Bette and I have been browsing retirement centers. Our plan is to move into one in 2017, which was a long time away in 2005 when we first decided to do it. Now it is close enough that we are hanging out in a few and paying attention to what we are seeing. I am seeing “lunch period” in the “cafeteria” and high school memories come flooding back. “Paleo Acres” is the generic name I have been using for any senior center so the idea that our senior center—which will have a name as soon as we choose one—will has a lot of characteristics Bette and I remember from our high school years is why this essay has the name it has.
In all fairness, some of the eating areas we saw were set up like restaurants and the wait staff come to take your order, so the “cafeteria line” was a flashback horror, not an observation. On the other hand, one of my most vivid memories of eating in the cafeteria was how much complaining there was about the food. I didn’t think the food was that bad, but I learned early that complaining about it was an easy way to belong to the group, so for a while, I complained about food I liked pretty well.
Are people at Paleo Acres High School going to complain about the food? If it’s a cheap way to belong to the group, I’d guess they will. I have never thought that complaining about the food made it taste any better, so what I would probably do is to try out different times in the dining period or ask the waiters I see most often to cut back a little on the ranch dressing. Either of those would draw on resources I didn’t have in high school. Also either of those could produce more enjoyable food. Neither is going to make me a solid citizen if the glue that holds us together is complaining about the food but I think I can do without some of that.
Then there’s where, and with whom, to sit. I don’t think I’ve faced that question since college, where we also had a “dining hall.” Do the people at Paleo Acres High sit in acquaintance-based or maybe interest-based groups? Of course they do. And why shouldn’t they? And my options are going to be the same ones I had in high school: join a group, start a group, or eat alone.
So in my bad moments, I think of my years as an old person as going back to high school and those are bad because I was so bad at high school. But there are good moments, too, and in those good moments, I remember that I have skills I didn’t have when I faced this problem the first time. Besides that, the people with whom we are going to work on this issue have some new skills too. At those times, I think, “You know, this could work.”
In high school, the big stress is on finding out “who you are” or “what you can do” or even, sometimes, “what you can get away with.” This concerns the fifth stage of Erik Erikson’s well-known theory of development. The goal to be pursued, Erikson says, is “identity” as opposed to “role confusion.” The ugly side of this transition calls the dimension of “fanaticism” into play. At Paleo Acres, I expect that everyone will know pretty well who he is, or at least who he has been, and maybe even how much of what he was, is left by now. That doesn’t look like a setting for fanaticism and repudiation to me.
So what might we be looking for instead? The penultimate stage of Erikson’s scheme—the stage I am hoping Bette and I are still in when we get there—is identified by “generativity” and runs the risk of “overextension.” Generativity is the sense that one has become rich in one’s life—rich in experiences, in empathy, in time to lavish on others and (keeping the specter of “overextension” in mind) on yourself as well. At Paleo Acres, that is what I hope for myself and what I expect of the people who have just come there or who have kept themselves sharp and attentive during their years there.
So here’s the short way to say this. Paleo Acres has the possibility of feeling like a high school. There will be a tendency to group into familiar friendships and to bond around common interests. We will be eating the same food in the same room, more or less. The tendency to exalt ourselves by denigrating the institution will not likely have died in the 60 years since graduation.
On the other hand, the sharp edge that was always a part of the grouping and re-grouping probably came from what was at stake in the high school years. There is a certain intensity to wondering who you really are and going to school every day with others who are asking themselves the same question. It may be that the nasty edge of exclusion came from that intensity, and if it did, we might just do without it this time around.
Similarly, by this second time around people will have acquired skills they did not have in high school. They see better what is at stake, having seen it so many times before in so many settings. They know better how to respond, having done it wrong themselves so many times and maybe even right a few times.
So I will be looking, at Paleo Acres “High School” for much less of that sharpness with which we all wounded each other when we were kids. I will be looking for a much richer and more generous notion of what is going on. I will be looking for people who are much more skilled by now and who may have acquired the rudiments of wisdom in the use of those skills.
So the metaphor of our chosen senior center—Paleo Acres—as a high school (P.A.H. S.?) has a kind of “back to the future” twist to it. I hope Bette and I can find a time machine that is a little less violent than the one they used in the movie. (The best picture I could find of the car is from a German ad for Zurück in Zukunft. Bette and I are counting on staying here in Portland.)
 Those of you who are familiar with Erikson’s schema will note that I am taking some liberties with it, all in the cause of simplification. Erickson’s whole treatment considers the syntonic and dystonic options at each stage; the Freudian psychosexual stages; the life stage issues, the associated virtues; and the associated maladaptations. I’m skipping nearly all of that.
 I’m also skipping the final Erikson stage, which we will all face, but which I am putting off until I get the “high school” metaphor whipped into shape. The final state in Erikson’s schema is called “integrity” and the failure to achieve it, “despair.” This is subtle because it doesn’t happen all at once. People can submit to despair with reference to some part of their lives, while maintaining a somewhat frayed integrity in other parts.
 I have actually begun referring to myself as “wise,” not so much because I have the traits that my society associates with wisdom, but because I’m pretty sure things aren’t going to get any better from here on. This is, in other words, as good as it is likely to get, so I’m going to call my observations “wise sayings.”