Great Expectations

Recently I wrote about transformations in my physical appearance over the years. But there have been many developments and changes other than those of a physical nature, and those are the ones that are of the greatest significance. This seems a good time to write about some of those other changes that have occurred.

One of my primary intentions in writing on this blog has been to be a bit more open about who I am and how my life has unfolded. In part I’ve wanted to do this for myself, to put many of the events, experiences, and actions of my life into a written framework so that I might look at the whole. I also have wanted to put some of my personal history and my thoughts and reflections about that history into a form that would be available to my family and anyone else who might be interested. No doubt much of what I include here will be of interest only to those people closest to me, so I won’t be distressed by anyone who chooses not to read what I write.

Some of the things I write may sound like the process of my development has been a real struggle for me, but that was not actually the case. It was more of an evolution, a process of gradual and perhaps inevitable growth, moving from one idea or action that made sense to me and seemed appropriate for the moment to the next and then the next. I’m happy with the paths I have followed and with the place to which they have led me. One of the joys and wonders of it all is that Carole (my wife and partner of more than fifty two years) and I have managed to follow along similar paths and grow together over the years; it would have been so easy for it not to have worked out that way for us.

We all change over the course of our lives. But I imagine that some people from my past, as they learn more about me from my writing, will find error in the decisions I have made and the paths I have chosen to follow. They might wonder what happened to me along the way that I changed so much from the younger me they knew or thought they knew. Why didn’t I become the person they expected me to be? Why don’t I still share the beliefs we all seemed to have back then? What a waste, a few might think; we thought he would really do great things and amount to something. But it’s OK for them to wonder. What happened is that I became the me I am now; that’s all I ever wanted.

Many of the people reading this probably knew me during our school years back in North Charleston. Some high school friends have told me they thought I would pursue a career as a scientist or college professor. Since I did well in athletics, there were also expectations that I would be active in sports in college. But I had other interests. While I had enjoyed my participation in sports since my early days in playground programs, sports were not the passion for me that they were for so many others and I had no intention to devoting my time and energy in college to athletics. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college, but my eagerness to get on with my higher education was overwhelming. When I discovered that some universities would accept students prior to their completion of high school, I applied and was accepted at the end of my junior year. I knew that many family members, friends, and others in the community were dubious about my decision, but I felt sure it was the best path for me.

The world of ideas had always fascinated me. High school English classes had exposed me to writers and thinkers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, and others whose thoughts interested me. Likewise, other classes in school and at church showed me the beliefs of other religions and cultures. I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand those other ideas and beliefs, compare them to my own, and use them to enable me to better understand the world and find meaning for myself within it. I majored in philosophy in college and after graduation I enrolled in the Master of Religious Education program at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. My intention was to become a campus minister or perhaps director of a retreat center. But more changes were taking place.

As my studies over the years exposed me to new and different information and ideas, I continued to develop my understanding of the world and to clarify the meaningfulness I sought for myself within it. My experiences in the seminary and in various churches led me to realize that I would not be compatible with the strictures that would be imposed on me in a ministerial setting. I eventually decided I was no longer interested in continuing my involvement with the churches and belief system of my youth or with any other religious institutions. I withdrew from seminary after two and a half years, shortly before completing my degree requirements.

Carole and I had married during the summer after our college graduation. After I withdrew from the seminary, we thought we might move to the familiar territory of North Charleston, since I had an informal offer of a position there. When that possibility collapsed (more about that in a later post), we needed to find a new place to live, secure an additional source of income, and prepare for the birth of our first child in about six months. So we decided to do what we have done throughout our lives together: we pulled together to find the solutions that would offer the greatest satisfaction and meaningfulness for our new family.

I soon found a position nearby as a Social Science Analyst at a very large US Census Bureau facility working on the 1969 Census of Agriculture, evaluating returns, writing thousands of letters, and making phone calls to get more complete data. It was interesting and I learned a lot about agriculture in the process, but it wasn’t something I wanted to continue long term, so instead of accepting a permanent career-path job that was offered, I left after about two and a half years. Carole was teaching by that time, so I took care of our daughter during the school day, worked at craft projects (weaving), worked with another teacher on his part-time painting and construction jobs, and also did other odd jobs on my own.

