Become a Docent – Tuesday Tip – February 27, 2018

If you love learning—and teaching—becoming a docent may be the perfect retirement activity for you.  What is a docent?  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a docent as “a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery.”  It’s typically a volunteer role, and docent service opportunities exist at museums and galleries, but also at historical landmarks and other places visited by the public across the United States.    

The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

If you’re passionate about a subject, going back to “school” for rigorous docent training is a great way to add to your knowledge and get you ready to share what you’ve learned with others.  To give you a taste of the range of opportunities out there, here are brief descriptions of three docent programs at different places and at different types of institutions:

Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Incline Village, Nev. – Docent here “help visitors to have an entertaining, educational experience through which they will learn about Lake Tahoe and environmental problems affecting it.  Our program offers docents unlimited opportunities for enrichment, public outreach, and personal satisfaction.”  TERC’s Docent Program Description gives a good overview of what being a docent entails.

Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Ga. – Volunteering as a docent at the Center for Civil and Human Rights “not only exemplifies your support and commitment to human rights but also provides you with the opportunity to contribute to the enriching experience of visitors and members.”  Many docents here are veterans of the civil rights movement.

Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minn. – If you want docent training that sounds like the equivalent of getting a postgraduate degree, this may be the place for you.  At MIA, “docents are enthusiastic, creative, self-motivated volunteers who have excellent communication skills and a desire to interact with people of all ages. The required two-year study course trains volunteers to conduct inquiry-based, participatory tours of the museum’s permanent collection and special exhibitions. Weekly sessions focus on the history of art with emphasis on the museum’s collection, and on teaching techniques that actively engage tour participants. Assignments include readings, oral presentations, and several hours of preparation outside of class. Those who complete the program are asked to give 40 tours per year for a minimum of three years. A college degree or college-level coursework and/or art history classes are recommended but not required.”

Docent service is a great way to interact with people, and to keep your brain sharp and active in retirement.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” – Book Review

Can we learn about healthy aging and retirement from a novel?  What do the very oldest among us have to teach those of us who are newly retired or on the cusp of retirement?  “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old,” published in The Netherlands in 2014 and in the United States in 2017, is a tender, darkly funny account of a year in the life of a Dutch retirement home resident, full of lessons about friendship, aging, death, and life.

“The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, Grand Central Publishing, 2017, 377 pages

Hendrik Groen, the diary keeper (and the book’s pseudonymous author) begins his diary on January 1, 2013, and completes an entry almost daily for the entire year.  Plot lines—one romantic and another political—fizzle before they can fully develop, suggesting perhaps the limited possibilities for sustained drama at this stage of life rather than being a structural weakness.  The book instead finds its structure in the natural tragic arc of a year that begins in the winter, proceeds through spring, summer, and fall, and ends in a second winter.  Over the course of the year Hendrik feels the stirring of new love, comments wryly on the foibles of old age and acerbically on institutional indignities, and joins forces with a group of fellow “inmates” determined both to undermine management and to offer one another mutual support and comfort.  This group, calling themselves the Old But Not Dead Club, host dinner parties in each others’ apartments to escape the bland and repetitive dining room food, and organize outings to escape the boredom of bingo and common room gossip and whining.

Hendrik has an eye for ironic detail.  Capturing the eccentricities of the “older old” he describes the food, seventeen years past its expiration date, found in the refrigerator of a deceased resident.   Dark humor is omnipresent, as in this “crematorium crisis”:  “the coffin got stuck halfway in, so the oven door couldn’t close properly.  The coffin caught fire and the smoke seeped into the chapel.  The crematorium had to be evacuated.  Anyone who hadn’t already been weeping emerged teary eyed.  That’s what I call a spectacular way to say goodbye.”  Some critics have compared “Hendrik Groen” to Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and Hendrik is especially deft in describing institutional pettiness and doublespeak.  When management installs hall cameras “‘for our own safety’” residents, old enough to have lived as small children through the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, are soon comparing retirement home leadership to the Gestapo.

Patronizing, Packaging, and Utopia

Hendrik punctuates his yearlong chronicle with other wry observations and lessons:

On patronizing the older old:  “I heard that, on the heels of hospital clowns for sick children, special clowns are being deployed to cheer up lonely old folks.  I don’t know what they’re called or where they come from, but I should like to warn them in advance:  if any clown arrives to brighten my day, so help me God, I’ll use my last ounce of strength to bash his jovial skull in with a frying pan.”

