Chapter 23:

Elvis Has Left the Building a Changed Man

Life always delivers what I call unintended consequences. We start out doing something with a set of expectations about what will happen and where we’ll end up, and, along the way, strange things happen. If our expectations are met, it’s usually merely a coincidence. The rest is a surprise; thus, the law of unintended consequences.

As Yogi Berra put it, “if you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.” My
The quick reality check for those of us in our sixties is this: we’re all living longer. In Canada, the average life expectancy for men is 77, and for women, it’s 82. Having already reached 60, my life expectancy is 81. My mother just celebrated her 91st birthday. I have a lot of time left; easily 20 years.variation on that famous phrase is this: “Even if you know where you are going, you’ll always end up somewhere else.” Ending up somewhere else is the point of any adventure, and when you end up where you least expect to, it means you’ve had a good one.

Here’s another bonus: I’m healthy. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that once we reach a certain point in our lives, we can expect a reasonable level of health to continue for a while. I quit drinking 20 years ago, quit smoking 17 years ago, and I’m only slightly overweight and much lighter than I was in my forties. I exercise, and I’m more conscious of what I eat and what I do. My doctor tells me I can expect to remain healthy for a long time.

I’m also engaged in life. Again, studies seem to show that we rust out rather than wear out, and that matters as much for our mind and our soul as it does for our body.

The point of all this is simple. At my age, my father was retiring in the expectation that he had only a short time left. The demands of a gruelling job as a labourer had taken their toll on his body. He had poor health and low expectations, and he wanted to relax and slow down. I have nearly one-quarter of my life ahead of me, and so much to see and do out there in the big wide world.

I’ve come to believe that we have to do for our brain and our soul what we do for our bodies – get up and off the couch. For the past 10 years, I’ve forced myself to become a runner. Many days it was too cold, too rainy, too cloudy, too hot, too sunny, or too perfect. I went out and did my run anyway. I was up and off the couch. Ultimately, an ugly run was better than no run.

Adventures, doing something completely different, are the solution to exercising the mind and the soul. Each adventure I’ve taken has enervated, challenged, and pushed me to test some intellectual, emotional, and spiritual limits. I get to define success and, so far, each adventure has been an unparalleled success.

Retirement doesn’t agree with me, not when there’s a much healthier alternative. It’s far better to be tired and wrung out at the end of the day from doing something than to be tired and bored with myself after doing a whole lot of nothing.

I did a quick search on “retirement” on Amazon. There are more than 6,000 books on the subject listed, and most of them are about planning for retirement. It’s obviously a growth business.

Retirement is an unfortunate word; one I would like to eradicate from the lexicon. Someone once described it as “statutory senility.” “Retirement,” Ernest Hemingway said, “is the ugliest word in the language.”

It’s also an outmoded concept. It connotes dropping everything, putting on really bad clothes, and trying to fill one’s life with small pastimes made big – golf being my best example. Retirement is buying matching white patent-leather shoes and belts, proving definitively that you shouldn’t drink and dress. It’s about hitching my belt under my armpits and shuffling off to the local restaurant for the early-bird special. Retirement is about watching TV, talking to the TV, and yelling at the TV, especially during newscasts. Eventually, the TV will talk back to you.

Finally, retirement is about doing nothing and complaining about nothing to do. It’s about becoming a hypochondriac without taking any responsibility for our own health.

The choice of 65 as a retirement age was a random one. Bismarck picked it out as a way to get some folks out of the German workforce to make room for the young unemployed (this bit of FLAB [folklore and bullshit] may not be true, but it makes for a good story).

Contrary to mythology, the Inuit in Canada’s north do not have 57 different words for snow. Knowing snow intimately is crucial to their survival, so they need to understand and describe many subtle gradations across many defining characteristics, which is impossible to do in one word. We need to replace that horrid word – retirement – with 57 subtler descriptors that reflect the new complexity of our longevity.

I could go on with my rant, but I suspect you get my drift.

