There are a group of over-50 actors on Broadway right now in a play called “Love Letters” by A.R. Gurney. It documents the almost-lifelong correspondence between a man and a woman who come to realize that they are soulmates. But like the couple in another play “Same Time Next Year,” they always seem to be out of sync.
The play is performed entirely by actors of a certain age like Brian Dennehy, Mia Farrow, Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and others. These stars alternate in pairs over the four-month run of the show.
The format of the show is quite simple. On a stark stage with only a table and two chairs, the actors read a lifetime’s worth of letters.Slowly the relationship of the couple becomes clear, and we watch it mature as the years fly by. It’s a premise that is best appreciated by people who have lived more than half a century. Like the actors who bring the correspondents to life, we over-50s know long-term relationships for the long and winding roads they are.
The idea of a best-friend-forever (BFF) is more idealistic than realistic for most of us. BFFs are precious because they are the exception to the rule. For most of us, relationships with childhood friends, elementary school friends, high school friends and even college friends are limited to reunions every few years, if we are lucky. Most BFF relationships do not survive into the right side of 50.
Distance is most often the cause of losing touch. But changed circumstances can also contribute. For example, becoming a parent is often so demanding of our time that we lose touch with our single friends. It’s tough to get together for a drink after work when you’re rushing home to pick up a child from daycare. And even if you can get away, conversation becomes a problem when your focus is on children, and not seeing the latest movies, plays or museum exhibits.
But in rare cases, you can be so in sync with someone that the relationship stays alive. Oh sure the relationship has its peaks and valleys, but with a little effort you stay in touch. It’s actually a lot easier to do that today, what with Facebook, e-mail and instant messaging, although actual contact is still necessary.
Lifelong friends are a precious commodity needing to be nurtured. These days many young people may feel that since they have hundreds of Facebook friends, many of these will be BFFs. But being “friended” on Facebook doesn’t mean you have a friend. A friendship requires that you put yourself out to have human contact on a regular basis.These days that can be as simple as a regular Skype call. If Siri is the only friend you talk to on a regular basis, it’s time to use the phone part of your smartphone, and have a real conversation with someone you used to know.
Recently, I reconnected with an old college friend of mine. We had been in touch sporadically over the years. He lives in Maine, and so distance is a factor. He also hates cities, and so getting him to come to New York is always challenging. Most recently, we were in touch through Facebook. But I had not seen him in 10 years. So I decided that this was a relationship worth nurturing, and if Skip wouldn’t come to New York, I would go to him.
Now truth be told, going to Maine is hardly a punishment. It’s a beautiful place. But it is a LONG car ride since Skip lives near Augusta, which is still a few hours ride after you reach the Maine border. But my wife, Pat, and I chose what we thought might be a good weekend for foliage viewing, and we decided to get in the car and go. It turned out to be a great weekend and Skip and I got a chance to re-connect in a way that you just can’t do electronically.
When I talk to my stepfather about what it’s like to be 91, he tells me that the hardest thing is that all your friends are gone. You see, the forever part of BFF is not really “forever,” but only “for as long as we both shall live.”
It’s tough to lose friends to the grim reaper. But losing friends due to laziness is criminal negligence. Like plants, your friendships need attention, or they wither and die.
As we travel down the road of life after 50, it’s especially important to maintain contact with our old friends. They’ve traveled the road with us and they can bring out the best in us. At the very least, they remind us of our young selves. They remind us of a time when the road ahead seemed long and full of promise. They remind us that life can still be like that, even after 50.
The best things pop up unplanned. The gems that come out of nowhere and serve the dual purpose of immediate pleasure, and a forever memory of a great time. When Steve and I were in Romania, there were a bunch of these, but our second day in Bucharest gets star billing.
It started with a visit to a Romanian law firm where we were taken to lunch at La Cantine da Nicolai and I had the fall off the bone veal knuckle. The conversation touched on work, but the topic that animated the discussion was music and what would we take with us if we were stranded on a desert island. Beethoven’s Ninth won hands down, (albeit I did try to make the case that Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue should be included in the suitcase).
We parted our hosts and Steve and I wandered around Bucharest, past the Palace of Parliament through the Old Town, and into the National Gallery of Art where I think we viewed every single icon painting. We were walking over to check out the Romanian Atheneum, when a sign caught my eye.
I could translate it enough to see that there was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on that night at 7:00 at the Atheneum. Here we had been talking about that symphony at lunch and by pure serendipity, we had a chance to hear it played that evening by the George Enescu Philharmonic. We found the box office, secured tickets and walked inside the Atheneum, an art work in itself with its confection of color, curving lines, sinuous sculptures, and floor to ceiling decorative flourishes.
Compared to New York City concert halls, the space is diminutive. Steve looked at the stage and doubted the orchestra could deliver the power of the symphony, let alone hold a full chorus for the “Ode to Joy”.
