Living with Seniors

That’s what I do. I live in a Senior Center, being old myself. [1] But when I was an undergraduate in college, I lived with Seniors, too. And Juniors and Sophomores and Freshmen. I just thought of that today. It changes the sense of “living with Seniors” entirely and not only that, it also offers a very useful new idea about them.

Now imagine that I was about to take a three course sequence. At Portland State, these courses would be called AGE 199, 299, and 399. And let’s say that I was worried about my GPA. [2] I might very well locate a Senior who had taken that sequence and had done very well with it. And since he had already had the experiences I was about to have, I might ask him to share what he could about how to do that particular piece of work well. Furthermore, to the extent that “doing well” involved any way of mastering academic material generally, I might ask if I could hang around and see what I could learn from watching him.

OK, the Senior Center where I live is…actually…rich in Seniors. And quite a few of them—there is no way of knowing in advance which ones—have already taken AGE 199, 299, and 399 and some of them did very well in them, metaphorically speaking. Is there any reason I couldn’t choose the ones I think have done best and listen carefully as they say just how they managed? I think that would be the smart thing to do and I live at the perfect place to try it.

Here at Holladay Park Plaza, the real life equivalent of AGE 199, 299, and 399 are challenges of two sorts. For reasons I will explore below, I am calling them KM and non-KM challenges. The KM challenges are those that you can’t beat—there is no way to beat them—but you can keep them from beating you. The second, non-KM challenges, are ones that you actually can beat if you are willing to develop the skills that are required.

Kobayashi Maru (KM)

Star Trek is famous for the Kobayashi Maru test. The purpose of this simulation is KM 1
“to cause the cadets to ‘experience fear in the face of certain death and learn to remain in control of themselves… despite that fear.” [3] Of course, everybody faces certain death. That is, as Ursula LeGuin’s Archmage, Ged, says, “a consequence of living.” But here, I see people for whom that death is not all that far off. A diagnosis has been made and a probable time line established. If that isn’t “in the face of certain death,” I don’t know what is. And yet many of the Seniors I live with, live absolutely radiant, other-centered lives. [4] They are passing Kobayashi Maru and everyone around them is benefiting by it.

It is said, in Star Trek, that you can’t beat the Kobayashi Maru test. But you can, keep it from beating you. You can remain in control of yourself despite your fear. I see people doing that all the time. It is said, in Star Trek circles, that Captain Kirk “passed” the Kobayashi Maru test. We find out, by the end of The Wrath of Kahn, what that expression means (he cheated), but the fact is that Kirk did not pass the Kobayashi Maru test. He didn’t take it.

Where I live, everybody takes the Kobayashi Maru and nobody cheats. Some pass and some don’t. I get to live with many who have passed it. And I don’t want so much to learn their tricks as to be strengthened by their resolve.

It is easy to say, sometimes, that you just cannot bring yourself to do something that is difficult or unpleasant. But it is harder to say that when you live among people who do, in fact, bring themselves to do extraordinarily difficult  or unpleasant things and manage them with a certain flair.

Non KM Tests

The Kobayashi Maru is about self control in the midst of fear. The collection of challenges I am going to consider now are not about self control. They are about achievement.  I have several kinds of achievement I want to tell you about and then I would like to tell you a story.

KM 2There are people here, for instance, who manage to stay in touch with their biological family—that ordinarily means siblings and children and grandchildren—and also to build stable friendships with the other residents. I wasn’t all that impressed at the beginning of my time here, but now that I have given it a try, I know how hard it is and I want to learn how they do that. I don’t want to copy them—the differences also need to be taken into account—but I want to learn how they see the field of play and how the decide what to do.

There are also people here who have descended from one level of physical ability to another. And sometimes to yet another. And these people—not all of them, but the ones who have done it best—have managed to rise to the top of each level of physical capacity. They find a way, in other words, to get the most out of whatever level of ability they currently possess. One of the skills that requires is not getting lost in lamenting the earlier levels. Another thing that requires is not giving up the abilities you now have on the grounds that further decline in in your future.

Let’s just put those two skills into the scale of a single week to help you see what an achievement they are. It is Wednesday and you are capable of all the actions in Set B. You give yourself fully to those actions. You master them, you implement them; when necessary you work around them. And all this without dwelling unduly on Set A, which you were capable of last Monday or on Set C, which is all you will be capable of by Friday. You put Set A aside, remembering it but not lamenting it. You put Set C aside, predicting it but refusing to be prematurely constrained by it. That leaves you Set B and you do Set B for all you’re worth.

