A young colleague I often tease with playful barbs beginning with “Hey Curtis,” then some lighthearted quip, wore a grin as he handed me an old, yellowed, Recorder sports section Tuesday night and said, “Here, I thought you may want to look at this. I found it in Irmarie’s desk. Nice hat!”
He was referring to the mugshot topping my August 27, 1992 column headlined, “Right church, wrong pew.” I would have been 39 at the time, still young, so I was, of course, hesitant to read it, typical anytime old stories resurface. I guess I fear immature style, syntax that’s juvenile and undeveloped, and hope to avoid embarrassed shudders if I do choose to read it. In this case I did read and was OK with it. I was taking a swipe at a favorite old punching bag, Friends of Animals, whose spokespeople had proposed vasectomies for Chelmsford beavers polluting the town water supply. No fan of vasectomies or the overbearing ladies who demand them of their men, I viewed the proposal as absurd, not to mention sexist, if not a violation of animal rights. That said, I offered a counter-proposal: lobotomies for the folks suggesting such a misguided remedy. I don’t recall that column drawing angry letters to the editor. Shocking! Friends of Animals are activists, you know, which only encourages me to go after them.
But enough of that, which, by chance, happened to be a perfect segue plopping onto my lap like a perfumed divorcee to cap the first draft of this, my last column before turning 60. Imagine that, me 60 come Sunday. Detractors from my wayward youth speculated I’d never see 60. Again, I get the last laugh. And here I sit, summer solstice in the rear-view, its spectacular waning full moon still lighting the night sky as I approach a milestone folks seem to dread along the bumpy, winding, rutted road called life. I suppose I could call the place I’m fearlessly skipping toward my final chapter, which I find not even itty-bitty frightening. But I can’t deny old age is near, no matter how I twist it.
I remember turning 50 and telling my wife we’d soon be 60, that time flies as you age. Now — Bingo! — we’re there, me two short years from the freedom of “retirement,” which promises to open a new chapter, my last, on my own terms, no authoritarian strings attached. I can only pray to my Earth Mother and bolt-of-lightning Dad for a little extension to stretch this last chapter longer in duration than the previous three. You never know. I have after all tempted the fates. But I do believe an active, inquisitive mind and fertile imagination can unleash the fountain of youth, and also that the probability of finding such a warm, soothing geyser can only be enhanced by a little drop of youthful mischievousness clinging to a shallow, glimmering crevice at the base of your soul.
So what does it mean, this turning 60? Well, I guess it’s what you make of it. To me, retirement will mark the beginning, not the end of work. What promises to stop are the mindless, mundane chores most of us are forced to do for a paycheck, duties a hairy ape could perform, usually a waste of precious time. I’ve had enough of it, can’t wait to break free from the caged, dazed flock spinning the hamster wheel for self-adoring heroes of mirror worship. Soon I will never again have to answer whether under way is one word or two, because in my world it doesn’t matter. I understand it as one or two and accept both. Let the Associated Press lords of style grapple with that stuff at their annual Hilton conventions of self-importance and tipsy oral flatulence. I have no patience for such pedantic discussion, and neither did the man who pushed me into this profession: late, great UMass professor Howard Ziff.
A former night editor at the Chicago Daily News, Ziff fled the newsroom to Amherst soon after witnessing the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention unfold before his eyes in Mayor Daley’s corrupt Windy City; then watching the deluge of misinformation that hit the street in the mainstream press. Ziff, truly a visionary, had seen enough and wanted to share his wisdom with aspiring young scribes. Yes, back before CNN and the Internet, this daring, gruff, well-read, cartoon character of a professor named Ziff — a Holyoke native and Amherst College man — predicted AP Style would be the demise of newspapers because the typical reader was better educated than in the past and wanted a little pizzazz. He implored that the future of news-writing was literary journalism championed by the likes of Dickens and Orwell, then Sixties “Rolling Stone” New Journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joe Eszterhas and Howard Kohn. He also had us read Joan Didion, Joe McGinnis, Thomas Agee and others, what he called “voices readers seek to learn what really happened, because new readers are more sophisticated and want to be entertained with opinion and moxie.” I must have heard that advice a hundred times from Ziff, a devotee of storytelling news-writing style called narrative.
Folded away in an old, red, tattered American Heritage Dictionary I’ve owned since college, I still have a half-page Ziff assignment slip from a “New Journalism” class I took, probably in 1973. The assignment reads, “In ‘Mau-Mauing the Flack Catcher,’ Tom Wolfe attempts to identify and define two social activities, mau-mauing and flak catching. What seem to you to be the characteristic terms he uses in making his definition? Do they seem adequate for the social activities he is trying to define? Does his activity leave anything out?” Classic Ziff: an assignment to activate the lost art of critical thinking in higher education; two pages, firm.
Before I move on, one more little Ziff anecdote. Soon after getting hired as a part-time Recorder sportswriter in the spring of 1979, I reconnected with my mentor and asked him to sponsor me in the UMass “University Without Walls” program that rescued me. When I told him I was working at a newspaper and wanted to dovetail the job and other prior-learning activities into an independent-study degree plan, he gave me one of his priceless bemused looks, nose and right eye slightly wrinkled, and asked where I was working. When I answered “Greenfield Recorder,” he knew it, gave me a sheepish grin and imparted this advice: “Good place to start but you’ll never stay there. It’s an editors’ newspaper.” Well, wrong again, because here I sit, 35 years later, as an editor no less. What choice did I have? Franklin County’s my home. I had to find a niche or move somewhere I didn’t want to live.
