The old man and the desert

(Sometimes, when you are trying to convey the feeling of things, stories paint a more vivid picture than essays.  So I’ve decided add a few fictional accounts to my Letters on Aging.  Let me know what you think.)


Boarding the plane, he is relieved—no, more than relieved—he is really happy to take his seat in first class, order a pre-flight vodka on ice, and ease his seat back as the plane prepares for take off.  This is the kind of luxury he never allowed himself as a young man.  But, as they say, spend it now or your grandchildren will spend it in a few short years.

The luxuriating fades quickly, though, and the struggle he had with his wife and children floods in.  They are worried and they are angry about his solo journey.  “You are way too old to head off on some damn wilderness hike,” Jenny had intoned.  The truth is that they were upset at him thirty years ago when he wandered alone on the arid trails of the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona.  Over and again, he had tried to reassure them—and himself.  “The trails are easy.  They’re flat.  I won’t break a leg on steep descents or tax my heart above the tree line, like I used to do in my Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

God, he loved those mountains.  He and Sean used to backpack in the Sierras every summer.  They would drive to a high trailhead, climb 1,500 feet to the nearest pass, hike down for another mile until they found a good campsite, then settle in above the tree line for a week to ten days.  Pools and lakes filled basins that were rimmed by snow capped peaks.  The deep relaxation he felt each day when he sat down after seven or eight hours of hiking, gazing at the sunsets—that was as close to God as he ever got.

I guess I’m losing my train of thought here.  Even in the luxury of first class, his family’s cool send-off has the old man at loose ends.  “Why don’t they trust me.  I’m a reasonable man.  I’ll be careful.  I know those trails.  I know my many limits.  Why don’t they care for me enough to at least hide their anger and send me off with love.”  Even as he seeks the solitude of the trails, he yearns for the comfort of their love.  After the take off, though, he has another drink and falls off into a restful sleep.  Just what the doctor ordered.

You can actually see the Superstitions as the plane approaches the Phoenix airport.  They’re only about thirty miles from the city.  The southwest is weird that way.  There’s a city and it ends, just ends.  On one side of the boundary are the suburban homes with green lawns, the water drawn from God knows where; on the other side is desert, all brown and red, and endless.  The dust and the smell of sage brush will soon fill his lungs.  You’d think he was some ancient Apache warrior instead of a retired businessman from Boston, but, if you asked, he would assure you, the desert does call to him.

He leaves the airport with all the other passengers but he knows that they are off to tamer things.  He gathers his excellent, internal frame backpack, his boots, his canteens, his freeze-dried food, and his rental car, and he’s ready for adventure.

It’s early enough in the day to drive right to the trailhead, park in the lot, and head off into the Wilderness.  Everything has gone as expected.  If he could jump with anticipation, he’d do it.  Instead, he takes a few careful steps and then a few more.  He has a pretty good sense of where there’s a spring—he’d been here before—and he had vowed to himself not to go out more than a half-day’s walk.  That way he could hike out quickly if need be or if he got anxious or if he injured himself.  He’s playing it safe because, no matter what his family says, he knows that he’s a reasonable man.

Leaving from a trailhead is a mixed experience.  You’re always eager and feeling bold, and you’re always nervous, always hesitant.  You don’t know what’s ahead.  The old man is used to that combination of feelings.  He felt the same way when he came by these trails thirty years ago.

Still, he’s aware of his age.  How could he not be.  His knees and back are already aching.  By the way, it’s his seventy-fifth birthday and this is a celebration for a life that has gone far better than imagined.  His senses are up, his heart is beating strongly, his sunscreen is protecting him—especially his nose—and his trail map is readily available in his outer pocket.  He is alert to each turn in the trail because it’s easy to get lost in the maze of buttes and hills.  He knows to carefully chart his way.  The trail goes over the ridge and the trailhead is lost from sight.  Already, the sounds of automobiles have disappeared.  There is almost no wind today.  It is very, very quiet, and the old man is alone.

He had been afraid of this, afraid of being lonely and on edge.  But there is something pungent and poignant in those feelings, and, for reasons he can’t fully explain, he wanted to meet them again.

Most of his life is spent at home or visiting friends in Boston, Newton, and Cambridge.  He reads the New York Times and the Boston Globe every day and follows social media sights, like Politico and Slate and ESPN.  He spends time with his wife—lots of time—his  children, grandchildren, and friends, including some old colleagues.  He does his exercise and his meditation, his walking, and his healthy eating.  He likes all of those activities.  They help him glide as gracefully as possible toward the end.

