Leaving the Cocoon of Childhood

I am currently in California to participate in celebrations for the birth of a new family member. Some of my family are in their ‘teen years, reminding me of my own youth with its uncertainties and terrors.

I am so reminded, constantly, in observing youths in the public places of Stockholm who dress, preen, pose, and behave to attract others of their age. But to be in the same house with a relative of this age brings forth echoes of my own youth more forcefully. My heart suffers for them, but to a much smaller degree than they suffer, to be sure.

I have no doubt–I can say that I know–what Nature intends for these young people, the same as she intends for the newly fecund members of all Her living species: “be fruitful and multiply.”

But such an imperative is more complicated for those humans who no longer live in circumstances where the newly fecund can successfully procreate at the youngest possible age, with the expectation that their issue will also successfully survive for the long term. We are “civilized.” We need to get an education; we need to gain the knowledge and skills to support oneself economically, and to garner sufficient assets to provide a home for oneself, one’s mate and one’s children.

Thus, the mating and procreating are delayed well beyond the time Nature prepares us, physically, for it.

But, the hardest part of being this age is not in contemplating the future, but in how to deal with the newly arrived emotions of the present. I think any parent will attest to the metamorphosis that takes place in their offspring upon the onset of puberty. Each young person is learning about her- or himself without a built-in instruction manual. Advice from older people is usually unwelcome, or not sufficient to the need. One learns about oneself from one’s own experiences. So, the loving parent will do her and his best to protect and guide the youth through self-discovery, which will often include dangerous experimentation and impulsive behavior.

Sigh—Oh Parenthood!

While pondering in this realm, I remembered a favorite “Star Trek” episode of many years ago, “Amok Time,” written by science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon, first aired September 15, 1967

The First Officer of the Starship “Enterprise,” Commander Spock, had been exhibiting unusual behavior and requested that he be granted leave to go to his home planet, Vulcan. Captain James T. Kirk orders Spock to Sick Bay, where Medical Officer McCoy finds evidence of extreme physical and emotional stress, a condition that will kill him within eight days if not treated. Spock explains that he is undergoing pon farr, a condition male Vulcans experience periodically throughout their adult life, and that he must mate or die.

At Vulcan, Spock invites Kirk and McCoy to accompany him to the wedding ceremony. He explains that Vulcans are bonded as children so as to fulfill the pon farr commitment, and that T’Pring is to be his mate. T’Pring arrives with Stonn, a pureblood Vulcan, whom she prefers to Spock [who is half-human]. T’Pau, a matriarch…, prepares to conduct the ceremony. However, T’Pring demands the kal-if-fee, a physical challenge between Spock and a champion she selects. To everyone’s surprise, she chooses Kirk instead of Stonn. Spock begs T’Pau to forbid it as Kirk is unaware of the implications, but T’Pau leaves the decision to Kirk; another champion will be selected if he refuses. Kirk accepts the challenge, only to learn that it is “to the death.”

(Of course, none of our heroes dies, but I’ll leave it to the reader to pursue the plot in the source for this information.)

Spock, his pon farr ended, returns to the Enterprise, but not before warning Stonn, T’Pring’s mate to be, that “having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting.”

Yes, we are full of wanting, but never so intensely as when having newly emerged from the cocoon of childhood.

 

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Words to Describe My Path  

When age fifty-eight I found myself, once again, at a crossroad in life. A constellation of major events had coincided to release me, temporarily, into the world, living alone and without a job.

Newly based in San Jose, California, I wandered, in a 1988 Honda for around a month throughout the US southwest. In Arizona, I met, separately, two people who were friends of a friend in the place I had just left. The first had the promise of a possible romance, the second was a place, near Kingman, to rest and recover.The romance didn’t ignite, so I traveled to Kingman.

Looking over the mountain forest from a spacious living room, I began to ponder my life’s path. I perceived recurring patterns. Try as I might, to go in direction A or B, I seemed always to revert to C.

After some thought-less viewing of the forest, I found myself at peace and wrote this:

Words to describe my path

To let go; to not-cling

To accept; things are as they are

To be open; to learn about the universe/my-“self”; to reveal the spirit residing within

To live simply

To nourish loving relationships

To create and maintain a private space

To contribute to useful processes

To avoid negative people and processes

I have revisited these words many times in the ensuing twenty-three years, just as I have this morning in Stockholm and find no reason to add to, or subtract from, what I wrote in Kingman more than two decades ago.

Now, enough of words, and back to the weekly laundry…

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

When one is old, as I am, one learns to remain silent on certain things, except when in the company of close friends of a similar age.

One’s physical complaints, of course, are never to be mentioned, or only in a mildly joking manner. One often lives with constant pain, certainly with discomfort, in one or more joints or sinews, or perhaps in an organ or two, most of the time masked by one’s wonderful brain which commands, “carry on.”

