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On Reaching My Mid-Point in Life

February 18, 2001

Topics In This Journal Entry:

[You're How Old? Sixty?] [Looking Back] [A Sense of Wonder]
[Leaving a Trace] [Looking Forward]

"May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you're going, and the insight to know when you're going too far."

Traditional Irish Blessing

You're How Old? Sixty?

There have only been a couple of definitive birthdays in my life. When I turned 16 and could get my driver's license. When I turned 21 and could buy beer legally (although I was rarely "carded" from the time I was 18). And, I'd have to admit - turning 60 this year was a landmark.

My 30th, 40th, and 50th birthdays were not a real big deal. On reaching 40, it was fun to have Penny bring a cake into the office topped by a small rocking chair, and all the good-natured ribbing from everyone. But I didn't feel any different physically, and I was very much into the "building your career stage" of my life emotionally.

Turning 60 was a little different, however. I was finally, officially, an old fahrt! When I had talked with my brother Emery on his 60th birthday, it was a big event for him. Now it was my turn, and it came home to me that reaching 60 years on this earth really was a significant milestone in my life.

The kids were over for my birthday dinner, and Jim and Allen brought out the birthday cake blazing with birthday candles!

"Hurry up and blow them out!" Allen said "They're melting the frosting!"

There were so many candles on the cake
that they set off the smoke detector!

And indeed they were. Because there were so many, the first candles that they had lighted were nearly burnt down. The frosting on the cake was covered with melted wax, and the frosting was running all together. They sat the cake and candles in front of me, and I started, carefully, to try and blow out the conflagration without setting my beard on fire. Just when I had about made it, the smoke alarm in the pantry went off!

Well, I didn't seem to think all of this was so damned funny - but everyone else did. I finished blowing the candles out, took the battery out of the smoke detector, and cut the cake. I made sure they all got a large portion of melted wax and puddled frosting - served 'em right. Making fun of an old fahrt! Wait till they get to be this old!

Looking Back

Penny asked if I were going to write a Journal Entry about reaching my 60th, and what it all means to me. Knocking around all these years I have found some things that are important to me in life and a lot of things that are just not worth the trouble to worry about. So here we go, with the aid of several quotations from people who have done the journey ahead of me.

On balance, life so far has been pretty much a fun trip. I've had much more than my "15 minutes" of fame and have found it greatly overrated. A lot of the praise has pleased but also embarrassed me, and inside I felt I really didn't deserve it. On the other hand, the criticism and scorn hurt, and I didn't feel that it was deserved either. I suppose that infamy is as thrilling as fame. How do you gracefully respond when your caricature is featured in a critical cartoon on the editorial page of the state-wide daily newspaper? Smile, shrug it off, head down and charge ahead with what you think is right? The bottom line is whether or not you feel, inside yourself, that you've done your best in whatever you've tried your hand at, and the world is at least a tiny bit better because of it.

My approach to life is like a set of double doors. Ever been to an event and been in line to exit the concert hall or building only to find that everyone is lined up to exit through one of two perfectly good exit doors? I am the guy that goes to the head of the line, opens the other door that isn't being used, and goes through it. Sometimes that starts a line of people behind me going through the second door - sometimes it doesn't, and everyone continues to wait in line to use the first door. I've always been like that - trying to find another way to approach life other than the one that everyone else is using. Sometimes that works, and sometimes I get slapped down for being radical and different.

My life has rarely been dull, either because of what it has dished out to me or due to my own curiosity. The owner's manual for life doesn't say that you have options. You can sit back and let things come at you, and then deal with them as best you can. Or, you can take some modicum of control and try and direct your journey. I've done a little of both, but I really can't tell you which has worked out the best for me.