Jumping back to the present, I cannot say I fear this final chapter I’m embarking on. No, in fact, I want to warmly embrace it like a dear old childhood friend or teammate. And please don’t expect from me that unimaginative claim we’ve all heard from wise old men who claim that, if they had it all to do over again knowing what they now know, they’d do it all different, much different, and better. Oh, really? How can that be? Because had we not lived the lives we lived, seen what we saw, and made the mistakes we made, then how in the world could we have learned what we know? I never understood that.
Though I never served on an altar, earned a merit badge or made an honor roll, I have always used my innate curiosity to learn what I need to know, figure it out without bowing and kneeling and saying, “Yes, Sir!” to arrogant bores who sing sweet tunes of self-promotion while speeding down the shiny rails of conventional wisdom. They can have that route. I have always preferred thin, overgrown trails leading off the beaten path and toward hidden truths. That is where my curiosity brings me, and it’s where I continue to uncover my most interesting data.
Looking back, I guess I was a boy till 20, a kid till 40, then a man and now an elder. The rest of the way, I hope to use my autodidactic, homespun perspective while peering in from the periphery as a seer and thinker, a reader and reactor and interpreter — a writer. How can it be anything but sad to realize that here in this tiny, provincial world of mine, my work will begin when I submit my final time slip. Topics are bubbling from my brain like a cool, refreshing spring trickling from black mossy ledge poking midriff through the steep, damp, shaded northern slope on a high forested ridge. The flow carves out a thin channel for clear thoughts, ideas and questions to escape through fern cover on the forest floor. These thoughts seek a larger stream leading to a secluded reservoir supporting large, colorful squaretails lurking deep in cold, dark summertime spring holes. There I will cast my bait, set the hook and bring to the surface with a loud splash wisdom borne from years of probing and pondering and combining it all into a way of life and thinking. I only hope to survive long enough to share this fruit ripened by decades of success and failure, agony and ecstasy, inner turmoil and torment and loss, and serve it as a festive harvest supper. Hopefully this last quarter will bring a bonus and give me more than 20 years. The key is having something to live for, which I have, and it ain’t baseball or hunting or fishing or chasing fleeting hormonal urges and devilish lusts, so pleasing yet so deceitful and shallow. Been there, done that. New horizons are what keep an old man virile and, hopefully, interesting.
I pity those who found glory in youthful athletic arenas only to hit the wall as young men, forever burdened with a palpable void, one they cannot shake, forevermore lugging it to the tavern or ballpark, repeating the same tired tales ad infinitum. Retirement for them goes from swiveling barroom stool to supper table to La-Z-Boy recliner, beer in hand, to watch the ballgame and start snoring in the fifth inning. These people don’t understand a man like me, one who left it behind and moved on. Some are even critical because I don’t want to write about deer and turkey harvests, trout stocking and anadromous fish runs that I’ve covered repeatedly for 35 years. How long is too long? How many stories can you write about heroic hunters bagging 10-pointers from high tree stands in darkening woods? Who can read those stories, all similar, year after year, when only the names change? It gets old and tired and boring fast if you’re worth your salt.
When activity on the local men’s softball diamonds faded out some 20 years ago, I wondered what I would do with myself, if I would miss the camaraderie between the foul lines, on the bench and during convivial post-tournament celebrations. Yet overnight I realized it would have been better had I stopped playing the first time I stepped away, after I blew out my knee in 1976 and knew in my heart I had lost too much to continue competing at a high level on the big diamond. But then old teammates and childhood friends lured me back to the little diamond for 10 or 12 more enjoyable years I know now I could have lived without. Not that I couldn’t compete, because I could. But I had to swallow my pride limping around on a bum left knee that interfered with many important tasks that once came effortlessly, almost as reflexes. Then, when I started reading and writing and exploring new subjects, I knew right away I had lingered too long in a dead-end kid’s game. I can’t say I brooded over that realization, just knew I should have pulled the softball plug before it started. Water over the dam.
So here I sit after more than 20 years of intensive reading and researching and exploring and trying to put it all together. I guess I’d describe my reading as an eclectic mix of literature, history and biography, plus nature, philosophy and political science with a little Indian spirituality thrown in. I’m at my best when assembling my own reading list, one book leading to another by perusing footnotes on the bottom of the page or at the back of the book along with bibliographies. Where such clues will lead, I never know, but it’s infectious and enlightening and dynamic, always something new to pique my curiosity and chase with vigor, often related to context and perspective relating to genealogy and personal identity. If you don’t know who you are, what do you know?
With formal work behind me, I fantasize about building a new daily routine, likely going to bed early and rising around dawn to pick up whatever I’m reading, maybe rewriting a piece I’m working on or blowing out a first draft of something new while it’s still quiet, me fresh. Maybe I’ll unplug the tavern adventure I jumped into 15 years ago, say goodbye to part-time innkeeping and downsize in the hills where my dogs can run free and I can towel myself dry out on the deck. We’ll see. I’m getting a little ahead of myself but would be lying to say I haven’t entertained the concept of gathering my books and our best possessions, selling the rest of our assets and moving on to an easier place, off the grid, out of debt, free at last. A man can tire of the capitalistic grind.
Lately, people have been telling me I ought to get a new photo taken to accompany this ancient weekly column, that I have taken on a new look with less weight, more hair and a gray goatee. Although I can’t deny that my appearance has changed and I have considered a new photo, it’s not at the top of my priority list.
Just the other day, I bumped into a good old friend I haven’t seen for a while and he was surprised by my new look.
“Oh my God,” he chuckled, “I didn’t recognize you from a distance. You look great. What are you doing, going back to the Sixties?”
I just curled off a devilish, half-cocked grin, looked him in the eye and informed him that I never left.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.