An old person’s musings about: “yes, that also happened to me when I was younger, and this is what I learned…” evokes glassy eyes and body language signaling a yearning for escape. And, of course, the younger ones are right: experience is the master teacher, along with pain and suffering.

Recently, I have been musing, mostly silently to be sure, about the vast store of knowledge and experience I have accumulated and remember during the four score years since before the United States entered World War Two.

I met a man a few evenings ago, the husband of a writing colleague—a charming, engaging, and accomplished fellow. Our conversation was wide-ranging, chronologically, geographically, and philosophically, a real treat for me (and my poor hearing required my interlocutor to work hard for me to understand him in the noisy room). At one point in the conversation, he realized that I was much older than I originally appeared to him (a family trait) and interjected to remark that I must have been present or aware of certain well-known historical events. Yes, I was, and briefly gave details of a few.

This pleasant experience remains with me to savor for a while. But the rarity of such an experience reminds me that I and my cohort have knowledge, or at least information, largely untapped, which will expire with us.

I feel that the main motivation for my writing is to leave a record, necessarily incomplete, of what I have seen and learned, at least as interpreted through my biases and prejudices.

I remind myself of “The Diary of Samuel Pepys,” which was more fully appreciated by later generations and stands currently as a valuable historical document.

My musings observations are not as important as those of Pepys, but I fancy (the word is based in the concept of fantasy) that there will be at least some minor value, perhaps entertainment, to people in later generations if they are made generally available (which, thanks to the Internet, already are). In addition, if they survive and are made available after I achieve room temperature, I have retained decades of correspondence with friends and family, both in digital and hard copy form. (Oh, yes, I am obsessive about certain things).

How full of myself I am to think, or at least hope, that my scribblings have and will retain value. As the wisdom contained in the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Scholars may learn from history, but it seems the rest of us do not. My father tried to impart to me what he had learned, which was much, and I did listen and record what he said. Nonetheless, I had to live a full life, making my mistakes, to fully understand what he was trying to help me learn and avoid in life.

Thanks for trying, Dad.

Me ‘n’ Dad

Gone is the child

Gone is the child
That young man
I remember so well

Eighty years of living
Some of it hard
Some of dangerous

Much loving
Much heartbreak
Much fear

Music
Marriage
Children

Schools
Jobs
Betrayals

Successes
Failures
Recoveries

Years fall into the abyss
Friends, family disappear
Leaving tearful memories

But new friends, family appear
I cherish them and every moment
Even as the memories travel with me

Feeling Old

From my notes on July 7, 2016, while on holiday in Bad Gastein, Austria

I am feeling old today:

  • The knees are going
  • Short-term memory lapses
  • Irritability over minor inconveniences
  • Despair over the decline in culture

On the other hand:

  • A feeling of comradeship with people my age
  • An appreciation of the connectedness of all things
  • The acceptance of minor miracles as part of everyday life (e.g., Jung’s synchronicity)
  • Birdsong, flowers, trees
  • The immensity of the Earth

How Old Are You Granddad?

Waiting at the bus stop, my six year old grandson was talking about his favourite sports just as he would with another six year old. We were on our way to Thursday’s football practice – his.

“What’s your favourite sport granddad?”

“Do you mean to watch or to play?” I asked.

“Both I suppose. My favourite to play is indoor hockey, and to watch either swimming or football. What are yours?”

“To play it’s rugby, then I like watching basketball” I said.

“Rugby?”

“You play with a ball like an egg” I said, drawing a rugby ball in the air.

“Is that like American football?”

“More or less, almost the same” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows like Groucho Marx to show I was impressed.

We were early for practice, so we did some passing and dribbling to warm up. He collected the ball from halfway across the pitch, after one of my badly skewed passes. After almost half an hour in the afternoon sun I was sweating profusely. His cheeks were blossoming, but otherwise he seemed unaffected.

He stood there holding the ball and looked straight into my eyes in that innocent way of his, head on one side and squinting against the sun. “How old are you granddad?” he asked, right out of the blue. “Seventy”, I said. He didn’t react, just nodded slowly, tucked the ball under his arm and backed off so that we could carry on with our passing game.

A simple question opened up a generation gap between us, a gap that had not been there before. Later I wondered what had prompted his question. And what he thought of my answer.

Most likely he was looking for an explanation for my poor performance  – “Granddad is really hopeless at passing a football. OK – that’s because he is old and tired, but he’ll do if there’s no one else around.”

A more (for me) flattering explanation could be that he was impressed by my fitness, enthusiasm and prowess with a football and thought perhaps I was younger than I looked with my balding head and white hair. Or maybe he thought, “you’re not that old, only seventy, now it’s your turn to fetch the ball”.

