Dealing with Daily Indignities

One does well not to dwell on the routine indignities of life. That said, I shall relate a minor one, freshly issued last week from the Indignity Assembly Line, Chicago Division.

It is a man vs. woman story. I play the man.

Typecasting.

I walked into the Adams Street entrance to Symphony Center in downtown Chicago at about 1:15. Lovely, sunny day, temperature about 80-degrees Fahrenheit. The concert would begin at 1:30. I wanted to go to the men’s room before the music began.

A long line slithered its way down the narrow hallway. The ladies’ room queue, of course. A few feet before its entrance was a male facility with no line. I turned left to enter the anteroom to my gender-appropriate W/C.

A short, trim woman, perhaps 70-years-old, stood in front of the door to the men’s room proper. I imagined she was waiting for her husband, though most partners do this by standing outside the anteroom, not within it. As I stepped in, she planted her feet and stretched out her arms as far as possible to block my way. An American football linebacker would have been impressed by a stance signaling her determination to stop me. Moreover, she was not wearing a helmet. In other words, no push-over.

“You can’t go in.”

“Excuse me?”

“There is a woman inside.”

“Oh.”

Not being an idiot, I gathered the reason had to do with the daisy chain of ladies a few steps away. I wasn’t in a rush, so I waited. The thought occurred to me, however, that the guardian might have directed her friend to another one of the many washroom facilities in the building. Or, if the trespassing lady were in urgent need, she (without assistance) could have gone to the door of her restroom, reported her distress to those nearby, and received the consideration my wife tells me is commonplace under such circumstances. These were among the many thoughts I had as I waited, coming and going in an instant.

A frail, white-haired man, bent forward with the weight of perhaps nine decades, walked slowly around me, his mission the same as mine. He probably didn’t recognize I was waiting to enter myself. The female guardian stopped him with a somewhat less aggressive stance than she took with me. I imagined the woman figured she could impede his forward progress with less effort, kicking him to the ground if necessary, or blowing him down like a big, bad, she-wolf.

He was given the same directive. He, too, would have to wait. Or else.

The assumption, of course, was that we were not in immediate need. Maybe the doorkeeper heard no grinding teeth, saw no crossing of legs, perceived no agonized distress in either of us, overheard no barking bladders. Neither did she ask.

Only a chunk more time passed before the men’s room opened to release its cheery occupant. She appeared unconscious of our presence. She began chatting with her buddy as if nothing remarkable had happened; as if she makes a habit of visiting whatever w/c suits her. The newly “relieved” woman did not look ashamed. Just unconscious or entitled or needy of immediate conversation with the she-wolf, to whom she began speaking.

Neither one of them thanked us. You are not thanked if you are invisible.

No other men entered and I quickly joked with the older owner of a Y chromosome that we had just witnessed the fall of the last bastion of male supremacy. He responded that it could be worse. We laughed. Both of us had experienced worse, for sure. I love an entertaining story and here was my daily allotment. More than adequate compensation for the short wait.

Matinee concerts have their own demographic. The audience tends to be old – really old – not within a discus throw of working age. Women outnumber men by a huge margin. Several reasons: many of the women are widowed, some of the more able-bodied men are still working, and other men are either watching sports on TV or yelling at kids to get off their grass. In other words, doing man stuff.

Indoor plumbing stations are of particular importance to us humans, a unique part of our mental space.

Earlier in life, when we were engaged in toilet-training, they’d been a battleground and a place where “accidents” lead to ultimate triumph. Once we are old enough to gauge storage-tank-capacity, we don’t think about them much. A little later, most of the time spent inside has to do with working on our appearance; chisel, sandpaper, and spray paint in hand.

Somewhere around middle age, physical changes cause men to notice the locations of the facilities more, think about ingesting less caffeine (because it is a bladder irritant), and the mental space I mentioned gets larger. We can no longer take for granted that will-power will prevent us from “peeing ourselves.” When the bell rings signaling the symphony players have five minutes before they must be on stage, the stream of male musicians waiting to take care of their nether regions can resemble a conga line.

As the older man in the men’s room said, “It could be worse.” It has been worse, much worse. It will yet be worse and also better, depending on the moment. Such is life.

Someone will cut you off in traffic, jump ahead of you in queue at a store, clobber you with their backpack, perhaps not even knowing anything happened.

Bigger personal indignities exist. You will, for example, get older and become less physically attractive. Your body will demand more maintenance, more stretching, gallons of sunscreen. As my primary care physician told me years ago, when I asked why my left knee meniscus tore, “things wear out.”

Or, you could be like the teen-aged version of my mom, who lived with her parents and three siblings. There were times, she told me, when five of them were awaiting the sixth to exit the smallest room in their apartment, to replace the person on the throne. The frustration built until finally, someone used the nuclear option, yelling:

“Break it off and get out!”

