“I grow old, I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled …”
T.S. Elliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The clock is winding down.
Yeah, so? Who wants to live forever?
Me! Over here! I do!
Or, maybe just for, you know, two or three hundred years? Or, even, a hundred and twenty or so, but in good health and full possession my of physical and mental abilities?
I don’t think I’d get bored, haven’t been that in ever so long.
Moot point. These live-forever things are not going to happen, because that’s not how the system works, never has, and barring a major shift in physiology and medicine (and probably physics) never will. I mean, even if we overcome every obstacle and become disease-free and accident-proof, (and bulletproof), there’s the sun’s nova, and the end of entropy, and running out of coffee and all.
We Baby-Boomers expected something else. We were the biggest demographic going through time in this country, we were catered to, and we took that as our due. We produced the hippies–here, right here!–and our alternate reality was that the world was going to change to suit us. Sociology was going to shift, we were going to the Age of Aquarius; disease, even death would be eliminated, and we would stand at the shining front of humanity going forth to sail among the stars.
Nobody saw Disco, Nixon, Bush, or Cheeto coming. Nobody thought that our wave would wash ashore as others before us had, and then just … ebb.
More Elliot, last line of The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang, but a whimper.”
Though the jury might still be out on the “bang” part, because, you know, there is this loon who can access the nuclear launch codes and push the world-ending button. (If you still support this clown, I can only wonder how you managed to read this far.)
So, anyhow, the future came, and brought with it a fair number of shining miracles, but it was not the reality we thought we’d get.
Now, we have to make the best of what we have, and in the case of humans, the current condition in the U.S. means men average three-score and seventeen, and women, a few years past that. A blip, our time here, blink and we are gone. We are children of the universe, as Desiderata has it, we have a right to be here, only … not for long.
The Reaper is always with us. He takes some of us at birth, some as children, others as young adults, but he really gets the scythe swinging as we start on the downslope past middle age. By a hundred, nearly all of us have been harvested. Another twenty, maybe twenty-five years? The rest of us are fertilizer, pushing up the daisies. That’s how it goes.
That’s a thermodynamic given: Can’t win, can’t break even, can’t get out of the game.
The question I’m addressing here is, once the lamps begin to dim, the microphones fuzz, the wheels grow creakier, what do we do with our remaining time? How are we relevant in our dotages? How best to have Golden Years?
How do we deal with the alternate reality we got instead of the one we expected?
Mens sano in copore sano, sure, sound mind in sound body, only at ninety, one out of two is aces, two unlikely. The Messiah may or may not be coming, but the end of the road for thee and me surely is. Every morning we wake up, it is closer than it used to be.
You Gen-Xers, and Millennials can yawn and tune this out if you want, but there is something here you will eventually need to know. It will apply to you.
When I was younger, I lived for a time across the street from a man who retired that summer. He spent his days, as nearly as I could tell, sitting on a glider on his front porch, watching the world go by. No reason to get up in the morning save habit, and I thought, he’ll be leaving the party soon.
I moved, but kept in touch with my next-door-neighbor there for a time, and sure enough, the old guy across the street passed away a short while later. Maybe he was already ill, can’t say, but what I saw, he had given up. The parade moved along without him, as it does.
The old guy who was a few years younger than I am now.
As an early Baby-Boomer, I’m well down the darker side of the mountain, and while I’m spry–and have been hearing the damned-with-faint-praise compliment for some years now: “You’re in great shape, for a man your age!”–let’s face it: sixty might be the new forty, but ninety is fucking old. You can be a remarkable track athlete at that age, better than a thirty-year-old couch potato, but a young jock will lap you all day.
Like the wave on the shore, we ebb.
We fade away.
The old become invisible, something the young step around without a second glance. Don’t think so?
The cotton-top old lady, or the little old man wearing a hat in the car in front of you, barely able to see over the steering wheel? Going thirty-five in a sixty-mile-an-hour zone? Have you never thought, What the fuck, Gramps, get out of the road! I have. Still do, now and then.
It’s not just the growth-rings, but the mindset. Even if you don’t forget what your car keys are for, you will have, by dint of living, built up a certain amount of experience, even–dare I eat this peach?–wisdom, and you will as a result have likely pulled in your edges. You know places you don’t want, nor need, to go.
