Looking at Old People or “Is Fifty the New Forty?”

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You might not want to read this.

It’s gonna get scary.

I recently went to a funeral attended by a number of people who were middle-aged and beyond. The crisscrossed lines in their faces resembled an electric grid.

Still, one noted a few exceptions. Some, always female, had facial features that appeared to be immobilized by a Botox overdose. No forehead lines, no wrinkles, no movement; for the price of frozen time they had also obtained, at no extra charge, a visage as smooth as stone and as hard to animate. When trying to smile, a few of these folks looked like their faces were about to crack, while necks and hands told a different story.

Then there were the face-lifts that didn’t recapture youth so much as they made one look like someone else. Not better, but different. A few others sported eye and jowl lifts that had lost their hydraulics. I guess the old saying applies: what goes up must come down.

The men didn’t have this problem, but made an equally pathetic effort to disguise ancient origins. One guy had a comb-over that started behind his left ear and ended just over his right ear. Didn’t his wife notice this? Whose idea was this anyway? What was the man thinking?

Bad toupees suggested a recent visit to an Oriental rug bazaar in order to buy a discarded carpet remnant.

I am bald myself, but make no effort to disguise it. I do remember, however, hearing about something called scalp reduction surgery designed to get more coverage out of the hair you have by reducing the territory on top of your head.

I can imagine the following conversation:

Surgeon: ‘Well, Dr. Stein, we’ve studied your head, your hair-line and scalp and we have some good news and some bad news.”

Me: “Tell me more, Doctor.”

Surgeon: “The good news is that we can give you a full head of hair!”

Me: “And the bad news?”

Surgeon: ‘Your head will be the size of a pea.”

Back to the distaff side, a few of the women seemed to be hoping that you wouldn’t look at them closely because you’d be distracted by the dazzle of their jewelry. One seventy-ish lady had so many bracelets that she wasn’t able to lift her arm to shake hands. Her metallic bands created an orchestra-like percussion effect that drowned out the clergyman’s eulogy whenever she moved a millimeter.

Then there were the older men and women who dressed in styles more suitable to young people. One muscular guy wore a shirt revealing just enough to suggest that a lot of iron had been successfully pumped, but that all recreative work had stopped above the shoulders, sort of like an unfinished home rehab that never got to the top floor. “I don’t think that is his real head,” my wife whispered to me. We both wondered who his surgeon might be.

Ginger Rogers in Her Youth

A few of the older ladies wore skirts or dresses that befitted teens and twenty-somethings. The attire was usually combined with a long-haired coiffure that reminded me of how Ginger Rogers looked in the dreadful old age of a once gorgeous creature, still thinking that her beautiful blond hair should be worn just as it had been 50 years before.

If desperation had a fragrance, the room would have been ripe with it. But then, as Billy Crystal’s old SNL character “Fernando” used to say, “I’d rather look good than to feel good.”

The problem was, no one really looked good, even with all the obvious effort.

Is 70 then the new 60, as some like to say? Is 50 the new forty?

Is dead the new alive?

My advice? Accept the unacceptable. Hold on to your dignity.

Try hard not to look like an idiot.

As wise men have said for centuries: “There’s no fool like an old fool.”

The top image is called Happiness by Marg, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

September Song

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I was talking to an unmarried friend recently, not a young man, who presented me with a dilemma that was troubling him. It seemed that an attractive and intelligent woman, much younger than he, was showing an interest in him.

Friendship? Romance? Business advantage or advice?

All yet to be determined.

But he wondered whether to pursue the relationship, particularly if it might become romantic, sexual.

Now my friend is extremely bright, a thinker all his life. Indeed, this is how he makes his living — thinking, evaluating, considering, pondering, weighing, judging; and then conveying the result of those calculations to others, who pay him well for his service.

He sees lots of potential problems, although he doesn’t know the woman well at all — yet. Might she be interested in him only for his ability to assist her professionally? Wouldn’t others looks askance at the two of them together, a woman of 30 and a man of 55?

