Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cracking Walnuts

Cracking Walnuts
What am I doing here?
Okay, I’m a writer. And yes, I am on the other side of some calendric divide, but I am feeling a little like the guy who arrives at a Christmas party carrying a menorah. Although I am a few months shy of the big seven-oh, I am neither retired nor looking forward to retirement. With two school-age children, the word retirement is not even in my vocabulary. Fine with me.
One of my boyhood heroes was my great-uncle John, who lived alone and single-handedly maintained a sprawling place on Lake Minnetonka that hosted hordes of visitors on weekends three-seasons-round. He always said he wanted to die with his boots on. Neighbors found him one morning slumped over on his front step, one boot on and his right foot pushed partway into the other. Stubborn man.
I was always a non-conformist about age, with close friends significantly older and substantially younger. These days, younger friends are studying brochures from retirement communities, and many contemporaries have already moved in. To me, an entire community of birders and golfing enthusiasts, all my age or older, would approximate purgatory on earth. I have nothing against birders—I’m married to a teacher-naturalist who works for Audubon—and golf seems mostly harmless. But the older I get, the more the age-segregation of modern society strikes me as unnatural, and the more it becomes clear that my take on age is nonstandard.
Where did western society take a wrong turn? Throughout most of hominid evolution and human history, our ancestors lived with infants and toothless elders, agile adolescents and balding providers, young mothers and mumbling shamans all crowded in together in small groups. We were not meant to live without children underfoot to trip us or young people confronting our complacency or the elderly offering perspectives that we couldn’t possibly understand until we, too, are toothless and incontinent.
I am fortunate to be still surrounded by people of all ages. At the one end of the scale are my five- and nine-year-old grandchildren, and at the other end my elder friends and associates. Teaching at a university not only keeps me current, but also immerses me in the generation into whose charge the messed-up world is being handed. They are a strange breed, these young adults of the digital age, but even as I puzzle about their preference for texting over face-to-face dialogue,  I am optimistic. In between are my middle- and high-school kids and their friends. The parents, most of whom are half my age, nevertheless seem to accept me as a fellow passenger.
Retirement? How do you spell that?

The Rosen Singularity, my fourth novel, is a contemporary thriller, a provocative meditation on life, death, age, and longevity. In it, an emeritus professor tells his young protégé about his own view on retirement.
My Miriam once told me about…stopping at a farm stand....  Her parents bought a small bag of walnut meats from a girl of twelve or so, who proudly told them that her grandfather had cracked all the nuts on the table. She nodded toward an old man with gnarled hands and a weather-ravaged face hunched over one of those big old long-handled affairs, cracking walnuts one at a time, very, very slowly. Miriam said he looked like he was a hundred to her girlish eyes, but there he was, doing his part to keep the family orchards going. Maybe he read to his young grandchildren in the evening when he was too tired to crack any more nuts. Maybe he entertained the family with stories from the old days, polished and embellished by years of retelling and by flagging memory. Who knows? But that man was not off playing golf or mahjongg in some retirement community or taking up bed space in a nursing home while waiting to die.
His protégé protests that this seems harsh, that not everyone has vigorous golden years. We deserve eventually “to take some time to ourselves, to do what we please, or at least not to have to get up every morning and drag ourselves off to some stupid job.”
The older professor replies, “I’d say no. Everyone contributes, everyone adds something, whatever they can.”
I am neither of these characters, and just because I wrote their dialogue does not mean I have to be in full agreement with everything they say. Their conversation echoes the tension in a much grander dialectic in the book. Still, to borrow from my own characters, as long as we are consuming, perhaps we have a responsibility to contribute.
Even if it means cracking walnuts. Or telling stories.

Larry Constantine writes intricate thrillers on provocative themes under the pen name Lior Samson. When not cracking walnuts or writing stories, he teaches graduate courses in industrial design, cooks gourmet meals for his family, and composes vocal music for community groups. He is an award-winning writer with 22 books published, including four novels and a collection of short fiction. He divides his time between Massachusetts and Portugal, where he teaches at the University of Madeira. You can reach him by email at Lior(at)


Nancy Morse said...

Hey Larry,

I dreaded the "R" word until I actually got there. Believe it or not, retirement is not the end of the road, just another stop along the way. I find myself busier now in retirement than I was when working a full-time day job and writing in my spare time. So, don't shun the "R" word. It can surprise you by opening up some unexpected opportunities.

Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) said...

Good to see you over here, Nancy. Naturally, I have no objection to any words starting with R. I am more interested in what people do with their time and who they hang out with. Retirement communities and age isolation are very recent American inventions that might not be in the best interests of society or the individual. But, there I go again, stirring up trouble.

jenny milchman said...

First of all, you don't look anywhere near the big 7-0...that probably helps you fit in with the parents in their 40s. But second of all, I think your point is wisely taken. Age is but one measure of age, or a number is anyway. And integrating what's good at each stage into each stage is probably the real challenge of living. So let's get on with it! Into those boots, and here's to great uncle John.

Caroline said...

You're only as old as you want to be. :) Love your topic. Gotta keep active to stay young (forever?) Good post.

Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) said...

OH, thank you Jenny. You made my day all over again. And thanks for the note of appreciation, Caroline. But young forever? Never! :-)