What I Have Learned So Far: Life Lessons, Part I


Long ago my maternal grandfather told me he missed the boat on his 1912 journey to the USA, trying to sail from England to America. He was late for the Titanic. My mom heard this in her own childhood, decades before movies like Titanic made such stories more common.

Grandpa was a warm, dashing, multilingual man; originally from Romania: the loving and lovable grandfather of one’s dreams. Leo Fabian was easy to look up to; and not only because he was over 6′ tall, slender, straight-backed, and imposing in an era of men of more modest presence. Grandpa owned a wonderful, rascally smile and enough charm to enchant a small village, a bit like Harold Hill in The Music Man. He was the life of the party.

Soon enough I learned that alcohol had been a nemesis never defeated, ruining him in the eyes of his son and much of the world. By the time I was a teen I saw my grandfather hungover, chagrined, and shrunken. My last memory of him is when he offered a weakened, but still welcoming smile for me, his oldest grandchild, from his hospital bed.

Of course, he was a story-teller. No surprise, the Titanic tale was unverifiable.

I think my informal education began with observations of Grandpa, who unintentionally provided me with lessons he never intended to teach. I learned that people with admirable qualities, even those full of love and humanity, can be grievously flawed. Moreover, I realized you can’t believe everything you are told, no matter how much you admire the teller. These were necessary lessons, cruel lessons.

We are carried through life in a flood of such instructions, some needful of learning, some wrong; some unlearned, never learned, or learned badly. All of us are lifelong students enrolled in the school of experiences, a university whose classes are taught in the midst of a vast river: now calmly flowing, now surging. Drop out and avoid experiences at your peril: little learning is found below deck, where the beautiful, sunny, glorious days on the water will also be missed. No perfect grades, either, even for those of us who man the sails and survive the episodes of seasickness.


Since I’ve been on the voyage for a while I thought it might be useful to pass along some ideas not expressly taught, not usually written, and not often offered as sage advice. This is not exhaustive and not everything you will read here can be proven. Still, I began this blog with the idea of presenting ideas about life for my children and I now have a grandson who might profit from them (or run screaming into the night believing elders are best ignored). Here, then, for whatever value you assign, are off-beat bits of what I think I know:

  • I have met no one I thought to be completely evil, evil 24/7. We’d have an easier time identifying them if they were. Indeed, some of the least trustworthy folks were quite charming and generous. The world is full of gray tones. Still, dark gray is to be avoided.
  • Life lessons are often age-dependent. The lessons of youth apply to that time, the lessons of age to another time. Just as the customs of one country differ from another and must be used in the right place and moment, one should acquire the knowledge applicable to the period of life in which you live and use it in a timely way. Perhaps our learning ought to come with a “use by” date. Beware of employing old, once effective strategies which now fail with some regularity. We cannot “freeze dry” our lives. We must continue to adapt.
  • “Some people are so busy learning the tricks of the trade that they never learn the trade.” So said Vernon Law, the best pitcher in baseball in 1960 and a member of the World Series Champion 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Fame, that is to say “celebrity,” is fleeting. Ask Vernon Law, still alive at 86. I’ll bet you don’t know his name unless you were a baseball fan 50 years ago or live in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, I’d have loved to spend one day in Willie Mays’s skin in his prime, a contemporary of Mr. Law. I’m sure I’d immediately have become addicted to the excitement and adulation.

13 Oct 1960, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- 10/13/1960-Pittsburgh, PA: Photo shows the seventh game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vernon Law, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, is shown in mid-pitch action. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” And just think, Oscar Wilde wrote this before Kim Kardashian was born.
  • If you believe everybody should be able to reason his way out of a paper bag, remember that half of the population has an IQ score below 100.
  • “If you want revenge, be sure to dig two graves.” An old Italian expression about the cost of undiminished anger.
  • The older you get the more time you spend on maintenance. Your body requests nothing when young, quietly obeying your every command, but recording your debt to it. The bill comes due later. By 29 I had to stretch before softball games. As I approached the age at which my dad had a heart attack (47) I began regular aerobic exercise to stay in shape. Stretching by now was a time-consuming daily event. Doctor visits, instances of physical rehabilitation, and occasional surgery enter the picture for many of us, jamming up the schedule. All of this happens gradually, little things accumulate. The change is both astonishing (because you didn’t think it would happen to you) and unremarkable (because you adjust to most of the nicks, scratches, and dents). Things wear out, something you knew abstractly, but hadn’t yet lived. Then you begin to have regular conversations with your friends frontloaded with physical concerns. You hear yourself making comments like this:

“The funniest thing happened yesterday, Steve. I was relaxing in front of the TV and — in the middle of everything — my nose fell off. Lucky for me, I caught it on the way down. A little glue and it looks like new, right?”