My next change came a couple of years later—a state position as a social worker in the tuberculosis clinic at the local health department in Louisville. There were five of us with caseloads of patients with active tuberculosis and others newly infected or at risk of infection. The work during that time was both satisfying and challenging, since many of the people we were working with had multiple problems impacting their treatment. Most were very poor with all the difficulties that brings and a large percentage were serious alcoholics to compound the situation. That job led me into many places and situations that most people can’t begin to imagine. I liked my work and my co-workers during the four years I was there and probably would have continued for a long time if we had stayed in Louisville, but that was not to be.

Carole and I were eager to make some major changes in our lives and the time seemed right. Our second child was at the age for starting school in the next school year. I had been longing to build our own house and had been gathering ideas and sketching possible plans for years. We wanted to be somewhat closer to our families who all lived in South Carolina. And most importantly we wanted to live in a place in the country and in the mountains. So we came on an exploratory trip to Boone (I had attended a six-week summer science program at Appalachian State University after ninth grade), found and bought our land here, and moved in July of 1979. Full-time work on building our house occupied us for the next eight months; then we had to get jobs.

We looked for work in Boone, but quickly discovered there were no jobs available in our small town that fit with our education and previous work experience. Our limited funds were beginning to run out, so we found whatever jobs we could. For the next two years I worked as an upholsterer in a small furniture factory in Boone. I had no previous experience of factory work, so that job gave me the opportunity to learn about a different worklife than the one I knew. My co-workers were great and the work was interesting and enjoyable. I did whatever task was needed on any given day—cutting fabric, stuffing cushions, upholstering sofas and chairs, and boxing products for shipping. Most tasks were production work which paid based on how much I got done in a day. At the end of each day I could see the finished products that resulted from my labor, always a source of satisfaction for me. All workers got laid off when sales were slow, but each summer we did get two weeks vacation—unpaid of course. Food stamps and unemployment benefits were helpful, but finances were still tough for all of us.

New opportunities came with a job at a local community action agency doing weatherization work on houses of low-income residents. That was the beginning of my construction-related employment period. I worked for eight years with that agency in various capacities. Initially I was doing weatherization work myself. Later I oversaw an agency-related business contracting for rehabilitation work on low-income housing throughout a four county region. During that time I also worked sometimes at projects aimed at increasing resources for the agency or computerizing some aspects of the agency’s operations. When those agency jobs ended, I had a business for a couple of years (mostly a one-person operation) doing various building-related jobs, including building a spec house one year with my son joining me during his summer vacation.

My work experience dealing with low-income housing prepared me for similar work in my next position, but this time with the regional council of governments as a community development specialist for our seven-county region. Again I was overseeing programs which contracted for rehabilitation of low-income housing. That lasted for four years, but by the end of that time my dissatisfaction with the agency was growing and I decided to look for something else. Seeking a complete change, I took a position working with a couple I knew in a retail map and travel store they had started. When they decided to retire in 1998, we bought the store from them. I operated that business quite happily until the poor economy finally led us to cease operation and the business officially closed in 2009. I was 63 years old and retired.

During the years of my jobs which I’ve described, Carole was busy with the various jobs that made up her career, but that’s a story she will tell in her own way. She did retire soon after I had. For the first time in many years we were on our own—together. While our regular jobs ended with our retirement, work (generally much more physically intensive work) has been plentiful up to the present. Immediately after completing the process of closing out the store operation we (just Carole and I) began completely remodeling and rebuilding our house which we had originally built when we first moved to our mountain homeplace—a task that took us a major part of the next four years. We also renovated our large fruit and vegetable garden (ninety feet by sixty feet) and have tended it to provide a large part of our year-round food supply. And when those projects weren’t keeping us occupied, there has always been plenty to do maintaining the house and the almost ten acres of field and woodland. The nice thing about these undertakings has been that they were all work of our own choosing and were able to be done on our own schedule.

So that summarizes my job history over the years. It hasn’t been what I might have anticipated when I was younger, and has not met the great expectations others might have had in mind for me. But overall my working life has been interesting and has given me lots of satisfaction along the way. I’ve found or created meaningfulness in all the things I’ve done. Each of those jobs has been what I wanted to do at a particular time of change in my life. I’ve been in lots of interesting places, met many wonderful people (and a few not so wonderful), and hopefully made life a bit better for many of the folks along the way. In terms of status and finances, I was not looking for those things because they were not what mattered most to me. I’ve had all I ever needed. It’s certainly been a good way to spend that part of my life.

Maybe We Can’t Do It All; Maybe We Just Need a Change of Plans

About eighteen months ago I posted some thoughts about my lifelong love of learning to do things for myself in a post entitled We Can Do It—And We Did.