I actually thought about these things. I pondered cosmic questions, navel gazed, read widely, bored all my friends with angst-filled and ennui- ridden monologues, all focusing on the same issue. Now that the future is here, what do I do with it?

Am I alive? Am I healthy? Do I have a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and clothes on my back? Do I have enough money to make it through the day, the week, the year?

Am I happy with my day? Do I have a passion that fulfills me? What would I rather be doing? What would an adventure look like if I could plan one?

These cosmic questions need to be asked occasionally. They’re not inconsequential, and they don’t have to freeze us in doubt; too many questions can lead to procrastination. Procrastination is unsatisfying and ultimately boring. I finally got tired and bored with myself.

I had also decided some time ago to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Not that we have to rage. We’re living longer and are richer and healthier than ever before. We have the Internet to bring our banks, our friends, and our family into contact with us anywhere on the planet. We have transportation to take us wherever we want to go, quickly and safely. We have the rule of law and public safety in more countries than ever before. We have medicine, insurance coverage, and health services wherever we go.

Decades of active living ahead challenge us to do more than improve our golf game. We see problems in our community that cry out for a solution. We still have the time, energy, and motivation to accept those challenges. We see opportunities to fulfill our dreams.

Through all this, I’ve managed, mostly through luck, to gain and retain enough money to save me from the necessity of work. It’s been years since I’ve had to show up on a regular basis for anything like a real job in a real office. I’ve managed to convince people that I can help them on a contract basis. I don’t need to work for them permanently, and I certainly don’t need to work in an office next to theirs.

Working with my few clients satisfies my desire to stay involved. I want to suit up, show up, and play in the game, but in relief, not full-time. I value putting my experience to use, if only to show myself I still have the juice.

If you can put the past in perspective, you can treat the present as a joyful experience and the future as a set of infinite possibilities. You can consider the possibilities and the opportunities that life makes available to you.

That’s why my little cooking school idea survived. All good ideas survive, crazy or otherwise, because they deserve to survive. When I signed up for culinary school, I became a student again; at 60, one of the oldest the school has ever enrolled. My adventure in culinary school freed me. It gave me something to do.

I was blessed, because I happened to like it – a lot. I liked my fellow students, I admired my chefs, and I loved the energy, vitality, and mania of the kitchen. Anything was better than sinking into the couch. Luckily for me, the anything of cooking school was like scratching the jackpot ticket in the lottery.

In the process, the door opened to many new adventures. It seems one adventure begets another and another. It stimulates a thirst for further adventures.

The experience gave me a new perspective on food. Our chefs have been around food, rich food, all their lives, yet they’re admirably fit and healthy. Part of their fitness comes from the job. Cooking in a business kitchen is tough, demanding, and gruelling work. It burns calories. Surrounded by food, butter, cream, salt, and all the best provisions money can buy, they stay fit because they’ve learned moderation. They cherish good food – the way it looks on the plate, the way it feels in their mouths, the way it tastes. They only eat good food; they don’t eat crap. Smaller plates, better portions, and local, fresh ingredients all form a permanent, seamless lifestyle that allows them to be around the best food money can buy and not turn fat or gluttonous.

One part of their success is their rejection of processed food. We’ve become slaves to the food processing industry. We’ve bought the convenience argument and have turned our food preparation over to strangers. Processed food manufacturers are charging us an enormous price for the convenience, service, and time savings of their heat-and- eat products. We’ve traded our money and our health for convenience. Processed food is not good for us. The chefs at PICA and food, agriculture, health, and environment writer Michael Pollan have done more to help me find a healthy perspective on food than all the Jenny Craigs, Dr. Atkinses, and Pritikins ever did.

When we cook, we know what’s going into our food. We’re in charge of food safety, and we limit the chemical preservatives and artificial ingredients. We control our salt intake. Since it costs little to buy unprocessed foods and ingredients, we pay ourselves to cook. I may actually recoup this investment in my chef’s training. Our chefs were constantly drilling this simple fact into our heads: if we buy fresh ingredients and raw, unprocessed food, we know what we’ve got. If we buy processed food, we put our health and enjoyment of eating at the mercy of someone else.

