When I write blog posts about my past or future selves, I generally don’t plot out a detailed structure first. Rather, I visualize myself in an imaginary setting, and then I look around to see what turns up there. It’s often a random, stream-of-consciousness narrative.

That was especially true when writing this post on a rainy Saturday. I pictured myself walking outdoors on a similarly dark and wet day, wearing jeans and a light jacket with a hood. An asphalt path, with puddles here and there, meandered through a public park. The rain had stopped for the moment (as it had in real life), and the path had started to dry.

On my right, I saw a wide expanse of neatly mowed grass and well-tended trees and shrubs. A stream ran along the left side of the path and soon broadened into a lagoon, with dune grass and a sandy beach. I could hear the ocean not far away.

Someone was fishing in the area where the stream met the lagoon. She wore a baseball-style cap with brown hair tumbling over the shoulders of an olive-green T-shirt, along with khaki shorts. When she turned her head toward me, I recognized her as Kass, my 76-year-old future self.

She hadn’t shown much concern for polite greetings in our previous encounter, so I didn’t feel at all guilty when I grimaced and said, “Fishing, ew. Don’t try to convince me I’m going to turn into someone who loves fishing when I get older.”

Kass didn’t take offense. She just laughed and said, “Depends on what you’re fishing for. Right now, I’m casting a net into the collective unconscious and seeing what kinds of interesting cultural symbols turn up.”

She reeled in her net, which contained just one lonely domino. Reaching into the net, she picked up the domino and tossed it into the sand at her feet.

Domino in sand with pebbles.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

“Okay,” she challenged me, “what would you say this means?”

Not much came to mind right away. “Well, I had Domino’s pizza for dinner on Wednesday.”

“Uh-huh.” Kass didn’t quite yawn, but she looked bored.

“Playing dominoes as a child.” I tried again. “Or with dominoes. Making them into pretend walls or into paths leading to a castle, that kind of stuff.”

Kass gave me an encouraging smile. “That was always fun.”

I considered it for another minute or so, glancing up into a sky that had started to brighten. A tiny patch of blue could be seen just across the lagoon.

“The domino effect,” I said finally. “Tip over the first one, and they all start falling. Right about now, it certainly feels that way, as if the world is on the brink of huge changes. But will the changes be for the better, or not?”

Kass chuckled again, in a good-natured way. “Oh, I’m sure you must already know the answer to that, don’t you? It all depends…”

Lifting up her fishing rod, she walked around from one spot to another on the sand, making a big production of finding just the right spot to cast her line back into the water. By the time she spoke again, I knew exactly what she was going to say, and we finished the sentence in unison.

“…on where you stand.”

I didn’t feel inclined to do much writing last week because, among other things, I wasn’t getting anywhere trying to imagine the future. What with the entire world having been totally upended this year, I felt as if I’d lost whatever intuitive sense of direction I might once have had. Because telling stories to make sense of a confusing modern world is the central theme of this blog, it seemed rather pointless to write about being lost in a sea of befuddlement. (Well, except that putting the word “befuddlement” into a sentence just now was kind of fun.)

Then I started reading an apocalyptic business book that projected automation would destroy most of the world’s jobs in the near future. Before this year, I had dismissed that scenario as highly unlikely because it looked like we had plenty of jobs, with more coming open because of retirements and lower birthrates. But now, with a pandemic that could go on for a long time, what business owner wouldn’t want to replace sickly, unpredictable, and expensive humans with robots and intelligent software?

Large robot leaning over a wall.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

That line of thinking put me into quite a funk, and I considered talking it over with my 119-year-old future self, Fannie the Fantastically Adventurous. She might be able to offer some helpful insights and encouragement. But no, that wouldn’t do; I already wrote a post last year in which I asked Fannie for career advice. Something more was needed.

“Yoo hoo!” A waving hand appeared in my imaginary inner landscape, connected to an arm that was nicely toned, if a bit wrinkled. The rest of the body soon came into view, dressed in lime-green workout shorts with a matching tank top and sports bra. This visitor had just been outside on a humid afternoon, judging from the damp, sweaty curls tumbling in all directions over her shoulders. A thin line of gray roots was barely visible under the brown curls.

“I’m Kass,” she informed me, “your 76-year-old future self.”