A younger woman with whom I’ve recently become acquainted tells me she can still do the splits, a different kind of evidence things could be worse. More power to her. On the best day of my life, I couldn’t do the splits. The only splits I ever thought about were banana splits.

I am not talking here about war and peace, revolution, obstruction of justice, climate change, flood, hurricane, corruption, tax fraud, marital infidelity, or the like. I’m not talking about financial disaster, homelessness, or malnutrition.

We don’t think much about it, but nearly all of us in the Western World have indoor plumbing. Mozart, whose music I heard at Symphony Center on the day in question, used a chamber pot.

The frail, white-haired, 90-year-old man had it right.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. You won’t get those 30-minutes of grumbling discontent back.

Have a banana split instead and drown your sorrows.

The top image is  of a Pink Bunny-Shaped Roadblock , near Narita, Japan; a 2010 photo by Hopefully Acceptable Username. The second photo is a Replica of the Capitoline She-wolf, Palazzo Senatorio, Rome. It is the work of Jebulon. Finally, a 1942/43 called Men’s Room Marines won’t Win This War  It came from the Office of Emergency Management. War Production Board. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Lunch Break

512px-Sunset_at_Land's_end_in_San_Francisco

I had lunch with two old friends the other day. They are old friends in every sense. We go back 50 years. But this day was different.

One is a man of enormous energy and optimism, not to mention resilience: a survivor of life-threatening illnesses. I’ll call him “Grande.” The other is steadfast and quietly clever, but a block of granite underneath. You want “Top Hat” beside you in the trenches.

All that sounds too serious, I think. We mostly have fun, talk about everything and nothing. Conversation is easy. So this was a lunch like dozens or hundreds we’ve had before, until the topic turned to an acquaintance, someone we know pretty well, though he is younger. Another good fellow and, unlike ourselves, a great athlete.

At our age conversation easily leads to demise and Death — little d and Big D — those twin comedians. Seniors all suffer from daily aches and pains: your knees, your back, arthritis, balky shoulders, whatever. The conversation darkened.

Top Hat had seen the other buddy, Achilles, and was distressed over his appearance. “He didn’t look well. He isn’t the same old godlike, invulnerable Achilles.” Did the lights in the diner dim just then? Who turned on the air-conditioner? D entered the restaurant. D as in Death.

Achilles’ name brought the conversation too close to home. Meanwhile D circled our table as we ate. I watched the lettuce in my salad discolor.

Past a certain age, most people wait for a late night phone call about their parents. The three lunch-comrades lost them quite a while back. In the case of my dad I got the call early one morning 15 years ago from my brother Ed. Dad had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and lasted only a few more days. I visited mom on a Sunday morning about nine months later, part of my regular routine, only to find her unconscious. She, too, made a “clean getaway,” as my friend Dan likes to call a speedy and painless death.

I still drive a 16-year old car my father rode in a few months before he kicked the bucket. I think about that sometimes when I look at the empty passenger seat.

The conversation continued. We talked about what our dating experience in high school might have been like if we’d been more mature and what a preposterous thought that was. Our kids’ well-being entered the discussion along with news of my new grandchild. One of the guys explained the reason for the brace on his hand. The other reported some exciting travel plans. Retirement issues came up. Politics, playoff baseball, and robotic automation were mentioned. We are all worried about what the world holds for our offspring. Grande suggested a get-together with other high school buddies. He plans to give a call to another chum whom we’d not seen in a while  — to say hello for all of us.

My mind drifted just a little. I started to think about how special this matter-of-fact lunch was. How much I love these two men. I was reminded how unimportant are the imperfections in each of us — even as much as we sometimes make of them. And I thought how short will be the time (however many years it might be) before one of us will be absent. Thank goodness we are now all in good health for our age.

I remembered, too, a videotaped oral history I did with my dad in his mid-70s. I asked him what he’d figured out about life. Milt Stein paused for a few seconds and then said, “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” Not the most philosophical of people, in that moment he became the wisest man on earth.

My reverie passed and I noticed Death moving toward the door. As D pulled the handle, he turned and caught my eye. Did he wink? What a friendly guy!

Then he left us — for now. Other appointments to take care of first, I imagine.

Here are words of Shakespeare’s Prospero at the close of The Tempest. He is speaking about the players in the play, but also about all of us:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The top photo is called Sunset at Land’s End in San Francisco, by Brocken Inaglory. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding Angry Old White Men

Angry_man

He might be your father, brother, or uncle; a friend or a neighbor. He goes off like a roadside bomb or sits and simmers before boiling over. He could also be you: a grumpy, irritable, angry old white man. The kind of creature whose head revolves like a searchlight, looking for something or someone to piss him off; the guy who yells, “Get off my lawn!” Bitterness personified.