As he sees it, he’s an obedient fellow.  He obeys the prevailing cultural ideas about what people should do to age well.  He follows his wife’s advice about food and medicine—most of the time, anyway.  He keeps his mind alive with reading and writing.  He’s living a prescribed life.

But, as he says to Sean—I hope you’ll forgive the strangeness of bringing an imaginary person into play, but Sean had been the old man’s constant companion on the trails and he brought him along for company—as he says to Sean, “I just need to get off the main trail for a bit.”  Sean still reads passages from the journal he kept during the thirty years when they hiked together.  So he understands.  They were city boys who somehow felt at home in those uncertain mountains.  They good boys who somehow needed to be outrageous sometimes.

As he walks slowly on the soft, dusty trail, he sees bullet casings, reminding him that this is where bad men come to get away from the law.  The Apaches used to enter the Superstition’s to get away from the Cavalry.  Outlaws came to escape the marshals.  And, he imagines—maybe it’s only his imagination—right-wing militias now come to get some survival training in before the apocalypse.  The old man is already lonely enough to want their company.

After two hours and twenty-one minutes of hiking—who’s counting—he found the spring he had been looking for.  There is a trickle that crosses the path; if you follow it, there is a small pool, set behind a great boulder, and all around it there are shrubs and small trees.  This is the oasis he had dreamed of.  He set down his pack, put up his tent, and, before making dinner, sat at the pool, breathing quietly, and feeling the spring-cooled air on his face.

He had never slept well in the wilderness.  He’s too nervous.  He always heard sounds that he was sure were bears or mountain lions or great, poisonous snakes.  At night, in particular, he’s a city boy, terrified by the dark and the unknown.  He always wonders “what I’m doing out here.”  Now, old and alone, he barely hold off his panic.  He lays awake for most of the night, wishing he were home in the comfort of his bed and the company of his wife.  “What the hell was I thinking?”

But first light comes, first gently, then in that brilliant way that you only see in the desert.  The night’s angst is gone.  He crawls out of his sleeping bag and out of the tent to sit by the pool.  Again, it is quiet.  His breathing is slow, easy.  It is holy by the pool.  He never wants to move.  He never wants anything but what he has at this moment.

And then he makes a decision.  It’s time to go home, which he does.

Out After Dark

The other day, I traveled the MBTA to Charlestown for an evening meeting.  The prospect of unfamiliar streets in the dark made me anxious.  I’m not proud of the vulnerability and suspicions it evoked but, in the spirit of Progressives outing themselves, I offer you my tale. 


For most of my life I’ve been largely unbothered by physical danger.  I’ve been pretty big, pretty strong, and faster than hell.  I always figured that I could outrun danger.  Now that I’ve gotten older, that’s not so true.

Recently, I joined a brand new nonprofit board of directors led by a former student of mine.  I like the board members, mostly in their early to late thirties. They are bright, alive with dreams and ambitions, and dedicated to making the world a better place—and unabashed in saying so.  The talented young CEO, all bright red hair and scrubbed face, looking seventeen at most, had convened a social event.  “If we’re going to work together, we should know one another.”  Who could argue.

I wanted to go and I didn’t.  I like my solitude and my easy evenings with Franny, and I like the liveliness of the young people.  I didn’t want to drive all the way into town during rush hour, no less a part of town that I don’t know well.  But I had committed to the group so I set out by car, then by subway to Charlestown, once a very tough part of Boston.

As I entered the Allewife station, I surprised myself by thinking that this would be an adventure.  There should be nothing to the journey, I assured myself, but I felt a tinge of anxiety.  Boarding the train, I felt a little fragile, a little vulnerable as I anticipated the cold and the dark of unknown streets.  The vulnerability felt embarrassing, even shameful.  For god’s sake, millions of people travel routes like this every evening.  Old women and children travel these routes. I soon talked myself out of any serious anxiety but I was vigilant.

I changed from the Red to the Orange Line, careful to go in the right direction.  This route was not automatic for me.  I sat down and began to read a book on my kindle—James McGregor Burns’ Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (1940-1945).  Within thirty seconds, there was a stentorian announcement by a tall, confident, young Black man.

“Everybody, I need your attention.  Don’t worry, it’s just three young Black men who need your attention.”

This sounded like the start of a scene I had witnessed in the movies.  It was clear that it would end in robbery, at best, likely in one or two people resisting and getting hurt, and possibly in an explosion of gun fire.  Angry young men seeking revenge.  Urban terrorists gone wild.