“Is that short for Cassandra?” I asked, wondering where a future me would have gotten that name. Usually when new characters introduced themselves, I knew their origins; but this time I had no clue whatsoever.

“No, it’s Kass with a K. And it’s short for kicking yours.” Kass smirked in a way that made her look more like a juvenile delinquent than a respectable lady of her claimed 76 years.

I briefly considered tossing her back into whatever murky pool of my subconscious mind had spawned her. Curiosity got the better of me, though; and I decided to take her bait, even if doing so might have been against my better judgment.

“If you’re from my future, aren’t you supposed to be kind and forgiving toward me?” I demanded. “That’s the whole point of imaginary conversations with younger selves, right? You help them to put things in perspective and to understand that their mistakes weren’t really as bad as they might have thought.”

Kass waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and made a “pfft” sound.

“Yeah, right—like you were kind and forgiving when you told our past self Queenie to take a hike?”

“Well, okay, that wasn’t very nice,” I had to admit. “But I did it without thinking, I apologized to her, and then I went back later and told her she was brave for standing up to social pressure.”

“Aren’t you the noble one.” Kass sneered, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at me. “I’m not feeling nearly that altruistic right now, and that’s mainly because I am still recovering from all your ridiculous fears and insecurities. Fannie has had a much longer time to mellow into a wise old woman; I’m not nearly there yet. Just this afternoon, I was out for what should have been a nice relaxing jog in the park, until your annoying self-pitying thought loops about life’s unfairness showed up and ruined it.”

“Queenie had a few things to say when I felt like that,” I pointed out. “She told me that it wasn’t fair to blame a bad day on a younger self, who was likely finding it hard enough to stay positive without the added stress of being responsible for how her future selves might feel. And I would add that is especially true in 2020, when everyone in the world is stressed out.”

“Aw, boo-hoo-hoo, so unfair, poor tragic long-suffering little you. Cue the violins.” Kass made exaggerated fiddling motions in the air. “We both know that you’re super lucky, compared to what happened to a lot of people. So get over yourself already.”

She dropped her hands into a more relaxed position at her sides and took a deep breath before going on. “And in particular, you need to stop judging yourself as a stuck-in-a-rut failure for not having a clear sense of career direction—or any other kind of direction that you feel you’re lacking. You live in a time when the world is changing so fast that almost anything might happen. Recognizing that fact doesn’t make you less insightful or motivated than anyone else.”

Turning that over in my mind, I couldn’t dispute her point. Clarity wasn’t easy to come by these days; and framing its lack as some kind of personal failure did not, in truth, make any sense.

“As for work,” Kass concluded, “just think what might have happened if you’d felt inspired to change careers or start a new business in 2019. Many people did just that—and then the pandemic hit, and they lost everything. So, your uncertainty turned out to be a blessing, even if it didn’t seem like one. Be grateful for it, give yourself permission to chill out and relax for now—and be open to new opportunities finding you later, when the time is right.”

She gave me a smile that actually looked like it might be a real, good-natured smile this time. “And then, maybe, I can finish my next jog without interruption.”

May 28, 2020 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

After another damp, overcast morning here, I was wishing for a tropical vacation with plenty of sunshine. Because that didn’t seem likely to happen any time this year, I decided to visit my imaginary future self, Fannie, and ask her to tell me about a fun vacation she’d had.

She was sitting comfortably at a table on the balcony of her townhouse, surrounded by flowers and small potted trees, when I showed up. There was a pitcher of iced tea on the table, and she poured some for both of us before starting to tell the story.

“I particularly enjoyed a trip I took in 2042,” Fannie began, “when I traveled to several countries in Africa and Asia. On a warm sunny morning, when I was feeling jet-lagged and sleepy, I dozed off beside the hotel pool in a lounge chair. When I woke up, I thought at first that I might still be dreaming when I saw an elephant standing right there across from me, with its trunk in the pool.”

Elephant with its trunk in a pool.

“I’d known people who retired to Florida and found alligators in their yard or pool,” Fannie went on, “but an elephant? I had no idea what to do. Was it dangerous? Would it charge at me if I made any sudden moves? I sat as still as possible while I tried to work out what I should be doing.”