Telling Stories

These are Seniors who passed AGE 199, 299, and 399 with flying colors and I can only profit by getting to know them. Let’s deal with something more concrete.  I said I had a story to tell you.

There are people here whose spouses are no longer good company. Most, but not all, of these spouses are men, so I am going to shift over to “husband” as a convenience. The story I am going to tell you—“lightly edited,” as they say now—takes place in the Holladay Park Plaza dining room.

Bette and I had dinner with one of these couples recently. The wife was bright and KM 5chipper; the husband was quiet, but he could say things that made sense on their own and that contributed to the conversation. Sometimes. And sometimes not. When “sometimes not” happens, the wife has a decision to make.

He said, “So…I used to play basketball at a little high school in Texas…” And she said, “You just told that story.” And he said, “Well, I want to tell it again.” And she said, “You go ahead and tell it. That’s a really good story.” And she looked at Bette and me and winked. That’s the story.  And I’ve been thinking about what it means.

This story could be told a hundred different ways. I know that. Even being at the table, I realize that I could interpret it an several ways, myself. Here is how I interpreted it at the time and, having reflected on it for a week or so, how I still interpret it.

The husband could be really incompetent. He could deny that he has a responsibility not to tell the same story over and over, knowing also that he can get away with it. I don’t think that was what was going on. I think he didn’t remember that he had told it and the “rule” that you don’t tell the same story over and over again [5] seemed remote to him.

The wife could act as if she were the only real person at the table. I see that sometimes. She could, for instance, say, “He just keeps telling the old stories over and over” as if her husband were not at the table at all. This woman didn’t do that. She kept in touch with her husband on one side and Bette and me on the other. She helped us understand that this was something he did from time to time, even when he was reminded, and that it didn’t have anything to do with us in particular.

The wife could take the husband’s side, explaining to us how good the story was or how significant it was and implying that we ought to be happy hearing it over and over again. She didn’t do that either. She affirmed him, seeing that she couldn’t dissuade him, and she affirmed us as well. By saying to him, “You go ahead and tell it…” she touched him warmly and by winking at us, she touched us warmly. She made us part of the audience along with herself and promised us her help in moving on to a genuinely common topic after the story was over.

This is the only time I have had this experience with this particular husband and wife, but I have had a lot of experience with that particular dilemma and I don’t think I have ever seen it done better. She facilitated the conversation and affirmed every person in it. I don’t know what it cost her to do that, but I admire it and it helps me to aspire to do it myself.


So the really good thing about Senior Centers is that there are people here who have already done very well on “courses” you haven’t taken yet, but which you will take as you proceed through this particular curriculum. Seeing what the best of them do and, when it is appropriate, asking them how they do it, is a great advantage. We are, in fact, going to be taking these courses and watching people who are passing them with flying colors is almost like Cliff’s Notes.

[1] It turns out that when you say “senior center” to yourself in just the wrong way, you come up with something like this. Jake Hanson is, in fact, the center on the Duck’s football team, and if he keeps his grades up and stays out of trouble and doesn’t go pro, he will be a senior center in just two short years.Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 6.28.14 AM.png

[2] True confessions. MY undergraduate GPA was so low that there was no point at all in worrying about it. I was admitted to graduate school on probation.

[3] It is true, of course, that Captain Kirk “defeated” the Kobayashi Maru challenge. He cheated. And he did so on the grounds that there shouldn’t be tests like that. “I don’t believe in the No Win scenario,” he said. That means that we never find out whether Kirk could have passed the test; that he could have remained in control of himself in the face of certain death.

[4] To help lessen the risk that you will conclude that this essay was written by the Holladay Park Plaza marketing folks, I need to find some place to say that there are fair to middling seniors here and some I would call failures. Just like college. The fact that this essay selects the best of them as my mentors is not meant to imply that all the residents are like the ones I am focusing on here.

[5] This suggests another kind of spouse problem. Bette and I have been meeting a lot of new people over the last year or so and I have had occasion to tell the same story in Bette’s hearing over and over again. And I hear her stories over and over again. There isn’t any other way for us to be together for a long time and to keep meeting new couples and not run into this problem. A good solution, I think, is for the spouse to assess the performance itself. The setting demands that the story be told and the spouse could say, “Well done. You tell that story better every time I hear you tell it.” Or if it is not well told, he or she could say nothing. Given the setting, it isn’t really fair for the spouse to say, “Oh no, not that story again.”





About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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