Chapter 31. 2010, 2011
This was the loneliest year of my adult life, but “old age is not for sissies” and many have aged and died alone, in less comfortable conditions than my lovely Kairos house and garden. My health holds, but I am a walking pharmacy of medications. Buying my first package of adult diapers was a really impressive threshold. Some oldies insist “the best is yet to come,“ but for me, the best is long gone. My daily rounds are mostly reruns. So I’ve converted my 2010 daily journal* into a brief narrative.
A decade past my own sell-by date, I’m still lucky: I got through 2010 with only a few losses, some pain, but no serious disabilities. I forget more often, misplace or lose things more often, but I can still use the many stairs, maintain my property, drive my car (on quiet streets), shop, and cook for myself and guests. Therefore, my prevailing mood is gratitude.
To great relief, I have erased one of the last neurotic vestiges of childhood: Christmas anxiety. The difference between orphans and children with “real” parents is especially evident at festivals. Not even the adult years of “McIntosh Christmas” eased my neurosis. But finally, this year I was able to treat it like any other day, wide awake, at home alone.
Family and friends: My son Peter took his first sabbatical in 16 years. He phones and visits me more often. I am happy to remain his close confidant, but steadily remind him to work harder to build close friendships in England.
Johanna continues our daily chats and weekly dinners. Lionel has become a closer friend, talking to me almost every day, and visiting often. Bob J. is a closer friend, especially with technical problems like converting my TV to digital. Lawrence remains a close and kind friend. As with Allan Millard, “we are both still on the same page” ideologically. Abe provided one of the peak moments of the year: a live performance of Mahler’s Song of the Earth. My 1970s lover, “Gavin,” gave me the vinyl recording, and I have loved these songs ever since.
I lost several longtime friends, but gained one new friend, a Cuban refugee, whose visits include help with tasks beyond my capacity.
Angus has aged visibly, tiring after a short walk, climbing the stairs with difficulty. I installed a strip of carpet up the oak stairs to help him get a grip. How reassuring that he is still lively at mealtime! Angus is the one constant living physical presence in my life.
Housemates: I have lived alone since the departure of unhappy “Pan” in October 2009. Fifty callers to my ad produced more than a dozen showings of Kairos, and several dinners. One mature candidate got as far as the first three days of a trial visit, then proved himself so unreliable that I put him out the next day. I continue to advertise, because quitting would reduce the probability of finding good company from minimal to zero. An unsuccessful attempt is a failure only if it makes you stop trying.
One collateral benefit of running my ad is a constant stream of human interest stories. The universe is indeed made of stories as much as atoms. Every week brings true-life accounts of disillusion and desperation from fellow citizens of this city.
The $300/month rent is the first thing to catch the eye of most callers. Many are reaching their last $100 and the termination of their lease. Alas, I am not renting a room, but sharing my home, and I am too old now to sustain the rescue cases I accepted as housemates two decades ago. If a caller’s history does not offer some likelihood of real companionship, I’d rather go without the trifle of added income. “Serenity trumps loneliness.”
Theatre: I saw more plays and movies in 2010 than in recent years, one effort to avoid “cabin fever.” Some were seen with friends, others alone. Peer Gynt (seen three times in my life) was well performed in the cavernous Trinity Church. For me the lesson of the play is do not lie to yourself; do not deny your reality. I enjoyed repeats of Joe Orton plays first seen with Gowan in 1967. Lionel arranged for us to see Britten’s Death in Venice, last seen with Dane (Devon) in 1984.
There were some fine TV series. Ferguson’s Ascent of money is brilliant. Why are so few economists also good historians? A Bill Mason canoe video reminded me of the wilderness magic I enjoyed for 55 years. There were wonderful comedies, essential antidotes to the raging madness of the world around us. One movie, The Road, depicts exactly what I expect in the coming collapse.
The current financial madness continues to amaze me: the widespread delusion of growth and the folly that we can “spend our way out of recession” while leaving unimaginable debts for future generations. Greed and “entitlement” thrive everywhere in a predatory capitalism that steadily expands the gap between rich and poor.
A Toronto bank advertises for new customers: Your needs are unlimited. Your chequing account should be too. What extreme disasters are required to force people to realize that unrestrained growth is the philosophy of cancer?
Activism: In March I organized an unusual dinner party: eleven U of T undergraduates plus Jo and Lionel to help me cope. As conversation moved from polite to politic, the students revealed that all but one chose my dinner (from among many offers by alumni) because they had checked me out on the web, and realized I was THAT notorious leftist gay professor. For the rest of the evening the talk was about activism, and especially: can an idealistic 20-year-old still hope to make a difference?