She took a sip of iced tea and continued, “Then a hotel staff person came outside and began scolding the elephant and waving a broom at it. I didn’t know the language she spoke, but the tone sounded just like someone telling a misbehaving puppy to mind its manners. The elephant backed off and casually strolled away, as if trying to look innocent. The staffer turned to me and said in English, with a smile, ‘All good, no worries,’ as calmly as if such encounters happened every day. Maybe they did, for all that I knew.”

“Your vacations certainly have been more interesting than mine,” I said. “Oh, well, maybe one of these days I’ll have epic adventures abroad.”

“Of course you will,” Fannie replied, with a cheerful laugh. “I’m your future, after all.”

May 16, 2020 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Early in the week it was dark, cold, and blustery around here, with the temperature far below normal for the middle of May. It felt like winter had decided that it was never going to yield to spring. I didn’t even feel like going outside to get the mail and newspaper. The thought of planting annual flowers left me totally unenthusiastic. I was having a tough time picturing a good future, in general.

Given the lack of real-life places where I could go to cheer myself up, I decided that an imaginary visit with Fannie, my 119-year-old future self, would be the next best thing. I found her standing in the garage of her townhouse, next to her flying car. She wore blue jeans with a bright pink blouse, and she had shimmering pink hair to match.

The garage door was open. A warm spring breeze blew in, carrying the fragrance of flowering trees and shrubs. Fannie gave me a friendly smile and said, “Well, hello there! I was just on my way out to pick strawberries at a nearby farm. You look like you could use some more time in the fresh air, too. Hop in the car, and we’ll be off!”

(Photo credit: Donald Lee Pardue)

Picking berries on a sunny spring day sounded like the perfect way to put the winter blues to rest. And a ride in the flying car, too—what could be better? I walked around to the passenger side, got in, and started looking for a seatbelt.

“It retracts completely when the car is off, and then it automatically dangles in front of you when the car is turned on again,” Fannie explained. “That design is an improvement on those annoying automatic seatbelts that nobody ever wanted to buy. Hildegarde, set destination: Wildland Historical Farm.”

Lights blinked on all over the dashboard, motors whirred softly, and the seatbelts made their appearance as Fannie had described. “Destination set,” a female voice replied, with an accent somewhere between Midwestern and Scandinavian.

“Hildegarde?” I asked, buckling myself in.

Another light came on as I spoke. Evidently, by saying its name, I had put the car into a mode to process further spoken input. “Proceed to destination,” Fannie said cheerfully, and the car started backing itself out of the garage.

“The car needed a name,” Fannie continued, now speaking to me, “and I thought it was a good fit. Definitely better than all those nameless cars you had over the years, which you referred to as ‘the white car’ or something equally dull. I may be a future version of you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve on your more boring habits.”

“Okay, that’s fine, I didn’t mean to criticize the name,” I said with a shrug, not at all inclined to argue when there were a lot more interesting things to do. The car steered itself onto a concrete takeoff lane in the center of the townhouse complex, lined on both sides with blooming purple wisteria. It accelerated quickly and launched itself into the air.

I gawked like a tourist—which I supposed I was—as we soared above tall buildings with flourishing roof plantings. Some also had vertical greenery along the walls. Bright-winged birds swarmed everywhere, almost as if we had been flying over a jungle instead of a bustling metropolis. At first I expected some birds would come smashing into Hildegarde’s windshield, but they all stayed at a safe distance.

“Today’s cars have effective bird-avoidance technology,” Fannie commented, as I turned my head to watch a yellow-winged flock veering away. “They’re designed with features that make them look and sound like raptors on the hunt to any nearby birds. Collisions with wildlife are rare.”

We had reached the edge of the city by now, and the buildings rather abruptly gave way to a mix of woodland and blooming wildflower meadows. This landscape, although pretty, left me with a strange sense of disorientation. Where were the roads, the farms, the small towns? Had there been some sort of natural disaster?

“Where are we?” I summed up my confusion in a simple question.

“America the Beautiful, minus the amber waves of grain,” Fannie informed me. “Almost all food nowadays is factory-grown in vats. It’s much more cost-effective than traditional farming, and safer too—we don’t have to worry about parasites, pesticides, foodborne illnesses, pollution from fertilizer runoff, or pandemics caused by viruses from livestock. Also, the nutritional content is standardized, so we have more awareness of what we’re eating.”

