Gaining expertise: It takes time
Editor’s note: This is another in a series of occasional columns by long-time Ann Arbor resident Robert Faber on what he describes as his most recently acquired area of expertise - growing old.
Old age is more than just a waiting room for the last act — it can also be a setting for rejuvenation. As a personal example: After eight decades of searching for that particular set of skills or deeds that might mark my place in the world, I have finally found it as an octogenarian.
But it did not come quickly or without a struggle.
World War II offered me the promise of heroism, the chance to distinguish myself on the nation’s field of honor. I could have helped thwart the German offensive in Europe or supported our invading forces in the Pacific, but I was born just a bit too late.
On my 17th birthday I joined the Army Air Corps with dreams of glory, only to discover that, because of my age, I was limited to the newly formed Army Air Corps Reserves, which meant I wouldn’t be called up until I turned 18 (I’ve never been good with details). A year later I was allowed to begin my service and go through basic training, but before releasing me into the Wild Blue Yonder, my time ran out, the war ran out, and I was sent home.
I then moved to Ann Arbor and opened a fabric store, but my dreams needed more, so I got involved in local politics and ran for city council — twice — and failed — twice. A few years later, I tried again and made it — just in time to be buffeted by the revolutionary tactics of the 60s generation, one of the more raucous and challenging periods in our city’s history. After two terms of confrontation, of bluster and experiment and, finally, of compromise and growth, peace returned to the community, and I returned to my business.
Unfortunately, during those few years of service, my small world of business had changed. Women were now working more and sewing less and no longer needed me or my product, so I tried my hand in an entirely different field. I opened a travel agency, but that, too, was soon warped by a new technology. Most of our potential travel clients now had their own computers and no longer needed travel agents to find and book their flights, so my business and I were soon surplus.
(The resultant fantasy was that in the name of world peace I should get into the munitions business — then there would be no more war.) Finally, having learned, practiced and succeeded in separate fields joined only by their obsolescence, what’s left for a future?
Plenty — which is the point of this long discourse. Life’s defining moments can be difficult to pinpoint The first day of school? The first amorous relationship? The first job? However, the common thread is the discovery of new horizons to explore and new challenges to overcome. We may have traveled this road and before succeeded or failed in our several endeavors, but there are still others to consider.
If a new direction in life is the fuel that moves us forward, that can be as available and rewarding for the old as it was for the young. Even in our 70s and beyond, there is always something more that we have not yet tried. And if we try and fail? So what? It’s the pursuit that is the prize, more the thrill of the race than the trophy.
For myself, as an example, having long been immersed in business, it was time to try something new. Writing had always held a special appeal for me, but with no particular field of expertise about which to express myself, I was little more than an interloper. I knew a little about some of life’s challenges, but, except for escaping obsolete retail and travel businesses, I had no documented expertise, no credentials in any of the fields about which I would write.
Which is part of my message. Aging has its many drawbacks, but even aside from its preference to the alternative, the simple fact of survival provides a verifiable expertise. For me, that is one of the values of aging — at last I’m an expert!
Upon his retirement, the president can write about his political experiences — he knows his subject. And the firefighter who survived 9/11 can write about the drama and tragedies of that crisis — he’s been there.
And now, finally, I too am an expert. I can write about some of the fears and follies, some of the highlights and low moments of Age and Aging. I’m a member. I’ve been there. I am there.
Maybe “expert” is a bit too grand, but now what I write is either good or it’s garbage, but it can no longer be dismissed as the empty thoughts of an amateur on the outside looking in. True, I have no degree to back my claim of experience or expertise, but I do have a birth certificate and that should give me at least some degree of authenticity.
So whether looking forward or back, whether anticipating what may still lie ahead or reminiscing about what has gone before, the aging process still has a lot to recommend it. It may not have much of a future, but what is left can be satisfying — and sometimes even productive.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at email@example.com.