intellectual Vitality

It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

I love this post from AARP’s Disrupt Aging:

Aging measured by one’s ability to jump up and down misses the point. You can jump up and down and do push ups while your brain turns to oatmeal mush. For example, I haven’t been able to jump up and down for years, I hate to go down escalators, but my IQ hasn’t dropped more than 10-12 points.

Some days oatmeal mush doesn’t sound so bad, but of course that’s fatalistic thinking and the reality is the loss of snap crackle pop is probably what is most frightening. Accustomed to thinking quickly, spontaneously, it’s more than a bit disconcerting to be looking around for words or names that should be right there. It’s pretty classic “senior moment” stuff, but uncomfortably noticeable as it progresses from occasional annoyance to regular state of being.

We’re used as a culture to thinking about vitality as physical, but I think the blog comment above puts a fine point on the relatively higher importance of – I don’t know, whatever the opposite of vacuity is. The value of age, apart from the actinic keratosis and disintegrating menisci and creaking joints, all of which point out how great a day is when you wake up and everything doesn’t hurt, is that our minds are incredible intuitive machines that have rebalanced their act in favor of reflecting over reacting.

On the emotional front, frustration has context, anger is less persistent, action is so neatly tempered by consideration. It’s not a black-and-white thing, of course, but it’s every bit as much in evidence as the physical signs or aging. On the intellectual front, things that are just plain hard to know what to do about when you’re coming up are obvious and easy, philosophical positions may not be any more logical but they are confident and clear, and the trade-off of absolute cognitive speed against just knowing isn’t ultimately such a bad one. Not being able to do things, whether skiing a black diamond trail or doing mental calculations, just don’t matter the same way.

OwlIn other words, we have finally figured out what brings us joy and what is not worth worrying (so much) about. Here’s another quote from the Disrupt Aging blog:

I’m 70 and I’m constantly learning because I still teach and do tutoring.  I used to repair my own ’66 Mustang and it proves valuable that I know mechanics when discussing repairs with a mechanic, especially since I’m a woman. 

Recently one mechanic told me that I needed a new catalytic converter.  Yes, I knew that the sounds I heard from under the hood were indicative of a possible distributor failure.  Yep, another mechanic (without my prompt) said that the problem was the distributor.

 It’s the knowing. What the sounds mean. Who you can trust. When a molehill is a mountain – and more importantly, when it isn’t. When something is broken, how to fix it. How to love. When to stay in place and when to go. When to say no and who to say no to.

It’s not perfect, it won’t ever be perfect, but it’s progress. And not so bad at all in the universal accounting of things.

Scott@agespots

 

Intensity

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first.

Ah, the joys of waking up from a great dream about people you’ve loved, or things you’ve achieved … and feeling every joint you didn’t even know you had.

There’s nothing wrong per se with feeling a bit wistful about the past. It’s all true, we’re 60- or 70- or 80- something, and it’s not the same thing as being 20 or 30 or 40. But here’s the thing. What if, instead of bemoaning what’s in the past – interests, people, experiences we can’t replicate anymore – we spent more time focusing on intensity of the moment.

I’m not just talking about smelling the roses. I mean an alternative, a substitute if you will, for the mission that once drove us. Because that mission, however exhilarating, even fulfilling from a distance, cost us in proximity. Stress, interpersonal tension, willful or blithe inattention to people we could have been more in the moment with. They are the collateral damage of being driven.

I’m a recovering Type A and I know. Like the time I found myself completing a client project at 2 in the morning while my mother was in the last week of her life. Stupid. And for reasons better explained by social psychologists and evolutionary biologists, somehow unavoidable mistakes we all sometimes make.

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I’m hardly stretched out on the gurney at this point in my life, but unmistakably diminishing capacities are real. (I went kayaking yesterday and it hurts this morning.)  I find myself hating aging. But the worst is not the change in body or muscle tone or speed of cognition. No, the hardest thing about this aging stuff is the loss of interest in some things that used to be interesting. It’s not that I don’t want to ski anymore, or that I rationalize it by saying my knees don’t like moguls, it’s that I can’t seem to get up the head of steam to go out and do it.