Or could one of the things that now attracts her to him — his capacity as a mentor or guide, someone who has much more experience of some very interesting things — eventually be seen as a problem when she tires of the “student” role and begins to resent the “teacher?” Wouldn’t the generation gap, the memories and formative influences that they don’t have in common, eventually separate them?

Now all these, and more, are not unreasonable thoughts. The problems that he sees could very well occur.

But other men might see it differently. They would welcome the attention of a young and attractive female, the energy, the sexual tension, the admiration, the possibility of what still might be. Indeed, some men of any age could well believe that they’d won some sort of dating lottery in just this situation.

But then, my friend lives in his head a lot, a thinker, as I said. And thinkers think. Not because it always works, not because they have to, but because it is almost as natural and automatic as breathing. Simply because they’ve always done it.

Most of us, past a certain age, just keep doing what we’ve done and getting what we’ve got. Not that what we’ve got has always been that great, but the unknown future seems fraught with danger and only the safety of the well-trod path appears to offer any security. Better the mediocre “known” than the dangerous, but perhaps promising “unknown.”

And so, the man who has always worn only Brooks Brothers suits for fear of others criticizing his wardrobe choices will still wear those suits; and the adult who had little money while growing up will continue to under-tip the waiter and sit in the “cheap seats” in the theater despite the fact that he has a million dollars in the bank and a secure pension on top of it; and the orchestra musician too long beyond his prime will play the violin still, not because he so loves it, but because he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time if he quit the thing to which he has devoted his entire life.

One is trapped by social expectations and insecurity, another held tight by the dead hand of the past, a third lacking the imagination or courage to reinvent himself. All are like sail boats becalmed, in a still-state of living without life.

But the days grow short as you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

My advice to my friend? See what happens. You aren’t young any more. Life is short. Who knows what it may yet have in store?

Before long spring will be in the air again. Even if it is not the spring of your youth, the earth’s spring might yet enliven you.

And listen to Walter Huston’s recording of September Song, music by Kurt Weill, words by Maxwell Anderson.

His rendition remains the best ever, even if barely sung, because of a sensibility that knew very well that of which he sang — the September of life and the hope of romance to heal the lonely heart.

The photo above is a Picture of Pin Oak leaves turning color c/o: Rmccrea, Wikimedia Commons.

The quotation is from September Song.

Do You Know Who You Are? A Meditation on Identity, Mid-life Crisis, and Change

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Who are you?

In times of war, men define themselves by three pieces of information only: name, rank, and serial number. I suppose that the peace-time equivalent is name, profession, and age; not social security number, which you are wise to keep to yourself for fear of identity theft. Stolen identities aside, the question of who you are is still an important one.

But let me formulate it differently.

How would you describe yourself? What human characteristics or traits or values are essential to you? What makes you different from any other person on earth?

Let’s start at the beginning of life. You are given a name. How does the name define you and influence the rest of your life? If you are A Boy Named Sue, as in the old song, you can be sure that your identity and life have been changed by your parents’ decision about appellation. Indeed, there is now research evidence that some names, those thought to be used predominantly by blacks, cause potential employers to discriminate against a job applicant’s resume when compared to individuals with the same qualifications who have names that are less racially-linked.

Name-changing has long been a way for white Americans to avoid discrimination based on ethnicity or religion. Others had their names compromised when reaching this country from Europe and were processed for entry to the USA on Ellis Island. Thus, a Paderewski became a Patterson and a Rifkin became a Riff, due to the simplifications created by the randomly assigned immigration official. And, from the start, the new arrival had to deal simultaneously with a change of name, a new nationality, a loss of homeland, and the now restricted opportunity to use his native language, all playing on the question of his identity. Meanwhile, his young offspring encountered the attitude of teachers (and, much later) potential employers or lovers to someone named Patterson rather than Paderewski, just as he saw himself as the former and not the latter.

For the immigrant, the “dislocation of place” both parallels and creates the dislocation of his sense of who he now is. The person has gone from being (perhaps) an unremarkable resident of his home country to someone “different,” who speaks (at best) with an accent, and who has a history that is at odds with the shared past of his new neighbors. The man has become, truly, a stranger, but he is not just strange to others—he is strange to himself.

