Sunday, November 1, 2009

The View From One Inch Shorter

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

It has been two months since I accepted an early retirement offer from Harvard University in order to focus on my fiction writing (my optimistic starting point is described in “An Awfully Big Adventure?”). Since then, life has swept me along on its merry (and sometimes not-so-merry) path.

Did I begin working on my writing? Yes, I did. As planned, I reviewed three stories awaiting final edits and decided which one to work on first. I was both giddy with the prospect of writing days stretching ahead and terrified that I’d made a huge mistake in leaving my job, but on my first workday, I identified—and, more importantly, saw how to resolve—a critical problem with the opening pages of my story. I knew then that I’d made the right decision.

What happened next? I regret to say that I was completely distracted by an overload of paperwork and obligations. These fell into three categories:

Money: My post-retirement to-do list held 22 items, ranging from “Cancel subway pass” to “Submit final Flexible Spending Account receipts.” All of them had to do with funds I could receive or funds I could avoid uselessly spending—but only if I submitted a specific form and associated documentation. When I realized that I was in danger of forgoing money I was owed while continuing to pay for things I no longer used, I knew I had to set aside time to complete the paperwork.

Mom: My mother is 87 years old and has congestive heart failure. She’s now in an assisted living facility, but her doctor suggested that she move to a higher level of care. This prompted my siblings and me to begin simultaneously researching long-term care options and finalizing a partnership agreement a lawyer had drafted several years earlier to preserve and protect a summer cottage we’ll inherit. Many phone conferences and email exchanges ensued, some of them contentious. As the longtime family peacemaker, I ended up revising the partnership document to reflect our conversations while running interference between my siblings.

Mayhem: Well, not literally mayhem, but how many things can happen at once? Between the time of year, happenstance, and things I’d neglected to do over the summer, my calendar listed appointments for nearly every day in September and October. Many of these involved family and friends and others had to do with medical appointments I’d been putting off. At one of these appointments, my annual physical, I learned that I was one inch shorter than I’d been the previous year.

One inch shorter! How could that be? “That happens when people get older,” said the medical assistant as she left me in the examination room. Well, yes, it happened to my 87-year-old mother, who now looks tiny standing next to me in photos. But I thought I had many years to go before I started to shrink, which—face it—is what is happening. Since that appointment, I’ve used up even more time in researching this phenomenon. I’ve learned that height loss can sometimes result from poor posture or a lack of stretching exercises, but the results of my planned experimentation with that will not be known until my next height measurement.

In the meantime, I’ve identified a hidden benefit of decreased height. I was walking a familiar route the other day (the route of my twice-daily walk to and from the subway during my working years) when I realized that things looked subtly different. What could have changed so radically in just a few weeks? I indulged myself in imagining that my newly expanded focus on writing was enabling me to notice much more about my surroundings than I’d seen before. But the truth is that I’ve always noticed what’s around me, storing away images and overheard conversations for future stories. Then I thought of my decreased height. I’m used to seeing things at a flat height or at one or two inches higher, depending on the shoes of the day, but I’ve never seen things at a lower height. Could it make a difference? To test this theory, I tried walking a few steps on tiptoe and suddenly everything looked “normal.”

So now here I am. My calendar is mostly clear for November and December, and I’m back to revising my story. I’m trying to get in at least five hours of solid writing each day and have been reading a lot more fiction than before. I’m also making sure to get in a daily walk, ruminating on the day’s writing conundrums, collecting snippets of conversation, and viewing the world from one inch shorter.


  1. Congratulations on taking such a huge step. I quite my full-time job in 1999 and I've rarely looked back. THe transition took awhile, though.
    Glad you are able to get back to focus on the writing. It's my biggest lesson. Putting myself and my writing first. Caregiving an aging relative can be overwhelming and all-consuming. I have to have some boundaries.