(A week or so later we were sitting in the park eating ice cream. He was at home with a cough, I was keeping him company. I asked why he wanted to know how old I was. With a wide smile he confirmed my worst fears – I was past it as a football player.)

I joined the football (soccer) mums sitting at the side of the pitch, ostensibly watching their sons going through their training programme.  In fact they were involved in an intense heated discussion about the new city rules for placement of six year olds in schools next autumn. After almost half an hour of listening to their views I felt exhausted. But not our soccer mums. They turned to the merits of living in the asphalt city with small children contra the option of buying a house in the leafy suburbs.

I tried to interest them in the football training which was taking place under their very noses, but to no avail. Their thoughts were elsewhere: what to put on the table for dinner, how to get for sitters or grandparents to look after the kids at the weekend, conflicts at work, and the rest.

Another age gap opened up, like cracks in a road after an earthquake.

Afterwards we took a short cut through the park to reach our bus stop, passing a large old apple tree in full bloom.

“What kind of tree is that” I asked grandson, trying to interest him in nature.

“No idea” he said, disinterested.

“It’s an apple tree.” His favourite fruit.

“How do you know that?”

“I saw some people picking apples from it last autumn.” I said.

“Can you still remember things from last year?”

“Of course, I walk past here quite often.”

He looked confused, probably thought it was another peculiarity about 70 year olds.

On the bus home he preferred to sit with a couple of his teammates, waving and pulling faces at the driver of the bus behind us in the traffic jam. She responded by waving her wipers and flashing her headlights. My role was reduced to bag man and general dogsbody.

At home, grandma and little sister, three years old, were sitting on the settee looking at old family photos, waiting for the potatoes to boil. “Who’s that?” asked grandma, showing her a picture of two girls standing next to a large brown pony in the stables. They were about twelve and eight years old. Little sister looked puzzled, and so did big brother when grandma showed him the photo.

“This is your Mummy and her sister when they were little girls”, explained grandma.  “No way” said the six year old, while the three year old preferred children’s TV. Grandma tried to arouse interest in more photos of their Mummy as a young girl, but to no avail. The idea that their Mummy had a life before she was their mother was completely alien to them. The kids seemed disturbed by the idea that their Mummy had once been young like themselves. I tried again: “Where do you think those girls went to, where are they now?” No answer. Grandma and I gave up and set about fixing dinner.

Interest in family history and delving into the lives of previous generations is something that comes late in life, often when people have more life behind them than in front of them. “Oh, I should have asked Aunt Mary or Grandma Perkins about this when they were still alive!” is a common reaction after hitting a stone wall in their genealogical endeavours. Another common sign of interest in the past are the rows of biographies and historical novels which dominate the bookcases – if not the reading – of older people.

Are they trying to cling to the past, a past which has long since disappeared into the mists of time? And where does the past go to? Who stores the events of yesterday and yesteryear? Or does the past just disappear into a black hole, sucked from our memories as we desperately try to cling onto what we have lived? Why do old people try to remember the past, with failing memory, while young people’s hippocampus is set by default to “full steam ahead”? Is it simply that for old people with little future, the past is more interesting and there is more of it, while for younger people it is the opposite?

 

 

The Ballad of Lars Branje

ScreenHunter_437 May. 06 11.58I had seen Lars for well over a year, at the exercise gym I visit twice per week. Lars is notable—tall, lean, white-haired and looking determined in his use of the equipment. Did I say he was an old guy? Yes, he is and, being one myself, I felt a kinship to this fellow survivor.

After more than a year of being around each other at least once a week, we finally acknowledged each other’s existence (such things develop slowly in Sweden) by nodding our heads to each other as we passed in the exercise area of Friskis & Svettis (which I like to call Frisky & Sweaty).

Finally, we uttered words to each other. I quickly let him know I am incompetent in Swedish. He effortlessly switched to English which my poor hearing was able to process adequately.

Lars at the Gym

One thing led to another. I imagined he might wish to write or dictate something I could put in my “Being Old” blog. Immediately upon my suggesting this, he started his story, which eventually led me to his nearby apartment where I viewed a DVD film of the first corneal transplant in Europe, 1957, at a hospital in Jönköping, Sweden. Lars was the recipient of that transplant.

Lars and Plane-edited

Lars Branje (right), training as an Army jet pilot in Ljungbyhed, Sweden (1955)

While training to be a Swedish Army jet pilot, Lars found that his eyesight was slowly fading. He was unable to continue training.

He became a sports journalist for Norrlands-Posten newspaper, then the Allehanda news organization (now MittMedia AB), which gave him the opportunity to travel abroad.When he was in Milan covering a match between the Milan club and Juventus of Turin, his sight failed completely.