A herd of brown cattle, apparently feral, went thundering by as we flew over another meadow. Huge clouds of butterflies, disturbed by their passage, rose up from the flowers.

“Approaching destination, prepare for descent,” Hildegarde announced.

At first I couldn’t imagine where we might be going, in such a wild landscape. Then a tidy parcel of cultivated land came into view beyond the next hill, with a road on the far side leading to a highway in the distance. Trucks, which surely had to be automated, streamed by on the highway at a steady pace, with an occasional small car or motorcycle among them.

“People are healthier now and living much longer,” Fannie went on, “and some of our new foods don’t seem much different from what they replaced. For instance, I can’t tell tuna made at a factory from the real thing. Still, humans evolved as hunter-gatherers and then spent many millennia as farmers—so there’s an instinctive sense of loss, I believe, that comes from having our food supply so disconnected from anything we do in nature. That’s why I like to get out and pick my own fruit or veggies every once in a while.”

Touching down smoothly in a lane along the edge of the farm’s parking lot, Hildegarde retracted her wings and pulled into a nearby space between two similar vehicles. On the other side of the lot, an ordinary-looking, non-flying school bus had just turned in from the access road.

Fannie and I walked into the strawberry enclosure. A young woman greeted us cheerfully and gave us each a basket. Two robotic folding chairs promptly detached themselves from their nearby charging stations and started rolling along behind us while we looked for a good place to pick.

“How about here?” Fannie stopped next to some tasty-looking berries. The chairs stopped also, and she pushed buttons on one of them to adjust its position and height. I did the same with the other, and we both sat down. Just then, a group of chattering preteens and their teacher walked in from the parking lot, and Fannie smiled.

“I always like to see the children,” Fannie told me. “They’re our link to a good future—however different that future may look.”

Putting berries in my basket, I found myself smiling too. Maybe this hadn’t been quite what I imagined a strawberry-picking trip would look like, but it certainly had put me in a better mood.

Although this winter has been relatively mild, with much more rain than snow, all of those dark and gloomy days have given me a bad case of the seasonal blahs. I haven’t felt like blogging and, more generally, haven’t found much creative inspiration anywhere.

Yesterday I caught myself wondering if my creative energy might have vanished forever, leaving me doomed to a small, diminished, unimaginative life. I told myself that was completely ridiculous; but even after that, I couldn’t manage to get my thoughts onto a more positive track.

At that point, I decided it was high time for a visualization exercise—specifically, asking my 119-year-old future self, Fannie, what she (we) had done to banish those doldrums. Picturing a version of myself so far in the future often helps to improve my perspective, given the fact that whatever situation I’m bothered about in the present is highly unlikely to still exist after so many years.

I found Fannie outdoors on a sunny spring day, walking with her robot poodle on a sidewalk in a well-maintained townhouse complex. A light breeze was blowing, and the air smelled of apple blossoms and freshly cut grass. Somewhere close by, an electric lawn tractor purred softly. Daffodils in bloom gave the sidewalk a bright, cheery yellow border.

Photo of daffodils under blue sky.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The imaginary scenery was enough in itself to lift my spirits, especially when a flying car backed out of a garage and took off into a gloriously blue sky with just a few pale clouds. I stood watching it for a moment before I told Fannie about my writer’s block worries, which by now had started to sound even sillier.

Fannie listened with a sympathetic smile as I rambled on while walking next to her. After a while, she gave me her advice. “Just open the window.”

Because we were outdoors and I didn’t know what window she might mean, I felt confused for a moment before she went on to explain further.

“Creative energy is part of the flow of life. When we let ourselves get disconnected from the natural world—such as by being cooped up inside all winter—that flow stagnates. When I feel low on energy, taking a walk usually puts me in a better frame of mind. But sometimes I’ve found it is enough just to open the window for a few minutes, breathe in some fresh air, and tell that stagnant energy it is free to go on its way now.”

Fannie paused to glance up into a flowering tree where a robin was singing, almost invisible behind a thick curtain of white blossoms.

“If you’re looking for inspiration,” she finished, “don’t sit around the house ruminating about why it hasn’t struck you yet. Go out for a walk—and chances are, you’ll find it shows up quite naturally.”