In 2010 I gave probably my last public lecture: a two-hour explication of the community organizing theories of Saul Alinsky, and how they had motivated my life of activism. My ex-wife Jean was there, and reported later that I’d made a good impression.
The vulnerable situation of US war resisters continues. Apparently no new US soldiers have arrived since word went out that Canada is no longer a welcoming refuge. Expecting the worst once Harper has his majority, I added more supporters to our hiding network.
Creativity: I wrote a little poetry: Here’s a haiku composed after a friend claimed he would “miss me” when I die, but rarely calls while I am still here.
Each says “I’ll miss you.”
I created some new plywood sculptures for the garden, and high-relief art inside the house. I tore down the old sunroom by myself and created a new window greenhouse entirely from the reclaimed materials, buying nothing new. I rebuilt the east end of the deck using eight-foot 2x6 beams. Years ago, renovating Logan House, I learned the tricks of managing large materials alone. I cut a huge branch of lilac and moved it into the dining room as an “objet d’art.” In the garden I eyed it for weeks, rotating its possible positioning in my mind; my spatial sense is still perfect.
Garden: It’s 70 years now since my first Victory Garden during the Second World War, and gardening continues to be a source of joy nine months of the year. I gathered record crops of raspberries and blackberries, and in late autumn, harvested enough pumpkins and huckleberries to make many pies.
Maturing philosophy: If I needed a sign that my luck still holds, I got it while attempting to install (alone) a large sheet of plate glass on the roof of the new greenhouse. It slid out of my hands and grazed my lower arms just at the place where one slashes the wrists in suicide – yet it broke only the outer skin. Bruised but not bloodied. This lucky day concluded with a fine dinner treat from my 30-year veterinarian.
Many events remind me that I have done whatever I wanted with my life, and suffered very little for my eccentric nonviolent anarchist lifestyle. There may be one advantage to being an orphan: I got to define myself, not be defined by parents. The first time I revolted against the social order was at age 8, in September 1941. I was removed from a foster home I really liked, and taken to the Shinamans. I resisted so forcibly that it took two men to drag me in.
My philosophy has changed little in recent decades. I still think the purpose of life is not work, power, fame or riches, but pleasure. At some point, perhaps in 2011, daily increments of joy will drop below the minimum needed to justify existence, and I will happily depart. (Reader: try googling “when to die.”)
I do not like the new social order. Good manners recede while rage multiplies. Never in human history have so many people been so well connected and so little in touch.
I meditated often in 2010 on the idea of hope. We can thank the Christians for this mischievous delusion. There is no place for “hope” in cultures such as Islam, where events unfold according to the will of Allah. I decided years ago that HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY, and pasted on my bathroom mirror: Let go of expectations. They only make for anger or grief.
In old age, well-intentioned peers urge me to keep up my hopes. They quote Alexander Pope: Hope springs eternal in the human breast. I remind them of the poem’s next line, usually forgotten: Man never is, but always To be blessed.
I prefer tenacity to hope. I see (by using the Finder) that I used the word hope often in my journals, which merely proves that I was deluded by Christian commonplace for much of my life. Now gratitude for good fortune and moments of great joy seems more appropriate:
“I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I am truly astonished to be here in 2012, ten years after my sell-by date. I’m in sufficiently functional body and mind. Though I kept a daily journal of my 79th year, I am providing only a brief summary in narrative form.
In 2011, I found a very suitable new housemate after two years of futile Search. I enjoyed cheerful good times with my son, and numerous affectionate visits with my friends. I lived a 32nd year in my Earthly paradise, Kairos.
There were bad times too – I suffered that common scourge of old age, a serious fall. My beloved dog Angus is nearing death as his spine degenerates and he loses the use of his hind legs, not a happy fate in a split-level house with many stairs. At least I have been able to keep him out of pain.
As usual, I avoided medical attention for my own injury, surviving with rest, warm baths, ample use of anti-inflammatory Voltaren cream, and the skilled ministrations of Richard, my massage therapist.
Death was not ready for me yet, and I recovered. I am not even troubled with the arthritis suffered by my age peers. I credit that to cooking with copper pots for forty years (the tinning has long since worn off).
My greatest joys in 2011 were: 1. my son’s brave and successful career transition. Peter has generally been a risk-averse personality, the natural childhood reaction to his father’s in-your-face activism. His career move would be a daring feat for anyone in middle age in our difficult economic climate.
Like me, Peter revises his evaluation of his younger life as he ages. He now admits that he’s “had a pretty lucky life.” And he is thankful, which is good, for the gods resent ingratitude when they have showered favours.
My second joy: a new housemate. I hate living alone, but telephone interviews of 97 candidates and personal encounters and trial stays with 20, left me utterly exhausted. I had almost resigned to living alone when my stubborn inner tenacity prompted “one last try” in July.
