Monday, November 16, 2020

Q&A with Robert Bersson and Jack Greer


Bob Bersson
Robert Bersson and Jack Greer are the editors of the new book Better with Age: Creativity, Discovery & Surprise, a compilation of essays and reflections about experiences with aging. Bersson is an emeritus professor at James Madison University and Greer worked for many years at the University of Maryland's Sea Grant College.


Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for this book?


A: This project was Bob’s brainstorm.


Bob: Around age 69, I became increasingly conscious of all kinds of physical limitations that often come with the aging process. Certain medical interventions, including a hip replacement and an emergency room treatment and overnight hospital stay including an MRI, also occurred around this time.


Having been an inveterate learner and believer in lifelong personal growth and development, I began to feel the need to make the most of my remaining years, from progress in my guitar playing, music-making, and other creative pursuits to a return to teaching at James Madison University, this time in the forms of lifelong learning courses and the leading of annual “Insider Tours” to Italy, especially Florence and Venice.


Along with my individual response to aging, I started to think (as I invariably do) in terms of community.


How were friends and family members dealing with this same basic challenge of getting older and more limited? How were they staying vital or even progressing in various ways? Might a collection of their stories be a way to share positive experiences that could affirm and inspire us as we entered later life, our “senior” years, so often characterized as an autumnal or down-sliding period?

Jack Greer

As Jack Greer, a highly accomplished writer and longtime friend, had been a collaborator in several arts projects over our many years of friendship, I immediately turned to him for advice and possible collaboration.


Already a bandmate in two different music groups, one a jazz trio, the other an eclectic garage band, Jack thankfully jumped right in. (Our respective stories in the book center on these two bands.)


Q: How did you find the contributors, and how did you choose the order in which their essays would appear?


Bob: While Jack was our experienced expert on the literary side and the primary editor of the submitted pieces, I was the initial organizer who rounded up the contributors, beginning with friends, colleagues, and family members over 65. I simply sent out a mass e-mail invitation to submit stories to our “Better with Age: Stories of Affirmation and Inspiration” project.


Maybe a third of the people who received my e-mail responded with enthusiasm and began to write personal stories, essays, or poems about life-affirming activities that fit within our broad “Better with Age” focus. Submissions came in from as far away as Oregon, Florida, Arizona, Canada, and England, and we ultimately accepted 29 pieces in all.


The 26 essays, two poems, and a song happily grouped themselves into a natural progression. My British octogenarian cousin Anita Zehavi provided two experimental poems that invited the reader to join us on a journey, making for the perfect introduction.


For the first full section, “Life Stories,” we chose five essays and a poem that covered entire life spans, the broadest of views. A focus on specific themes followed: “Transitions To Retirement,” “Empowerment Through The Arts,” “Empowerment Through Physical Pursuits,” “Reflections on Aging,” and “Encounters.”


The contribution of another octogenarian, Harvey Yoder, presented us with the final word. It affirmed a soulful “Yes” to a life well lived, making a fitting conclusion to the book.


Jack: Working on Better with Age has been a delight, especially since it’s put me in direct contact with more than two dozen interesting, engaged, and talented collaborators. I’ve been moved both by the communal engagement and by the flashes of individual creativity and (let’s say it) wisdom, and I’m eternally grateful to Bob for introducing me to this cadre of thoughtful writers.


I learned a great deal by living with their essays and poems, and came to know the authors through many back-and-forths, as we considered precise words or phrases, or possible changes in sentence structure, or slight shifts of emphasis.


Though our exchanges were largely focused on the words, I’ve been mindful of Edgar Poe’s observation that one can learn more about writers through their “meanest sonnet” than through days of ordinary conversation. Many of these pieces surprised me with their forthrightness, their sometimes tough (and even raw) insights, and their humor.


I loved the groupings that Bob devised, and felt good about moving the set of personal recollections we called Life Stories to the beginning, giving the book an intimate depth from the get-go. I also enjoyed shaping Anita Zahavi’s two poems into a “Prelude” for the collection, and placing Harvey Yoder’s “final yes” at the end, where it serves as a culminating “Coda.”


As we’ve drifted through this very lonely pandemic, I’ve found solace in the indomitable spirit of all these writers, and in the companionship of their poetry and prose.


Q: You both write about your experiences with music. Can you say more about the impact music has had on your lives, both at younger ages and today?


