Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Year Older...

...and deeper in debt, goes the line from the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit, "Sixteen Tons," the coal miner's lament. Well at least I'm not a coal miner and I'm not in debt. My credit card bills are low, there's a bit of money in the bank accounts, and I've got my passport stamped with visas for Thailand and India. Soon my bags will be packed and I will be leaving on a jet plane (like the Mamas and Papas). By this time next month I'll be in the hot and rainy streets of Bangkok.

But I'm very aware today, on my 68th birthday, that the clock is ticking. Here I am, in this photo, only a few months old, fresh and ready for whatever comes. And I've already got a pot belly. No, strike that. For most of my life I was a skinny kid, neither tall nor small, a pretty average sort of a guy. I wore my hair long or short depending on the fashion of the time, and never got a tattoo. An old girlfriend did pierce one ear (the wrong one for my sexuality, as it turned out) with a needle, a cork and some ice while my horrified children looked on. But for the most part I've got what I came with, only it's bigger now and more wrinkled.

This aging business is all trial and error. My friend Jim worries that he is losing his memory. And I look at him and wonder: who is this old fart sitting next to me? We stumble along together, him with a cane and me with an unreliable sense of balance, marveling at the generations walking the streets that sprouted after us. Often I'm the oldest guy in the room and as unnoticed as a bed post. Liza said that when a woman reaches fifty, men look right through them without seeing anything.

My 50th high school reunion is next month but I won't be there. The last event, five years ago, was a picnic in the park near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Back when the Beatles were young, they sang "When I'm Sixty-Four," a song McCartney had written when he was only 16, and the artists had a field day picturing the moppets as old men. Now they are, the two who are left, and I'm in their cohort. The reunion alumni tottered into the park that day, all looking like caricatures of their younger selves. I don't need to see that again.

Life: A User's Manual would be a useful reference tool. Who knew what it would be like to grow old? There would be a section on aging and a chapter devoted to skin and all of the strange things that happen to it after fifty. Another on the urinary tract and its particular malfunctions, and of course a number of pages on digestion and what can go wrong with it. It's not that I like talking about my body and its 19 possible breakdowns. I can imagine no worse hell than a nursing home where all your neighbors want to blabber about the state of their health. Hypochondria seems to be a necessary consequence of the process.

No, in the face of the inevitable I want out. Not like my friends and former associates who believe they can batter their body into submission through jogging, Jazzercise, a succession of diets, weight lifting and yoga. Perhaps for a brief period they can keep that tummy flat, the pecs firm and the legs and chin trim, but in the end genetics and gravity will out. There is something frantic and pitiful about the quest for youthfulness that drives women to tanning salons and botox and men to hair dye and a red convertible (my father bought an MG during his midlife crisis). I, for one, am tired of perpetually sucking in my stomach.

In Thailand, I am told, age and appearance matter less than in the celebrity and youth-obsessed west. Of course the world is changing and becoming more homogenized, and Asians are succumbing to the lure of image and advertising, just as we have for ages. But at least for now, particularly in the countryside where rice farmers scratch out a living, what is important is that one have a "jai dee," a good heart, no matter what the age. Warmth, they tell me, is a more important quality than beauty. What counts is what comes from inside and not from exercise, a treatment, or out of a bottle or a box.

So today, as I begin my 69th year (something that I would have greeted with giggles as a teenager), I turn forward to face a bright and unimaginably interesting future. I give my memories away to Goodwill Industries and open a new blank page. Like the baby in the photo above, I greet and embrace the unknown with a warm and loving heart.

My cynical friend Gerry offers this poem by Philip Larkin, "The Old Fools," as his contribution to any wisdom (or lack thereof) about aging.
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange;
Why aren't they screaming?

At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside you head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

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