Of course, what is Steve going to say? That is, if he is able to speak. I wish I could pinpoint the exact date I turned into this person — like, perhaps, Tuesday, March 8 — but I can’t.

  • Even so, you will still think of yourself as about 20% younger than your real age (assuming you are over 40), perhaps explaining the frequent mismatch between the way people dress or wear their hair and what might be considered “age-appropriate.”
  • We are poor at affective forecasting: predicting our future feelings. An example: “When I make $10,000 more I’ll be happy.” Ask those who have won the lottery for the answer.
  • We are also bad at affective forecasting when it comes to negative events. Given enough time we tend to get over things. However, you might not want to wait months or years. The profession of psychotherapy depends on this, in part. There are also countless exceptions when no amount of waiting will lift you to a higher altitude. Psychotherapy is available for this, as well.
  • Some people, almost always men, succeed in life because they are like blunt objects with eyes, who see a door and keep banging on it until the door finally collapses. A number of women marry such a man thinking he will protect them. They admire his persistence or give in to his unrelenting will, though they aren’t emotionally drawn to him. You will also notice many of his kind on the political stage.


  • Look around you. If you think we humans are rational at all times you haven’t been paying attention. By the way, you are human, therefore …
  • On the other hand, if we were absolutely rational we would be machines: I’d rather have love, even at the cost of heartbreak; joy, even at the cost of disappointment; pleasure at the cost of pain.
  • Time will change you or at least it should. More even than learning from experience, the body and brain do their own shape-shifting and gradually alter who you are. Some of what passes for wisdom is simply getting older, inhabiting a different physique with an altered mix of chemicals running around.
  • No matter how intelligent or physically attractive you are, a number of people won’t want to spend time with you. You will likely believe this is your fault. “Maybe I’m not funny enough, smart enough, well-proportioned enough,” you think to yourself. More often than you imagine, however, it is just because you part your hair the way their father did, a factor of which even they are unaware. Transference is everywhere, not only in the therapist’s office.
  • We all need some amount of compartmentalization and denial. Otherwise life is simply too much. Within limits, the ability to lose yourself in an activity as simple as reading a book or having fun at a party is a great gift. Self-consciousness, being preoccupied with your thoughts about yourself, demands an escape.
  • Sunny days can turn cloudy. I learned to look back and figure out when exactly my mood changed and thus determine what bummed me out. Unravel your discontent early enough in the day and you will sleep better.
  • If you provide friends with too much truth about themselves you are in danger of losing them. Provide them with too little, however, and they aren’t worth having and you aren’t being a good friend.
  • I discovered the generation gap around age 26. Lecturing at Rutgers University I mentioned Adlai Stevenson II. The statesman had died only about eight years before. Stevenson was twice the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and remained a prominent international figure at the time of his death. No one in the large lecture hall of undergraduates knew who he was. These days I find myself spending more time explaining what I’m talking about when I refer to the past.
  • A Bulgarian patient once said, “In the United States people live to work. In Bulgaria we work to live.”
  • I’m still learning. A Thursday night PBS interview of Vice President Joe Biden offered the following anecdote. Judy Woodruff asked him about his plans after leaving public service. Biden referred to issues about which he was still passionate and for which he intended to continue his work:

My dad had an expression: ‘A lucky person (is someone who) gets up in the morning, puts both feet on the floor, knows what he is about to do, and thinks it still matters.’

Biden remains, despite enormous life losses and setbacks, a happy man. By his father’s standard, he is lucky, indeed.

The top photo is The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. Taken in 1907, it is among the most famous photographs in history. The lowest class accommodation was literally the lowest on the ship and those who were “upper class” did, literally, look down on you. My grandfather likely took his voyage on such a ship, but I have no idea where he was situated on the boat. The second image is called Life Buoy, the work of Shirley. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Seven Signs of Getting Older (on the Wretched Road to Decrepitude)

A Toast

I thought of calling this essay “The secret signs of aging that THEY won’t tell you about.” I figured that might engage the conspiracy theorists out there. TRUST NO ONE, as The X-Files used to remind us.

Still, I hope that you will trust me enough to treat what follows as a public service designed to inform you of some little-discussed, but tell-tale signs that your body is heading in a direction from which there is no return.

Why am I doing this? I don’t want you to be taken by surprise when decrepitude finally arrives. It happened to my mom in just that way. One day, past middle-age, she looked at her face in the mirror and heard herself uttering, “When did this happen?”

