My very own rest home inside the brain

 

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Four unidentified marching girls have their boots whitened by an unidentified man, 1956. National Library Archives.

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In which the jabbering residents of my interior rest home duke it out.

 

I’ve got my very own rest home inside my skull, with at least five residents. When I try to Think with a capital T about how to prepare for growing old, their voices drown me out. Jabber jabber jabber!

Depressa: It’s just luck. You can’t do anything about it.
Smugilla: You don’t need to do a thing—you’re perfect!
Depressa: You’re gonna die anyway so what’s the point?
Innocent Bystander: She doesn’t look that old.

Where is the wise part of me? Does she even exist? Oh there you are, Menerva—speak up, why don’t you?

Smugilla: You are so hot you could give advice to everyone else on how to stay young forever. Write a How To book! You’ll be famous! You’ll make millions! You’ll be on Oprah!
Innocent Bystander: You’re only as young as you feel.
Menerva: I don’t think she’s trying to solve a problem exactly.
Innocent Bystander: Just run along to the plastic surgeon. Or try homeopathy.

Hey, there’s a guy in there! Great, a fixer-upper.

Sergeant Major: Quit that squabbling. What’s the problem?
Menerva: She doesn’t know what to think.
Sergeant Major: Too much thinking does you no good. Time for action.
Smugilla: She doesn’t need any help from you, that’s for sure! She’s an expert grower-older.
Depressa: Yeah, right!
Menerva: She does need help. We all do.

And that’s when the Sergeant Major proposed a boot camp. One goal per month for the year, and then I’m done. Done like a dinner. No longer undone.

Very very good is good enough

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I am forever amazed at the barrage of self-help material urging us to aim for the top, follow our dreams, and especially to be better than everyone else. Just a minute: how can everyone be the best?

I figured out the maths around 1972, when New Zealand’s favourite poet, Sam Hunt, told me that female poets (unlike male poets) tended to be either outstandingly good, or outstandingly bad, with nobody in between. I don’t blame him for this ridiculous statement—outstandingly good was possibly true of published women poets at the time, before editors woke up to their own deeply embarrassing sexism, obvious in any analysis of male:female ratios in the literary world. And Sam was wonderfully encouraging to me and a whole bunch of other women poets who were feeling their oats at the time.

Fortunately, after a brief brush with statistics I knew his idea was nonsense, and I decided then and there to aim for a spot in the middle of the Bell curve. If our country needed more middling women poets, I would provide! Here I am Lord: send me!

So I have had a lot of fun and (surprise surprise) received a goodly share of rewards and kudos. However, I decided to forgo the Nobel Prize for Literature. That would make nonsense of my motto, Very Very Good Is Good Enough.

On the other hand, winning the Nobel Prize would be perfectly compatible with my second motto, which is Don’t Peak Too Soon. Maybe I should reconsider, and try harder. I could try harder, sure.

Na. I’ll give it a miss. Here’s to being yourself and relishing every minute of that privilege!

P.S. You can browse my middle-of-the-Bell-Curve poems any time


Matt Fray triggered these thoughts with his blog post I’m not special and it’s OK

How scary is old age?

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In which I contemplate the relative scariness of a first pregnancy and old age.

 

Preparing for old age is the scariest thing I have ever done in my life.

Scarier than gliding. Scarier than windsurfing in a gale. Scarier than reading poems to an audience of 2000. Scarier than reading poems to the Empress of Japan. Scarier than dancing on stage for the first time at the age of 66.

Scarier than preparing to have a baby far away from my family, pre-email, pre-Skype.

Old age is sort of like pregnancy

When I was pregnant far from home and family, I feared the unknown. Feared it very much. I found my own solution when I borrowed an illustrated textbook for nurses on obstetrics and mulled over every page. That’s when I discovered that I’m a Stoic, a worst-scenario kind of gal. I would study each case history, complete with sometimes terrifying photographs and ask myself, could I bear this? Or this? Or this? The climax: visualising the midwife crushing my baby’s head before it was born, because it was my life or nobody’s. Could I bear even this?

When I closed the book, I felt calm and confident. My jitters were banished by knowledge.

In some ways, I’m in a similar situation now, ignorant about what old age may entail, afraid of the unknown. So now I’m reading everything in sight and sucking up information about growing old and dying. And, as with pregnancy, I’m talking about this.

And there the similarity ends.

Being old is not like being pregnant

Because nobody says to me, “Oh how lovely, so you are getting old! And is this your first old age? When is it due? So you are going to write about old age and dying—I’m so happy for you! Congratulations! And you are going to carry on and on about it for an entire year? You plan to blog about it, write a book about it? And then you’ll die! Wonderful. I can’t wait.”

On the contrary, this is what they say.

“Why?” “Try homeopathy, then you mightn’t feel so old.” “You’re only as young as you feel.” “I don’t want to live that long. I couldn’t bear it. I’d rather be run over by a bus.”

Or there’s a deadly silence. Or a quick change of subject.

Underneath, I hear the message, “I don’t want to think about that.” And I sympathise. Of course I don’t want to think about it either. But hey, I’m a writer, and that’s what writers do when we get a bee in our bonnet.

So why is this project so scary?

Because I will (most probably) get old, and old age is not for sissies. And then I’ll die.

I have changed my attitude to dying from when I was a kid. At seven years old I horrified my mother by saying, “I can’t wait to die! It’ll be so exciting to see what happens!” I saw death as a fascinating mystery.

Now, at this moment, I am perfectly willing to wait. I’m absolutely in no hurry. I believe the process is pretty awful for most, and when the time comes I won’t necessarily find it fascinating. While curiosity is intrinsic to every writer’s character, I expect to be well beyond curiosity at the point of death.

But who knows?