I immediately looked down at my book.  Don’t make eye contact, I told myself.  Stay calm.  See if you can do anything to help matters.  Before I could make a plan, the young man continued.

“We are three, young Black men,” the leader continued, “who want to do some dancing for you.”

Are you kidding me!  He looked serious but what was in the backpacks that they carried.  I continued to look down at my book.  Then they began to dance, one at a time, with modest grace and agility; and, at the end of the very brief journey between Downtown Crossing and North Station, they passed around a hat.  I gave a dollar, careful not to expose my wallet for too long.

As they left the train, I looked up.  Two of the guys had such sweet, young faces.  The other looked nervous and drawn, as though he had been dragged along by the others. They seemed a little disappointed at their haul but they were very businesslike, and virtually marched along the station walkway.  It was clear that they were going to perform many times during the course of the evening.

The train hurried on and I got off a few stops later, at the Community College station.  I tried to activate the GPS on my phone but, of course, I didn’t really know how to work it.  In the middle of my frustration, a young man stopped me.  “Hi Barry.  Fancy meeting you here.”  He was the young lawyer I had met at our first board meeting.  Together, we walked to the apartment building on West School Street, chatting away about how he was going to build his law practice.  I was grateful to have his company




Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.


I have been thinking about courage lately.  The upcoming period may demand a great deal from us, each in his or her own way.  Opposition to Donald Trump and the Tea Party Republicans’ assault on freedom has required us to bring our resistance into the open, and there may be a price to pay.  Then, too, I am almost seventy five; and the challenge of aging with dignity and self respect will demand stamina and courage.  For me, the two challenges are intimately connected.

As a boy, I would wonder if I had the courage to jump into a lake to save a drowning friend, my sister, my brother, or my parents.  By the age of five or six, my buddies, David and Freddy and I would throw out challenges to one another: would you run in front of a car to save your mother? A stranger?  How far would your courage reach?  I still ask myself these questions, though I now know some of the answers.  My life for my child or grandchild?  Of course.  But some questions about my courage remain opaque.  I can hope that I’ll come through but I’ll only know about when tested.

At nine or ten, World War II and the Holocaust were still fresh and dominant in mind.  I would dream and daydream about being parachuted behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis.  So many people had already died;  and carrying on the fight might be left to us, the children.  It seemed a daunting prospect but I assured myself that I could overcome my fears because the danger was so present and the cause so strong. Here, the roots of courage were clear.

While I have lived a mostly privileged life, there have been moments that frightened me. When I was young, my parents canvassed for the American Labor Party, and FBI men in trench coats came twice to our apartment door in the Bronx.  “Where is your father,” they barked.  As a young teenager during the McCarthy era, there were plenty of bullies who took it upon themselves to watch over our national conscience.  I learned to watch what I said but I also girded my loins for a fight.

I’m no child now but these early images are still vivid and defining for me.  So, too, the images of courage from that period.  Most of all there was Joseph Welsh challenging Joe McCarthy on TV. The McCarthy-inspired Red Scare, had intimidated a nation, its people and its press.  McCarthy’s unrestrained efforts to uproot the Communist enemy in our midst represented the greatest witch hunt in American history.  During the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, broadcast for hours every day on TV, McCarthy threatened to release a list of 130 “Communists or subversives in defense plants.”

Actually it was his eager assistant, Roy Cohn—yes, the same Roy Cohn who Donald Trump counts as his greatest mentor—who was on stage at first.  Then McCarthy, himself, interceded. If Welsh was so concerned about people aiding the Communist Party, McCarthy taunted, he should check Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welsh’s law firm.  Fisher was a progressive but hardly a Communist and certainly no danger to the nation.

“Until this moment, Senator,” said Welsh, “I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… . If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

At that moment, people were terrified of McCarthy, as they might soon be terrified by a rampaging, fact-free Donald Trump, contemptuous of the press and the judiciary and of anyone who stands in his way.  Those who defied McCarthy lost jobs, friends, freedoms.  Some were deported.  Welsh didn’t flinch.

I would like to believe that I would respond as Welsh responded.  I am surely not important enough to matter as Welsh, who represented the United States Army, mattered.  But I can imagine that there will be small moments that will call on me—and on many of us—to stand firm, as he did.  The image of his doing so will be with me as I do.  I hope to live to his standard.

Here’s the key point: having clear standards of morality and personal conduct, as Welsh did, makes it simpler to know when a line has been crossed and where you must take your stand.  Each of us need to determine for ourselves what that line is.