On modern packaging (a complaint people of all ages can relate to):  “It’s the little things that get you.  Or rather, that you don’t get.  A daily annoyance:  packaging.  Cans with tabs you can’t wedge your finger under, vacuum-sealed LIFT UP HERE corners too small to pull, childproof cleaning products, applesauce lids, impossible to twist prosecco corks, blister packs:  they’re all specially designed to make it as difficult as possible for feeble, trembling, old hands to manage.”  

On utopia from an octogenarian’s perspective:  “Friday the thirteenth, a good day to buy a lottery ticket.  One always has to have something to hope for.  If I win the jackpot, I’m buying a small, private, old-age home for myself and my friends.  It won’t have a director, an orderly, or a board of directors.  No human-resource manager, accountant, or head of housekeeping.  No rules, no regulations, or interdictions.  That will save buckets of money and a lot of red tape.  What there will be room for is common sense, friendly staff, and a good cook who’s always on call, in case we don’t feel like preparing our own meals in our well-equipped kitchen.  A home with spacious, light-filled rooms where you can keep your cat, dog, or Christmas tree if you are so inclined.  How simple is that.  Keep dreaming, Hendrik.”

Friendship… and Plans

Ultimately, the most important lessons of “The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old” are about the importance of socializing with friends and of making plans—having something to look forward to.  At an end-of-year Christmas dinner with the Old But Not Dead Club, Hendrik raises a toast to “friendship as the essential ingredient of a good life.”  A few days later, in his final diary entry of the year, he contemplates an upcoming outing and writes:   “And after that trip, I’ll have to come up with another plan.  As long as there are plans, there’s life.”

“Hendrik Groen” should be a basic text for retirement home staff and others who deal professionally with the older old, but it is really for anyone who wants an entertaining and in the end profound lesson on what it means to age with dignity and a sense of humor.

Visit The Retirement Whisperer Bookshelf.

Watch Birds! – Tuesday Tip – February 20, 2018

You don’t have to strap an expensive pair of binoculars around your neck and head into the woods to benefit from birdwatching.  According to a 2017 study published in the journal BioScience, simply living in an environment where birds are abundant can lift your mood.

Abundant Bird Population Tied to Mental Health

The study, “Doses of Neighborhood Nature:  The Benefits for Mental Health of Living with Nature,” explored the relationship between natural residential environments and mental health.  Study participants completed self-assessments measuring depression, anxiety and stress, and researchers measured the amount of vegetation, and the variety and abundance of birds in participants’ neighborhoods at two different times during the day.

Using statistical analysis, researchers found that “people living in neighborhoods with higher levels of vegetation cover and afternoon bird abundances had reduced severity of depression, anxiety, and stress.”  They concluded that abundance was more significant than variety because most people can’t identify bird species, and afternoon abundance was more significant than morning abundance because that’s when people are more likely to be out of their homes.

Pay Attention to the Birds Around You

The study’s authors suggest that deliberate urban and community design policies that increase vegetation, and the birds attracted to it, might have a strong public health justification.  In the meantime, if you live in a place where birds are abundant, take time to notice them.  If you don’t, take a walk or a drive to where they are to lift your mood!

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

5 Presidents Who Did Retirement Right

When you’ve been President of the United States, what do you do for an encore?

Excluding the incumbent, forty-three men have served as U.S. President and, of those, eight died in office.  That leaves thirty-five who experienced retirement.  Most sought retirement lives of peace and quiet, but several went on to new achievements, and one stands out for defining his life by his retirement accomplishments and giving us all a yardstick with which to measure our own.  In honor of Presidents Day, The Retirement Whisperer offers its own highly subjective countdown of five U.S. Presidents who did retirement right.

#5 – Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover is remembered somewhat unjustly as the President who brought us The Great Depression.  By training a mining engineer, Hoover first gained prominence leading U.S. relief efforts in Europe after World War I, serving also as Secretary of Commerce before becoming President just months before the Wall Street crash in 1929.  When he left the presidency after one term he was only 58 years old, and he spent much of the next 12 years as a vocal critic of the policies of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt.  After World War II President Harry Truman asked him to return to Europe to assess relief needs, and his efforts led to a program that provided meals for three-and-a-half million German youth in the British and American occupation zones.  Later Hoover wrote a biography of President Woodrow Wilson, oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and raised money for Boys Clubs.  Hoover also loved to get away and enjoy the solitude of fishing in the wilderness and wrote a book called Fishing for Fun–And to Wash Your Soul.   Hoover lived to be 90 years old, dying in 1964.