Just as some people voluntarily attempt to hide their ethnicity, so too do some few work to hide their race. You might want to watch the 1959 movie, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner and John Gavin, for a cinematic take on this subject, the attempt to pass for white. More recently, Philip Roth’s year 2000 novel The Human Stain (and the movie of the same name) deals with a black University professor passing as a white man; and Bliss Broyard’s 2007 memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets describes her father Anatole Broyard’s self-transformation from black to white within the literary world.

And one must give at least brief mention of a condition called Gender Identity Disorder, in which children may be born anatomically of one sex, but of the opposite sex in terms of identity.

Religion also helps create one’s sense of self. As the European generation who survived World War II began to approach death, a number of adult Polish Catholics discovered, through these aging parents or other relatives, that they were born Jewish. The children had been rescued from the Holocaust by Polish gentiles. It was therefore often easier and safer to treat them as Catholic during the Nazi occupation than to try to persuade them to keep a secret of their religion. Once this identity alteration was performed, however, it proved to be hard or uncomfortable to undo, particularly in a nation with an antisemitic history. The revelation of the religion into which they were born surely transformed the identity of a number of these religiously recast people.

Revelations of another kind occurred in post-World War II Germany. The children of Nazi authorities and SS members did their best to keep their identities secret for fear of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, their children sometimes discovered (to their dismay)  the answer to the question “What did you do during the war, daddy?” This type of revelation can lead the child to wonder who he really is, and whether he has inherited some of the unfortunate qualities of his father.

The 1989 movie Music Box starring Jessica Lange and Armin Mueller-Stahl deals with a similar circumstance, but one transported to the Chicago area. It involves the question of a father’s activities in Hungary during the war and his daughter’s legal defense of him against the US government’s attempt to deport him.

If you have seen or read the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, you know still a different take on the same theme, this time without war crimes entering picture, at least as they are usually defined. The play takes place in post World War II America. Joe Keller ran a wartime factory with his former neighbor, Steve Deever. The men knowingly shipped defective airplane cylinder heads causing the death of 21 U.S. Air Force pilots. Steve goes to jail for this, although somehow Joe is exonerated of the crime. But when Joe’s pilot son Larry finds out what his father has done, his shame translates into suicide, so devastated is he by the identity-altering knowledge of who his father is and what his father has done.

As I hope these examples make clear, the question of your identity also involves awareness of who your parents were or are. Adopted children often seek out their biological parents, as do those who have been abandoned and left with only one parent to raise them. They also lack the medical history that informs the lives of those of us who know our parents well. The difference can mean life or death. Am I at risk for heart disease or not? It depends, in part, on who your parents are or were, and that information can change your life.

Children who have lost a parent to disease or death-by-accident or in war-time have a similar problem, even if they don’t have to deal with the knowledge that a parent or parents gave them up, and the attendant implication that they were worthless to those parents. And, their identity is influenced by the fact that they are “different:” the ones who lack a parent, have no partner at the daddy-daughter dance, have no father to teach them to play ball and no male parent to root for them at the Little League game.

Shifting gears, our identities are surely influenced by physical and intellectual characteristics: short/tall, young/old, handsome/homely, smart/stupid and so forth. But not all such qualities are fixed. Witness the change in identity that happens as people age, especially if they were once beautiful or handsome, or once athletic and now infirm. For those who trade on superficial characteristics exclusively, the change that comes with the passage of time is more than troubling.

Gorgeous women, in particular, find that they no longer turn the heads of men so much, if at all. Instead, the male of the species looks to other, younger women. Germaine Greer talked about this in terms of becoming “invisible,” though she found freedom in it to be more herself, less concerned with how she looked. One way or the other, it is an identity changer. Similarly, those who are injured, scared, or lose a limb or a breast must redefine themselves, reconfigure who they are in their own minds just as they have been quite literally reconfigured physically.

