Archive for the Life After 50 Category

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 2: The Balancing Point

Posted in Boyhood, Healthcare, Life After 50 on January 19, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

I checked my watch. It had only been thirty minutes since we jumped on board this northbound freight, but I could feel several hours’ travel in my bones already. The romance of hitching rides on trains was already fading, and in its place was a growing longing for a real chair.

“If you have any change in your pockets, you don’t want to sit there.”

“I’ll be fine, Jack,” I said, annoyed, as I bumped and rattled and literally flew up off the floor of the train car.

“Any false teeth?”

What’s your problem? What’s it matter if I have change or false teeth or what?

“Brother, you’re sittin’ right over the wheels, and box car wheels don’t like company — they’ll shake ya down so hard your change will be in your shoes and your teeth will be in your pockets. You’d best move over here where the ride’s smoother. And have a drink of this, it’ll settle your stomach down quick-like.”

Jack was right about the wheels, and he was right about his wine, too. We sat side by side over what had to be some kind of balancing point on the freight car floor and hardly felt a bump. As we passed his pint of port back and forth, watching the sun come up over the Tehachapis, my thoughts turned back to the week before.

It had been a bad year, and it was only February. In fact, it had been a bad couple of years, and that was about as honest as I was going to allow myself to be at the moment. I felt like I was caught in some kind of sequence that was running its course and not yet complete. There had been a divorce, a car crash, a bout with cancer, and the death of my dear old pops. When my department was informed last week that the company had been sold to an equity management firm, it wasn’t hard to imagine what was next.

Still, there was some comfort available in the news. Even if the new ownership, aptly named “Blackstake” decided to turn us all out onto the streets, I’d already experienced far worse. In fact, at 52, middle age was bearing down on me, and I felt like I was bearing up under it pretty well.

And all the while, Jack was observing me closely, another one of his endearing and annoying habits. Really, Jack was an observer of people in general, and was very skilled at summing up situations before others even noticed anything worthy of analysis.

“Brother, you’re not sober enough to be this quiet. What’s eatin’ at ya?”

Jack, you’ve probably got a better idea than I do. I don’t do analysis well, but I know when something isn’t right, and I’m feeling that now.

The loud, jostling clack of the car as it bumped over the tracks punctuated my thoughts and brought them forward at an increasing speed.

“I mean, it’s been a fucked up couple of years, hasn’t it? And all of it comes after years that I just seemed to sleep through. Really, what happened in my forties? While you were out seeing the world, I was driving a mouse in a cubicle. My big accomplishment? I’m an expert at Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And now, these people are poised to dump us all and do I care? I don’t know! But something about it is sickening.”

Jack pulled his Luckys out of his pocket, gave the pack a shake and held it out to me.

“Thanks Jack, but you know I don’t –

“Brother, just take the goddamn cigarette. I know your problem and it’s not new to me or you or anyone else who’s had a lungful of responsibility. But remember who you are now, you’re a giant, and pardon the pun but that’s no small thing. In three steps we’ll be halfway up this state and there’s no looking back for you. Now take a look at that.”

Jack motioned at the scenery out the large door on the right side of the car. I’d simply describe it as stunning, but Jack never let a strong impression go without a full blown soliloquy.

“That sun has been doing that same thing for millions of years, coming up over those mountains just like that, shining through those pines just like that, blazing through that morning haze just like that, and where have you been? You’ve been worrying about schedules and budgets and memos; you’ve been using up your precious life on someone else’s cares.

He had a point, at least at that particular moment, and by changing the subject he was doing it again, gently bumping me in another direction, maybe not the right direction but the direction he knew best. And I don’t even think he thought it was best for me, but it worked for him and he was loaning it to me. There was comfort in that, anyway.

“Brother, you know what I see?”

The train had been slowing for several minutes and as the rhythm slackened, the car grew quieter. We bumped along, and I took my time before answering.

“What’s that Jack?”

“I see a scroll, an untold tale that’s just unfolding across the sky like a kind of road or a path, and our names are written on it and there’s all kinds of untold adventure written on it, written ages ago. This train is destiny, man, it’s pure steel power chargin’ down the track and it knows – we don’t but it does – it knows where it’s goin’ and when it’s arrivin’. I’m real sorry about this state you’re in brother, it’s real mixed up but it’s not in front of us, it’s not on this train, and it’s not on the scroll.”


Give Me the Sweet, Dark Cold

Posted in Life After 50 on December 14, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

There was a degree of elation I allowed myself to feel, for a day or two. As I streamed in and out of traffic amid the shining, new purposeful autos I felt a part of the stream of life again. I was moving. It wasn’t hard to imagine doing this again and again and again and resolving not to complain about traffic, ever. These people around me, they are nice people. They’re busy going to and coming from, they’re involved. They matter.

My Jeep doesn’t have windows. Or doors. And at any other time in my life it would be ludicrous and even painful to drive around after dark at 65 mph in 48-degree weather, but not now. I felt the cold and if felt good. It meant that I was moving, my Jeep was taking me somewhere important and I was a part of the stream of life. Never mind the numb fingers. Heck, never mind the numb legs — all that cold was proof that I did it.