#4 – John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, son of President John Adams, tasted the international life and learned several languages as he accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions on behalf of the newly independent United States.  After graduating from Harvard he served in numerous diplomatic posts himself before becoming James Monroe’s Secretary of State.  Elected President in 1824, he faced relentless opposition from populists led by Andrew Jackson who accused Adams of favoring manufacturing and elitist interests in the Northeast, and criticized his stance in favor of the the abolition of slavery.  After Jackson swept him from office in 1828 after a single term as President, Adams embarked on a new career as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, becoming the first U.S. President to manage his retirement by… not retiring.  Adams won reelection to Congress eight times and served until his death at age 81.  Adams’s congressional career was perhaps more distinguished than his presidency—he was a determined opponent of slavery and a leading supporter of scientific advancement in America, persuading Congress to earmark a financial donation from James Smithson to fund the institution that eventually became the Smithsonian.

#3 – Howard Taft

Howard Taft

There’s more to Howard Taft than the enormous bathtub he installed in the White House.  Taft, from Cincinnati, was trained as a lawyer and in his twenties was appointed a judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, foreshadowing his “retirement” role.  He served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and was elected President in 1908, but his subsequent split with Roosevelt cost him re-election in 1912.  From 1913 until 1921 Taft taught history and law at Yale before being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by President Warren Harding.  Later Supreme Court justices describe Taft’s legacy as “conservative” but not reactionary, and his greatest contribution were his successful efforts to modernize Supreme Court facilities and procedures.  Taft died in 1930 at age 72.    

#2 – Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses Grant Editing His Memoirs

Ulysses Grant is the only two-term President on our list.  Born in 1822 and educated at West Point, Grant served in the Mexican-American War and held other minor posts before retiring from the Army in 1854 and embarking on a series of failed business ventures.  He rejoined the Army when the Civil War began, achieved battlefield success after success, and rose to the position of General of the Army of the United States.  After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war, Grant’s diligent enforcement of Reconstruction in the former Confederate States, and his support for African-American enfranchisement led to conflict with President Andrew Johnson.  Grant became President in 1869 and pursued an vigorous Reconstruction agenda, founding the Department of Justice and aggressively prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan for civil rights violations.  The Panic of 1873 dampened Republican zeal for Reconstruction, and Grant’s second term was marked by several scandals.  In retirement Grant embarked on a world tour and made a attempt to gain the Republican nomination for President in 1880, but his greatest retirement achievement was literary.  Diagnosed with throat cancer and in financial ruin because of bad investments, Grant wrote his memoirs to bolster both his bank account and his reputation, finishing them just days before his death at age 63 in 1885.  The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant achieved both financial and critical success, earning his widow $450,000 in royalties and judged by Mark Twain as a “literary masterpiece.”   

#1 – Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Before 2012 Herbert Hoover held the record for the longest Presidential retirement, living 31 years after leaving office.  Thirty-seven years after he left office, Jimmy Carter now holds that record, and no other U.S. President’s retirement defines his legacy like Carter’s.  An Annapolis grad, engineer and peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter’s presidency is remembered for high gas prices and cardigan sweaters, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis.  In retirement Jimmy Carter has lent his name, his leadership, and even his muscle to humanitarian efforts,  He has lead peacekeeping missions to the Middle East, Cuba, Korea and Darfur, joined with Nelson Mandela and other global leaders in a group dedicated to human rights called The Elders, and built houses with Habitat for Humanity in hurricane-ravaged areas in the United States.  Carter is also an avid woodworker, fly fisherman, and painter.  He has been award the Hoover Medal—recognizing “great, unselfish, non-technical service by engineers to humanity”—, the United National Human Rights Prize, and the Nobel Peace Prize.   For his full, rich, and purposeful life in retirement, Jimmy Carter takes the number one spot on our list and is The Retirement Whisperer’s inaugural nomination to the Retirement Hall of Fame.  