Cooking is a valuable use of my time. Pollan and others have documented that the relationship between cooking at home and obesity is inverse – the more you cook at home, the less likely you are to be overweight. The more you eat out, eat junk food, eat highly processed food, or eat on the run, the more likely you are to be overweight. Cooking is good for my waistline and good for my health.

Serious studies also show that cooking and eating together with family, friends, and loved ones leads to a whole host of positive outcomes – better mental and physical health, longer life, less chance of illness, and lower risk of everything from diabetes to heart disease. It’s not just the food, it’s the deeper, more spiritual aspect of sharing food that is healthy for our mental, physical, and spiritual lives.

As a man who has lived alone for many stretches, including several long ones, I can testify to the greater satisfaction of sharing a meal that I’ve prepared with someone meaningful in my life than eating alone. I call myself shyly gregarious, but I love to entertain. I love to gather people around my dinner table, feed them, and enjoy their interaction. The conversation, the laughter, the warmth, and the glow are all special to me. It feels wonderful. Learning to cook well has opened the door to such entertaining even wider for me than before by building my confidence. I can relax, cook, share, and enjoy.

Now, with my new kitchen, my million-dollar fridge, all my new appliances, and my KitchenAid mixer, I also have the best facility and equipment possible to entertain at home. My dining room table seats six, and I’m filling it regularly. It’s pure enjoyment to have a full dining room and serve a meal.

I’ve also come to respect restaurants now in a way that I had not before. I know what goes into the food preparation and service experience. Plating, presentation, and cooking things the right way with no shortcuts, substitutions, or omissions is an art form. Now, when I eat in a restaurant, I take a real interest in what I order, what the service is like, the ambience of the place, the food I choose, how it looks when it arrives, and, finally, how it tastes. Running a restaurant is a tough job, and I now try to make going to one an experience. I talk to the waiter, ask about the food, and speak to the chef. I taste every mouthful slowly, and I think about what I’m eating and how it was prepared. I enjoy the whole event infinitely more. I also leave a big tip.

As for the expansion of opportunities, what follows are just three that cooking school has provided to me. You guessed it – they’re more adventures. Not surprisingly, two of the three have to do with France.

My first occurred in Normandy, while travelling with my friends Michael and Mary Louise, six months after completing my culinary course. I had bookended my culinary experience with trips to France, the first in the south, and the second in the north. The contrast was notable.

In my first trip, before culinary school, I was overwhelmed. Our small town boasted two of the most interesting restaurants I’ve ever been blessed to visit. The first, Chez Bruno, which I’ve gushed about earlier on, specialized in a set menu based on truffles. Each course was a truffle- infused inspiration. Lunch on the patio of Chez Bruno’s was at least a two-hour affair (ours somehow stretched to three).

The second restaurant was a modest-looking place in the village of Lorgues. Its front patio allowed one to enjoy a meal while watching the traffic on Main Street. We chose the five-course set menu, created by the chef solely on the availability of the best ingredients that day. It was indescribable; so delightful that we took pictures of every dish served. I was in awe and convinced that I could never achieve such culinary heights.

A year later in Normandy, a new restaurant had opened, and we were eager to experience it. Somewhere near the restaurant’s first night, we tried it out. I ordered from the daily menu, while Michael and Mary Louise ordered à la carte. The meals delivered were somewhere between mediocre and awful.

It hit me for the first time that I could have cooked better food than the cooks in this French kitchen. My ego being what it is, I started to think that it might be good fun to actually do a stage in a French kitchen – a well-known tradition where a chef takes on an apprentice. The novice works for free, and the chef teaches the apprentice. If it works, the chef offers a paying job. I’m a tourist in the kitchen, but the challenge of working in a restaurant is now a viable possibility, courtesy of a bad restaurant meal in Normandy and my culinary school training. I’m more aware of what a restaurant can and should deliver, and I will forever be a more discerning diner. A window opens, perspectives change, and a new adventure beckons.