Endocrinologists point to low testosterone as a possible cause, especially past 60, when some males begin the hormonal decline. I’ll focus on the human rather than the chemical equation: what it feels like to be an aging white male. Don’t discount the hormonal changes, but research them elsewhere.

Let’s start with what constitutes a young man to better understand the same person in 50 years time.

Males pass through a stage of feeling almost invulnerable and immortal, at least on occasion. They rush to fight wars, compete for mates, and try to climb higher than others. Women perform a selection of these tasks, but few teenaged girls believe themselves indestructible.

I was neither a great athlete nor the smartest person I knew at any point in life. Yet, I know whereof I speak. There are moments when a young man believes he can do almost anything. For some the hubris comes in athletics, in academics for others. The babe-magnets fancy themselves as sex machines. Kids I knew took pride in intimidation, rocket-like racing, placing first in fierceness, or towering over others as regents of recklessness. Even those who broke rules grew in foolish conceit. Boasts were heard about consuming the most beer in the bar.

This silliness seems built-in, tied to the need of early men to attract females and save their own skin from beasts and bullies. Ambition and power fed your chance of spreading your genetic seed, an evolutionary but unconscious imperative. From a survival standpoint, wars wanted winners and trees needed climbing for their fruit.

Among my youthful acquaintances, I’m sure much of this was already present in the watery womb. But I am not talking about angry kids; rather, how the sense of immortality and competitiveness necessary in youth sets some men up for a disappointing and overwrought old age. If a man lived through injustices and disappointments early or late, his rage — once bottled up or transformed into ambition — now goes nowhere productive, at least to no meaningful arena for a staged competition. Such battles as he fought in the world of work or on the athletic field are foreclosed. You can still be an award-winning body builder at 65, but all the comparisons are with people your age. A real man of the old school knows the difference.

The indignities of aging seem to cause women less trouble, or at least less public aggravation. They are better sports and, ironically, superior at manning-up to the depredations of time. The suicide rate of old bucks skyrockets. Data from the American Association of Suicidology indicates the elderly made up only 13% of the population as of 2010, but accounted for 15.6% of all suicides. Moreover, men over 65 committed 84% of suicides by seniors, and this percentage grew as they aged.

Grumpy2Unless you are a rare old man, indeed, you’ve lost a step, an edge, a bit or more of your balance and grace. The IQ and neuropsychological tests display the results; so does the mirror. Even the beer drinking boaster takes longer to recover from his hang-over.

Some domains are uniquely problematic for the male. My physician tells me there are only two categories with respect to an enlarged prostate: those men who have one and those who are going to get one. Nor does the sexual trigger work as dependably and well. A 55-year-old male patient proclaimed: “I’m not the man I once was, but once I’m the man I was.”

I could go on to infinity about aches, pains, loss of hair and color, sun damage to the skin, and more frequent urination. The sixty-something male is sexually less relevant (his studly days having passed), evolutionarily irrelevant for the same reason, invisible to almost everyone (including young women), and gets called “sir” much too often for comfort.

The twenty-first century adds to this list: frustration over mastering the exponential growth of technological change, the supreme domain of youth. You are probably sick of reading my catalog of slow decline, so just imagine the poor guys who are living the descent and whose age-related sleep problems give them more time to stew.

Either retirement or involuntary unemployment is perhaps the biggest loss and driver of a man’s ire. Unless he is extroverted, job site friendships tend to fade away and he has not usually nurtured intimacy outside his family. Too many men lack an identity beyond labor. Women suffer labor pains in childbirth, but men suffer them by the absence of meaningful work. By 60, unless you are so grandiose as to run for President or be a major CEO, your working future is foreshortened.

The situation is different (but no less frustrating) if you remain on the career treadmill due to financial necessity or a failure to accomplish long-time goals. Few of us are like Warren Buffett, Picasso, Stravinsky, or Frank Lloyd Wright, producing wonders late in life.

Voltaire said, “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” Once his formal working life ends, unless the old man possesses enough cash, interests, and friends, he is in trouble. A narrow vocational focus sets him up for a painful retirement or unemployment. Labor provides a sense of worth and accomplishment. Men need to be useful. A job normalizes and distracts him, keeps depression at bay while dissipating the “fight” in the surly chap we are describing.

There is considerable data linking an early retirement to an earlier death: Retirement kills. A vocation orders any life, providing a timetable and a list of tasks. Without the scaffolding that structures perhaps 50 hours or more a week (if we include travel to and from the job) retirement or unemployment can be disorienting and frustrating. It is only a short step to depression, alcohol abuse, anger, or all three. Think again about the place of vice on Voltaire’s list of “three evils” and remember: one of the “seven deadly sins” is wrath.

