(A contribution from Silverback J – Mendocino Bonobos)
Yeh, I know, it happens to all of us. “God’s Plan” or whatever. Doesn’t mean we have to like it, for chrissakes, this business about getting old. Some plan! It’s damn insidious if you ask me, creeping up stealthily on you one moment at a time, without asking and while you’re not looking, while you’re just trying to live your life and stay out of hospitals and jails and bankruptcy, for crying out loud.
There’s been a lot said about this getting old business: “Life is like a roll of toilet paper, it goes faster at the end”, “Getting old is doing fewer things for the first time and more things for the last”, ad nauseam. Speaking of doing fewer things for the first time, I beseech You, All-loving Beneficent God, before it’s too late, when do I get to sip champagne naked with Paris Hilton?
“Aging”, as it’s called in polite society. Happens to you, if you live long enough. It’s the same for everyone, and different for everyone. For what it’s probably not worth, looking back from this winter solstice, here’s how it occurred to me.
There were a few early milestones along the way I recall, the first being my greatly anticipated 16th birthday, when I’d get to have a driver’s license. Oh boy! Couldn’t wait! Counted the days down on a calendar that I had no other use for. The license got suspended two weeks later due to yet another act of youthful recklessness. Next milestone was my Dad cynically remarking to my whole family at the dinner table on the occasion of my 18th birthday that “Now you’re old enough to go to jail”. Once again, his words proved prophetic. And of course, the magic milestone of 21, when I could buy booze and finally be released from the grips of formal education. “School” for me wasn’t a word, it was a sentence.
But those milestones weren’t about getting old, they were about “growing up”. Something to look forward to and take pride in. “Getting old” – oft described as “not for sissies” — is a different matter altogether.
Time marches on, as they say, and about the time the parade is approaching my 30th year I’m watching a professional football game on tv and sucking on a Falstaff beer one Sunday when out of the blue it occurs to me that damn near every player on the field is probably younger than me. What? I quickly stuff that distasteful realization and all that it portends deep down into the recesses of my unconscious. I’m having none of it. It’s a wonder that I still remember that experience, that particular moment, but I do. Never really could completely forget it, try as I might.
Of course, it isn’t long after that when the first wrinkle shows up aside my eye in the mirror. And the first gray hair. What? Not possible. This only happens to other people. Old people. I feel a pulse of panic shoot through me, quickly thrown into the dark dungeon of denial. Some years later in my powerlessness I would wax poetic about wrinkles, describing them as “aging’s engravings” if you can believe it.
The next hint I got was when an all-nighter cost me three days to recover from. Then when I found that I didn’t recognize even one of the Top 40 songs or artists. Not one. Then sitting-in with a punk band and being referred to by an observer as an “aging rocker”. Hey!
Since my so-called “prime” it’s been a downward spiral of humiliations. There was that first time, somewhere in my mid-30s, that someone had the audacity to call me “Sir”. I remember exactly who and when and where. Then the first time that I got pulled over by a cop who was younger than me (grrr), treated by a doctor who was younger than me, and – shame of shames – having some younger man or woman(!) hold a door open for me. OMG! And of course, the litany of physical insults: sound effects when getting out of bed, sagging skin and protruding veins, a receding hairline combined with thinning gray hairs showing up in my brush, reading glasses and cataracts, wild hairs sprouting from my ears and being asked by a barber if I wanted my wayward eyebrows trimmed. Huh? My Dad showing up in my mirror. What? And blow-of-blows, the embarrassment of actually growing shorter, and rounder. Enough! Spare me!
Hell, it’s hard enough having to swallow that I’m long past being the smartest, strongest, handsomest, richest and famousest person that I’ll ever be, that I’ve become invisible to young people, that I’m some kind of “has been”, that yesterday was as good as it got, and that the list of things I can’t do anymore grows longer by the day. But as if that’s not bad enough, Life has enjoyed rubbing it in. Getting caught smiling at a beautiful young woman and she glaring back at me with disgust like I’m some kind of creep. Or worse — making a tentative pass at one who has already clocked over a half century herself and being told to my face in no uncertain terms, “You’re too old for me”. That one really stung. My only consolation was in deluding myself with the double-reversal that “She’s too young for me”.
Reminds me of the time I’m in my forties and sitting down next to some old geezer on a park bench in San Francisco. A pretty young thing walks past and our heads turn together to follow her. Surprised that this geriatric guy is doing this too, I asked him, “Jeez man, don’t you ever get over it?” He says, “No, but you get over thinking you’ll get any of it.” Crude, I know, but true.
The final blow to my shriveled ego (so far) was a couple years ago, watching the Super Bowl at a sports bar with a buddy in Seattle. Yeh, the players are all younger than me, I know that. But it was odd to look around the joint and have to remark to my buddy, “Do you realize we’re the oldest people in this whole damn place?” Including the bartenders. Bad enough, but at halftime I had to get my cellphone out of the car. I’m returning and reaching for the front door when it swings out and I have to step back and some young punk who’s leaving the bar says to me, “Oops! Sorry old timer”. Old timer?!?! Who the hell does he think he’s talking to?
At least I’m still capable of indignation.
These days they’re telling me that I’m supposed to sweat my ass off at a gym and take protein supplements if I want to slow the disappearance of what used to be “lean muscle mass” and to slacken the proliferation of “stubborn belly fat”. And that I have to give up my favorite vices. Wait a damn minute! Then there’s the medicine bottles and pillboxes, x-rays and MRIs, and these cruel food and beverage restrictions ultimately leading full-circle back to pureed foods and pablum, without even the benefit of mother’s milk.
I count half-years now when I tell people how old I am, just as I did when I was a youngster: “I’m xy-and-a-half”. Wondering now which will run out of gas first: my disintegrating body or my meager savings. Downsizing, and wondering if this will be the last car I buy, or the last set of tires or maybe even the last oil change. Who knows? I’m still 17 in my mind, yet now I find myself reading obituaries and wondering if one way or another I might be seeing someone for the last time, without getting to say thank you or I’m sorry or I love you or goodbye. My list of living friends is dwindling as my list of physicians expands. I attend more funerals than weddings these days.
And lo, these ghosts of solstices past, come back to haunt me in my declining years. These uninvited memories and regrets of all the dumb-ass thoughtless things I’ve said and done and been in my life. Lord have mercy!
Yeh there’s plenty of regret and loss and grief but it ain’t all bad, I guess. Sobriety or celibacy are not yet among my failings. Now I can take some winter solace in still being able to read and write and walk and talk and do a little singing and dancing and love-making now and then when the opportunities present themselves, if I’m not taking a nap at the time.
These days I take my revenge in getting Senior Citizen discounts and reading fictional stories about people who got to live forever and ended up hating it and praying to die. Today, looking ahead down that road far shorter than the one behind, toward that mysterious light at the end of the tunnel that just might be an oncoming train for all I know, I’m at least consoled by the thought of that glorious rest-in-peace day when I’ll never again have to pay a rising insurance premium, or buy another roll of dental floss, or listen to one more politician’s bullshit, or get pulled over by a cop who’s younger than me. Never again to be called “old timer”. And no more prostate exams. There are worse things than dying.
In fact, maybe “The Big Dirt Nap”, as my dying friend Randy calls it, ain’t such a bad Plan after all.
Hmm, the winter solstice sun just peeked out from behind the gray clouds and a flock of red-breasted robins landed in the coffeeberry shrub right outside my window…