“I’ve been feeling somewhat frustrated the past few years,” I said to my imaginary future self Fannie, as I helped her unpack a picnic basket on a cloudy and windy afternoon in July 2083. The corners of our disposable red and white tablecloth fluttered briskly in the breeze. Although the sky had gotten dark enough that a storm surely had to be close by, we didn’t have to worry about losing the tablecloth to a sudden gust because a thin strip of some futuristic temporary adhesive kept it firmly secured to the park table.

Picnic table with red and white tablecloth on a cloudy day, with dark trees behind it.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Sipping her iced tea, Fannie gave a nod of encouragement, waiting for me to go on. I was distracted, however, by a pair of unusually large bluish-green flies that hovered above our tuna sandwiches for a moment before they both flew away.

“They’re harmless,” Fannie informed me in a cheerful tone. “Genetically engineered to eat mosquitoes and other pests, while leaving picnic food alone. Also, they glow in the dark—that gene was inserted to help the biologists track them. They’re really quite pretty on summer evenings. Look, there are more of them glowing under the trees where it’s dark.”

In all honesty, I thought the genetically engineered flies looked a bit creepy; but in the interest of being polite to my future self, I didn’t say so. Instead, I went back to my earlier topic, which had to do with the frustration of trying to imagine my future work in a rapidly changing world.

“My job is comfortable enough,” I said, “and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe I’ve been doing the same work for too long. I feel like I ought to have a better sense of what comes next, but I can’t seem to get it clear in my head.”

“Let’s talk about what happened when you first took the job,” Fannie replied, putting down her salad fork. “Did you have any clear future plans then?”

This obviously was a rhetorical question because Fannie, as a future version of me, already knew what had happened. Still, I gave it serious consideration and got my thoughts in order before I answered.

“No, I didn’t really—and that seems strange now, given the fact that I started in a temporary position and had no assurances that it would become permanent. I was mainly focused on the skills that I was learning, and I felt confident that I would be able to use them in a future job, whatever it might be. At the time, I didn’t worry about not having long-term career plans.”

Fannie took a bite of her tuna sandwich and chewed thoughtfully, as the sky grew darker and I heard a faint rumble in the distance. It sounded like thunder; but considering the sci-fi surroundings, I guessed that it might be traffic noise from flying vehicles instead.

“Well, then,” she finally asked, “what changed?”

Several potential answers came to mind before I was able to settle on one. “Mainly my perspective. By now, I’ve seen what can happen to people who wander through life without plans or who get overconfident in their assumptions. A lot of comfortable jobs disappeared during the recession, and the economy still feels shaky—but it’s not just that. With the world changing so fast, I now feel like I could easily miss out on something good because I didn’t know where to look.”

Although a faint pattering of rain had by now started in the nearby trees, our picnic table was still dry. Fannie poured herself a little more iced tea before starting to put away the remnants of our picnic in the basket, which looked like old-fashioned wicker (but a closer inspection showed it was a synthetic material instead).

“To sum up,” Fannie stated in a matter-of-fact tone, “you’ve gained more awareness of possible different outcomes, and you understand that present-day choices have great power to shape your life going forward. But rather than feeling empowered by these insights, you worry about making bad decisions—or failing to make decisions when they’re needed, which amounts to the same thing.”

I nodded, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “Yeah, that’s about right. I guess I’m being kind of silly, when you put it like that.”

“Not at all,” Fannie declared firmly, as she took from her handbag a small item that looked like a key fob and pressed a button on it. “More choices always mean more uncertainty; that’s just the natural way of things. But what usually happens is that although we may feel unsure of our decisions, they end up all right anyway. Even when we think we’ve gotten ourselves into a bad situation, we find that a solution appears.”

The rain was coming down in earnest now, splattering on the now-cleared table. A moment later, I heard a mechanical whirring, and then Fannie’s flying car came into view. Evidently it had been parked somewhere close by. It landed on a concrete pad not far from the picnic table, and Fannie walked briskly toward it while carrying the basket. She winked at me as she got into the car.

“See, things work out—rain or shine. It’s not that hard.”

I started to walk around to the passenger side, thinking that it would be great fun to go for a ride, even in the stormy weather. But alas, that would have to wait for another blog post. Fannie and her surroundings vanished into the mist, and I found myself back in my own time.

May 18, 2019 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

One of the suggestions that financial advisors often make, for purposes of motivating people to save for retirement, is to imagine how an older self would view today’s decisions. That is to say, at 80 or 90 years old, will we feel confident about our finances and believe that we planned well in our younger years?