Sometimes my major career path decisions have been made on a whim. When I elected to continue on in college with ROTC after the first two obligatory years I embarked on a 9+ year journey where my options were few. I chose to enter the Air Force, primarily because their recruiting brochure was more colorful than the Army's. The $29 a month stipend that the Air Force paid while I was in ROTC in my junior and senior years was the difference between peanut butter sandwiches and hamburgers, and I rather enjoyed the drills and military history. The three-year committment turned into nine+ years and assignments all over the country and the world, in a career field that was interesting and rewarding.

Leaving the service to pursue different careers in the environmental field following Earth Day was another career choice which has led to some fascinating jobs. Some were very rewarding, like the early Environmental Impact Statement work with the Federal Power Commission in Washington DC, the environmental enforcement work with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and working as part of the Michigan Geological Survey. Others taxed my spirit but developed my character and hopefully improved my people skills, like the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department job.

Answering the call of the head hunter to go to California has led to the roller coaster trip that I am now embarked on with my day job. The rewards and job satisfaction greatly outweigh the other side of the job, and it continues to be a learning experience.

And the other choices down life's path? Sometimes they are almost serendipitous, like getting into the old book business or getting signed up as a Boy Scout leader. Others are more deliberate, like searching for our new home in Maine. Jimmy Buffet's "A Pirate Looks at Fifty" is his prose introspection of life. Rod McKuen captures his in this poem:

"I gave and I received.
As is the way of such things,
more doors opened than were closed.
As decades die and are reborn
few years come down in a different way."

Verse from poem "Fifty/Fifty", Rod McKuen, The Sounds of Solitude. Cheval Books, Harper & Row, NY, 1983.

Perhaps a more earthy approach was intended by Stan Rogers when he wrote the "Mary Ellen Carter". It is one of my favorite folk songs - not just for the melody, but for the message. Schooner Fair and others also sing this classic. They suggest that a good subtitle to the song should be "Don't let the buggers get you down". All I know is that there have been times in life, usually following my various "15 minutes of fame", when Stan's lyrics were taken to heart:

"And you to whom adversity has dealt a final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go.
Turn to and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again."

Verse from song "The Mary Ellen Carter", Stan Rogers, Fogarty's Cove Music P.R.O.C.

I have learned that the relationships we develop in life are probably the most important thing we have. Long-term relationships that continue for years are precious and are to be treasured. Even a fleeting relationships sometimes can deeply affect you and can have profound effects on your life. In my sixty years, I've lived at 23 different addresses in 11 states and 3 countries - I've met lots of interesting, diverse people.

I have been fortunate in my life to call many of them good friends. Like, for example, friends that feel comfortable in sharing their joys and pain with you, and will listen to yours without judgement or lectures. Friends to share fun times with - from sharing a passion for good wine or music, a commitment to a cause or program, to fishing or to just sitting around a campfire drinking moonshine and solving life's problems. Friends and buddies who you haven't seen for years, but when you connect again you take up where you left off, as if there hadn't been a gap. And friends to share the challenges that Mother Nature throws at you, without whining or complaining when the trail is steep, the load heavy, or the wind wet and cold.

And then are the true loves of life. The kind of love that makes an imprint on your soul that is never erased, and is to be treasured. Sure, raw primitive sex is great, and satisfied lust is even better! But requited love - that is the best of all. Now I'm not talking about just a passionate, tumultous fling that is over as soon as you both cool down, but a long-term committment of your heart to someone who knows your warts and foibles and still loves you...sometimes in spite of them, and sometimes because of them.

I have been very fortunate to have loved and been loved in return. I wrote these words more than 20 years ago to try to say what I feel.....

"Love comes
- and loves goes.
And then,
if you're lucky,
Love comes again
- and stays for awhile
- and brightens
- and makes life all right again

God, thank you
for having let me be so very lucky."

Allen Crabtree, poem from "Our Love". Privately published, 1979

Penny and I have been married now for more than 20 years, and she is a wonderful wife. I have been very lucky - I hope she feels the same way as well. We share a mutual passion for old books, and things that are genuine and real. We have many tastes in common, and have found that we work well together in the book business. The list of things in life that we share is satisfying long, but she also gives me slack to pursue the strange things that I like to do on my own or with my buddies.