Tuesday Tip – Take a Walk With Attitude – February 13, 2018

Walking won’t burn calories like running, bicycling or many other types of exercise, but slowing down can open the door to an experience that’s as good for the soul as it is for the heart.  I’m a runner, and my usual practice when I run is to put in my ear buds and listen to a podcast.  I tell myself it’s efficient–I’m learning and staying informed while I’m exercising… what could be better?  Routine and focus have their place, but with my ears plugged and my eyes on the road I know I’m missing something.  That’s when I need Henry David Thoreau to kick me out of my rut.

Walking with Attitude

Thoreau believed that every step out your front door was an opportunity for discovery, a chance for peak experience.  “We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”  I don’t think Thoreau was seriously suggesting that you start walking and never come home, but he was saying that if you act as if your destination is Mount Everest or the Kalahari Desert, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to see things you otherwise might miss.

Give it a try.  The world is a beautiful place.  Walk and imagine your eyes are seeing what no human eyes have seen before (and leave those ear buds at home).  Walk heroically, like Henry David.  Walk to refresh your spirit.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)

What is “successful retirement”?

What is “successful retirement”?  A hundred years ago only a few privileged people were in the position to ask themselves that question.  Think about life back then at age 65, commonly thought of now as the “traditional” age of retirement.  It’s safe to say that in 1918 most people in the world born 65 years before, in 1853, had long been dead.  If you were fortunate still to be alive in 1918, you… perhaps weren’t actually that fortunate.  If you were a man you probably had worked, beginning as a teenager, on a farm, down a mine, or in a factory.  If you were a woman you had worked at home, or in someone else’s home, without labor-saving devices, cooking, cleaning and caring for children, some of whom had likely not survived infancy.  By 65 you were worn out, impoverished, and dependent on your children to care for you in your remaining years.

The Invention of Retirement

Fast forward to 2018.  It’s been an amazing hundred years, and one of the most significant cultural innovations of the period was the “invention” of retirement.  The discovery of antibiotics and other medical advances, increased awareness of the importance of diet and exercise, and the transformation of work from physical to largely mental toil means that millions of people reach 65 with huge reserves of health and energy and the expectation of fifteen, twenty or more years to fill between full-time employment and the onset of physical and cognitive decline.  Retirement, once a privilege, has become an expectation.

Del Webb, Retirement Pioneer

In America, retirement as a “lifestyle” experienced by millions of people emerged only sixty or so years ago, with pioneering innovations like Del Webb retirement communities in Florida and Arizona in the 1950s, and the first lifelong learning institutes in the 1960s—this was “mass” retirement’s first wave.  Retirement’s second generation has made its own mark with innovations like the “aging in place” movement, pioneered in locations like Beacon Hill Village in Boston and Community Without Walls in Princeton, N.J.  Now a third generation, 78 million Baby Boomers like me, are in the early years of or nearing retirement, and how our we’ll redefine retirement is still to be seen.  The Retirement Whisperer will report and perhaps play a part in shaping this unfolding story, and communicate to you in ways that might help you enrich your own life.

Early Days for Baby Boomer Retirement

The Baby Boomer retirement is only in its opening chapters, but themes are beginning to emerge that point to a definition of “successful retirement.”  We should start by acknowledging that retirement isn’t a static phase, the same at its beginning as it is at its end.  No phase is.  And let’s also acknowledge that retirement is, if not the last, then certainly the next-to-last phase of life.  The Retirement Whisperer will focus primarily on positive stories, but will never ignore the darker side of aging—death is real, folks, and inevitable.

So is “successful retirement” the same as “healthy aging”?  I think it is, especially if you listen to how older people themselves define it.  Psychologists, gerontologists, and policy makers have put a lot of energy into drafting definitions—the World Health Organization, for example, defines healthy aging as the “process of development and maintenance of functional capacity that allows well-being at an advanced age.”  That, to my mind, is a little too mechanistic and medical, so I was excited to read an article from a Brazilian academic journal—Revista Brasileira de Geriatria e Gerontologia—titled “Healthy aging from the perspective of the elderly:  an integrative review” (Nov./Dec. 2017).  It turns out that older people define healthy aging far more broadly than the World Health Organization does and that shouldn’t surprise anyone.  After all, they’re living it.

Health Aging from the Perspective of the Elderly  

The authors conducted their review by screening academic literature for studies asking older people how they defined healthy aging, and rigorously vetting the results to weed out articles with low research standards.  At the end of the process every continent was represented and a consistent definition—with a few interesting outliers—emerged.  They distilled “healthy aging” into four dimensions:

The Biological Dimension.  Health aging means practicing “protective” behavior like exercising, eating healthy food, refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol, and getting regular physical examinations.

