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Life as Performance Art

My alma mater’s alumni office phoned me recently, seeking money of course.
The student making the cold call mentioned it had been quite a while (a few decades, really) since I had last visited the school. When I asked how he knew, he said their computer records indicated I had not been on campus.  
I said I might have made a stealth visit, but the caller doubted it because old students always stop by the alumni office, just to check in.  
“We have lots of new buildings since you were here. You helped pay for them, you should come look at them,” the student said.
No thanks. I tried going back once and it was demoralizing. As potentially interesting as it might be to see lecture halls, science labs or anything else, doing so leaves me cold. 
It is always the people connection that counts for me. By now there would be no one I knew from the past. Most of the professors have passed away; so have many of my classmates. The buildings are there but the people aren’t.
I found the same thing was true when I visited my hometown, Rochester, Minn. The wide streets and big buildings were impressive, but I found them soulless.
The people connections were gone. “Madame Blue Hair”who sold dresses at a fashion store died years ago. So did the manager of Woolworths. 
Newton Holland, who stood outside his restaurant that bore the sign “We’d gladly hear about your operation, but not while we’re eating,” is long gone. After he died the restaurant was sold and renamed “Newts.” I am sure patrons think it is named after an amphibious animal.
The older we get the harder it is to maintain connections as we don’t have as many ways to maintain relationships. Friends start dying off; getting together with those still alive means negotiating through a calendar filled with an endless cycle of medical appointments.
A couple we know moved to the Villages of Florida, a vast retirement complex, where they could enjoy warm winters, endless golf, fascinating restaurants and nonstop activities. The promotional materials emphasized all the those friendships they could make.
Six months later they realized the complex should have been called “Groundhogs Day Village” because, like the movie, every day was the same. Even the notices were the same; every few days a new message listed names of the latest “Friends we have lost.” 
“Funeral receptions and organ recitals,” one elder friend noted. “Every time we meet someone for lunch we end up talking about this or that (bodily) organ that isn’t working right. It gets old real fast.”
The more we age, the more we need friendships that are harder to maintain. Surviving in a friendship desert takes creativity.
I asked a half-century-long acquaintance what he did about it. “I moved back to northern Minnesota,” he said. “Friendships are easy. You’ve got built-in conversation starters.
“In winter you can stop by a diner or coffee shop to talk about the brutal weather. The rest of the year you’ve got mosquitoes, road repair, lousy fishing or how the Twins can’t play baseball,” he continued.
“And in the fall, you’ve got lutefisk dinners and local bars’ meat auctions. By then it’s Christmas and you start all over. 
“Just keep talking to people. You can always do that over ham buns and potato salad at funeral receptions, even if you don’t know who died. Just turn up and you’re welcome.”
Another older fellow got his short-wave radio license and learned Morse Code to connect with people around the country. When the “skip” is right, he can connect with people around the world.
Apparently he’s not the only one. The American Relay Radio League notes since the pandemic their membership has swelled, with many ham operators preferring the archaic Morse Code instead of voice. Learning the complexity of the dots and dashes, gradually building up speed, is good for the mind and pays off with new connections. 
My twist on this, for men at least, is different. The first rule: Never retire. Retirement it is a slippery slope to becoming an old grouch who wanders around the house in jockey shorts and a ratty t-shirt, and losing connection with a razor. That’s the shortcut to taking up permanent residency six feet under.
Back in Rochester years ago, I ran into a physician a little older than me who retired. In due course his daughter died of cancer, then his wife passed away.
In his mid-70s he went back to work in the hospital research laboratory. Five mornings a week he puts on his suit, button-down shirt and tie, loads his briefcase, and goes off to work.
“It isn’t that I’m making any new discoveries,” he told me. “But I know I’m doing something productive that takes the load off some of the younger crowd.” He looks and acts younger than his years because of it.
He has a reason for getting up in the morning, out of the house and connecting with people at work. A meaningful life leads to better health and happiness.

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