Of course, some of the more obvious signs of aging are well-known. Things like losing your hair, going gray, loss of muscle tone, and increasingly “jiggly” body parts are already represented in popular culture as danger signals. So are wrinkles, age spots, a tendency toward a thickening of the mid-section, memory issues and so forth. So I’m going to deal only with those things that are a bit less obvious.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Becoming invisible. As a kid I enjoyed watching reruns of the movies that were based on the H.G. Wells tale The Invisible Man. Eventually, however, I discovered that no secret formula was required in order to achieve this apparently non-material state. Germaine Greer described it in a 1993 book called The Change. She was referring mostly to women, but it applies, to a lesser extent, to men as well. Simply put, if you are someone who has historically drawn the gaze of others because of your fetching appearance, eventually that stops, usually earlier than you were expecting. Instead of turning the heads of others, they now walk past you with hardly a look. You have become invisible. Your age is showing.
  2. The descent. Your body parts are on the move, like an infantry in retreat. Breasts, butts, jowls, double-chins, and even your height are slowly succumbing to the superior force of the opposing army, otherwise known as gravity. The direction of their path is toward “The Underworld” as the ancient Greeks used to call it. We usually refer to it as “six-feet under.”
  3. The generation gap. I started teaching at Rutgers when I was 25 in 1972. I can recall a moment in my first year there, lecturing a group of 19 or 20 year-olds. For some reason I brought up the name Adlai Stevenson II. No one had any idea who I was talking about. Yet Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, and famously confronted the Russians at the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, only 10 years before. Yes, he died in 1965, but most Americans my age would have known who he was. In that moment, I realized that there was a body of knowledge that I could no longer naively assume I shared with those younger than I. As you might have noticed yourself, it eventually grows to cover lots of ground, with you knowing about things that are older, and younger people knowing about things that are newer. Movies, music, and TV shows are among the areas of information that seem to overlap less and less. Familiarity with historical events and technology also inhabit this divide, separating you from the growing group of people who were born after you.
  4. Betrayals of the body.  There is way too much territory here to cover fully, but let me give you a sense of what is in store for some of you. Your body will begin to inform you that its performance of actions you have taken for granted, does, in fact, take some effort. You are likely to discover that you actually have knees and that their job isn’t easy. Some aches and pains here and there tend to creep in, particularly involving your back. By middle-age, arthritis isn’t unusual, although it can be quite mild. Your nose and ears can begin to look bigger. If you are a man, shaving your face eventually becomes more of a challenge because the contours of your face change, leaving tiny hills and valleys that resist your effort to scrape them smooth of stubble. Your skin is likely to get drier. Sense of balance can decline. Many of both sexes encounter the need to urinate more frequently and find themselves scouting out public washrooms just in case. Yikes!
  5. How People Treat You. I remember taking my daughter Carly to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 50, asking for two tickets, and being given a “senior discount” automatically by the young cashier — well before I was actually a senior. Young people, when they notice you at all, will see you as ancient by the time you are 40. Not long after, they will begin to refer to you as “sir” or “ma’am.” In the grocery check-out line, even middle-aged cashiers will ask whether you need help carrying the groceries to your car. I realize that some of this kind attention is given simply as a matter of course even to those who are younger. But, regardless of how fit you are, it will remind you of the fact that you are no “spring chicken.” And, just in case you are a checker at the grocery market, I’d like to let you know that I do indeed need some help. The help I need is to stop being asked if I need help!
  6. Sleep disturbance. You are at an increased risk of having trouble sleeping. This is actually much reported, so you can find the details elsewhere.
  7. The evening out. No, I’m not talking about a night on the town. This item refers to the changes in physical appearance that cause people to begin to look more alike. It is pretty scary really. Some male faces begin to look more like the female kind, with or without the addition of “man boobs” a little lower down. Some women’s faces look less different from those of men, even to the point of facial hair growth and thinning hair on top of the head. Perhaps worst of all, people who were once movie-star beautiful eventually discover that their declining level of pulchritude makes them less distinguishable from those who were never good-looking. I guess Mother Nature figures that the unfair advantage of beauty is just on loan, not a permanent gift.

Now that I’ve described these lesser-known signs of aging, I’ve gotta ask you a question. Why did you want to know? If you are young, whatever that is, you almost certainly don’t really believe you will ever become aged. And, if you are old, well, you probably already know the secrets I’ve mentioned. But, what good, at either period — young or old — does it do to know this stuff?

Yes, if you are young, perhaps you will take better care of yourself because you give some thought to your body’s future. And, consideration of your physical destiny will remind you to develop sources of self-definition, pleasure, and meaning other than the glorious state of your face and physique. Still, decrepitude is a “bigger than life” opponent who tends to have his way. There is little you can do to fend off time’s offending hand.

I suppose you can put the information above in the category of “the examined life.” I’m usually in agreement with Socrates on the matter of the unexamined life not being worth living. But, I’ll tell you what, your unexamined physical future is probably best left hidden under a rock most of the time. Like the thread on the sweater that begs to be pulled, a preoccupation with such things is pretty destructive. Believe me, you don’t want to imagine a day when you will ask your lawn care service to add the trimming of your lengthening nose hair to their weekly task of cutting the grass.

The top image, called Everyone’s Invited, is the work of SuicideGirls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.