Beginning at an early age, I have spent countless happy hours randomly browsing library bookshelves, magazine articles happened upon in waiting rooms, old encyclopedias in family homes, and in more recent times the treasure trove of information (and also much misinformation) found on the internet. Sometimes I had one of my many particular interests in mind to guide my searches. At other times my quest relied on serendipitously stumbling upon books, articles, ideas, and bits of information that I had not been expecting to find, but that I knew were important to me, if not immediately, then at some unforeseen time in the future. As I wrote in that post:

That early experience of mine set the stage for a lifetime of learning and doing. I knew that information about everything was readily available. I could find details on any subject, study it, absorb it, think about it, and make it a part of me. I came to see that I could learn about anything and to believe that I could learn to do anything I really wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I could do everything as well as an expert or professional could do, but I did believe I could do the things I wanted adequately and satisfactorily for my purposes and needs. I also knew that doing things for myself would bring great satisfaction, the joy of seeing the finished project and knowing I had accomplished that.

That experience and the things I have learned over the years have served me well, especially since we moved to our place here on the mountainside. Except for tasks that required specialized equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks, or backhoes, we’ve pretty much done everything ourselves on our homeplace. We’ve frequently told people who ask about our home and our life here, “If there’s anything you can see here, we did it”. Many things we’ve done ourselves because we couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for us or we didn’t want to deplete our limited resources by hiring the job out. Sometimes we wanted a project completed in some unconventional manner and didn’t trust that a contractor would be willing to depart from their standard way of doing things. Much of the time I simply wanted to be sure that I knew the task was done the way I wanted it to be done. And after years of doing all this work ourselves, there is a sense of pride (some would call it stubbornness) that makes me not want to give up the ability to say, “We did it all”.

I know the time is coming when my ability to do many of the tasks around our homeplace will decline with the limitations which will result from physical changes as I move beyond my current seventy three years of age. Sometimes the inability to handle certain tasks isn’t the result of aging, as I was reminded a few days ago. While there are many things I have learned to do, I’ve never had much success in trying to deal with small gasoline engines and the tools they power (mowers, weed eaters, and chain saws), tools that are much needed with several acres of field and forest to maintain.

Various projects and trips recently had taken time away from routine mowing and related activities. One of the features we love about our home here is the fact that we are surrounded by the abundance of nature. That same abundance can very quickly result in grass in our misty meadow reaching knee-high levels, blackberry briars popping up everywhere, and locust and other tree seedlings claiming their place in the sun. When I went out to try to deal with the situation, I knew that neither of our two riding mowers would be available, one having quit functioning at the end of last summer and the other never having started since we acquired it for free, used but non-working. Several push mowers had either become unstartable or had died when I had pushed them over a hidden rock or tree stump. The remaining push mower (new a year ago) sputtered for a few seconds after pulling the starter cord several dozen times, but refused to start no matter how many times I went through that process. Deciding to resort to mowing with a weed eater, I tugged the starting cord repeatedly with no hint of the least positive response from the engine. I realized there was a second weed eater I had forgotten about and was delighted when it leaped to life on my first pull. It ran great for about fifteen minutes, but never started again after I refilled its fuel tank.

I had run out of options on my gas-engine tools, so I decided it was time to try an alternative I had used in a few other situations: an electric hedge trimmer. It’s sort of like the sickle bar hay mowers used on farm tractors, except it’s much smaller and for grass cutting requires the user to bend over, holding it parallel to the ground while moving it back and forth. After a few minutes of that uncomfortable bent-over position, I decided it was much better to sit on the ground, cut the section that was reachable from that spot, and then slide over a few feet to cut another section. A few hours later I had finished a couple of sloping banks that I had been particularly eager to get cleared. The hedge trimmer was willing to continue as long as there was electricity, but I was pretty well worn out.