Time is a cruel and ironic jester to the angry old white male. The latter is both idle during the day and imagines too little lifetime ahead. Moreover, the years pass with a psychological rapidity unknown to the young. Three-hundred-sixty-five days still make a year, but somehow the revolutions around the sun go faster.

The irrelevant elder must either reinvent himself or suffer an internal upset that has eyes: it looks for a target. Neighbors, politics, friends, relatives, children, young people, and minority groups are the usual suspects. The partisan broadcast media stir the political pot and fuel the sense of unfairness. Their incentives, whether a genuine belief in how to right the lopsided world or the lure of big money and influence, spell trouble for those whom they transfix. The poor old exasperated white man is their white bread and butter, regardless.

Once king of his castle, he finds his loyal subjects (aka, his children) have their own lives. Perhaps his proud and powerful fortress is both emptier and shabbier with the passage of time. Since it is not manly to weep, he rants.

Ensign_of_the_21º_Gruppo_(Angry_Wasp)_of_the_Italian_Air_Force.svgNone of this is good for blood pressure or happiness. Nor is the irritable and ancient buck likely to read this or anything else for advice. His anger seems righteous. The problem is perceived to be elsewhere. A spouse hesitates to complain or utter worries about the mental state of a man who resembles Caligula, the insane Roman tyrant. Still, a family intervention might be needed, with the group of relatives and friends reinforcing each other’s concerns about their kinsman. A trusted physician is another possible voice to enlist for advice, diagnosis and treatment of any contributory medical issues.

Therapy or retirement coaching is indicated, but only if you can get this injured soul to submit with an open heart. The odds do not favor a trip to a counselor. Regardless, our subject has a selection of possible tasks to complete for a better life:

  • Develop hobbies if they are absent. Join community organizations or volunteer for causes he believes in. Serving as a mentor to the young can give value to the experience of a lifetime.
  • Erect a new structure for his days both to keep him focused off his grievances and on to something to give him meaning. If possible and necessary, get back to work part-time or start a new business.
  • Learn cognitive-behavioral methods to control rage.
  • Make new friends or search out old companions, especially if they can make him laugh.
  • Learn to take the aging process as a less personal affront. Life has not singled anyone out.
  • Go back to school. Take a free MOOC (massive open online course) such as those found at Coursera, join a lifelong-learning program (National Lewis University), or something like the University of Chicago Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. The latter two examples provide not only the stimulation of learning, but face-to-face interaction with same-aged peers who might become new friends.
  • Limit exposure to the news stories or political pundits whose job is to fan the glowing, incendiary embers inside.
  • Join a story-telling group. Old men with a gift for performance can deliver some wonderful reminiscences, so they might as well be put to good use with a receptive audience.
  • Stretch and exercise regularly. Take good care of the body.
  • Any excavation underneath the anger to an elderly person’s hurt is a dangerous business. Grieving is the work of the young and middle-aged. The old rarely have enough future time or opportunity to redeem the past. Some can handle grieving the failure to achieve early goals and life’s losses, but many can’t. For those carrying too much disappointment, age dictates a more supportive therapy rather than one to search the depths of the soul.
  • Learn to appreciate what remains.
  • Consider antidepressant medication.

Lost time, diminished abilities, and the realization of mortality drive a few people mad — mad in both senses of the word. There is no time to waste. Most men are offered two opportunities for heroism: the risk-taking of a robust youth and a walk into the twilight of life. Dylan Thomas’s recommendation to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (listen to him below) doesn’t serve most of us well. The twilight can be beautiful or terrifying. Which one depends on luck and attitude. Since we control but one of these, the only real choice is to change the latter from terror and anger to gratitude for what we still have, acceptance of what we don’t, and pride in a life well-lived.

The image of the Angry Man is by Emery Way. The cartoon is the Ensign of the 21° Gruppo (Angry Wasp) of the Italian Air Force by       F l a n k e r. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t Pass Your “Use by” Date: The Optimal Calendar of Life

Expiration date

You reach for a product in the grocery. Say, orange juice. You read the label. “Best if used by  ______.” Fill in any imaginary future date you wish.

All of us are a bit like those products. We too have our “use by” dates. No point in trying out for the local football team at age 55. Your skills are past their official, time-stamped point of expiration.

Let’s look at a few others.

Here’s one you probably care about. A man’s hair is optimal at around age 20, for women 25. About 70% of males and 40% of females will suffer some hair loss. The good news here is a South Korean study suggesting such men are rated higher in social maturity than those without this problem. Or maybe it is just the glow from their balding pates that makes others think they have composure and sophistication.