Anne Frank took a different kind of stand, one of profound psychological valor. This is another kind of courage: a refusal to let your life be defined by what you don’t have and to keep a disciplined focus on what you do have. In the face of the relentless Nazi onslaught and almost certain death, she wrote:

“I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching       thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Her heroism stands as a beacon to me.  I dearly hope that her ability to find grace and beauty in the ugliest of circumstances will guide me as I confront the lesser challenges of my life.

If I’m lucky enough to live another five, ten, even fifteen years, these challenges will touch almost every aspect of my being.  There will be pain and illness—and the inevitable fear of dying.  I see it every day among my older friends.  The stiffness when we walk, the waves of indeterminate, maybe undiagnosed feelings in our bellies and our limbs, the anxious anticipation of what almost seems like weekly reports from doctors, the suffering and loss of friends, the increasing uncertainty about so many things.

These pains and these uncertainties are not just my own.  There are others who care about me and whose lives are intertwined with mine.  I need to consider them when I chart my course.  There is my wife, above all, because our lives are inextricably joined.  There are my children, whom I have loved for thirty-eight and forty-six years.  They will suffer with my infirmity.  They won’t want to experience my weakness and decline.  They will ache when my time comes near, especially if my mind fades and I can’t share my grief with them.  There are my brother and my sister and my friends.  As they are for me, I am a pillar for them.  When one pillar falls, the world seems a much more precarious place.

Will we be brave as we face these days ahead?  How will I talk with them?  Will I be candid or stoic?  Will I permit myself to lean on them or will I hold to this foolish independence and pride of mine? Will we hold one another? Will I bemoan my fate or will I, with Anne Frank, see the beautiful blue sky above—I have had such an extraordinary life.  Much as I hope to stand firm with Joseph Welsh, I want to be my best when facing my own bodily and psychological assaults.  I want to be at my best, my courageous best, right up to the end.

Much as Joseph Welsh leaned on a set of standards to chart his political course, so I will need them to meet the physical and psychological challenges ahead.  Without these standards, I will flounder.  I will react to each problem as if it is unique.  And this would amplify whatever indecision and shakiness that ordinarily accompany crises.  I don’t want to live in constant crisis.  It would take me far from the dignity and self respect I aspire to.

I am inclined to see the world as a complex place and generally not given to right and wrong or good and bad answers to moral dilemmas.  But complexity is no great friend in during times of great struggle, and that is what is ahead.  So I have been winnowing my standards in search of the few that matter most.  Some stand as aspirations and may be beyond me.  I will live with that imperfection. For now, this is the best I can say. I will work to be clear eyed and realistic about the life I have.  I will try to accept that there is no other life.  And I will embrace whatever love and beauty I can find within the “approaching thunder.”

In Praise of Eccentricity

I’ve long thought of myself as neither far out nor deeply within social norms, a progressive, not a radical, an innovator but not a revolutionary.  I sit on the margins, with one foot inside the establishment and one foot reaching out to the fringes.  A marginal man.  That troubled me until I realized that my friends walked a similar line, and that afforded me a sense of community.  An anti-community, of sorts, but one that countered the loneliness that threatened and replaced it with a sense of belonging. All my life, I have accepted an eccentric place in our society.

These days, I find myself making declarative statements, shorn of modifiers like “it might be so” and “all things considered.”  The modifiers bore me; it feels good to say what I think, even if I know that there are other ways to consider the question.  Even if, after listening to others, I come to different conclusions.  I don’t mind changing my mind, after sounding so sure of myself.  I imagine that my declarative statements lead others to think me a little odd, a little arrogant.  Because it has become such a pleasure to let it rip, though, people don’t seem as put off by my declarations as they did when there was a hitch in my assertions.  They see the fun in it; and they know that they can let it rip too.

This is how I am growing more eccentric than marginal as I age.  It’s not entirely different from how I’ve been but it isn’t one hundred percent “normal” behavior, either.  Other people begin to dress a little oddly, maybe emphasizing fashions that were current decades ago; some espouse ideas, instead, that flout fashion; still others speak very slowly or emphatically, as though there is wisdom to be had in their every word.

As we get older and both the need the opportunities to achieve and to gain external approval wane, many of us wander from the norm.  As we wander, we grow a little or a lot more eccentric.  We can see the change.  Some of us are upset by the difference and fearful of the people’s reactions, then pull back.  Some of us are pleased to be different—so pleased that we insist that others accept what we might call a more essential or core self.