And what have I learned, in sixty years of career and personal ups and downs? And how has this shaped my philosphy of life? Retain a "sense of wonder" and leave something behind for others to share.

A Sense of Wonder

There's not much you can do to keep from physically growing old, although you can hopefully keep it at arm's length for awhile. However, keeping a mind open to new ideas and challenges, and always seeking what is on the other side of the hill - these are the elements of keeping mentally young.

I am not ashamed to admit that I have, on occasion, borrowed small children from friends to use as camouflage. You, as an adult, would get funny looks if you were to ride on "Mr Toad's Wild Ride" at Disney World by yourself. If you have a small child with you, however, then all of a sudden you are a devoted father, or uncle, or grandparent. I've worked my way through several theme parks using this technique - I enjoyed being a kid, and so did my young friends. The ruse works for kiddy movies as well.

"...each child in the world [should receive] a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder. Harper and Row, NY, 1956

Until I read Rachel Carson's "A Sense of Wonder", I thought that I was unique in clinging to a child's outlook on much of life. She helped me understand that this is a desireable, not wierd, outlook to have on life. This work was published after her death and I can't help speculate what it would have developed into had she completed it.

I'm sure that she would have wanted to differentiate a wide-eyed wonder from helpless naivety or gullibility. You can have a sense of wonder, but also be savvey to the scams of the world. You can accept people at their face value, seeking to understand the good that is within them, and not get hung-up on their past deeds and your perhaps negative first impression.

I was a lot cuter
when I was little

Paul Tournier had a slightly different approach to Rachel Carsen's "Sense of Wonder". He felt that having an active curiosity about all things was an attribute that we had when we were young, and then pushed aside with the demands of career and family. Then, once we were more mature, we could bring this out and dust it off, and begin again. He said:

"In youth we must interest ourselves in what we do, in order to become competent; in old age, we can interest ourselves in everything, in order to become more human. We rediscover the particular flavour of all those things we have tended to forget, even the flavour of existing, of living, different from the taste of action."

Paul Tournier, Learn to Grow Old. SCM Press Ltd, London, 1972

Both these folks have good advice - we are never more alive to life than when we look at things through the eyes of a child. And that is true whether we are 6 or 60!

Leaving a Trace

There are so many stories to tell that are all spinning around inside my head, and so many neat things that are going on and/or that I've experienced - I feel as if I'll never have the time to get them down on paper. And I feel a need and an urgency to do so, just to satisfy myself. I've always been a story teller, and I've written poetry and short stories. But it is only fairly recent that I've started to write things out on a somewhat regular basis to share with folks.

I envy writers that are disciplined. Stewart Edward White, for example, had such a passion for writing that he arose every morning at 4 am and wrote for several hours on his novel "The Riverman" before he had to begin work at Camp 22 in the Michigan woods for the day. I have never been that displined - I've never even made an attempt to keep a diary. However, I did find that I could focus for a specific event. On all my major outings and treks I have been consistent in keeping a journal of the trip. I've done so for our backpacking trips to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, complete with photos and songs I've written for the expedition. Also, for canoe trips to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, and my tour with the U.S. Forest Service to Oregon to cruise timber and fight forest fires. These are wonderful snapshots in time for me, and bring back wonderful memories when I read them. I also generally take photos to illustrate them, and the combination of words and images brings these times alive again.

Why bother? In trying to piece together the genealogy of the Crabtree clan, I have been impressed with the fact that we are only as immortal as the words that we leave behind us. When we are gone, will we be remembered by the bare bones of "born, married, died"? Or will folks have a little meat to add to the bones, and learn about what type of person we were, what was important to us, and what we have done?