I haven’t actually done anything that resembles conventional retirement planning because I look at saving in more general terms, as being about future flexibility to make choices. Trying to construct a detailed list of everything that I might need or want, many years from now, doesn’t strike me as useful in such a fast-moving world. The future could—and likely will—turn out to be very different from whatever we envision now.

It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that having more money will improve just about any potential scenario set in this century. Even if the future turns out to be a sci-fi utopia in which robots cater to our every whim for free, it’s going to be a long time before we get there. That being so, I decided to go ahead and try the older self exercise, given the fact that I already have an imaginary 119-year-old self—known as Fannie on this blog—with whom I’ve had several creative conversations.

At first I thought about picturing Fannie at a bank, to be consistent with the topic; but she had her own ideas about that. I found her taking a leisurely walk along a well-kept path in a public park. It was a cool spring morning, and she wore jeans and a light sweater. New leaves and lush grass made everything around us look beautifully green and refreshing.

Path surrounded by greenery in a park.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

A black poodle trotted next to Fannie, with impeccable grooming and a remarkably even gait. It had no leash. A closer look revealed that there was no need for a leash because the poodle was, in fact, a robot. Fannie turned toward me and smiled, opening her hands as if to embrace the surrounding landscape.

“Seriously, a brick-and-mortar bank? I can’t remember when I last saw one of those. Decades ago, I’m sure. Don’t you think this is more pleasant? I was transferring funds with my phone just now, before you arrived.”

I took a breath of the fresh air, which was fragrant with spring blooms, and had to agree that managing bank accounts while taking a stroll in the park certainly was more pleasant than doing it the old-fashioned way.

“So, would you say that the money I saved was enough for you to be comfortable?” I asked.

“That question has both a simple and a complicated answer, as with most things.” Fannie grinned. “By now, you’ve had enough conversations with me that you probably already figured I was going to say something like that.”

A bird trilled cheerfully from somewhere in a nearby tree, as if to share in a little good-hearted amusement.

“The simple answer is yes, I live comfortably, and in part that’s because of your discipline in saving, which I do appreciate. As you know, I have a self-navigating flying car; they’re pricey even in 2083. And of course Maxie here,” and Fannie reached down to pat the dog, “wasn’t cheap, were you, sweetie?”

The robot dog gave a very realistic happy-sounding yip and wagged its tail.

“But the more complicated answer,” Fannie went on, “is that the culture of your time had tremendous uncertainty about the future, and nobody had a clue how to deal with it. Although people had started living much longer, they hadn’t yet created new stories to shape their expectations. So they tried to plan for everything imaginable, which of course stressed them out. Let me turn this conversation around for just a moment, if I may, and give you a question instead: Do you feel totally responsible for my comfort?”

“Well, yes, or at least mostly. Sort of. What I mean, I guess, is that I wouldn’t want to mess things up and leave a future me stuck in a bad situation. You know, this question is a lot harder than it seemed at first.” I made a frustrated gesture, which caused a squirrel in the grass nearby—though evidently unafraid of the robot dog—to hop back a few steps.

“That’s why I asked it,” Fannie calmly informed me. “Now, what would you say to past versions of yourself who felt afraid of making bad decisions about raising children, for instance, or finding the right job?”

“I’d tell them not to worry because the kids and the job turned out just fine.”

There was a comfortable-looking bench to our left, and Fannie took a few steps off the path and sat in it. She gave me a smile. “Sit down and take a load off your feet, both here and in real life. Just relax—you know it’s going to turn out fine, right? You’ve got this.”

Maxie, now sitting next to the bench, yipped again as if in emphasis. I sat down next to Fannie as the scene began to fade; and then, just a moment later, I found myself back in my own time.

Ever since Fannie, my imaginary 119-year-old future self, suggested a few months ago that I might want to invite the archetypal Crone to play tennis, I had been turning that idea over in my mind. It made sense on a basic narrative level—if I wanted to explore possibilities other than the usual negative beliefs about aging, then I needed to be more creative in how I pictured older people. That included expecting the Crone to do more than just sit and tell stories, as in my previous post about her last winter.