Check out the guy in the upper right corner for an example of the glare and, perhaps, what social maturity is supposed to look like. I’m confident about the former, but suffer occasional doubts about the latter.

Grip strength peaks between 26 and 35 for men, remaining close to the peak through the early 40s. Women achieve optimal performance from 18 to 25, but also retain much of their power into their early 40s. In other words, folks, you can arm wrestle effectively into middle age.

The average man’s hair begins to gray around 30, five years later for women. For what it is worth, I remember finding white hairs when I was 12, so don’t take any of these numbers to heart. We are talking about people in general, not you in particular.

The best time to acquire a second language is arguable. Some say 11 to 13, unless you’d like perfect pronunciation, in which case you need a faster start.

Want to run a Marathon? Twenty-five to 35 seems to be the interval of best performance for those who make a long distance career. Only up for a mile? Then 31 or younger is likely to be the sweet spot. Aerobic capacity declines, as runners and trumpet players are aware.

If you hope for a life in ballet, the experts recommend study beginning in the 7 to 11 range. Injuries shorten careers. Most who reach the stage retire in their 30s.

A baseball player has been thought to peak around 27, although newer research suggests 29, with a gradual falling off in performance.

Bad news, men: the fastest and firmest erections are evolution’s gift to 18 year olds, who are either impressed or embarrassed, the latter when the expansion arrives spring-loaded, instantaneously, and evident with your trousers on in public. I’ve seen surveys saying a woman’s sexual prime is around 28, while others locate the years from 30 to 35 as the all-around ideal.  If, however, you ask females in their 50s or 60s when they had the best sex, one study identifies the average answer as 46. A woman’s comfort with her own body appears to be an important variable in sexual satisfaction. A mate’s proper attention is still another.

How about the fertility question? After 30, research points to a three to five percent annual decline in a female’s capacity.

The historical data on hearing problems is compromised by the increasing city background noise exposure and the unthinking action of too many who listen to loud music, “live” or by inserting tiny speakers in their ears.

Should you go to symphony concerts, you might see clear plastic shields on stage to minimize the auditory damage to the musicians themselves, especially those seated near brass and percussion instruments. A number of players wear ear plugs at peak volume moments. Twenty percent of all Americans report hearing loss, with some decline beginning at about 18. By age 65, one-third of Americans are afflicted.

A personal anecdote: When I was in fifth or sixth grade I was paired with a clever girl in a game of “spin the bottle.” She began our session alone by asking a question:

Gerry, did you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

Back to the list. Google describes collagen as “the main structural protein found in animal connective tissue.” The gradual loss of this temporally diminishing substance produces facial wrinkles, reduced skin suppleness, and sagging (jowls). From the mid-twenties we lose about 1% to 1.7% of collagen per year.

Musical training (not specific instrumental instruction) is recommended to begin before age 9. Actual practice on an instrument, if you are to be a performing artist, should start between six and nine.

Famous neuropsychologist, Ralph Reitan, has said anything intellectually challenging is best done before 40. Of course, he was talking about the decline of higher order brain capability.

You can take all of this in several ways. Yes, life is short and some abilities are shorter still, at least if you intend to compete with the champions. We don’t all age in the same way and a few football players remain near the top of their game into their late 30s, despite the notoriously short careers of most of their counterparts.

Many people also defy the averages by learning what might be called “the tricks of the trade.” In other words, we become wise about life, relationships, and career skills. Many discover we can work around shortfalls with our remaining talents. Gratitude for the life we have makes an enormous difference. We generally think less about losses as time passes and happiness depends on what we are thinking about.

Medicine extends certain capacities, pun intended. Botox smooths things out. Creams to increase collagen are available.

I suppose the best advice is to “go for it,” whatever “it” might mean to you, when relative youth is on your side. Recall, though, symphony conductors don’t stop performing until they drop and are considered newbies in their 30s. A good many are terrific into their 80s.

If I’ve spurred you to act with urgency, do remember one thing: make haste slowly. In Aesop’s famous race the tortoise beat the hare.

The top image is the symbol for pharmaceutical product expiration date 7.2011. The author is Politikaner and it is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Is the Wisdom of Age Overrated?

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Is the wisdom of age a function of learning something during your decades on the planet? There is, in fact, one other possibility: older people are just older and view the world from a different vantage point.

Let me explain.

Take the hormone-driven life of a sixteen-year-old boy. The sexual urge is like having a wild animal inside you. Erections, as noted in my post about the nude swimming classes of yesteryear, happen at the most inopportune moments and with astonishing frequency. They cannot be willed away any more than nocturnal emissions (a.k.a. wet dreams).