I was talking to my oldest friend about this. He’s struggled with change, and through losses I’ve been fortunate to avoid. But he’s found the only prescription I’ve heard that’s actually worth anything. I always chased something, and I’m persistent and bullheaded enough that I almost always achieved my goals. So not having something to aim for is absolute hell for me. But what if, as my friend suggested, I change the depth of field from that longer-range ambition (because really, the range has ineluctably shortened to maybe a couple of decades) to a very short focal point of here and now?

Again, I’m not talking about those damned roses, what I mean is concentrating the focus from the lighthouse in the distance to what I’m doing right now, today, this minute. You can’t force yourself to be happy, but what’s always made me happiest is doing something meaningful and with satisfying immediacy. The shift in thinking is it doesn’t have to be meaningful in anybody else’s mind field, just in mine. I don’t know whether I can successfully do this, but it’s sure worth a try.

So thanks to that conversation late last year, I finally sat down and executed on this idea I’ve been kicking around for months now. Age Spots.

Age Spots is a forum for anything and everything that details and reflects change. It’s dedicated to those of us in the second half, not the first. I don’t know what that means exactly, but I don’t think this is a space for 30-somethings to reflect on their transition from 20-somethings.

I’ll write a blog post, probably not daily but I hope a few days a week, and you’ll be able to post your own experience, emotions, perspectives – either in response to what I or someone else has written, or just as a personal reflection. I want this to be affirming, but I’m not going to set any rules other than civility and honest reflection. So if you’re having a bad day and just need to vent, well that’s obviously part of it too.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping that for you and for me, the opportunity to express ourselves, to those of us in the same stage of the journey, could provide just the intensity that defines and lifts us.

Scott@agespots

If you have to ask…

This blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I thought for a while about what to call this blog … until Age Spots popped into my head, and seemed the perfect holistic expression of what I’ll be talking about on this site.  If you’re of a certain age, I don’t need to explain.  If you’re not, you might find the blog useful or amusing in an “old people say the funniest things” kind of way.

Sunset (just as inspiring as sunrise)

Getting back to what this is all about.  I’ve reached that point in my life where the balance of prospective to retrospective has pretty clearly shifted to the latter.  So have a lot of my friends and business colleagues.  We talk about all the stuff we’ve always talked about, but especially about what it means to find ourselves here.

We still listen to rock music, but our idols are getting scratchy of voice, crabby, and too frequently “moving on” – for good.  Many of us still work, at least part time, but careers seem less a central focus and certainly don’t involve the same amount of angst or carry the same ambitions they once did.  We strive to remain vital and relevant, but face the reality that we rejected as the baby boomer generation that yes, Virginia, moving body parts do start to get just a bit creaky.

Most of all, we seem to struggle with the hurdle of remaining relevant in a youth-centered world that we made that way.  I once lived in the university town that is now my daughter’s home, and loved it for the fact that everyone in town seemed to be under 30.  While the place has grown threefold or more over the years, that essential characteristic remains.  Except that when I visit now, the place can make me feel like an alien.  We visited a very hip cocktail lounge last time I was there, and the bartender rolled his eyes and couldn’t accommodate my “exotic” drink order – a bloody mary.  Seriously.

So this blog is going to be about the day-to-day experience of the world through older eyes.  I will write my thoughts, usually in response to something in the news, or an article that caught my attention, or something intriguing from the fields of art, science or literature.  The perspective will be from this later phase of life, and the objective will be to enhance the sense of purpose that is fundamental to appreciating who we are at any stage.

I invite and encourage your thoughts, and will facilitate the conversation by maintaining the dialogue in subsequent posts.  In the immortal words of that great sage Timothy Leary, thanks for tuning in.

~Scott@agespots