I remember help writing the eulogy for my father's funeral and his obituary. With all the time away from home in the service and at jobs around the country, I had more questions about his life than knowledge - and now it was too late to ask. It was fortunate that he had sent to me as a Christmas present the year before two reels of tape with stories of his life. I learned from these stories about what sort of man he was, how he had dealt with life as he was growing up, and what he felt about things. From these stories, I was able to finish the eulogy and obituary, and pull together a collection of stories (See Uncle Charlie's Tapeworm) about my father's life growing up in Effingham, NH. I would still like to ask him questions about himself, but at least he has left behind this irreplaceable legacy for his children and grandchildren.

If I wanted my children to know something about me and my life, then I would need to do leave a trace. So, I started writing the Maine Farmhouse Journals about the renovation and our life in Sebago. These are by no means classic literature, nor eloquent commentaries. They are just my views on life and the simple things of living.

I have found that they are not as easy to write as I thought that they would - the joys and frustrations of renovating an old farm house, and dealing with bats and ladybugs and other visitors to the farmhouse, living in Maine - don't always come out with the spark and fire that they should. Then I read this passage by one of my favorite Maine authors - and I felt a bit better:

"It is unfortunately true that the writer seldom does what he wants to do; he only does the best he can. Within his heart and mind are feelings and ideas which he wishes to convey; which, indeed he must at least attempt to convey, since he acts under a real compulsion which he cannot deny and remain whole. These ideas may not be important to anyone else, but they are important enough tothe writer so that he is willing to spend a great deal of time and energy...on their proper expression, in order that they may be shared with others. Usually he is only partly successful, and that is what makes writing, much of the time, a painful and frustrating occupation; the fact that the product of the labor, in cold print, falls so short of the living, glowing concept."

Louise Dickinson Rich, My Neck of the Woods. Lippincott, NY, 1950

And so, if you will put up with my very-far-from-perfect efforts, I'll continue writing these observations on life as I see it. Thank you all for your kind words.

Looking Forward

You probably thought the title of this piece was a little presumptive - do I really think I'm going to live for another 60 years? Palmists have told me that I have an extremely long life line, and with modern medicine finding a cure for everything - who knows? But you know, if I believed that I was old now and was going to pass over in 10 or 20 years, I'm afraid that it could be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Look at the concept like the folks who split wooden blocks in two pieces with their bare hands. They don't concentrate on the surface of the block, but on a point through it. It works for them - why shouldn't you mentally age yourself the same way?

"...real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring."

May Sarton, At Seventy - A Journal. Norton, NY, 1984

May Sarton lived more than a decade longer than these words. Her philosophy fit her at 70 and at 80, and also a youngster like me at 60 just fine. Learning from your past and using your life experience to make the future smoother is just good common sense. There is nothing wrong in remembering your past - both the triumphs and failures - so long as you don't dwell on them. But I think Sarton's point is that we can too easily dwell in the past at the expense of today and tomorrow. The past is a bit like Brer Rabbit's tar baby - easy to get caught up in.

So what do I want to do when I grow up (if I ever do, that is)? I have a mental "life list" of things that I add to from time to time when something sounds interesting that I'd like to do. Some are whims that get added and acted upon quickly, others rattle around in my head for years. Every year I make a conscious effort to check off at least one or two items from the list.

Some are wonderful experiences that will be repeated. Others are worth the effort, but one time only. And others are disagreeable and certainly won't be revisited. For example, over the years I've been certified as an EMT to try and be useful, and found that saving lives is an indescribable high - and losing someone is a wrenching experience. I've teamed up with a good buddy and gone to the arctic and to the sagebrush country of Utah muledeer hunting, and further cemented a bond created over many years. With other fishing buddies I've fly fished some of the big rivers of the west - and whetted my appetite for more. On a whim, a friend and I snowshoed to the top of Mt Chocorua one December 31 to be the last people on top that year.

