Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Postcards From My Childhood Part 9: Aging

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"The child is the father of the man", they say. Surprisingly, I understood this even as a child. And so I willfully sent forward to my elder self some thoughts and images which I knew would be helpful, and which I suspected I'd otherwise forget.

As I wrote in my account of Chowhound's latter days:
I don't remember much, aside from day after day of waking, going to the computer, and, many hours later, getting back up and going off to sleep. I'd often forget to eat. Days would drift by where I didn't go outside or talk to anyone. Literally everything in my life was eventually let go of: my health, most of my friendships, my musical career (even my trombone technique), and any notion of romance.
When the smoke cleared, I found myself in a Rip Van Winkle situation, and my emergence from suspended animation has provided a unique perspective.

Having lost track of many friends for a decade or so, I've gradually reestablished contact over the past few years. Of course, most are not as I remember them. In 1998, we were young. Now, we're not. Fifteen years is a surprisingly long time. So there's grey hair galore, and, through my eyes, the transition has been jarringly sudden. Normally, friends age so gradually that the process is barely noticeable. But to me, it's instant-on. It's as if they'd been baked overnight in kilns.

And here's what I've noticed. Old friends divide into two camps: those who are exactly the same beneath what seems like stage makeup, and those who seem squarely (in all senses of the word) middle-aged.

Naturally, I gravitate to the former. I feel they've kept alive something that others have let die. But I'm not certain I'm right about this. Might it be more flowing, more grounded, more sane to fully inhabit one's age? After all, "Peter Pan" is never a flattering association when it appears in the titles of self-help books.

The other day, as I ran up a flight of steps, a stranger tightened his face and asked if maybe I wasn't "a bit too old" for such undignified behavior. The suggestion struck me dumb; I didn't know how to even process it. Am I really supposed to constantly rejigger myself to meet people's expectations of how someone of my nominal age ought to act? If so, geez, I'd need to rethink pretty much everything!

When I was seven, and just beginning to send messages ahead in time to my adult self, the most urgent one was this: grown-ups who sever all ties with their childhood selves lose something essential. The perqs of maturity should be fully embraced, but a certain essence must be retained. I observed that this essence rarely survived to adulthood, but my childhood self, precociously aware of being father to my adult self, was determined to see it through.

So I know his answer: he chooses perpetuation, and releases a jolt of righteous satisfaction when he sees himself in me and in others. Dad, in other words, approves.

But is he being a tyrant? Is the original protagonist in this story blocking the natural progression out of some narcissistic determination to remain central to the narrative? Or is it simply a matter of clarity and freshness and light declining to be crusted over by bitterness, psychic baggage, free radicals, and other empty sedimentation?

Read the next installment


DValve said...

I'm now watching the onset of my 88 year old father's dementia. His memory is slipping; he repeats things he said earlier in the conversation, and then forget the entire conversation a short while later. It's sad to me, because I believe that were he more willing to continue challenging his mind, he could have staved off this unpleasant development, or possibly avoided it entirely. For years I've tried to encourage him to develop a new interest or hobby, because I've watched his world grow smaller as he avoided life's small challenges in the interest of security and convenience. I'm of the belief that aging begins when we stop running up flights of stairs, or cease playing the occasional word game or puzzle, or avoid being silly with your 15 year old son. Unused muscle atrophies, as does the idle brain and the unstirred spirit. We would all do well to feed that remaining spark of youth until our last breath.

Jim Leff said...

Very sorry about your father.

But consider that you may have switched cause and effect. One might similarly observe that colds are caused by blowing our noses too frequently ("See? I told you to stop blowing your nose! Now you've got a full-blown cold and you're blowing it ALL THE TIME!").

For time immemorial this has been the course of things for most old people. Crossword puzzle solving, fresh hobbies, comfort zone stretching, and exercise certainly can forestall the inevitable (which is why they're recommended!), but they can't defeat it. Re: the lucky few who do stay sharp and active to the end, researchers haven't found a secret sauce. There are plenty of sharp, vibrant 100 year olds out there who've done very little to "earn" it. It's really quite random.

I do understand why you'd view your dad's degradation as a failing. But his closing down and drying up weren't voluntary. Again, one can push back the decline a tad, but one can't beat it. And 88's quite an advanced age for serious degradation to set in. He's been beating the odds for over a decade.

You've spotted foreshadowings, but I'm pretty sure gerontologists would attribute those behavioral changes to effect rather than to cause. It would be extremely odd if aging humans experienced a random, unforced ever-increasing attraction for security/convenience which just happened to launch a vicious circle. When you've been sick, say, with the flu, and your strength was sapped and body afflicted, have you, yourself, experienced a bit of that security/convenience attraction? If so, again, consider switching your perception of cause and effect.

One thing to consider: he still feels like him inside, even if he's not acting much like him. Is your father who he is, or is he what he does? It's a profound question, and if you can recognize that there's an essence - a lifelong hum - at our root, you'll be more inclined, when you're with him, to be with that essential hum rather than with the more superficial manifestations. If you can manage that, he'd feel it. You'd be offering him deep relief, and you'll learn about yourself. That's useful for when you yourself go through this one day. I hope you'll go easy on yourself as inexorability runs its course. Old age is a process that teaches acceptance.

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