No 60-year-old man is subject to the same preoccupying, indomitable force. Therefore, he and the 16-year-old version of himself perceive the world differently, think about the sexual aspect of life with different degrees of obsession, and are enslaved by lust in proportion to spontaneous changes of the body.

Strenuous thought over those 44 years didn’t accomplish this. Age alone is the reason, a major physical and chemical change. You are not the same man you used to be. We do tend to think of the 60-year-old as wiser in controlling sexual urges, but he didn’t work or study with this aim. A reduced libido gradually developed in the normal course of life.

Now let’s switch things a bit. If the 60-year-old is wiser about mating, shouldn’t we advise our 16-year-old boy to be like his sage future self? I think not.

Our biological imperative is to reproduce. Intercourse is required and only a magician could impregnate someone without it, assuming no artificial insemination. Were a young man’s ravenous view of sex the same as his more distracted aged self, the human race might never have survived.

256px-Wooden_hourglass_2

OK, enough of bedroom activities. Let’s talk about ambition. Jean Améry said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, one’s self concept is informed by his or her expectations for the future. A youngster might envision herself becoming a physician, for example. Her imagined career defines how she looks at life and how she behaves; by dedicated study, among other behaviors.

For most men and women in their 60s, however, “who he will be” is not promising. The older person can still be serene and productive, but few bets are placed on his achieving higher status in business, sports, scientific discovery, or art. Seniors are disinclined to want more children of their own, even were their bodies to cooperate. If a person has not made his mark, he isn’t expected to as an oldie, at least in the ways described.

Happily, however, by the 60s most of us are less ambitious and are looking forward to retirement. Again, the question is: do those with less drive “learn” something by experience or might their bodies and diminished capabilities simply change their perspective?

I believe we do learn some things from life experience and a portion of a senior citizen’s wisdom is “earned.” Yet, with an energy boost, the intellectual sharpness, and the pulchritude of someone younger, the ambition might return. When science makes 60 into the new 40 or 30 or 16, I’m guessing ambition will also be revived and older people will trade the twilight for another round in the daylight of a more youthful competition to “make something” of oneself.

Now to a practical and personal example. My father became a wiser man as he aged. Dad was born in 1911. I videotaped a four-hour conversation we had about his life when he was in his mid-70s. His youth, like so many others living at the time, was dominated by the Great Depression. Imagine being 21, ambitious, and smart in late 1932, with no path to a lasting career. Where would jobs come from? How could he support a family? Might an appealing woman want him if he were impoverished? It is, unfortunately, still a problem today in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

The imperative to “make a living” explained most of his major choices even post-retirement. For my first 20 years, he worked one full-time job and two part-time jobs, plus a small business repairing cigarette lighters on our dining room table after dinner. My father was careful with money and took few financial risks. The shadow of the Great Depression, that ended with the ramp-up to World War II, was still present over 20 years after he returned from the European portion of that conflict.

The dominant problem of his life was financial security and paying the expenses for my mom and their three little boys. Sidestepping the cost to the entire family of his work-induced absences, Dad paid an emotional toll in the lurking fear of another economic crisis derailing his life and ours. In part, he labored because it defined him as a “man,” but finances were in the back of his mind. I don’t think it was an easy way to live, at least not from my observations growing up.

Gradually something changed. In the last 15 or more years of his long life, he seemed more at ease with himself, less worried and stressed. He continued to work part-time jobs for a while, but a peacefulness had come over him. He finally triumphed over the stalking shadow of 1932 and the rest of the Depression. The doubts receded.

Somehow dad accomplished a psychological distance from the monetary concerns that unsettled him long past the time they were realistic. Because he wasn’t an introspective guy, I attributed the change to the aging process rather than any kind of “aha!” moment triggered by a self-reflection he rarely practiced. He was an older man with an older body for whom things had worked themselves out.

In the same video interview, I asked him what he’d learned in his 75 years on the planet. He paused a moment, and then said something touching: “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” He named my mom — still the love of his life — my brothers Eddie and Jack and myself; expressing pride his three good boys were independent and successful. What this 75-year-old version of my dad said was wise, but hardly unique.

Older people simply own a special perspective. If they have learned anything important from aging, it is to look at the part of the glass that is half-full, not half-empty. The oldies view their existence from closer to the end than the beginning, looking back through the lens of experience. And they see with different eyes — a changed body and brain, too. The fading of the ambition necessary in youth (if the older person has been lucky enough) has a positive influence on happiness. You would not think a settled, hormonally tamed teenager to be wise if he had this view of his world, but you might say it of a 75-year-old man.

In summary, many, but not all of the aged are wise. No, they didn’t take philosophy classes and spend hours thinking about their past in order to achieve it. I dare say, for most, it just happened to them.