Tennis didn’t work, though, for several reasons. First, I never played the sport or had much interest in it, and an imaginary outing where I bumbled around cluelessly on the tennis court didn’t hold much appeal. Of course, I didn’t have to be as realistic as that; but I didn’t want to be the Crone’s opponent in a sporting event anyway, or even her doubles partner, which would carry another well-defined set of adversarial socially-scripted baggage about pushing one’s body to the limit and always competing to excel over others. I really did just want the Crone to tell me stories, but without the typical cultural strings attached.

So, after I recently spent some time browsing through winter landscape scenes and imagining myself (as I mentioned here) on a snowy forest adventure, I decided to invite the Crone to be my companion on a mountain-climbing trip. That would be active enough to dispel the old-woman stereotypes, but we wouldn’t be opponents in anything, and there would be plenty of time for insightful conversation. I’ve never been a mountain climber in real life either, but that was okay—a hiking trail along a mountainside, without need for rock-climbing gear, would be sufficient.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The crisp mountain air carried the scent of pine trees and snow. The wind was just right—enough of a breeze so that the Crone and I wouldn’t overheat as we hiked up the trail in our heavy winter gear, but it wasn’t blowing hard enough to make us want to pull our scarves up over our faces.

“Oh look, just over there!” exclaimed the Crone, as we went around a curve dotted by rocks and small bushes. I didn’t see much of anything else, but the Crone sounded quite excited indeed. She bustled over to a spot of green in the shelter of two rocks, where glossy leaves and a few bright berries could be seen poking up through the winter’s debris.

“It’s just another wildflower nowadays,” she explained, lovingly brushing away twigs and snow to give me a better view. “But long ago, skilled herbalists would have come out looking for this and other healing plants, even in winter. Many of them were older women, you know. They brought apprentices on mountain hikes very much like this, pointing out where the medicinal herbs could be found and how to recognize them.”

After carefully replacing the small twigs and dry leaves that protected the plant from the cold air, my companion stood up and went back to the trail. We continued around another bend, winding between several thick pines, while I considered the message in this little interlude.

“It’s just a myth, then, that old women didn’t do much but sit by the fire and tell stories,” I said after a minute or so, as I took a few quick steps to catch up to the Crone. She had gotten ahead of me while I was preoccupied with my thoughts, and she walked with plenty of vigor.

“Life was much harder in those days,” the Crone noted in a reflective tone, as if describing her own past. She slowed her stride a little. “Every pair of hands was needed. If an elder didn’t have the strength to work outdoors, she might indeed sit by the fire—but there would always be chores she could do while sitting. Of course, that didn’t prevent her from telling stories at the same time. When surviving through the winter couldn’t be taken for granted, stories and song went far toward keeping joy and vitality in the soul, just as herbal remedies kept the body healthy.”

We came out of the pines onto a steep ascent. The snowy peaks loomed majestically above us, just as they would have done thousands of years ago. I felt grateful for their enduring wisdom, as well as for my companion’s gentle words, as the imaginary adventure faded away.

Last week the rowing club was more adventurous than usual, traveling to a large regatta in Florida. My husband and I stayed with another club member at his mother’s house not far from the race course. She is a delightful English lady who loves to have guests and is very outspoken, making blunt remarks such as “Absolute rubbish!” when, for instance, my husband suggested that we might take our clothes to a laundromat rather than inconvenience her by using her washer and dryer.

She is 86 years old and very active, going sailing once a week and doing charitable work regularly. When the heat got to me on the practice day before the races started, she sympathized with me by saying that she recently had gotten rather dehydrated playing tennis for two hours on a hot day.

That evening I still didn’t feel quite right after rowing and being outdoors for a long time in the heat. When I got in bed, I felt as if it might be rocking gently, like a boat. That reminded me of reading Kon-Tiki as a child and pretending that my bed was a balsa-wood raft floating across the Pacific Ocean. So, as I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I decided to populate this imaginary scenario with my adventurous future self, Fannie. I pictured us looking up at the stars from a natural-fiber mat on the raft, with plenty of comfortable pillows.

Photo of the Kon-Tiki raft in its museum.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)


“So, Fannie,” I asked her, in my best faux-English accent, “would you say that the stories our culture tells about aging are absolute rubbish?”