My second new adventure opportunity also happened in France the summer after completing cooking school. I love Paris. I visit it often, and my personal Paris has become well defined. On this particular trip, I stayed in a slightly different area from my usual haunts in the Latin Quarter, and I poked around in different places. I have a new companion, the ghost of Julia Child – one of many who have trod this path for a love of French food and the French manner of communing with food, family, and friends.

One of my discoveries in this new area was E. Dehillerin, a restaurant and chef supply shop, well known to Child, in the first arrondissement. It’s a family business that has been around since 1820, but it was new to me. I wandered in one afternoon and was captivated for several hours. The Louvre has nothing on this place for capturing my imagination. It has all sorts of kitchenware, baking pans, copper pots and fry pans, knives, pastry pans and molds, and every piece of Le Creuset imaginable. The basement is full of industrial-size cooking pots, most of which I would not have recognized a year ago. I contained myself on my first visit and bought a few knives and a small eight-inch copper omelette fry pan that’s likely to be the first in a long line of similar purchases.

Here’s another Paris that I will explore. It’s not just the Paris of thousands of restaurants. It’s the Paris of cooks, cooking schools, specialty stores, and cooking landmarks that will add a whole new dimension to the Paris I already know.

Finally, my third new adventure opportunity is cooking itself. I may never work as a cook in the regular sense of the word. I don’t like the pay, I’m not sure I’d like the regimentation of working a station, and I’m positive I wouldn’t like the commitment of showing up every night, six nights a week. But I’m already experiencing some of the ways to put my new-found skills to work.

A good friend works for a not-for-profit that desperately needs money for research to solve a rare, life-threatening disease that afflicts children. Jill is passionate about the cause and the cure, and when she asks how I can help, she already has the answer. I was put up for public auction at their last fundraising dinner, and one generous soul bought me to provide a dinner for six people at his home. It was win-win. I worked with the couple on the menu, shopped for provisions, and sought out wine pairings from knowledgeable friends. I tested the recipes on my family and friends, then tweaked them a bit to perfect them to my taste. I prepped everything I could, checked it twice, and packed my catering box. On the appointed evening, I suited up in my chef whites, gathered up my box, my wine, and my knives (a chef always uses his own knives), and spent a delightful evening cooking a five-course meal for six appreciative guests. The kitchen was open and in full view of the dining room. Between my billing as a “chef” and the openness of the kitchen, I was in a no-fail zone. That was part of the thrill.

I cooked, plated, served, cleared the table, cleaned up, and left enough food for the host family’s next dinner. It was fulfilling, and it may have opened a new door to cooking that I never knew was there. We all had a great time. The hostess was particularly happy. “Bob,” she said, “I’ve had a great evening, because I didn’t have to do any work. I could sit back and enjoy my friends without worry.”

I’m not a chef, and I’ll never be a chef, but I’ve become a good cook. I’m cooking for friends, and my social life is as robust as it’s ever been. I thoroughly enjoy every phase and stage of inviting people for dinner in my home. It has added immeasurably to the depth and texture of my life and enhanced every one of my relationships. It looks like this one adventure has the possibility for a series of interesting follow-up adventures that never would have been possible otherwise.

So, friends, if you’ve made it this far in my story, I’m a happy man. Go have an adventure. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have a short, unpleasant moment, only slightly more challenging than sitting on your sofa. It’ll give you something new to complain about; a new story to tell. At best, you’ll be challenged, energized, enthralled, and enticed into adventure full-time. You may even become an adventure junkie. Who knows what will happen?

Casey Stengel’s take on our challenge is this: “The trick is growing up without growing old.” Now don’t get me started on my idea of becoming a dance instructor on a cruise ship, or a Zamboni driver at the community ice rink.

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