Bob: Jack’s and my musical association has come in two phases. The first was way back in the mid-1970s as graduate students at the University of Maryland, College Park, me singing and playing guitar and Jack playing conga drum, with assorted friends playing percussion instruments, guitars, harmonica, and flute, singing along and dancing freely.


We played mostly high-energy rock, blues, and reggae. The music usually followed potluck supper parties that often turned into fun-filled communal events where everyone was either making music or dancing.


Fast forward about 35 years, and Jack and I got going again music-wise circa 2011, when he and his wife Bobbie moved to their mountainside cabin less than an hour from our home in the Shenandoah Valley area. He immediately became a key part of our “Countryside Garage Band,” whose members he describes in his story, “The End of the Line.”


Around 2016, another musical group, Trio Jazz, got underway, described in my story, “Playing Through My Fears.” Jack soon became the percussionist for that group, so we are now truly partners in both music making and writing.


Jack: As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when starting anew, you don’t have to throw everything away. But by the time I entered my doctoral program at the University of Maryland in the mid-1970s, I’d largely discarded drumming. There just wasn’t time, and I felt overwhelmed by all the assignments that faced me — both teaching and taking courses.


That was a shame, since as a youngster I’d worked hard to become a good drummer, in my late teens joining the “Soul Senders,” an 11-piece mixed-race R&B band in Richmond, Virginia, that played many parties and clubs, and then large concerts, where we backed up celebrities like Martha and the Vandellas, the Drifters, and Walter Jackson.


When I headed off to college at UVA, I largely put away my sticks, and once we’d moved to graduate student housing at the U of MD, I’d completely packed up my drums, both literally and figuratively — unknowingly shutting down one side of myself in a fit of anxious depression.


Then we met Bob. The music parties he describes were spontaneous, lively, and fun — and by this time I’d somehow forgotten about the fun part. From Musical Traditions in Takoma Park I bought a conga drum, a new challenge, since I’d never played the conga drum, and I had a blast backing up Bob on his guitar.


Then we got both real jobs and moved on. What followed for me was a 30-year career at the University of Maryland’s Sea Grant College, where I wrote about (and got engaged in) Chesapeake Bay science and policy.


This time my drums (and all that drumming energy) got shoved even deeper toward the back of the closet, so when my wife and I retired, selling our home near Annapolis and splitting our time between our sailboat in the Caribbean and our mountain cabin near Harrisonburg, Virginia, I was delighted to hook up with Bob again, whose enthusiasms were as infectious as ever.


Dragging out the old conga drum — and then other drums and cymbals — I began playing with our eclectic “garage band” (which I describe in my essay “The End of the Line”) and in a jazz trio that featured Bob on guitar and Carter Lyons on sax and clarinet.


At times, swinging with the trio at the Dayton Tavern (a regular gig now interrupted by Covid), I’ve felt as rhythmic and alive as I did all those years ago. And in many ways, given the perspective that the years can bring, it’s even better.


Q: What themes do you see running through these essays, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?  


Bob: Out of these 29 pieces, many authors describe activities that give meaning, that affirm and animate life in the face of challenges posed by aging.


One important theme: learning from one’s past in order to broaden the future, despite the limitations imposed by age. Another theme: committing oneself to activities that might better the lives of others through social activism, education, or simply good-hearted interactions.


What we hope readers will take away, whatever their age, is an affirmation of the activities that give their lives meaning, that provide deep joy or satisfaction. For seniors specifically, I hope these stories will inspire them to live life to its fullest.


Jack: An overriding theme in Better with Age is the power of the human spirit. Especially in these dark times, when literature and film all too often take on the tint of apocalyptic darkness, it’s uplifting to be reminded of our better selves.


In this collection the reader will find expressions of acceptance and gratitude, where those who’ve reached their later years take stock of where they’ve come, and — rather than bemoan what they’ve lost — celebrate what they have and what they’ve done.


Some writers describe the banishment of personal demons that have harried them for much of their lives. Others detail simple joys that brighten their days, like dancing, playing tennis, or hiking and biking through the mountains.


A more troubling theme that runs though the volume is the burden we bear for protecting the earth and the dispossessed among us. Whether in an essay about fireflies or living in the Appalachian forest, one senses the threat of human irresponsibility and the danger of environmental degradation.


Numbers of essays express a powerful desire to leave those who follow — our children and grandchildren — a planet well cared for.


Other essays confront cultural evils, like political extremism and racism, as in Kristin Congdon’s essay about lynchings in Florida. The theme of this and other essays emerges as the ethical life, or as one writer puts it, “the life well lived.”


We hope that readers will find confirmation in these essays and perhaps be reminded of a path they’ve always wanted to take, or be moved to action (or even contemplation) by a story they encounter here.


Q: What are you working on now?


Bob: Lifelong, three creative activities have been central for me: art, music, and writing. Usually, one of these would be primary during a given period. At present, art-making has returned to the forefront, and I’m exhibiting my enamel spray paintings in different gallery venues in our area.


That said, Jack and I and our Countryside Garage Band just played at a local outdoor music festival, and readings and other forms of outreach are underway to promote Better with Age.


Jack: For me, now that Better with Age is seeing the light, it’s back to playing music whenever we can during this Covid-limited time, and to my mostly solitary work as a writer. I’m finishing up a novel set by the Chesapeake Bay, so far entitled A Place Called Chance — something of an environmental mystery story, with Chance being a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.


I’m also finishing a long memoir of our sailing adventures, based on the four years my wife and I spent cruising the Caribbean, for now entitled Sailing Through the Milky Way. As the title suggests, the book describes not only the challenges of taking a boat to sea also but the realities of our planetary voyage among the stars.


I’m also completing a collection of short stories that will be something of a sequel to Abraham’s Bay & Other Stories (Dryad Press, 2009).


Of Abraham’s Bay, the Montserrat Review wrote: “[Greer] is a wonderful storyteller and a poetic, powerful writer . . . his stories reflect the important insight that the dramas here are not so much Man vs. Nature, but man (or woman) in conflict with his or her own inner workings.” I’m hoping to find an agent who’s as excited about my new projects as I am!


Q: Anything else we should know?


Bob: Putting together this book has been inspirational to myself, Jack, and the community of writers who shared their stories and talents. I think we’ve all been moved by the experience, by the high quality of the final product, and the sense that we’ve created something special. A very satisfying and meaningful experience, truly.


Jack: One thing we can say about Better with Age is that it’s not a superficial, “feel good” book. A number of authors describe the difficulties they’ve faced in their lives, and the challenges they’re facing now. One speaks about her stage 4 cancer; another of her recent diagnosis of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.


What moved us while working with these pieces was the determined, clear-eyed optimism we encountered, awake to the losses age can bring, but focused on what’s good in life, and what we can gather from experience or from taking on some new challenge, no matter our age.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Nice interview -- and to have been part of this experience.

    Tom Arthur

  2. How inspiring. On the cusp of retirement myself, from the same school that I once worked with Bob, I'm sure the book will help me with the transition to this new segment of life's journey.

  3. I enjoyed learning more about the editors in this interview. I have the pleasure of calling Jack and Bob friends. They both are true artists in their creative writing, art work and music. The book itself is an inspiration to focus on what will be "Better with Age" as each of us take this personal journey. Liz Heavner

  4. Not to be a "Columba," female Columbo, but I just thought of one more thing. Reading about the joy that Bob and Jack brought to themselves, each other and all others through musical performances gives a cause for pause about thinking that "isolation" is truly good for your health.

  5. I feel so honored to have contributed to this inspiring volume: Better with Age. Bob and Jack are band mates, beloved friends, and creative inspirations. And Bob was my role model for retirement. For years I thought I'd be a poor candidate for retirement. But then I watched Bob thrive and shine in retirement, and it occurred to me: "If I can be half as creative as Bob, retirement can be both productive and fulfilling." And it has been, thanks to music, outdoor adventures, writing, travel, and good friends to share it all with. As the song says and Jack writes: "We're going to the End of the Line."

  6. It was an honor to have had the opportunity to make a contribution to this great collection of essays. Thanks for this labor of love, well done.

  7. I'm in this age group and appreciated the range of views. The title suggests the collection might be a set of variations on the "Life is Good" theme but the editors did a nice job representing the complexity of the topic. There's a lot to think about, and nice to read thoughts of encouraging souls who speak from experience.

  8. Thank you Bob & Jack! You two had a great idea and carried it out amazingly well. It was truly a pleasure to make a contribution to this very high quality upbeat work of "art."