Been there, done that, wore out the T-shirt three decades back, thank you, I’ll pass. That four-chord baby-heartbeat rock song the kids think is waaay cool? Heard that swiped riff before your Momma was born, sonny, and if I say “Teach your grandfather to suck eggs?” you won’t have a clue what the hell I’m blathering on about. Who would suck an egg? Ick!
Yeah. Ick, indeed.
Let’s go do something new and exciting Paw-Paw! Get out of your rut!
Yeah? Whaddya got?
Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. Keep going. Nope, nope, ate those, saw that, drank too much of them, and, is there a toilet there? Let me check my iPee app …
It’s new and shiny to you, son, I don’t begrudge you wanting it, but I got sated in that particular cuisine some time ago, and now it gives me gas …
Here’s the trick, if you don’t want to wind up like the guy across the street in the porch swing?
You do have to have some room in your cup. And, if you haven’t heard that far eastern homily? Here it is:
Once upon a time, there was a zen master. A rich and important professor, accustomed to being the smartest man in the room and in charge, went to see the master.
“I need,” the professor said, somewhat imperiously, “for you to teach me the ways of zen, so that I may be enlightened.”
“Let’s discuss it over tea,” the master said.
So they sat and the master began to pour tea for the professor, and in a moment, the tea welled and spilled, but the master kept pouring.
“Stop! Can you not see the cup is full?”
A zen grin: “Indeed. And just as this cup is too full, so are you too full. You must empty yourself before there will be room for zen.”
Yep, you need room; on the other hand, if you are past middle age and still in one piece, you must have learned something useful along the way, and your experience and knowledge are not necessarily things you want to dump to make room for something new.
Newer is not always better. If you forget your history, you could wind up repeating it.
But, say it again: You do need some room. Some of those experiences and attitudes might not be serving you as well as once they did, and you can move those aside. Those attitudes that worked for you when there were water fountains marked “White” and “Colored,” maybe you can tuck those into a trunk and stow it.
It’s tricky, keeping the best of what is old and trying to get the best of what is new.
After thirty-odd years of banging about in seven or eight martial arts, I settled on one, and have spent a couple decades and some training in it.
Now and again, during this period, I attended martial arts seminars given by teachers outside my chosen art.
This is instructive in a number of ways, though usually not in learning many new techniques. A three-day session of six or eight hours a day is rather like trying to drink from a fire hose–too much material in too short a period, and I’m lucky if I remember more than a couple of things–and don’t tear my lips off.
As somebody with a fair amount of instruction in my art, like as not I will watch a teacher offer something different and look at it askance. Really? No offense, I will think but not speak, if I do it that way, it will likely get me killed.
When one has any depth in any skill, whatever it is, the tendency is to view something that seems at odds with what one knows with a certain amount of skepticism. If you believe what you are doing is best, than something not-that will, ipso facto, be less-than best.
I have to allow that I could be wrong in what I know. Belief is not necessarily fact. If I go to see something different, I don’t argue, I do what I am shown and see if there is any resonance for me. I need to see if maybe I missed something, that what I know isn’t perfect. Never hurts to check.
If there are three teachers from three different systems showing me how to hold a stick, I can be certain they won’t hold it the same way. No, no, put your hand here, not there. They will contradict each other, and as a student, I just nod and move my grip. That’s why I went. To see.
Chances are, I will go home and continue to hold that stick the way I already know how to do it, I confess.
The older you get, the more depth you have, the less likely you are to change your mind. I know this works, it has worked, and I expect it will continue to do so. If what you offer doesn’t measure up? Why would I change it?
Still, the cup needs to be partially empty. A little bit.
There is always the guy who comes not to learn anything new, but to show how what he already knows is better. He will gum up the works with rude questions, or refuse to apply the technique, replacing it with what he does. If a game has rules and you won’t observe them? You are wasting everybody’s time.
Don’t be that full-cup guy.
My path forward needs this realization: I tend to get too set in my ways. And without that bit of room for something new, I’m not playing the game. An old bumper sticker from about 1970: Concrete People: All mixed up and turned to stone.