Out of the cultural time-warp of the Canadian Maritimes (where old-fashioned manners are still relatively common) came Jona, heterosexual, age 37, a candidate who paid attention, answered my recorded questions, and was actually on time – no, early – for our first meeting.
He provided impressive character references (something which baffled some candidates when requested. It appears that many younger people don’t even understand the concept).
One referee assured me: “Jona is a man of his word,” a compliment now rarely heard in Toronto. I immediately invited him for a trial week. We liked each other, and he has stayed five months now.
We have not had a single argument, yet he is a self-described free spirit, as nonconformist as myself. He also has a considerate and sunny disposition. Though we are separated by vast differences in generation and culture we respect each other. What incredible luck in the closing months of my long lucky life. The gods still love me!
My third joy: the continued, attentive affection of reliable old friends: Johanna, Lionel, Allan, Lawrence, Dorothy, my ex-wife Jean, Joe, Bob, Bill, Ruth M., Charlie and Larry (I hope I have not overlooked someone). I enjoy many phone chats, dinner visits, cheerful greeting cards, and best of all, long tight hugs. We live in an era where more human beings are connected than ever before, but so few are truly in touch.
My fourth joy: good enough mobility and mentality to continue some of my hobbies and passions. I have been forced to give up travel, canoeing and camping, live theatre, driving a car anywhere but on local side streets, and painting pictures (shaky hands). But I am still able to craft things in my carpentry workshop (two wooden windows built from scratch, and various garden structures).
With many rest-breaks, I managed to repair a fallen plaster cornice in the dining room, working over my head. I rewired the internal telephone lines (worn out after sixty years). It took a day, but I freed a grease-blocked kitchen drain without calling a plumber.
My lifetime trade skills and Jona’s muscular strength enabled us to replace rain gutters, completely rebuild the collapsed drain in the front drive, and repair the deck bridge, which required insertion of new 20-foot-long 2x8 beams. On my own I rebuilt the doorway of the slowly waning garden house.
I have maintained my huge garden. There were many magical nights walking the garden or enjoying the lake in moonlight, and many delightful days planting, nurturing and harvesting a bumper crop of fruit and vegetables.
My fifth joy: beloved Angus is still my loyal and constant companion. I will soon face the heartache of farewell. Though he often topples, and looks baffled that his legs won’t work as they have for sixteen years, he is still frisky at dinnertime, or when guests arrive.
I’ve been able to keep my mind active using the wondrous resources of the Toronto Public Library: videotapes, DVDs and audiobooks. I’ve also kept my skills honed by offering “free psychotherapy” to several troubled friends. A fine lecture on Freud made me realize that I have allowed my id to enjoy much pleasure, while channelling my superego into good causes, and maintaining emotional transparency. Life came full circle when Peter took me to the very art gallery where I had often taken him as a boy.
Visits by my son were a major highlight of 2011. His first, in June, involved hours of candid, emotionally available exchanges of news and views. Then he rented a car and drove us to Allan Millard’s newly-constructed home in Washago. The three of us drove to my beloved Black River, scene of so many canoe trips over the decades.
We had barely spread our blanket on the river bank when a police car stopped, and two cops began to question us on our purpose for being there. They were the classic bully boys in uniform – never actually using force, but puffing themselves up with authority to interrogate potential suspects caught in some apparent wrong-doing. They even examined our lunch basket to verify that we had no alcohol in a public place.
It turned out that it is now forbidden to camp on the Black River. Of course we had no camping gear, no canoe, only a blanket and lunch basket. Their intervention left me with deep sadness that all the joyful trips I enjoyed over decades (many of them mentioned in earlier chapters) are now forbidden to younger generations.
Peter has matured into a most impressive adult, sweet-tempered and considerate – for example making a special call from London, late on Father’s Day, despite the great fatigue of his new job that day.
It is not enough to enjoy and be thankful for the benefits of friendship; it is essential to put that blessing into words of gratitude. I have several times told Johanna how important she is to me. I have repeatedly thanked my son for his loyalty and affection. I was thrilled this year when he deliberately bespoke his continuing need for me, and in addition, took Jean and I to lunch, explaining that he wished “to express his appreciation for supportive parents.”
Another highlight of the year was a ride on my long-unused mountain bike, from the Scarborough end of the Goodman trail to Cherry Beach and back, a trip of several hours.
My skill in the kitchen is happily undiminished. I make most of the dinners each week, now often for two of us. For the year-end holidays I baked mince pies and steamed English plum pudding.
I have composed a bit of doggerel and posted it on the wall:
The gods have not given
My life has not included everything I wanted – especially not a truly mutual long lived love partner, but my life’s work is done. I have enjoyed enough of life’s good times and made myself useful. Enough is good.
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