He went to a Milan hospital where he was diagnosed with Keratoconus. From the staff at this hospital he learned there was a world-famous eye surgeon in Sweden. Lars was referred to Dr. Henrik Sjögren  in Jönköping. This was the first of many “lucky” event in Lars’s life—lucky, in this instance, that the Milan medical staff knew of this surgeon in Lars’s home country.

ScreenHunter_412 Apr. 09 17.02

Henrik Samuel Conrad Sjögren, eye surgeon (1957)

Doctor Sjögren was known internationally for identifying what is now called “Sjögren’s Syndrome,” after having published the English translation of his doctoral thesis. As head of the newly established eye clinic in Jönköping, under the aegis of the University of Gothenberg, Dr. Sjögren conducted research into surgical replacement of the cornea. He developed an instrument and a technique that was used in other countries for many years.

Lars and Dr. Sjögren established rapport and, because of Lars’s youth and good health, he was chosen to undergo the first corneal transplants (both eyes), using corneas from cadavers. The operations were successful and became widely celebrated in Sweden.

Lars Branje-09

Bengt Bedrup and Lars Branje during a televised interview, 1957

After surgery, Lars needed to lie quietly  for three months. During one interview session after surgery with TV journalist Bengt Bedrup , Lars asked him for a lighted smoke . The photograph on the side table is of Lars’s  children, Lena and Tomas.

[Click here to see the interview]

Lying quietly in bed or anywhere for an extended period is a “katastrof” for Lars. His nature is to be physically active. Later in life he ran the Stockholm Marathon, skied the Vasaloppet, became certificated in the  “Swedish classic circuit” (cross country skiing, cycling, swimming, and cross country running), and ran the Lidingöloppet (30 km.)

Nord07Lars says he has had a wonderful life. After working for the Allehanda news organization, he signed on with Radio Nord, popularly known as “Pirate Radio,” although it operated within the existing laws . As a member of the broadcast crew, he was stationed on the vessel Bon Jour in the Baltic Sea off the eastern coast of Sweden, two weeks on/one week off. It offered live news and recorded music not then available on the official radio stations of Sweden, and was preferred by many Swedes.

The most memorable event of his work with Radio Nord was to be the first person to announce to Sweden that Dag Hammarskjöld, The UN’s Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Sweden,  had died in an airplane crash in Rhodesia (now Zambia), 18 September 1961. Lars was in radio contact with pilots he knew from his Army days, and they gave him information not available through regular news outlets.

Radio Nord started on 8 March 1961 but had to shut down only fifteen months later, in June 1962, following passage of a new Swedish law aimed at silencing its broadcasts.

But, the official “Swedish Radio” had learned from the popularity of Radio Nord, so despite an official prohibition from hiring former Radio Nord employees, Lars then went to work for Sveriges Radio AB as a live announcer. Up until this time, all the programs were pre-recorded for broadcast at a later time.

Lars remembers the 1960s and 1970s as the years to be “out in the world.” He mentions the Congo and Vietnam. As a journalist he has interviewed Neil Armstrong in Houston, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles at Gröna Lund, the major amusement park in Stockholm.

After around four years with Swedish radio, Lars became a free-lance journalist for radio and TV companies, and for the Swedish Air Force.

The highlight of his career was a private half-hour interview with Nelson Mandela, upon his release from twenty-seven years of incarceration in South African prisons, 1990.

Both of Lars’s new corneas lasted until he was covering a soccer match in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. His right eye stopped working. He returned to Sweden and saw Dr. Per Fagerholm, then at St. Erik Eye Hospital in Stockholm. His right eye was inoperable because internal pressure had separated the optic nerve from the brain. He retained the use of his left eye, until 2012 when he effectively went blind.

Lars Branje-12

Branka Samolov, Surgeon, St. Erik Eye Hospital, Stockholm

Returning to St. Erik Eye Hospital, he encountered the surgeon Dr. Branka Samolov with whom he established good rapport, as he did with Dr. Sjögren in 1957. And also, again, because of his good health and positive attitude they together decided to go ahead with another corneal transplant, recognizing the increased risk due to his now older eye, especially in that it had undergone previous surgeries.

It was a success. The headline of a TV news article quotes Lars speaking to his surgeon, “I can see your face! You are my saving angel”

[See the Expressen TV News broadcast here]

Forty-five years had elapsed since his first eye surgery. The hospital staff made note that Lars Branje represents the entire history of corneal transplantation in Sweden. The advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques now allowed Lars to completely avoid lying in bed after his surgery, being immediately ambulatory.

Here is where Lars said that his “luck” was again emphasized: by being able to have the best surgeon available for his problem.

Now that his sight is returned to him, he has resumed his activities as a pensionär, meeting former colleagues–pilots and journalists–and enjoying his children and grandchildren; “doing whatever I want to do.”