When one of my plans gets overly complicated or doesn’t seem to be working out as anticipated, Carole and I have agreed that a valuable service she can perform is to say, “Isn’t there an easier or simpler or better way to do this?” Unfortunately Carole was away from home at a meeting, but as soon as she got home, we started thinking to find a better way to get the work done. Possibly we could find a way to get everything done that we wanted to do, but did we really need to? Maybe we don’t need to attempt to maintain all of the grassy area of our yard and meadow; after all, when we first saw our place, the non-wooded area was a gorgeous open meadow filled with daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, and tall grasses waving in the breeze. Maybe we can allow our meadow to be a meadow and only clear a few pathways through the grasses to facilitate strolling through its beauty. Maybe we can rent a mower once a year to help keep out the briars and trees and not have to bother with mowing everything and keeping a functioning mower thoughout the year. Maybe we can get rid of all the non-working pieces of equipment we have kept around, feeling the necessity to try to get them working again one of these days. And if we don’t need to frequently work at maintaining the whole area, maybe a smaller electric mower would be sufficient to keep up the area closest around the house. We bought the electric mower the next day; it started with the push of a button and did a great job of cutting the grass in our prime target area.

So we made a new plan which appears to have solved our immediate problem. But this situation has raised another question for us. What are the things that are really important to us, the activities that we most want to spend our time and energies on during this latter portion of our lives. We have no intention of becoming morbid and fixating on the prospect of death as it seems many people in our age group tend to do. Instead, we want to focus on life with the intention of making full use of our time whatever it may turn out to be. We both have sufficient interests to keep us occupied for another fifty years or more, but in all likelihood we won’t be able to accomplish all those things. Even if we could, we would probably come up with another fifty years of projects to follow those. So we’re going to do some re-evaluating, see if we can figure out what we need to do and what we want to do and what can be set aside for the next lifetime.

We’ve already done many of the things in our lives that we’ve wanted to accomplish. But I can’t imagine anyone being able to do everything they might want to do in a lifetime; there are just too many interesting things out there to experience. So we’ll plan to make more time each day for those special activities that are most important to us. What better way could there be to spend all the wonderful moments we have?

Work: Then and Now

Several years ago when we were planning to retire from our in-town occupations, many people would ask, “What will you do? Won’t you miss having your work to come to each day? Won’t you be bored?” The answer was always that we might miss the daily contact with customers, co-workers, or the general public that had been part of our daily routines for so many years, but we would definitely not miss having to leave our homeplace each day to go work at projects determined by someone else according to a schedule set by others. What to do was no concern since we had enough ideas for several lifetimes of things to do both separately and together. And please don’t mention that word “bored”; I can’t understand anyone with even half a mind ever having reason to be bored.

There is always plenty to be done around here, both work and non-work. I started to say play, but some of the non-work activities (writing, designing and planning building projects, photography) are more serious than play. Entertainment doesn’t cover it all, though we do make time for going to bluegrass jam sessions (as audience, not performers), listening to audiobooks, and traveling to attend grandchildren’s plays and concerts and sports events. Leisure sounds too much like sitting and doing nothing, which we sometimes do, but usually it’s more a matter of resting after some other strenuous activity. So there is plenty to do and we usually have pretty full days.

My best friend/partner/spouse usually (actually always) gets going faster in the mornings; I’m more of a slow starter, but once I get busy I often go straight through for eight to ten hours.

There has been lots of hard physical work in the years since retirement. There was hard work before retirement as well, but now there are more hours at home to devote to the physical tasks of construction, gardening, mowing, tree cutting and clearing, winter snow shoveling, and others. I realized recently that my weight fluctuates significantly from winter when I’m less active to summer when most of the more demanding work comes along; then I’m fifteen to twenty pounds lighter (about ten percent of my usual body weight).

Some days when I’m working I’m reminded of my days playing sports in my youth. I started team sports when I was six or seven years old and continued throughout high school. I worked hard at both practices and competitions, trying to always give it my all. The coaches were always pushing us to go harder and I did my best to do what they asked. I was usually worn out at the end of the day. Memories of those times come back to me as I work for hours digging to make planting beds, climbing up and down the ladder to put siding on the house, cutting trees and physically moving heavy logs, carrying fifty-pound bags of soil down the hill to the garden and then climbing up to do it over and over again. Thoughts keep going through my head, “Push harder. Keep going. You can do it.” There wouldn’t seem to be an obvious connection between childhood sports teams and the things I’m doing now, but apparently I learned a lot from those early efforts that is still with me today.

Sometimes CeCe worries about me working too hard, not taking enough breaks, wearing myself out. I’ve learned to be sure to take better care of myself, to not push myself unreasonably. The physical changes that have come with aging also help to remind me that maybe I’ve done enough of a given task for this day. But I’ve also said and continue to say, “If I should keel over in the midst of working one of these days, I want you and the rest of the family to know that these were things I wanted to do and that I enjoyed doing even though they were often physically difficult. I have been happy as I have been working. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”