  2. I wonder if I've shrunk, you made me want to go check.

  3. So interesting that being on tiptoe now seems normal. And it would be interesting to record the slight differences in perception before your current height seems "normal," too.

  4. Elizabeth, You could turn what you've learned though your research and experience about decreasing height into a short story or magazine article. It's an interesting topic, particularly as it relates to self perception. Lot of possibilities and angles: humorous personal essay, serious science piece, etc.

    With regard to dealing with a multitude of piled-up to-do's, I've often thought about why it's easier to work on these kinds of routine (or not so routine) tasks than to work on larger, longer projects. For me, I think getting the immediate satisfaction of scratching off items as I complete them makes me feel good. It makes me feel that I've done something necessary. In my mind, these kinds of items have practical importance. As you said, there's danger in not paying attention to reducing money going out and to increasing money coming in. Also, for me, it's much easier on a Saturday morning to go to the bank, call my dad, pick up a few items at the grocery store, drop clothes off at the cleaners, and do all kinds of busy work, instead of working on a longer-term project that requires more thought and less immediate reward.

    The trick with writing is to break it down into small chunks (a page, a paragraph, a sentence) so I get that immediate reward. Additionally, it's always easier for me to get to work on continuing a piece I've started or editing a piece I've already written, than it is to start something new (like my thesis!). A new project has no shape, no boundaries, no starting point. It looms large. It feels much easier (and immediately important) for me to go to the store and pick out that birthday card for a niece or nephew than it is to sit down in front of a blank screen.

  5. I love the idea of turning this topic into a magazine article. And it's so interesting, Alex, that you'd much rather do the routine tasks than sit down to long writing projects. I have plenty of my own procrastinating tricks when I'm on a deadline, but it's the routine stuff that I let slip and which eventually makes me crazy.

  6. I'm sitting here stretching and trying to elongate my neck as I type this. Eeek! I don't want to turn into Grandmother until I'm at least 80!

    I'm intrigued by this loss of an inch... and about how places I visited as a child seemed so big then and so much smaller now... I wonder if a story would be woven, by you, about how one place appears to one person throughout their life... and if maybe, towards the end, it would seem grand again like it did in the beginning? More from all the history than anything else... but also from viewing it at a shorter point again?

  7. Karen, thanks so much for your good wishes. I was glad to hear that you haven't regretted leaving your full-time job and also that the transition took some time. (Maybe I can let up on my guilt at not writing eight hours a day from the beginning!) I have a disabled husband in addition to my elderly mother, so it has been interesting and helpful for me to read the posts on your blog about your own life and struggles, which in many ways are similar to mine.

    Alex, what a great idea to turn my otherwise somewhat freaky shrinking experience into a short story or article. I love the idea of the humorous angle as a component of a short story. It was also interesting to hear your view of the tug-of-war between chores and writing. I also like to cross things off a list, and I can write MUCH better if my desk is cleared off. Otherwise, I get very distracted by what's on it. camera...I better download those photos and email them off to my friends...

    Martha, your description of letting the routine stuff slip is exactly what I've been doing for the past four decades (or so it seems)! Then I would suddenly panic and do everything in a rush. I'm trying to schedule things now to get my writing done first and then (in the late afternoon) take care of chores and other obligations. It hasn't been working very well, though.

    Elizabeth and Hadley, it was definitely weird to realize I had decreased in height. Your comment on the way things look as a child is really interesting, Hadley. Somehow it seems more like a film to me than a short story--the same views from different vantage points over time. It seems to me that you would not only be seeing things from different heights but would also notice different components of the scene depending on your age.

  8. Of course I immediately went to check my height against the bathroom door, where I too am an inch shorter than I was whenever I put the old mark there. Lately I've been feeling I'm battling gravity more than in the past, or maybe gravity is getting stronger (though I seem to remember hearing that it's getting weaker, which should work in our favor!). This isn't a side of aging that gets much comment, though anyone who lives long enough experiences it -- but maybe too many worse things are taking up their attention. :-{

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