When I began this essay, I had thought that it would be political. A piece on how to deal with the current political and sociological shitstorm in which the United States finds itself; advice on how to get active, make a difference, be part of the solution and not the problem. Which organizations to send money to, which marches to attend, grassroot-ery, like that. How we, as older people, could use our hard-won knowledge and experience to help the young move forward.
Not going there, and here’s why: The young have to reinvent the wheel for themselves. We can’t just give them fire, they have to figure it out on their own. Always been that way. Can’t tell you the number of parents I’ve talked to who would move heaven and earth to help pave the rocky road for their children, only to discover that it is indeed zen: If they don’t experience it, the rocks aren’t real.
Can you remember rejecting your father’s values? Thinking that he had no clue as to how wrong his beliefs were for you?
I can remember that.
Alternate realities. His. Yours. Never the twain to meet.
So, there might be young folks who appreciate your old-guy wisdom, but mostly, they won’t. Because what you have, they don’t. They literally can’t.
Old Man, you don’t understand what it is like to be me!
Actually, Young Man, I kinda do. I have been young, and I have been old. It’s you who is missing a piece of the puzzle. Come back and see me when you are my age and let’s revisit it, hey? Oh, wait. When you are my age? I’ll be dead. Maybe you should write it down, keep it tucked away, then read it to yourself when you get closer to sundown.
Read a short story some years ago, don’t recall the title, nor who wrote it, but the gist is this: A young couple come to a town, but it’s a Children of the Corn kind of place, full of doddering, evil, old people. They are trapped by the oldsters, the pair, and in dire peril, going to be sacrificed. They overcome the dangers, nearly fail, and barely manage to escape. And as they leave the village, safe, triumphant, one of the old men cackles out after them: “You’ll be back …”
Man, what a jolt that was.
We know that, us older folk. The young people who are going to live forever and be unlined and unbent? They don’t know it. They can’t, because … zen. If they survive, they will likely learn. Remember the parent’s curse: Some day, you’ll have children. I hope I live long enough to see it.
What goes around, comes around.
Um. So where am I going with this? Do I have a point?
Here: If you want to be relevant as an old man or an old lady, if you want what you do to have some meaning? You have to alter your own reality.
It starts at home. Before it matters to anybody else–and that really isn’t the point–it has to matter to you.
You have to find it. Something that makes you grin when you think about it, something that you look forward to, something that gives you joy.
Doesn’t matter what it is. Doesn’t matter what others think about it, when you get right down to the real nitty-gritty.
If it is a thing you do alone, fine. If you can share it with others, better, because social interaction has value.
It can be a job, a hobby, whatever. If the politics of our time disgust you? Step up. Put your money where your mouth is, paint a sign, march, and if you can’t do that, park yourself in a chair and wave your placard with enthusiasm.
Not your thing?
Volunteer at the shelter. Drive somebody to church. Help the the old lady next door who is in worse shape than you collect her mail.
Learn to play the ukulele. Sing at an open mike. Take a yoga class. Learn tai chi.
Read to children at the library.
Crochet hats for the babies in the premie ward.
Learn Spanish from the TV soaps on the Spanish channel.
Something you always wanted to try, but didn’t have time? Take a shot, never going to be a better time.
Something you never thought about before, but it just popped up? Go for it.
I can’t tell you what that should be, nobody can, but if you can’t find something that calls to you? You are, as Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max said in The Princess Bride, “ … mostly dead.”
If all you are doing is marking time, if there is no there there? You have nothing to offer to anybody else. You aren’t relevant.
You can be, you can do, either works, both can, but it’s up to you.
When I was in first grade, our report card marks were either an “S,” or a “U,” for “Satisfactory,” or “Unsatisfactory.” I was a clever lad, my grades were all esses, save for one: Under the category of “Uses Time Wisely,” I once got a “U.” I was pushing seven years, I had of plenty of time, I shrugged that off. What did that old lady who was my teacher know? The old lady who was twenty-two.
Now? Now, if I live to the average age for a man in the U.S.? A bit over seven years is how long I have left. Hoping to beat that, of course, but best to use my time wisely, I’m thinking.
The clock is winding down.