On the other hand, if you receive an organ transplant, you face an unusual assault to your sense of self. You are no longer the physical entity of earlier days, but now have a part of another person inside of you.

Yet, sometimes external changes do not alter identity very much. I have counseled more than one naturally beautiful adult woman who was the fat kid or the ugly kid while growing up, or the child who was criticized and belittled by parents. Too often the early labels seem to adhere to the person’s self concept as if they were tattooed on their flesh. Thus, it is not a surprise that cosmetic surgery does not always achieve the sense of self-worth that the patient is looking for.

Other life events can also transform one’s self-image. Men are notoriously vulnerable to a loss of identity when they retire or lose a job and are no longer the CEO, breadwinner, “doctor/lawyer/Indian chief” of their working days. I recall hearing it said that for a time after his retirement from baseball, the great New York Yankee outfielder Mickey Mantle had a recurring dream about trying to reenter Yankee Stadium by crawling under the fence that surrounded the ball field and getting stuck there! This is a stereotypical example of a man who was suffering from his loss of identity as an athlete.

So too, women who defined themselves exclusively in terms of their job as mothers frequently seem bereft and without a sense of self when the children leave the nest. In addition, women historically are more likely than men to define themselves by their partner, and achieve a sense of who they are by who their partner is. Being, for example, “the doctor’s wife” might have some value until the day that you are the doctor’s ex-wife. But, it must be said that men do this, too, and take some measure of self-definition and pride in having a talented or beautiful or charming wife.

Before closing, one must certainly comment on the notorious mid-life crisis of identity usually associated with men. Some men begin to get the sense of time passing them by and of not having accomplished all that they wished for in life. Jean Améry has said that a young person “is not only who he is, but also who he will be.” In other words, his self concept is informed by the expectations he has for his future. For most men in middle age, however, “who he will be” is not all that promising.

As the (usually unconscious) sense of mortality and “doors closing” begins to encroach, males have been known to act foolishly in order to hold on to or recapture their youth. A fast, new model car will suffice on occasion, but the stereotyped search for a new model “trophy” love is certainly something I’ve encountered in my clinical practice. It has been known to take the form of a rekindled high school or college romance, as well, for those men less concerned about external appearances and more about “the road not taken.”

However the crisis manifests itself, the crisis-driven actions inevitably fail to find the “Fountain of Youth” that is their real goal. Grudgingly or not, one must accept one’s mortality and the accompanying aging process or make some big and painful mistakes, costly to yourself and to others around you, as the price of trying to hold onto an identity whose time has passed. Dylan Thomas wrote, “do not go gentle into that good night,” but, gentle or not, go we will.

A few years beyond the mid-life crisis stage, most men and women find themselves thinking about different things than they were in their youth. Thoughts related to sex diminish and thoughts about aches and pains increase. In both cases, the mind is reminded by the body of one and not the other. The only difference is that the body steals upon you with sexual thoughts and feelings while young and, as these diminish, perversely tries to make up for it with sensations that hurt more! If you are like me, the first change you notice is that you actually have knees. Now, for the first time, you are aware of the work they do, and the knowledge is not consoling. These thoughts and sensations make their own contribution to who you are.

Finally, Richard Posner, the public intellectual, scholar, and judge has asked an interesting question about identity. What if, Posner wonders, we send a young man to prison for a serious crime, but he reforms himself and becomes an admirable human being during his lifetime confinement? Are we still punishing the same man 40 years after the wrong has been done? Certainly his name is the same and his history marks him as the same man. But his personality might have been altered by rehabilitation, reflection, experience, study, faith, or any or all of the aforementioned.

I hope that it is clear that identity is not so simple a thing. It is made up of one’s history and those histories of one’s forebears. At least partially, it is a function of a name and a place and a time, whether friendly to a person or not, particularly if society is prejudiced. Physical characteristics, too, play their part, as do what we think and what we do; and, of course, whether we have much self-awareness or, instead, see ourselves as different from who we really are.

And, it is a thing that can change — that must change — as we age and take on new roles in our families and in our community; and as changes occur not just in our mind’s eye, but in the mirror.