And the list goes on...I learned to rock climb and rappel, created a couple of websites and learned HTML, rediscovered downhill skiing, read a wide variety of books on all subjects, gone wilderness canoeing, dug into the family history, taken Scouts to Philmont several times, bought a farm and raised our own critters and crops, wandered through the swamps of northern NH at night to radio collar moose, snuck into Laos and talked my way into a helicopter overflight along The Wall in Berlin, drove all the way from Eagle to Grand Rapids in a state of ecstacy, hiked in the fog from Lakes of the Clouds Hut up to the summit of Mt Washington one night for a candy bar, sat in awe listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City many times, made love on a blanket on the beach, hiked into the "lunch rocks" and watched the headwall skiers in Tuckerman's Ravine, had good friends over for Guy Fawkes bonfires, wrote poetry and had it published, took Penny to Barbra Streisand's "farewell" concert, been hypnotized, travelled to England's Lakes Region, spent a week on a fishing boat on the Atlantic sampling shrimp populations, professionally set up and shot fireworks shows, visited a hot springs/nudist colony, ate haggis in Scotland, sat up all night to watch the Northern Lights, picked morel mushrooms, went to a concert at Max Yasgir's Farm at Woodstock, ..... Some were fun, some were not - but every one was an experience I wouldn't have missed.

There are usually an item or two that gets dropped from the list from time to time. I am no longer interested in learning how to hang glide, but parasailing and gliding are still on the list. Skydiving never was on the list - the idea of jumping out of an airplane while it is still working always was a little strange to me. Bungee jumping wasn't even a momentary candidate for the list.

Still active on my list - re-establish a close relationship with God, learn enough Italian to order a glass of wine, travel to Sicily, learn to play the dulcimer, go fly fishing in Patagonia and New Zealand, return to Vietnam as a tourist, start tieing flies, get back into sailing, try to learn to like opera, get back in touch with our old neighbors in Eaton Rapids, build a wine cellar, travel to Vienna for the New Year's Straus festival, buy a digital camera, write a book about my privateer ancestor Capt Agreen Crabtree, visit my Danish relations again and this time go to the national July 4th festival, pick fiddleheads, write more poetry, travel to Ireland and follow my Irish grandfather's roots, run for an elected office, teach a college course, sail the Maine coast and visit the islands, finally catch a striped bass on a fly rod (after a lot of unsuccessful effort), learn to recognize the local bird songs, run the Grand Canyon in a rubber raft, learn to SCUBA dive, go on a cruise to the Alaska glaciers, get my trumpet cleaned and start playing it again, take up sea kyaking, .......

Some of these are "go to" things, some are "to do" things, and some are "relationship" things - but all represent enough to keep me busy and active for more years than I probably will be given on this green earth. When I run out of things on my "life list" I'll probably be boring and ready to be planted.

So many trout streams -
so little time!

Maybe with all the quotes I've thrown out above, the one that probably captures my philosophy of life is in the box below. I've bastarized it from Peter Pan - he really said something like "...and I'm never going to grow up!" Now, no one with working vision is ever going to physically confuse me with Peter Pan. There is something wonderful, however, in trying to emulate Peter's enthusiasm about life.

Even if I tried I don't think that I could ever age into an old curmudgeon with a surly outlook on life and nothing good to say about anyone. Get grouchy sometimes? - sure, but it doesn't ever last long. Sometimes it is real hard not to look at life from the half-empty side of the glass, but I don't see much profit in it. And, I've been pretty lucky as far as really rough times go. But I'd rather think that there is always "a pony in here somewhere" with all the crap that life sometimes dumps on us.

If being old and crusty is growing up, then I don't want to ever do so. Keeping the outlook of Peter Pan suits me just fine. Naive? - sure. Foolish and undignified? - you betcha. Besides, with a grin on your face people will always look at you and wonder just what is so damned funny - and you never have to tell 'em! Take Peter Pan's advice:

"Grow Up? There is no rule that says you ever have to grow up!"

Peter Pan, slightly modified from J. M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy. Scribner's, NY, 1911.

[Top of Page] [Looking Back] [A Sense of Wonder]
[Leaving a Trace] [Looking Forward]

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated May 7, 2001

Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree