I think I’m getting older. Not the ‘growing up and getting wiser’ aging that we hear about, but the actual getting old. Somehow my blond hair turned white without me noticing. With my 72nd birthday this week, I’m creakier in the mornings, and if I sit very long, that creakiness doesn’t really go away during the day. My wife can attest that I’m getting cranky (or as she would note, crankier) and pretty opinionated. We’ve established a rule that anyone can call the safe word, “petunia,” if a conversation gets too angry or goes on too long. (All of our friends are now familiar with “petunia” and have exercised it occasionally, too.)
It’s been a trying year for me and my family. Of course, the pandemic has created confusion and disruption for everyone’s normal lives, but there have been more disconcerting events. My brother passed away at 74 in April, as did a long-time friend, and my wife’s oldest brother died over the winter. With my birthday this week, I’m thinking of my family history and my own mortality. My dad made it to 66, my mother to 72.
A few years ago, I fell off of a ladder and luckily landed in some bushes after a short six-foot fall. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about the kinds of things I could do when I was younger (and probably shouldn’t do as I age). I was athletic as a kid, swam and played football competitively, and played soccer on a co-ed team in my thirties. I ran or jogged, and skied downhill and cross-country until my forties, then my bad knee persuaded me to quit. I hiked into my sixties, even after I got the titanium replacement for that knee.
However, I’ve noticed that I’m comfortable slowing down. I prefer less robust activities, more intellectual efforts, and relish relaxing on the patio or in an easy chair. I enjoy listening to the birds in the yard and now know what “puttering around the garden” means (and am quite accomplished in that).
I do crosswords daily, and play interesting video games that require solving puzzles and learning new things. I write quite a bit, but my book reading has slowed way down. At home, I listen to music I listened to in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, but like to listen to current music on the car radio.
I could (but won’t) complain about the music, styles and general apathy of kids these days, but frankly, I’m pretty impressed with them. I’m not big on tattoos or piercings, and wonder why more of these kids don’t just get a job. However, I look around at the mess my generation and others have made of the world and the inane politics we have to suffer through, and think maybe they can do better – it’s certainly unlikely that they’ll do worse.
Oh sure, some blame the world’s problems on Facebook or Twitter or pass/fail grading in the schools, but it wasn’t the kids that introduced all that stuff — they just take advantage of it. Our white, middle-aged billionaires aren’t, for the most part, saving the country or helping the needy, they’re too busy jetting off into space or refitting their yachts or buying newer mansions for their trophy wives … “petunia!”
Throughout my life, I’ve almost always had a dog, and have watched them age and ultimately go on to that big field full of old, slow squirrels in the sky. Although I know it’s natural, I am saddened by the process of watching them evolve from scampering pups to creaky and doddery good ol’ dogs. But, it’s only natural.
I can now relate to that personally. Mostly it’s just the old aches and pains I’ve had for years slowly expanding to other joints and lasting longer. Like one of my old dogs, I find that I’m grouchier and touchier and often need my undisturbed space. I now take a list with me to my annual physical so that I won’t forget anything. I can report on the items from the previous year, and note which of those maladies got worse or went away, and what new ones have appeared. (Mostly, they stay about the same, just idling along like a semi in a parking lot.)
But it’s also great to watch the young ones grow up into interesting people. I can vicariously enjoy or sympathize with their experiences, and be reminded of all my own joys, travails, successes and failures. (“Yeah, I tried that too, and it didn’t work for me either.”)
I also get a glimpse of my own future through my older friends and relatives, although the list gets shorter each year. I’ve learned that aging is no different from the rest of life, it’s a new learning experience for each of us. There are new, but different, worlds to explore and experiences to find. There’s no set playbook, no well-practiced choreography; you just put up with it as best as you can, and “keep on keeping on.”
After all, it’s only natural.
Here’s what my friends Lizard and Jennifer recommended to me on my birthday:
1. Be big, live large, lunch early
2. Believe in dragons and little dragon girls
3. Suffer no twaddle gladly
4. Doggedly pursue dog poems
5. Appreciate great local beer wherever you go
6. Be not afraid of old women, as they are marvelous
7. Treat beach bunnies and other beasts well
8. Shine bright and flaunt your curls
9. Play and read fairy tales with children often
10. Be a steadfast friend
11. Write down a good story every week
12. Don’t waste money on fine wine when swill will do
13. Keep company with good books and people
14. Grow your own glorious food
15. Love your kids and their dogs, and …
Celebrate many birthdays!!
Illustration by Elizabeth Considine (Lizard)
Outstanding! A marvelous essay on life as an elder. Enjoyed it.