The Psychological Dimension.  Older people told researchers that “being positive and optimistic is an essential part of healthy aging, with optimism understood as the expectation that something positive will happen.”  Optimism also comes from a social support network and daily social activities.  The study also found that “there is no well-defined concept for happiness as it varies according to the cultural and social context of each country.”  A South Korean study “revealed an association between family and the perception of happiness.”  In short, optimism, happiness, and social contact all seem closely linked.

The Spiritual Dimension.  Many of the reviewed articles explored elderly perspectives on faith and spirituality, finding that faith provides support in the face of illness or personal difficulties.  Other perspectives associate spirituality with healthy behavior:  an article about the elderly in Thailand found a more holistic definition of spirituality; the food you eat and how you take care of your body are, for example, spiritual practices.  Adherence to religious rules and practices—prohibitions against drugs and alcohol or extra-marital sex, for example—are cited by some as part of healthy aging.  Finally, “faith can promote virtues such as humility, altruism, compassion, wisdom and gratitude.”

The Social Dimension.    Elderly people around the world said that being surrounded by friend and family, having a partner, and staying involved in “collective leisure activities” were hallmarks of healthy aging.  And it’s not a one-way street:  “In addition to being supported, the elderly can also provide support. For many, supporting others is more important than receiving support, contributing to a strengthening of their self-esteem and social involvement. This can be seen by their social contributions and desire to do good through voluntary work.”  Elderly people understand the value of socializing, but also think autonomy and independence are important.  This belief wasn’t universally held, however; Thai elders value interdependence more than independence.

The Retirement Whisperer’s Take on “Successful Retirement”

As you might have noticed, there’s a lot of overlap across these “dimensions.”  Is “doing good through voluntary work,” for example, in the “social,” the “spiritual,” or the “psychological” dimension?  All three, I think.

There’s a great deal of wisdom in what the elderly around the world have told researchers, and it’s a great place to start in defining “successful retirement.”  I’ve had long conversations with many Baby Boomers making the retirement transition and I’ve studied the pattern of innovation in retirement over the last sixty years; I would add a couple of things, slightly rearrange others, and posit these five areas as today’s keys to successful retirement, where innovation is likely to occur, and where The Retirement Whisperer will look for stories and offer advice:

Fitness, Diet and Health.  A healthy body is the key to a healthy brain and absolutely the foundation for successful retirement.  Aches, pains, and illness are almost inevitable, but behavior makes an enormous difference, and the generation that made running mainstream and organic a household word has still more to offer the world.

Socializing.  Loneliness kills.  Socializing is the cure.  Baby Boomers are already finding new ways to socialize in retirement and they’re just beginning.   

Learning.  Baby Boomers are the most educated generation in American history.  In retirement they’ll look for ways to learn—both in formal classroom-like settings and through experiences—what they never got a chance to learn in college (and make deposits to “cognitive reserve” as they do so).

Creativity.  The psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that our later life stage is a conflict between generativity—leaving a legacy for future generations—and despair.  Baby Boomers will find new creative ways to leave their legacy.

Spirit and Purpose.  For a generation that’s been on a quest for meaning and purpose for seven decades, a calendar full of “activities” won’t be enough.  Through volunteerism, more direct forms of spiritual practice, and new innovations yet unimagined, Baby Boomers in retirement will innovate in this area, too.

These are what I think are the five pillars of “successful retirement.”  Now it’s your turn.  Have I missed something?  What innovations are you seeing in these five areas?  Leave a comment below.   I’ll look into it and report back to The Retirement Whisperer community.

Tuesday Tip – Start a Play-Reading Group – February 6, 2018

Creating—making something new—can strengthen the immune system, fight depression, and forge new connections in the brain that build “cognitive reserve” and ward off dementia.  If you’re tired of your book club and want to add some creativity to your life, why not…

Start a play-reading group!

A play-reading group is a book club on steroids, involving less advance preparation and more real-time participation and engagement.  You’ll need to recruit a group of friends willing to go a little (but not too far!) beyond wine-fueled book club palaver that all too often veers toward gossip.  As the instigator it’s your job to select a play; for your first gathering, try a one-act play or one act from a longer play.  Assign parts (you can assign more than one part to each participant), distribute copies at least a week before your meeting, and ask your armchair thespians to read the play and think about their characters.