To me, at least, I’m comforted that nature sometimes works to perfection. A flower blooms all by itself. Even as we are robbed of our youthful vigor, an unsigned but precious gift is silently slipped under the door unnoticed. Yet the fragrance is quite beautiful.

The wooden hourglass is the work of S Sepp and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“You Look Marvelous!” Worry About Looking Good and Worry About Feeling Good

Knock on Any Door Poster[7]

We pass invisible markers on the walk along the shifting sands of life. The signposts signify three stages:

  • 1. The total unself-consciousness of a little baby, who only knows that he feels good or bad, but has virtually no concern about the impact that his appearance makes on others.
  • 2. The period where appearance and impression matter. Comparisons are all around. Are you as pretty as she is? Does your hair look right? Do you have enough muscles? When are your boobs going to show up? Are you tall enough, handsome enough, thin enough — just simply “becoming” enough to beat out the competition; for the people you’d like to think well of you, that is?
  • 3. The third stage. It isn’t that you don’t care at all about how you look as you get past mid-life, but how you feel becomes much more important. If the pants are comfortable, who cares if they aren’t fashionable? Why try a new hair style when the one you’ve been using since 1974 seems so much a part of you? When did it become hard to get a restful night’s sleep? When did the aches and pains begin? And then there are the dreaded medications that make one symptom feel better and give you three side-effects that require their own medical solutions. Your doctor visits become more frequent and your conversations change from “How about those Cubs?” to “What did your doctor say?” And the doctor isn’t talking about your appearance, he is talking about how you feel.

None of this is good news. You are paying for your diminished vanity with augmented, expanded, supersized preoccupations of a different kind. As the famous and elderly pianist Menachem Pressler once said from the stage of the Ravinia Festival:

I have a friend who says that if you wake up in the morning and your over 80 and you’re not in pain — you’re dead!

There’s got to be a bright side to this, right?

Well, for one thing, less vanity isn’t so bad. As long as you still take a regular shower and put on deodorant and wear clean clothes, there is no possibility that you will be arrested by the “Vanity Police” for offending the sensibilities of those who live to be seen. They spend their lives trying to look like models in Vogue or GQ or Elle. These same people waste their life savings on hair stylists and new suits and the best looking shoes. They are the kind of folks who buy new glasses with every passing season because fashions have changed even if their eye prescription hasn’t.

There is freedom in liking yourself for who you are on the inside rather than who you please by your outsides. A little more confidence and a little less insecurity go a long way to a happier life. If the crowd’s applause means less to you, you’ve figured out something pretty important about contentment.

Ah, but the downside. I will use myself as an example. I am reportedly in very good health for a man of 125. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. I mean, for a man my age who falls into the category of the “young old” or just a little bit beyond. I’m doing just fine. Who thinks up these categories anyway? Are there job listings in the newspaper and on Monster or other Internet sites for people who make up names like “Generation Y” or “Baby Boomers” or “Millennials?” Then, of course, there are the “old-old,” the “preposterously-old,” the “disgustingly-old” and the “better off dead.” At least, I think so.

When he was 88, my dad said he wanted to live to be 100. Of course, many years before, he said that if he could get to 70 he would have had no cause for complaint on the time that had been allotted to him. I do not know when he started to push the goal posts back, but I do know that a week after he made his new target public he stroked-out and never regained consciousness. It was the kind of event that my good friend Dan Morrison likes to call a “clean get-away.” No muss, no fuss, no lingering and best of all, no great pain. The kind of death that most of us are hoping for.

Ursula Andress and John Derek

Ursula Andress and John Derek

Feeling good yet? I know that it is unseemly to talk about these things. They are the kind of subjects that seem morbid and don’t exactly lift the mood. And yet there is at least one advantage to feeling somewhat less good as we age: it makes the ending a little more attractive. No, I’m not talking suicide here. What I’m saying is that if you are in the prime of life at age 92, feeling just as fine and fit as you did 70 years before, the idea of your demise will be much more horrifying than if various body parts are starting to fall off and you’re wondering if maybe living forever is not exactly desirable. You begin to think that perhaps John Derek was right when he said “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” in the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door. And remember, John Derek knew a bit about what it meant to be good-looking. This handsome actor/director married Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, and Bo Derek in succession. If there had been a Presidential Cabinet post for the evaluation of pulchritude, he would have gotten the job.

Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10

Bo Derek in the 1979 movie 10

Here’s the bottom line: We want to live forever but we don’t want to get old. A contradiction, for sure. Best to accept the nature of things, concentrate on what you still can do rather than what you no longer can do, and make the “clean get-away” my friend Dan describes. In the meantime, do some good for young people, live “in the moment,” and enjoy the sunshine. I’ve heard it’s a lot darker in the Underworld — the afterlife described by the ancient  Greeks.

