Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Another Birthday!"

Sydney M. Williams
January 29, 2015
                                                                A Note from Old Lyme

“Another Birthday!”

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”
                                                                                                                                Satchel Paige (1906-1982)

“It takes a long time to become young.”
                                                                                                                                Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

In two days I turn 74. ‘My God,’ some will say. ‘I had no idea he was such a child. He seemed so old.’ Others will say, ‘The old goat really is old. He seemed so immature.’

On commencing one’s 75th year, one can be excused for thinking of mortality, but healthily not morbidly. We know that everything alive will die; and we can be excused for feeling that this is not our time.  There is a wisp of truth to the old saying, ‘One is as old as one feels.’ Lewis Carroll had “old Father William” stand on his head and then, at the end of the poem, threaten the youth: “Be off, or I’ll kick you down-stairs.” In contrast, T.S. Eliot advised readers: “…be careful of Old Deuteronomy.” There is wisdom in Satchel Paige’s observation, quoted above: Does knowing our age influence who we are? Is my birth certificate accurate? I assume it is, but I have no memory of being born. Perhaps I will not be turning 74? Do I care? No. It’s as good a day as any.

Picasso had it right too: It does take a long time to become young. As children, we said whatever was on our minds. The same is true when we are older. Age provides freedoms, especially of expression; though perhaps less of the physical variety. We are less mindful (but hopefully still respectful) of what others think; so more apt to speak as we please. A few weeks ago in the New York Times, Anne Karpf, a British journalist and sociologist, wrote “…our sense of what’s important grows with age. We experience life more intensely than before, whatever our physical limitations, because we know it won’t last forever” – a sobering, but compelling thought. 

A mid-seventy’s birthday is an opportunity to consider how different various cultures treat the aged. The price of medicine translates into a high – some, like Dr Ezekiel Emanuel who feels that 75 is a good age to die, might say exorbitant – cost of keeping the elderly alive. Jared Diamond, UCLA professor and author of Guns, Germs and Steel and who writes on the subject of aging, gave a lecture a few years ago: “Honor or Abandon: Why Does Treatment of the Elderly Vary so Widely Among Human Societies?” Japan celebrates “Respect for the Aged Day.” Other societies do not. Some of what he noted may have been true, but was a little creepy. Natural selection, he said, meant that there had been times and circumstances, starvation, for example, and particularly among nomadic tribes, when it was deemed right for children to abandon or kill their parents – not an outcome I particularly desire! But Professor Diamond’s principal point was that Eastern cultures place greater value on family and the elderly than do Western ones, with the latter’s tendency to celebrate youth and self-reliance. Improved medical care and better living standards means that we are all living longer. As societies we are aging, which will have consequences. Affordability will be one of them.

Not surprisingly, as it would give me but a year or so to live, I disagree with Dr. Emanuel. I suspect that if he enters his 75th year in good health, he might revise his opinions and perhaps decide that 80 or 85 might be a better age to call it quits. While I disagree with the concept of Dr. Emanuel’s targeting a specific age, I do not want to live as a vegetable, or be so impaired I cannot perform the simplest tasks. I don’t want to be carried by one of my sons, as Aeneas did his father, Anchises. But I would rather any decision be made by my family, not the state.

Mental gymnastics are as important as their physical kin, in holding back aging, but the process cannot be stopped. As an old southern expression has it: “Ain’t time a wrecker!” It is, and despite the allegation by Ponce de León, there are no ‘Fountains of Youth;’ there are only face lifts, Botox and the like, all of which are obvious to even the casual observer. The march of time is inexorable. Stopping the aging process is as futile as turning back the tide, as Canute discovered. So, we are best off to get on with it and enjoy ourselves.

Those among us fortunate to have grandchildren derive an invaluable, secondary benefit as we age. When we were new parents, our children looked upon us as the font of all knowledge. Soon enough, realism replaced credulity, as our fallibilities surfaced and became too obvious to ignore.  With grandchildren, we get a second shot. These are sensations normally available only to those the media worships – Democrat Presidents, movie stars, athletes, rock stars, etc. However, like belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, we know that this adulation will, too, pass. In the meantime, such adoration provides for wonderful moments of confidence building. While the limits to our knowledge will soon be exploited by our fast-learning grandchildren, there is, if I may be so bold, something more lasting in the wisdom we have accumulated and can offer. Professor Jared concluded his lecture: “So, if you want to get advice on complicated problems, ask someone who is 70; don’t ask someone who is twenty-five.”

Sitting at my computer, I note that I am sixteen years older than was my father when he died and only five years younger than my mother when she slipped her harness. But I emerge from that self-induced funk and look out at the snow accumulating in the fields, sense the cold of the ground underneath, but derive comfort from the knowledge that beneath that frozen soil lives the promise of spring and the resurrection of life.

The most important thing to realize, as birthdays appear with what seems increasing frequency, is how lucky we are to be here in the first place. When one considers the happenstance of our parents and their parents meeting (going back thousands of generations) and the billions of spent sperms and unfertilized eggs that are wasted, the odds against being born are billions and billions to one. So, life must be rejoiced and part of life is getting older. We should not rue that fact. I do not feel as did T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock; though I admit to losing height:

“I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”


We should celebrate life, no matter our age. We are indeed lucky to be here and I am even more fortunate to have a family I love, to be healthy and to be having another birthday. I hope for many more.

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