The Secret Lives of Old Men


“Gee,” I yelled in the wind, and Hickory, my lead sled dog, guided the team to the right across the lake and northward toward the mountains. We entered the forest and began the ascent, steep switchbacks, dogs pulling hard. “Easy, Easy,” I said as we approached a left turn with a steep drop at the right side of the trail. We were hundreds of miles into the snow and silence of Alaska.

My body was in a chair on our deck in Georgia, and the birds were singing. But my imagination was racing a team of sled dogs through the wilderness. I had been reading an article in The New Yorker about this year’s Iditarod, that famous sled dog race of over a thousand miles, and I couldn’t help leaving the page and imagining myself mushing toward the finish line. The race was won this year by Mitch Seavey, a 53-year-old veteran racer and the oldest winner in the race’s history.

Mitch Seavey_2

AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Bill Roth

After months and years of dog breeding, hard training, and ferocious weather, and after crossing the finish line and hugging his father and wife, Mitch Seavey dedicated his race to older men, “This is for all the gentlemen of a certain age who think it ends at fifty.”

A retired man may not have the vigor of his twenties or even his fifties, but with a little imagination, he can forge his fantasies into something real. Want to race in the Iditarod? Mush a dog sled across a glacier. Want to race a bicycle across America? Take a bike tour in New England. Want to swim the English Channel? Sign up for an open water swimming tour.

Not all fantasies take people through dangerous adventures. People may dream of writing a novel, teaching young people or working with veterans. Whatever it may be, there are partial or substitute experiences that will enrich retirement and lend older people a sense of possibility.

In today’s wired world, people begin at Google or Bing (Microsoft’s search engine). Type in a fantasy, examine the results and begin narrowing the possibilities.

Several years ago my wife and I dreamed about finding jobs overseas, perhaps teaching English, and working from one country to another. The Internet gave us hundreds of possibilities. We learned about TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) certificates and considered earning two. And we talked about competing in a job market oriented to young people.

Spending more than a year on research and networking, we finally trimmed and molded our fantasy into a one-month volunteer assignment in Peru. I worked in a school with kindergarteners and Barbara worked in a medical clinic. We lived with a host family, studied Spanish, and toured Peru. We had a wonderful time all the way from fantasy through experience, and it satisfied our itch to work overseas.

Most fantasies, however, probably never work out. James Thurber’s hero in his short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” may be American literature’s quintessential dreamer. Left alone, Mitty teleported himself to command a Naval hydroplane, to perform complex surgery, to stand on trial for murder and to pilot a bomber during war.

In reality, Mitty was demeaned by his wife, bested by younger men, scolded by traffic cops, and spent his time running errands. After his wife found fault even with his largely successful errands, his last fantasy put him in front of a firing squad, “… erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”

For young and middle-age men with possibilities, fantasies give direction and goals. Fantasies can be transformed into accomplishment. For older, frailer men, memories and fantasies offer a last refuge, a final opiate.  Maybe “old age” should be defined as a time when men and women can no longer transform fantasies into related experiences.

Walter MItty lives on. He carries us into the wilderness, through the horrors of war, and into the arms of lovers—everywhere a man’s heart may yearn. The journeys are quiet and occur at any time of day. An old man sitting peacefully on a park bench may imagine himself anywhere, engaged in anything, facing competition, danger, love, always competent and respected.

“Whoa,” I commanded as we crossed the finish line. Ice and snow matted throughout my beard. A small crowd cheered and the CNN cameras rolled. “What’s it like, Warren,” asked Anderson Cooper, “to be 68 and the oldest person ever to win the Iditarod?”