Eccentricity generally refers to odd or unusual behavior, carried out time and again.  To onlookers, these behaviors might seem unnecessary, even maladaptive.  But eccentricity is in the eyes of the beholder and generally serves the eccentric among us pretty well.  I have grown interested in eccentricity because it promises freedom.  Freedom from convention and constraint and freedom from social opprobrium.  When eccentricity emerges over time, as it often does, we get used to the sideways glances of onlookers, which eventually seem amusing.  Literally, I get a sly pleasure when I notice that people are taken aback by my declarative statements—or by how far out they seem.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are problems with eccentricity.  It can be alienating, lonely, and off-putting.  Even the most benign eccentricity, like an obsessive need to make everything around you extra neat or a form of laughter that goes on too long, can make people nervous.  The seemingly stubborn insistence on being different can be annoying.  And when the eccentric person inserts herself into the center of the action, it feels controlling.  There are many faces of eccentricity, some more tolerable than others.

The same people whose oddness irritates us, however, may become our friends and heroes.  Think of Maggie Smith’s Violet Crowley in Downton Abbey or Robin Williams’ John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society.  Keating, who encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” is annoying to fellow faculty.  At first, his students also find him weird and keep their distance. With time, though, Keating is inspiring.  Think, too, of how irritating, then endearing, then admirable we find characters like Charlie Chaplin and Goldie Hawn.  I am sure that our experience of Albert Einstein, with his wild hair, sloppy dress, and thick German accent, followed a similar trajectory.  His big brain might have been fearsome but people domesticated him in their minds; he became their genius.  His eccentricities became lovable, almost like a pet is lovable.

Eccentric people may be quirky and unusual.  They are not “normal.”  But their quirkiness is usually inoffensive, at least in the long run.  In fact, we come to love them.  Surprisingly, their behavior isn’t very maladaptive.  In their own ways, they are unusually effective.  They may be tart, odd, dreamy, or almost insanely intense, but when they come to the point, we listen.  They are our avatars.  Until we really tune in, the eccentric’s habits of thought may be almost incomprehensible, not because there are crazy or illogical, but because they are original.  They teach us something new.

You might even say that, as a society, we need eccentricity.  Here’s how the great British Philosopher, John Stuart Mill, put it: “…the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.”  For emphasis, he added that we should mourn the lack of eccentricity as “the chief danger of the time”. Conventionality leads to rigidity and staleness. Comforting yes but not so compelling or creative.

According to researchers, most people do not grow eccentric with age.  They are too nervous to stand out, and hide as best they can in conformity.  But, for those who are eccentric, there is good, counter-intuitive news.  While many of us assume that “eccentricity is one short step from serious mental disorder,” they actually suffer less from mental illnesses like depression than the majority of the population.

David Weeks, one of the few researchers who have looked systematically into the eccentricity phenomenon, found that “eccentrics visit the doctor 20 times less often than most of us and, on average and live slightly longer.” This, he attributes to the benefits of non-conformity. Those who don’t repress their inner nature in the struggle to conform, he observes, suffer less stress. As a result, they are happier and their immune systems work more efficiently. “Overall, Weeks found that eccentrics tend to be optimistic people with a highly developed, mischievous sense of humour, childlike curiosity and a drive to make the world a better place.”

These days, psychologists and doctors tend to divide old age roughly into three phases: young-old (65 – 75) middle-old (75 – 85) and old-old (85 and beyond).  The drift towards eccentricity that I’m talking about encompasses the first two; the last is generally a time of anxiety, lost capacity and a type of eccentricity that comes from diminishment.  It’s not fun or original or productive.  But there is a long period, beginning in our sixties, when we can have great fun and freedom with our emerging eccentricity.

While Weeks says that you can’t intentionally become eccentric, I believe that we all begin with at least a little eccentric at heart.  For much of life, most of us keep those eccentricities hidden or in check.  When we let them surface and play out in our social life, our strangeness becomes a bigger part of our public personalities.  But here’s more good news: In the light of days, the same personality traits that might have seemed shameful or dangerous seem much more benign, more acceptable.  By giving them room to operate, we are given permission to be more fully ourselves.

There is a paradox in eccentricity.  It represents a narrowing of thought and behavior.  Eccentrics do not try to be everything to everybody.  And it represents a freedom to be just who you are.  Being just who you are presents the opportunity to shape relationships just a little differently, just a little more authentically.

Ours is not a society that honors age, wisdom, or eccentricity.  But it might and it should.  We need the moral courage and creativity of people who are willing to think oddly, to take risks, and to do so with good humor.  We need a large dose of the Albert Einsteins, Violet Crowleys, and John Keatings of the world.  We need to unleash our own eccentricity.