Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Puberty of Old Age

When I turned fifty, the elders in my family told me not to get too upset about it. “Fifty is the youth of old age, “ they said, as if that was somehow going to make me feel better. They were in their eighties, or thereabouts, and could easily see fifty as young, and with equanimity acknowledge that it was edging up on “old age.” These days, even that part of the declaration might be challenged, but from my perspective at the time, I did seem to be getting a bit long in the tooth.

In two weeks, God willing, I shall turn sixty-five. If fifty is the youth of old age, I wonder what sixty-five could be. Fifteen years later—I must be ensconced in puberty! What else could it be? Instantly, all the ways that that seems true flood into my head. This is not like sixty, that for me at least, arrived with a wave of promise (I demurred at saying “Sixty is the new forty,” and was the first I knew of to declare it “the new sixty.”) For some reason I did not tiptoe into it. I grabbed sixty with relish. I had just finished the text of my ethical will. I rented a cottage in the countryside, gathered my family, and the five us had a sweet day of sharing deep thoughts, fine food, and the warmth of a fire. The seven of us now will gather and replicate some of that, but sixty-five approaches with a different sensibility.

How is sixty-five like the puberty of old age? For starters, whether I can attribute it to this milestone or not, it is coming at a time of relative angst. 

Take work, for example. Unlike sixty, which may have caught me smack dab in the middle of my most productive and rewarding time in my profession, sixty-five seems to be arriving at an interlude of change, exploration, and uncertainty. Like a teen, I am struggling to identify who I am, where I am going, whether anything I am doing is deemed worthy by my peers, if indeed I can even identify my peers. The job has definitely diminished in every respect. I no longer feel certain about my contribution and I am certain others share that sentiment.

As for my marriage, which I hasten to insert has weathered more challenging times in the last forty-two years, it is also a period of introspection. Both of us are confronting challenging issues that put a tinge of confusion into many of our relationships including this most fundamental one. This was the year that we, at long last, finally dealt in a mature manner with certain long-term personal planning issues. We finally abandoned a much out-of-date will in favor of a complete estate-planning package. While this provided a sense of accomplishment and relief, it did not do so without the price of forcing us to seriously confront our mortality. This may have had some bearing on our looking at several retirement living venues where our “puberty of old age” status was reinforced. Engaging with others fifteen or twenty years our senior had a dual effect of making us feel relatively young while simultaneously introducing us tangibly to the proximity of “the old age of old age.” 

As Debbie and I have been grappling with these issues we have been forced to speculate about a number of retirement related questions such as: when will we retire? What will that be like? What will we do as individuals and as a couple? Are our current mutual interests enough to sustain us as our respective individual interests seem to have diverged over the years? There are more questions that linger both consciously and unconsciously that can, on occasion, interfere with marital harmony, but I sense will ultimately make us stronger.

As a consequence of these first two issues I have had to engage in substantive conversations with my financial advisor about the feasibility of ever retiring. Up until the summer of 2011, when the company started to jerk me around in my job, I was blissfully under the impression that I would do this work as long as I cared to—easily until age seventy. Now I’m not so sure, and I need to be prepared to exit on my own terms at the optimum moment—whatever that turns out to be. To do that requires even more contemplation of the unknowable. What will I do? When will I do it? How will I live? Will I be able to afford it, etc.? This is an exercise that can bring enthusiasm and gleeful anticipation or fear and dread—more likely both.

Of course, the number one issue of puberty for many of us was body image, and while I have fallen head over heels in love with my “new” body (If you haven’t been paying attention, I intentionally lost somewhere between fifty to sixty pounds this year.) it does present me with a continuing set of challenges. Along with many others I wonder, “Who is this guy? Will he keep it off? Is he healthy or dying in front of our eyes? Is he as much fun as when he approached food and life with reckless abandon? Does this sweater go with that shirt?" And so on.

I’ve always had a sense that a good memory in some respects can be a handicap—especially when it comes to carrying around the angst from past years. I know that at every age we deal with the unique issues of that phase of life, and that the problems of that time may seem massive, serious, and inescapable. Yet, as time passes and we go on to the next set of massive, serious, and inescapable problems, we look back at how we may have overreacted to what in retrospect seems so trivial. Like a huge throbbing zit on the nose of life, one problem after the next gets thrown in our faces. We stare in the mirror and wonder “Why me? Why now?” Yet, somehow we move past each one. Occasionally we move into periods of relative clear sailing, beset perhaps with some daily stressors, but less so with the continental shifts of physical or emotional change. There are those times, if we are so lucky to notice them, when we can say, “Life is good!” I have a friend who says that “happiness is a temporary state of illusion.” I think he means that there is no good or bad. It’s more of how we label what life hands us and how we respond to it. Sometimes I feel more capable of pulling out the “happy” label than others. I won’t know how that will manifest when I reach this coming milestone until I reach it, and even then it likely will be an ephemeral state.

When I was a kid, puberty seemed like it would never arrive and when it finally did it wasn’t such a welcome guest. At least sixty-five is on a clear and certain timetable. I don’t have to guess about when it will occur. (If it will occur is an issue that no one should take for granted.) Let me therefore pray that I have the strength and courage to meet it at the door with at least some of the enthusiasm with which I greeted sixty. I hadn’t anticipated sixty-five would be such a big deal, but when you get that Medicare card it brings a dose of reality that is undeniable. The last time I remember getting such a buzz over a little piece of cardstock was the arrival of my draft card forty-seven years ago. Maybe it's time to go back out on the streets and shout, "Hell no, we won't go!"