But the orchestra packed a wallop. The acoustics gave Carnegie Hall a run for its money. Amidst the standing ovations I knew I had seen one of the best performances ever in one of the most special venues ever. Both of us loved the coincidence of the afternoon’s conversation being played out in real time. It unfolded so perfectly and unexpectedly that it will never lose its status as a gem surprise. But it was not the last of that day.
Right before the concert started I checked my emails and saw that our friends, whose trip to Bulgaria and Romania overlapped ours, had written to say that they were going to be in Bucharest for dinner. Emails were exchanged, but no firm arrangements made. Steve and I decided to stick to our game plan of eating dinner at this highly recommended restaurant Caru Cu Bere which is located in the Old Town. We are standing in line waiing to get in and someone taps Steve on the shoulder. It was a fabulous surprise.
I turned 60 on Monday, September 29 — just three weeks ago. I didn’t write about it right away because I thought it was no big deal — at least that’s what I told myself. But in retrospect, I didn’t write about it right away because, at some level, it bothers me a lot.
Happily, there was no big party to mark the “milestone” birthday. I’d made it clear to Maria that I didn’t want any elaborate celebration, so we had a nice quiet dinner and an ice cream cake at home. I got some nice gifts — money to put toward a 12-string guitar, a gift card to my new favorite bait and tackle store in Florida, and a nice cotton tropical-weight sweater.
There was only one jokey, old-guy gift: a mug with the legend on the outside, “I’M SORRY YOU’RE OLD,” and inside the rim, as you raise it to your lips, you see the words, “THAT’S ALL.” Better than the basket of Depends, M&M’s masquerading as Viagra, laxatives and antacids I’d seen other 60 year olds get on their birthdays.
There was also a greeting card showing a man (presumably me) reclining on a chair atop a high bluff with a small dog at his side. He’s dangling his fishing line in the water below, happily oblivious to the fact that he’s about to hook into a fish longer than the man himself. The dark part of me whispered that this could be a bright metaphor for something horrific — it’s the universe telling you, via a plastic fish decal on a Hallmark card, that you’ll be very sorry you put off that colonoscopy.
“You won’t be the little guy smiling on the boat much longer when you reel in that bad news,” said the gremlin, laughing. “At your age anything’s possible.”
The happy side of me: “At any age anything’s possible; you never know.”
Gremlin: “But at ‘your age,’ lots of bad things are a lot more likely than they used to be.”
Tough to argue with that …
For some reason, the arithmetic in your 60s feels fundamentally different than in your 50s. Then (a mere three weeks ago), being really old (which in my mind means in your 80s) was 30 years away, more or less. Now it’s only 20 years.
That’s scary in itself because time telescopes so much as you age. The distance from 20 to 40 was huge — I turned from a kid with no direction or shape to my life into a lawyer with a career, and a young family, and a house in the suburbs. From 40 to 60 was a radical evolution too — the kids grew up, left home (mostly), we acquired a vacation condo in Florida as the southern counterpart to our house at the Jersey Shore, and I retired.
But both of those significant chunks of my life, in retrospect, flew past in the blink of an old guy’s eye, to paraphrase Bruce. What major changes do the next 20 years hold (if you’ve even got 20 more in you, whispers the gremlin)? Who knows?
What worries me more is how quickly, in retrospect, will they have passed? But the happy side of me ultimately prevails: worrying about the view, in retrospect, is living ass-backwards. Look ahead, live in the moment, and barrel forward with gusto.
Drive this car as if you’d stolen it. And it you fly headlong off a cliff, with the gremlin shouting, “I told you so!” as you fall, at least you’ll have had a hell of a good time.
Most of us have reached the point in life where names and titles sometimes elude us. I distinctly remember the same thing happening to my grandparents. As a child I would often prompt them with the names that were just out of mental reach
“What’s the name of that actress with the big nose?” my grandmother would say.
“What’s that guy’s name who’s on that TV show I like?” my grandfather would ask.
As a dutiful grandson, I provided the answers.
Well that was then. Fast forward 50 years, and now I’m the one asking, “What’s the name of that movie with Groucho Marx and Marilyn Monroe?”
And I can see them both in my mind’s eye as they play a scene together. But I can’t get back to the title screen. I have become my grandfather.
The difference between me and people my age 50 years ago is that I have in the palm of my hand a 21st-century machine that supplies answers to everything anyone would ever want to know. It has apps like Wikipedia and IMDB, that are like having my own grandson at my beck and call.
My smartphone remembers all the things that I don’t. Just a few years ago, before I had a smartphone, my wife and I would struggle to recall names and titles. I remember many a Sunday afternoon at my mother’s house where all the adults around the table would agonize to recall one important name or another and my son, who was the only one at the time who had a smartphone, would simply look it up and take us out of our misery. Now many of us over 50 have smartphones, and they are fabulous for quickly finding those names that are on the tip of our tongues.
