Monday, January 28, 2008

on aging

They say that age is a state of mind. You are only as old as you think you are or want to be. The number that attaches itself to our yearly commemorations is really an arbitrary indicator that measures our time in this life, but really doesn’t count the experience of life. As I celebrate my sixtieth birthday, I can look back and try to make sense of all those years and experiences that made me who I am today. Yearly numbers make it easier to catalog those experiences and offer handy reference points, but all those years taken together still don’t definitively define me. Being sixty is just another reference point along the way.

When I w as a child, sixty was so far away that it was impossible to comprehend. Old people were sixty. My grandparents were sixty or some other incomprehensible number. Who could relate to such an extravagant number when ten seemed so far along in life? Childhood years seemed to last forever and exiting childhood seemed an impossible achievement. I can remember being seven years old and talking with a neighborhood girl who was all of eleven and thinking how old and wise and mature she was at that age, and wondering if I would ever reach that vaunted status.

Once my teenage years were a reality, time and age were measured against the typical milestones that defined being a teenager. Surviving being a freshman with all those upperclassmen threatening my life was the first test of my mettle. To achieve sophomore status without suffering a crippling wedgy was my only goal at that age. Doing so while combating the onset of raging testosterone just made that year more confusing. Squeeling with the not-quite-changed voice of a little boy or raging with the authority of an octave lower almost-man’s voice was a day to day crapshoot controlled by hormones seeking their level.

Sixteen was, of course, a significant age that promised adult-like mobility once that coveted driver’s license was obtained. Yet with that new mobility came little freedom since Mom and Dad controlled the gas tank. Naturally, every waking moment during those teenage years was passed in a randy haze of testosterone induced confusion about the other half of the population and just when and if I would ever actually get on base, let alone score that elusive home run. When high school graduation finally arrived, and the almost-but-not-quite adult age of eighteen was passed, I, like everyone else was mired down in the mucky limbo of 19 and 20, those ages where the youthful exuberance of the teens was replaced by the harsh reality of near adulthood. Those years were the adjustment period that saw a rocky, uncertain road ahead, with the responsibility free life of a child and teen receding rapidly in the rearview mirror.

At the time I turned eighteen and left the security and relative innocence of high school, the war in Vietnam was the scimitar hanging over my generation’s head. Every decision we made was colored and informed by the Far Eastern dragon wielding that scimitar. The choices we had were few—join the military, go to college and secure that draft deferment, escape to Canada, or hope that some physical debility would make the decision for you. My decision was college and the sanctuary it provided for four years.

The decade of the twenties was a time of finding the adult path that would lead in the right direction toward success in life and career. Stumbling along the way was expected, but finding the right balance was the singular achievement of those years. Marriage and career provided entry into the real adult world of responsibility. The arrival of children, one of each if you’re keeping track, induced a whole new outlook and sense of mission to life. Now the egocentric life I lead had to be adjusted to accommodate the needs of two wholly realized human beings that required undivided attention. Talk about growing up. While they did, I did, too.

Reaching the age of thirty meant the final leave-taking of youth and its promise, and the realization that adulthood was here to stay. Work, children, work, children, work, children was the metronomic theme song of that decade. The comfort of routine set in and stability was much prized. That that stability was fueled by a certain ennui escaped me at the time. I was so engrossed in the daily walk through life that living became an afterthought. Yet there is a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I weathered those years barely battered by the storms that arose and swept from the horizon through my mostly tranquil existence. Coping became the essential virtue. Coping was the survival technique that saw me through to the decade of my forties.

Once I turned forty, the realization that there was no going back finally hit. I was an adult by default whether ready or not. By my forties I had already voted in five presidential elections, seen the end of the Vietnam debacle, saw a sitting president resign in disgrace, survived the disco plagued seventies, waded mostly through the me- first eighties, grieved the loss of grandparents and the nearly unfathomable deaths of both parents. Once your parents die, the realization that the torch of life has been passed finally hits home. I am now the older generation. Youth is but a series of distant memories dredged up to embarrass my children.

Now that I’ve survived my fifties and achieved something approaching emeritus status in my family, I get to look back on a life reasonably well lived. As the song goes, “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” I have few regrets, at least none of substance, and really wouldn’t change much of anything. I had the great good fortune, and indeed good sense, to marry a woman who loves me unconditionally and has taken good care of me despite my making her life difficult at times. She is truly my better half. That she and I contributed the genes that produced two astoundingly intelligent and creative children is our crowning glory. Conjuring up a stable homelife and family was no small achievement and one that I am most proud of.

So here I am on the precipice of seniorhood, left to contemplate what happens next. I like to believe that age bestows wisdom on those who arrive at a certain age unscathed by past experiences and made wiser because of them. I’d prefer to think that the lack of seekers lining up outside my door awaiting the pearls of wisdom I might grant them is simply a matter of discovery. Sooner or later all those who seek my wisdom will be rewarded for their patience.

And while age is supposedly just a state of mind, it is difficult to divorce that three score digit from the harsh reality that is my aging body. While I like to think that my emotional state and attitude is hovering around 25-30, my body is claiming a position closer to 90. The indignity of a chronic illness like Parkinsons Disease makes it difficult to maintain a youthful outlook despite the advance of ever larger numbers. Still, to give in to an infirmity is akin to giving up, and I’m not ready to do that just yet. And while I will never climb a mountain, jump from an airplane, go deep sea diving, or shoot under par, I still have monumental occasions still to come, like reveling in the success of my children and their spouses, the eventual arrival of grandchildren, and the serenity of growing old with my lover and best friend.

If indeed age is just a state of mind, then I like to think that I still have unlimited potential. I like to think that maybe I’ve only just begun, but I’m not quite that delusional. Still, arriving at the age of sixty is no small achievement. And if, as they say nowadays, that sixty is the new forty, then I have long and eventful journey still to come. So look out world, here I come.

1 comment:

wiccachicky said...

Your description of the 30s seems to be exactly what I'm trying to fight right now - the monotony of being grown up, with everything interesting and spontaneous replaced by routine. I might borrow that, if I can get my brain to figure out current crisis out. Congrats on 60!!