“No, I wouldn’t actually,” she said, drawing out the vowel into an absurdly long ‘ah’ sound, “and by the way, you are rubbish with ah-ccents, and I never got much better with them over the years. So we might do better to stick with ordinary American conversation, though there’s nobody around but a few imaginary flying fish to hear us embarrassing ourselves.”

Fannie snuggled deeper into the pillows and went on to say, “Putting energy into rejecting a cultural narrative only feeds it more power. What we resist persists; that’s from Carl Jung, a very wise man. When you feel that society has you in a box, there’s no need to kick and beat on the walls. Just look up, and you’ll see the sky and feel a breeze flowing through. The box is not solid. All you have to do is step out of it. Dance and skip out of it. Do handsprings and cartwheels out of it. Oh, was there a box around here somewhere? I hadn’t noticed. Where it went, I can’t say. Maybe it’s in that field over there, behind all those tall weeds.”

“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” I said, getting into the spirit of it, “there were people who thought they had to stay in boxes; or at least, that’s what my great-grandmother told me.”

“Lost in the mists of time,” Fannie agreed cheerfully. “And while we’re on the subject, maybe instead of picturing the archetypal Crone just sitting and telling stories, you might want to invite her to play some tennis. Yes, I know you are rubbish at tennis, but the Crone hasn’t played in many years either. Of course, I’m no better at it, since I am you, so that’s nothing personal.”

I thought that I heard Fannie chuckling quietly to herself, but a fish leaped out of the ocean just then and landed with a particularly loud splash, so I couldn’t be quite sure.

This year my husband and I have been rowing singles many days, rather than only sculling in our double. We bought the singles to celebrate our 30th anniversary, which was in May. It was my husband’s idea and a surprise to me. I had suggested that he might want to look into buying a single because he had been taking a very old club boat to the regattas, and it was too big for him and poorly suited to his rowing style. I never thought about getting one for myself, though. The club boats did not fit me any better (worse, actually), but I was happy with the double, rarely rowed singles, and never had considered racing one.

Now that I’ve had a few months to get used to rowing a single that is the right size and is set up the way I like it, I’ve been starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of taking it to regattas. My husband suggested that I enter an October head race on our favorite course in Tennessee. (Head races are 5K races during the fall season, so-called because they often take place at the head of a river.)

One double and two single sculling boats.

I was wondering how many women would be competing in my age group. When my husband looked up last year’s race, he told me that there was only one rower in the category of women over 50 racing a single. Other regattas that we like to attend are much the same, with very few older women rowing singles; and my practice times are competitive with their race times, despite my lack of experience.

Although that should mean I can expect to win medals, it is also a bit disconcerting. I understand that much of it is generational, in that most women my age were not encouraged to be athletic when we were growing up. A woman of my generation might enjoy racing in a mixed crew with her husband, but she is not as likely to think about signing up for individual events. Younger women often are more adventurous and competitive because the times have changed.

So, it doesn’t mean that I am now so old that my competition has started dying off. Nor does it have any logical bearing on how many years I might be healthy enough to row. The fact that such thoughts even briefly came to mind bugs me anyway, though.

Last year I began writing occasional stories about my fantastically adventurous future self, aka Fannie, mainly to remind myself that there are many other possible futures besides the usual culturally-conditioned aging scenarios. I decided that Fannie should be 119 years old, not because I expect to live to that age or any other particular age, but simply to kick all such expectations much farther down the road.

Some folks really do live that long in the present day, and it seems likely that longevity will increase as a result of scientific advances. That puts Fannie within the bounds of reasonable possibility, although I never intended my stories about her to be realistic, or close to it; they’re aimed more at liberating my thoughts from other people’s overly narrow ideas of what is or should be realistic.

In that spirit, and without making any assumptions beyond observing that the future surely holds more possibilities than we know, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ideas I had about aging when I was a teenager. Back then, to the (very minimal) extent I thought about it at all, I didn’t see myself living past 80, which seemed ancient and very far away. This morning I put a birthday card in the mail for my mom, who turns 80 next week and is generally healthy. My dad and my husband’s parents already are over 80, and whatever notions I might have had about when a person becomes “ancient” have changed accordingly.

So I’m wondering—now that becoming “ancient” seems much farther away than I once imagined it, and there is at least some possibility I could have another half-century or more of healthy life remaining—why should I feel any closer to old age (whatever that may mean) than I felt when I was a teenager?