So today, we grandparents don’t have to rely on grandchildren to provide the answers to life’s persistent questions. We can look it up online. But just as using a calculator robbed us of the ability to perform simple mathematics, and having phone numbers programmed into phones made us forget our phone number, I fear that knowing that we can use Siri as a virtual grandchild will make us even more dependent on technology than we are already.
Years ago we were forced to rack our brains to remember things and usually the brain came through — eventually. I can remember many a morning waking up with a name or title that had eluded me the night before. But if we never challenge the aging brain to retrieve information, won’t we eventually lose that ability as well?
So I guess that like everything else, we need to rely on our smartphones in moderation. Leave the less important questions like movie trivia to stew in our brains (overnight if necessary). “Use it or lose it” applies to brains as much as anything else.
And it’s a good feeling to come up with a name or title on your own. Anyway, the day may come when a smartphone (or the Internet) is not available. And maybe when that day comes we will be able to come up with the answer on our own. Or maybe not. Just to be safe, I plan to have my grandchildren around as a backup. You can’t have too many lifelines in life.
We arrived home from Romania, and the sidebar excursions to Paris and London, around midnight Saturday, October 18. I have started culling the 3500 photos I took, and was brought back to the afternoon we spent wandering the National Art Museum in Bucharest. Architecturally, it is a testament to 19th century palatial elegance.
It was built between 1812 to 1815 (the approximate time the U.S. was engaged in the War of 1812 with Great Britain). It started as a private residence, was taken over by royalty in 1834, housed the seat of the State Council during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, and opened as an art museum in 2000. Its collection ranges from embroidered tapestries dating to the 14th century to paintings by European masters like Lucas Cranach the Elder and Rembrandt to sculptures by its native son, Constantin Brancusi, and others I never heard of.
But one of the best unexpected finds was the grand staircase leading up to the European galleries:
It had endless angles …
… and curves to explore.
It was like looking at a giant heart:
Most primary care physicians, as a routine part of a well visit, will ask about your drinking habits. Having spent more time than usual this past year in doctors offices, the dialogue, always with the word “moderately,” and my answer, always the same, came up a half dozen times:
“Do you drink alcohol?”
“Three or four drinks per week.”
“Hmm. Uh — yes, moderately.”
Truth is, I’m a liar. I’ve started drinking wine at home. Every day. Since I’m dedicated to maintaining good health and my well-being, I know that comes with being happy. So if happiness includes opening a bottle of wine to close down the day’s toil (and every day has some toil), I will pop that cork.
I haven’t always enjoyed a daily dose of wine. I’m a social drinker. I just about salivate my way towards that first sip and, just as mouth-watering, is the anticipation of sharing it with other people. I rarely have a drink before I go out for the evening. But I’m more mature now, and my drinking has fully-developed. I drink gloriously. Like a European.
I’ve come to enjoy and look forward to grabbing the bottle by the neck before I open it up to let it breathe. (I confess that I can’t tell the difference between wine that sits for a bit to “breathe,” or wine that I’ve pulled the broken cork out with my teeth and sucked a first sip right out of the bottle.)
Regardless, once that bottle is untethered, all of the senses start to revel. The smell of an inky, purple-y Malbec, or a freezer-chilled, buttery Chardonnay soothes from the nose down. Unlike that first sip of vodka, which usually makes me quiver into a hoot (“Woo!”), wine whispers its way down my throat, turns up the corners of my mouth, and closes my eyes. It makes the end of the day celebratory; well-lived. Deserved.
Since I’m not a fan of feeling groggy at night, or heavy-headed the morning after, one glass usually suffices when I’m not sharing. I use the 1940s wheat-etched glasses that my Irish mom (who doesn’t drink a lick), recently gave to me. They’re just a touch of glass; delicate. And I can fill them just below the brim (once) — a pour that is improper (and probably against the law) outside of the home.
So perhaps I will fess up at the next visit to the doctor: Yes, I drink alcohol. Moderately. Every day. I drink wine every day. But usually just one glass. I moderately-pour usually-one glass of wine into a moderately-sized vintage glass. Every day.
Enjoy this pictorial for the palate sent by Julie, who has been traveling through Romania for the past two weeks. Who knew? Romania is, apparently, a foodie destination — with menus rich in range and steeped in flavor. Meals, according to Julie, included “the best tabbouleh ever,” veal knuckles, and Spaghetti Bolognese.
The food in Romania is decadent. From fried pork appetizers to papanash, a donut covered with cream and sweet berries, there is always something to make you worry about your cholesterol and waistline. Of course – salads are always an option.~Julie