It is worth some thought, I think, that question with which I began.

Who are you?

The image is called Pentaeagondodekaeder by Lokilech, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Meaning of Life is…

Thoughtful people since the beginning of time have looked for the answer to the biggest question of all: what is the meaning of life? But recently I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps it is the wrong question. The existentialists have long suggested that it is our job, each of us, to find our own meaning. But even if you believe in the idea that we must take responsibility for the one life that we have and view it as a creative act, to make what we can of it, I’m still not convinced that the question is the best one available.

What then might be a better question? The question I’m thinking of is, what are the meanings of a life, the purposes to which one puts that life? In other words, the meaning of a life, its target or goal, would be viewed as a changeable and changing thing, not just different from one individual to another as the existentialists suggest, but different depending upon the moment that the question is asked of any single life. It might be one thing when you are 15 and quite another when you are 50, still another at 75.

But first let us consider very briefly the answers to the original question, what is the meaning of life? One could go on at length about the various “isms: hedonism, stoicism, and so forth. I will not do this. Others know more about them and have already discussed them at great length. Still, one must give a nod in the direction of the meaning of life being the simple biological fact of procreation, continuing the human race. The religious might argue that the will of God for each individual as the meaning for that particular person, along with doing honor to God’s law. Then there are those who believe that life is intended to increase one’s understanding and knowledge, or to have the maximal amount of pleasure, or to perfect oneself by fulfilling your innate talents and capacities, or to make the world a better place than you found it, or quite simply to love in a deep and abiding fashion.

But, my current thought is that there is no single meaning for all persons, but changing meanings as we grow up and age. Early-on, the meaning of our lives is perhaps to be found in discovering what we can do, who we are, and mastering the extraordinary number of things any little person has to learn just to get out the door and off to school. Not far into the process one must determine how to relate to people, how to honor yourself without disrespecting others, figuring out where you stand in the pecking order of athletic, intellectual, and social competition. Discovering one’s vocation must be on the list, since most of us take so much meaning from what we do for a living, be it as a captain of industry, a scholar, a salesperson, or parent. All the better if what we do for a living provides a sense of fulfillment, creativity, acknowledgment, accomplishment, and growth.

Meaning is to be found in a life-partner too, in love, in family, in raising a child, and in risking your heart. And over time, friendships, especially if they are life-long, have great value and define us as people and as members of a tiny group of two or more friends or part of a community, pulling-together to do something worthwhile.

In war-time, loyalty, comradeship, and courage take special meaning; even to the point that, a few years before World War II, the Japanese government proclaimed loyalty as essential to the national morality. And, in the war itself, the idea of behaving honorably in the face of certain death, never allowing himself to be captured, guided the Japanese soldier and gave meaning to his service. Emperor, country, and comrades counted for a lot; even the importance of family sometimes diminished in the heat of battle, by comparison, when it was necessary to steel one self against the terror of combat.

Under less severe circumstances, learning is something that gives purpose as we work to understand ourselves and the human condition, as well as particular things about the world. Later on in life, for many people comes a certain generosity of spirit, a desire to help those who are coming after us, to lend a hand. And the shortness of time contributes to intensity of feeling, making the beauty of the earth, a smile, a song, an act of kindness, or an embrace all the more touching because we know that before too long, the sweetness of life will no longer be ours to savor.

Having taken all this time on the question I’ve raised, I think there is danger in spending too much time on trying to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life? If one has learned anything from life itself, it is that the time is precious and waiting in contemplation for a revelation of what we should do risks squandering the time we have. But most of us are comforted by a sense of direction, and one should try to determine what is of value, and to conform one’s behavior to what is important and worthy of effort and time. Indeed, mindfulness and commitment-based psychotherapies work very hard to encourage the person to become detached from things that are not important, and instead to focus him on his values and how to “live” them.

There is worth, then, in simply knowing that the clock is ticking and that the day is short; but only if that knowledge creates a sense of urgency in you and the desire to make the most of the time.

As John Donne wrote so long ago:

“Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”