Have a nice day. Really.

Cosmetic Changes: How Far Will We Go?

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A funny thing happened at this morning’s dental appointment. In the course of a routine cleaning, my lovely dental hygienist mentioned that I might want to consider Invisalign, a clear plastic alternative to metal braces. The reason: to create a greater cosmetic perfection to my lower front teeth.

I had a good laugh when she mentioned this. It’s not that I couldn’t use it, but what I said to her surprised even me: “You know Kristina, rather than do that, I think I probably ought to just replace my entire head!” Why, after all, have a perfect smile and still have the same bald head, the same wrinkles, and the same less than completely even and taut facial contours. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old English saying goes. Don’t just paint the old car, buy a new one!

If you’ve had your car repaired, you will be able to relate. Fixing a damaged vehicle is expensive. The car doesn’t actually have to be beyond repair for it to be considered “totalled.” When the body shop tells you this, they mean that the expense of the parts and labor exceed the current value of the car. In other words, you’d be better off buying a new one. It displeases me to say that my head has reached that point.

Imagine the following conversation with a salesman: “I can offer you a good price on the new head you want, Dr. Stein. But, I’m afraid that there isn’t much I can give for trading in the old one.” God, the humiliation of it!

The picture of me (top, right) is actually pretty realistic. I have some serious mileage on this head and this body. To the good, however, my younger daughter recently commented on my upper body to the effect that (unlike all other middle-aged or older men she has seen) “you don’t have ‘man boobs,’ dad.”

You can only imagine how wonderful this made me feel. But, it is true, my body is pretty fit. Lots of aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, and weight lifting account for it. However, since I didn’t conduct therapy sessions with my shirt off, I didn’t hear much about my physique while I was in practice. Just as well, since I actually wanted to continue practicing. I wouldn’t have enjoyed a professional review board questioning me about the topic of “topless” therapy.

We’ve all seen those TV shows where someone gets a major “makeover.” Teams of surgeons and fashion consultants transform some unfortunate soul who really needs it. He or she never has to pay for this because the services are donated. Retail price would probably be a seven-figure sum. I’m not that vain or that rich.

I would, however, like to look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt for just one day. I’d also like to be Beethoven, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Willie Mays (a famous baseball player) — each in his prime, also for one day per person. It would be pretty neat to know what it would feel like to inhabit those bodies and brains from sunrise to sunrise, and to receive the world’s approbation for the same 24 hours. I’m not quite evolved enough to say I’d like to be a woman for a day, but I’ll bet it would be even more informative and interesting. None of this will happen, of course.

Yet.

Cosmetic alteration clearly has a future. And, I suspect, all of us who are less than perfect in appearance (in other words, just about everybody) have an appointment with that future. Let me explain.

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There will be a time when you won’t have to have a million dollars to make yourself look like a million dollars. I imagine a future in which each person will have the capacity to holographically alter his appearance, even if the actual body hiding behind the holographic image isn’t the world’s most beautiful. Every day would be like Halloween, but with really good — and good-looking — masks. Mail-order catalogues, websites, and brick-and-mortar stores will have a department that lets you pick out the face you’d like to face in the mirror. Computer programs will let you “photo-shop” the image to your precise specifications. Everyone will be stunning! Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

How would that change the world, I wonder? Well, yes, there would doubtless be some who still want to stand out at any cost. Lots of perforations and punctures, body art, wild clothing, that sort of thing. But for the most part, just beauty as far as the eye can see. Jaw dropping appearances. Men would look like Jon Hamm or Brad Pitt if they wanted to, women could be as physically attractive as Marilyn Monroe or Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez or Katy Perry. A movie-star level of beauty all around.

The effect would be paradoxical, I think. In a world without disease or death, for example, no one would think about how he feels or worry about getting sick. In a climate that is always mild, sunny, and clear, no one would care much about the weather. And in a future of endless and omnipresent pulchritude — where anyone could become exquisite just by visiting the department store — the value of physical allure would surely diminish. The beautiful girl or guy would become something of a commonplace.

Other things would correspondingly count for more. The trophy spouse would have to be a Nobel Prize winner or an author; or someone of unusual charm or wit, generosity or kindness. A different world, for sure.

Until then? I think I will hold on to my old head. Despite some relatively high mileage, it has served me well. It is not the head of a handsome 25-year-old, but there are some good ideas and interesting experiences contained therein. I wouldn’t want to be without them. I’ve earned the weathering and learned from the lines. With a little buffing and waxing, it still does its job.

See you at the car wash.

The top photo is of Jon Hamm. The bottom image is a poster of John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in the 1920 Paramount Pictures classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.