Creativity and Socializing  

When you get together begin with snacks and drinks to put everyone in a relaxed mood, and then… start reading!  You’ll quickly get into the scene and as you proceed you’ll find yourself gaining an appreciation for the material entirely different from reading it silently to itself.  You’ll exercise creativity as you bring life to your character, both your eyes and your ears will be engaged as you read along and listen to others, and you’ll be socializing, too!   (Before you start reading you may want to set a few ground rules, such as encouraging readers to stop and ask for advice about how a line should be read, or to call a timeout and make a comment about what’s going on in a particular scene.)  If everyone has a good time end the evening by scheduling your next reading… at someone else’s house.

 (More Tuesday Tips here.)

“Furnishing Eternity” by David Giffels – Book Review

The people you love most are gravely ill or dying, and you decide it’s the right time to build your own coffin.  Sounds pretty morbid, right?  In the hands of David Giffels, an associate professor of English at the University of Akron in Ohio, “Furnishing Eternity” is far from morbid—his memoir of grief is tenderly and beautifully told, both darkly and brightly funny, and ultimately cathartic.  (Why is this book being reviewed on a blog about successful retirement?  Because The Retirement Whisperer believes in life before death—and that a sense of humor is important.)

“Furnishing Eternity,” Scribner, 2018, 256 pages

Giffels tells of his mother’s and his best friend’s battles with cancer, but the emotional center of the book is his relationship with his father.  In retirement Thomas Giffels is exhaustingly active and dedicated to, perhaps obsessed with, making and fixing things; his workshop in the barn behind his house, stocked with every tool imaginable, is his sanctuary.  “Some people retire to Florida, some to the golf course,” Giffels writes.  “Midwestern civil engineers dream of settling into a place like this.”  When his father, too, is diagnosed with cancer, Giffels has a couple of motives for suggesting the coffin project.  “One of my goals with this endeavor was to learn from him—practical skills and hopefully more.  Whatever he would allow.  And just to have reason to spend extra time with him.”  But Giffels is also seeking emotional connection and fittingly sets this insight in the front seat of a car, where men often communicate best with each other:  “Some days I drove my dad to his appointment [for radiation treatment], and sometimes on the highway we talked about this coffin idea, partly as a distraction but also as a way to somehow address the general notion of mortality that was so unavoidable that summer.”  

The coffin project at first feels like an overly deliberate literary device, but the layering of pathos and humor gives the book emotional power.  “Furnishing Eternity” can induce discomfort, even anxiety in its vivid language:   “Then suddenly, sooner than any of us could have expected, we—her family—were ringed around her hospital bed, watching it happen in slow hungry gasps, death pecking at her.”  But Giffels can not only turn a phrase but set it spinning like a lathe—“It might be unfair to call him a control freak, but he was certainly a control aficionado.”—and he has an eye for absurdity.  His father wants to use wood resistant rot for the coffin; Giffels wonders why, under the eventual circumstances, that would matter.

Life Before Death

Mary Karr writes that “voice” is the key to great memoir.  Giffels has a distinctive one and by the end of “Furnishing Eternity” you understand where it came from.  From his crossword-loving mother he inherits not only an unabridged set of “The Oxford English Dictionary” but a passion for words; from his best friend John he learns to understand and appreciate the soul of the artist; from his father he learns method and craft.  And from intimacy with all of them he experiences the consuming nature of grief:  “For weeks, all I did was feel sad.  What I found was that feeling sad about death made me feel sad about everything.  Feeling sad about death made me feel sad about my son winning a baseball award.  It made me feel sad about a birthday cake.  It made me feel sad about a sunset.”

At the end of “Furnishing Eternity” the author finds not the end of grieving but wisdom about life and death.  “Grief is a collage,” he writes, “a bunch of vivid images thrown together without a clear order, leaving it to the viewer to decipher, only to discover that each image leads to a new one, which leads to another, endlessly elusive.”  Recent memories of pain and sadness for a time crowd out older ones, but eventually “missing pieces did work their way back in.”  Those happier memories balance but can’t erase sadder ones; they and the book itself ultimately affirm the importance of living life before death.

Visit The Retirement Whisperer Bookshelf.