And did it I did, for four days. I enjoyed over thirty miles of brisk, bracing commute –each way — along the same, well traveled path that had conveyed me to my previous place of employ. I relished every turn. As I moved through the backcountry I realized that I didn’t even know what street I was on. It was too dark to see anything, but I felt it. Some submerged autopilot had taken over and was guiding me along dark paths that I hadn’t traveled in almost two years. If the trip was cold and windy and dark, it was also moist and mysterious and exciting. Familiar fragrances enveloped the blackness, creating olfactory signposts: freshly cut grass along the median of the highway, semi-putrid smells of brackish backwater, deep aromatic fragrances of well-soaked foliage along the lakefront, the sweet perfume of refried beans wafting out of a neighborhood of tidy suburban homes. Even without the beans, it was delicious and comforting. And black. And cold.

But the real chill came the next day, at noon, when I learned that the schedule was thinning out fast and that my services wouldn’t be required again until January or even February. And as I turned this bit of news over in my mind, methodically making the turns and stops along my backcountry path, the warm winter sun didn’t feel quite as warm. The cars around me were jockeying for position and I was in no mood to keep up with them. In fact, I felt a distinct longing for a very dark, cold, windy drive.

The Profit in Non-Profits

Posted in Life After 50, Uncategorized on August 25, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Recently, I heard a remark that caught my interest and sparked a conversation. My cousin believes that one’s life can be divided into four major stages. These stages include preparation, production, service and retirement. Hearing this, I immediately thought of my own personal situation and attempted to place myself along this four-stage continuum.

UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “When you’re done learning, you’re done.” I’ll agree with that, but I still see the bulk of my education career behind me. At the other end of the spectrum is retirement, which seems equally distant. So in the middle are production and service. We all know what it is to be productive. It seems that, for many years, production is the very substance of our existence. We define ourselves by the jobs we do and make every sacrifice necessary to achieve. But, what about service?

In 2009, approximately seven million California residents volunteered their time. During that year, each one of those seven million men, women and children donated, on average, 134 hours of their time to organizations and causes important to them. I’d like to look more closely at the subject of service, the motivations for it, and how volunteerism affects the volunteer.

We often think of volunteer work as a selfless or even altruistic activity, performed in order to promote the good, improve quality of life, or solve problems. But volunteer work can also be a self-serving pursuit when used for job training, networking, socializing, or politics. And did you know that there are critics of volunteerism? Some post-modernist thinkers believe that volunteerism is just another form of the institutionalization of society that perpetuates an outdated morality of noblesse oblige.


A concept that is much simpler to grasp is that there are many disadvantaged people among us who need our help. There are the hungry, the homeless, the handicapped. There are alcoholics and orphans and runaways and prostitutes. Some are merely the unlucky recipients of troubling times; some are physically unable to provide for their own needs, while others have mismanaged their lives to the point of ruin. To serve this needy population, there are battered women’s shelters, group homes, halfway houses and rescue missions. There are soup kitchens, job programs, medical clinics and many, many more.

Opportunities to do volunteer work abound, and can be found in almost every corner of society. Are you interested in teaching English as a foreign language? After four weeks of training in Prague, Czech Republic, you could be on your way to a job teaching English in Asia, Africa, South America or Europe. Would you prefer to work with children? There are orphanages and foster homes in every major American city. We can’t discuss urban life without including the homeless, and there are organizations dedicated to feeding, clothing and educating these forgotten Americans. If you’re religious, you could train to become a Chaplain of a hospital where you could bring comfort to the sick or injured. Prison ministries are dedicated to building friendships behind bars with incarcerated men and women who don’t have family or friends to visit them.

I’d like to highlight four successful and well-known volunteer organizations that are doing important work.
First, there is the Union Rescue Mission. The mission is a nonprofit organization, located on skid row, Los Angeles, dedicated to serving men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Established in 1891, the URM provides a comprehensive array of emergency and long-term services to its guests, including: food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care, recovery programs, transitional housing, legal assistance, education, counseling, and job training to needy men, women, children, and families.

Orangewood Children’s Foundation began 25 years ago with a vision to build a facility to shelter Orange County children who were the victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Today Orangewood Children’s Home is home to over 3200 children a year, with approximately 200 full time residents. The organization is dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse by providing innovative programs focused on prevention, care, emancipation and public awareness. Orangewood offers opportunities for volunteer work, gift giving, internship and employment.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent place to live in dignity and safety. President Jimmy Carter brought this organization into the nation’s consciousness when he and his wife Rosalyn became involved 27 years ago. Volunteers offer their time to help build and rehabilitate affordable housing and also volunteer for specific job roles, such as drafter, software developer, technical writer, translator, and production assistant.

Match-Two Mentoring Outreach specializes in recruiting and screening adults who serve as mentors to youth who are incarcerated in California Youth Correctional Facilities. M2 Mentors build trust that provides a platform from which they influence the young life of someone who may never have had a true friend. Within the scope of that friendship they have the opportunity to encourage the youth and to share their faith in a way that is vital and helpful.

While each one of these organizations is unique, they are all doing valuable work for ordinary people who need a little — or even a lot — of help. In a world where value is customarily counted in dollars, these non-profit organizations seem to turn everything upside down. Profits are exchanged for personal accomplishments by persons who seem to have have run short of opportunity. Company goals are not centered around the next product release, but on meeting the needs of their communities. And where do these organizations get their raw materials and their work force? From you and me. What we’re talking about is time — our own, personal time, something that we never seem to have enough of, even when everything is going our way.

Preparation, Production, Service, Retirement. In my cousin’s scheme, service is 25% of the picture. While we’re so desperately searching for a sense of fulfillment in our professional lives, it might be useful to look under the next stepping stone of Service. While that warm, fuzzy sense of fulfillment can be as fleeting in volunteer work as it is everywhere else, it isn’t about feeling, it’s about knowing. You know when you’re doing the right thing, and there’s plenty of fulfillment in that.

Living in the Now

Posted in Books, Life After 50 on February 21, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

If there is one thing that middle-aged men and women can agree on, it’s that their memories of childhood are powerful. For me, just a whiff of orange blossoms can bring back waves of emotions long buried under a lifetime of clutter.

But if your experiences growing up were painful, some of those memories can haunt you and hurt you decades after they should have faded away. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now deals with this subject very effectively. But not all of us have read the book, and even after reading, we forget. A bitter memory creeps in. We slip, we fall, and damn it, it hurts all over again.

And twice in as many days, I have met people who are, from time to time, literally prisoners of their memories. Did you think, as I did growing up, that life would get easier and easier? Did you think that middle age would be free of problems and that the sweet golden glow of retirement would begin to loom bigger and brighter? It’s not working out that way for me.

I am in no way any kind of expert here. I’m looking at my eleventh month of unemployment and had almost convinced myself that I was an expert in pain. But I have a couple of friends who have been dealt more than their fair share of trouble. When you see friends in pain, you want to help, you want to do or say something that somehow would make it hurt less, but often that isn’t what they need. Often all they need is someone to listen to them and perhaps provide a shoulder to lean on.

Nonetheless, I think Tolle’s advice is useful. No matter what kind of hurts and difficulties we are dealing with right now, they can be lessened if we remember that the past and the future are illusions. When we feel longing for that idealized past or that shining future, we are imagining constructions to which we are comparing the present. But the present is real, and it is alive. We are alive right now, and we need to focus on that.

Thomas Wolfe Is Always Right

Posted in Life After 50 on February 17, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

A few weeks back I was out on a drive with my son, burning time with no destination, and I subconsciously pointed us in the direction of my mom and dad’s old house. My brother, sister and I grew up there from 1965 through the mid-80s, and my folks finally moved out in ’97. Dad passed on 10 years later. I’ve been back a dozen times since my folks moved out, but this time it seemed different.

It was evening and already dark when we pulled up in front. At the time that these spacious homes were built the neighborhood was perched on the edge of several orange groves and strands of gigantic eucalyptus trees, but inside the neighborhood you’d never know it. The huge, hulking homes were all painted dazzling white. The slumpstone block wall, enclosing the neighborhood as though it were a fortress, was also painted white with silver sparkles. On the ever-creeping edge of suburbia, our neighborhood was an alien, an interloper, and was impressive in a way that paid no homage to ranch style living. It would never fly today, but in the 1960s the pretentiousness of the name “Meredith Acres” suited the up-and-coming defense industry executive perfectly.

But that was the 1960s and things around the neighborhood have changed. My dad was aghast at the way the new owners so quickly countrified the place with picket fences and gnomes and all forms of bric-a-brac. Nonetheless, our old home was plainly visible through the new decor. My son idled the car in front as I sat there in silence, drinking it in. There was something about my dad being gone that made it resonate more, but I looked at that front door with the big quartz rock wall, the steps going up to the front door, the wall of windows and the mature white birch trees and it just got to me. I felt like I was savoring a steak — you want to close your eyes and deny yourself any other sense but exactly the one necessary to take it in. I was in a loop, feeling a memory, conjuring up images, feeling another memory, conjuring up more images, feeling another memory. . .

I could see myself lurking around, long haired, maybe listening to Bowie or Iggy in the garage, my dad tending to the lawn that he was so proud of, my little brother pulling wheelies on his red Schwinn Sting Ray; feeling all of it at once and at the same time thinking of nothing at all specific.

I don’t want to go back — no thanks — but I do treasure the things that I remember. Of course there were good times and there were bad times, but as I age it seems as though the bad stuff is bleaching away into a shade that is much brighter than I originally experienced it. And as for my dad and my mom and our old home, Thomas Wolfe was right.

SpamBots Prey on Unemployed

Posted in Life After 50 on December 8, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

Just what they’re getting out of these messages I cannot quite figure, but they are annoying!