Photo of my mother Celia Twyneham. She doesn’t look scared…

My boot camp for the bonus years

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In which I bully myself into making 12 lifestyle changes in a single year, to increase my health and happiness in old age and reduce the chances of getting dementia. This is an account of my personal boot camp to prepare myself for the extra years—the bonus years that we never expected or desired—the years of aging and old age. Originally published 8 August 2015 on rachelmcalpine.com

Back in January 2015  I began my personal boot camp for the bonus years: an attempt to come to terms with the future and prepare for the best possible old age.

I began idly, casually. Just another little project to amuse me, I thought. Nobody will be interested. I don’t have to take it seriously. I didn’t even begin writing the blog, Boot Camp for the bonus years, until half way through the year.

But it became real

The majority of those 12 original goals turn out to be major projects in themselves. They’re listed below, nagging me about this commitment.

I think I could achieve the 12 goals in a year, just—but do I have time to write about them too?  A topic that seemed worthy of about 500 words of discussion expands into three or four blog posts. Every challenge niggles away at my mind, setting off other trains of thought. It’s getting to be compulsive. Other projects have fallen by the wayside. Work is suffering.

No retreat from the ruthless self-demands

Well, so be it. Instead of pruning the list I’m going to push through. It doesn’t make sense to extend the boot camp for longer than a year. The goals are indeed crucial to my future well-being. In normal circumstances I would toy with perhaps one or two per year. But this is a boot camp, so I am committed. Kind of. Sort of. Maybe.

Sergeant Major: Quit the shilly shallying! Quick march!

  1. Adapt housing for old age
  2. Get finances in order
  3. Establish an exercise regime
  4. Audit eating habits
  5. Commit to hobbies
  6. Make two new friends (this year and every year)
  7. Banish ye oldie voice
  8. Learn a new skill (this year and every year)
  9. Cultivate meditation techniques
  10. Align happiness factors
  11. Be who you are
  12. Come to terms with old age and death

Boot camp articles will be republished on Write Into Life, labelled 2015 Boot Camp

Hope you like them! Lots are kind of long. If you don’t, you will quickly spot which they are, and avoid them. Deal?

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Image from Wunder, Wundergeburt und Wundergestalt in Einblattdrucken des fünfzehnten bis achtzehnten Jahrhunderts; kulturhistorische Studie (1921) Hollander, Eugene. Public domain via Internet Archive Book Images.

What to do after a big faux pas

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Bad finger made a typing error! In an email to experts in clear and correct writing!

What do you do when you make a big fat typo in an email? Blush and own it? This cannot be right — usually, least said soonest mended, surely? Well, yesterday I put my foot in it good and proper.

In 2008 I helped to establish a group called Plain English Power, and we worked hard for our goals. Eight years on, we have closed this group for various reasons. So I sent an email advising our mailing group.

Easier said than done! The software I was using refused to let me send myself a test email, fix the problems, then send a corrected version to our members. Nope: each time I had to start all over again, so it was untestable. After three attempts I got fed up and just sent the message to everybody.

And hey, the message went out to this group of hundreds of editors, proofreaders, grammarians, professors, lawyers and legislators — all experts in clear, correct business and legal writing — with this memorable subject line:

Closoing the Plain English Power group

Aaargh! I took a deep breath and hurriedly sent out a second newsletter. Here it is.

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One last typo for your delectation

Yes, our final email was called Closoing the Plain English Power group.
As a poet, I love this new onomatopoeic word, closoing.
As a plain language advocate, I deplore such carelessness.
As a disclaimer, I blame a technology problem.
As a vicar’s daughter, I say Sorry, my fault!
And as a visionary, I see this as one last message from the universe:
Just because Plain English Power is now defunct, don’t take your eye off the ball!

What would you have done?

P.S. You can see Plain English Power’s old, hand-crafted website for a little longer, until the domain dies.


Image from page 607 of “Annual report of the Bureau of ethnology to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution ..” (1881) via Internet Archive Book Images

The beautiful number: 100 (in this case, followers)

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The church (my Dad’s office) in the small village of Fairlie, where I was born. Population 100 at the time? Maybe.

A few days ago, this blog gained Follower #100. I am still savouring the moment, even though I can’t swear exactly when that moment was, and I’m even uncertain about exactly which person was the 100th follower.

“Exactly which person” — what a crazy prosopagnosic phrase, as if all readers were a blur of clones. Quite the opposite! The beauty of having only 100 followers is that I’ve looked up every one, seen your face or avatar, read many of your posts, and been delighted to receive your comments on my blog. So I can state without fear of contradiction that you (we) are all fiercely individual.

I mean, look at the avatars of the four most recent followers! Could they be any more different from each other or clearer in their individual goals? I urge you to visit their blogs and see for yourself:

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@MakeItUltraPsychology

amysimonoff

@AmySimonoff

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@MinimalistSouls

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@Miagutu

100 is a tiny village

I can celebrate this number with all modesty because it’s not 10,000 or even 1,000. It’s a friendly, human number, the sort we can imagine, a lovely number which is nevertheless within reach.

When I was doing social media stuff for my company I was puffed up with greater numbers. 5,000 email subscribers and 3,000 Twitter followers are now in someone else’s hands. Those numbers are still modest, but far too great for me to recognise as individuals.

100 people is:

  • The population of Fairlie (NZ) when I was born there in 1940 (that’s a creative but liberal estimate) — a place where every person in the village was known to every other
  • A century in cricket (or years or whatever) — caps in the air, yippee, surely that guarantees a win! (Actually not but hey.)
  • As a percentage, couldn’t be better, A+ and surely that means top of the class! (Actually not but hey.)

Thank you for being my WordPress village

My thanks not just to the latest arrivals but everyone who hangs out here now and again. You keep me going. You get me going. Right, that’s the happy 100 done and dusted — back to work, me!