It is generally considered bad form, of course, to get old. In today's youth-crazed society, making it to 85 or 90 isn't a cause for celebration, it's a person's own damn fault. Even at this late date in history, the act of aging is seen as unsightly - just count the anti-wrinkle creams and hair dyes out there. The young certainly despise it and the old warn against it. "Don't ever get old," a woman I used to work for would tell me, "It's no damn fun." She'd be paused midway up a flight of stairs, gripping the rail with a boney arm, the thought of even one more step was enough to produce a small sigh from her aged lungs like a train pulling out of a station.
All this comes to mind because a few weeks ago I went for an eye exam. Over the past few months, I'd started doing the "trombone," trying to find the right distance between my face and the book I was reading. The once-clear print was having a hard time coming into focus and the book wanted to get farther and farther away. At some point, as the joke goes, my arms were going to be too short. With no fanfare, the specialist I went to told me, "You're getting old," and sent me home with nothing sexier than the idea of getting a pair of cheap reading glasses.
These glasses, I wear them now, the first chink in the armor.
Other cultures respect and even revere their elderly, understanding them rightly as reservoirs of memory and knowledge. Watching senior citizens shuffle along the sidewalk, I'm always politely amazed. I can imagine the fragile bones, almost hear the machinery of their joints creaking. We should come with grease fittings I think. More than that I envision the hardships and struggles and infidelities and love endured. I see the tenderness and forgotten arguments and nights spent on the couch. These folks have survived them all, which is no small achievement, but now they are clocks running down, analog versions of the young that the restless would prefer not to know.
I've heard people (young and old) complain that life isn't fair. Of course it isn't. But it is indifferent. Beyond that it's a long haul, and one that's over in a minute. Possibly the best that can be said in its defense is it happens to everyone. Death and taxes right? Well at least taxes you can cheat on. I'm still this side of fifty so I have no right to complain, but what I'm noticing is a trend, how the first topic of conversation with friends is often a list of aches, pains and doctors' visits. "My friends are getting older," sings Greg Brown, "so I guess I must be, too." In my mind, I'm still 20 something, which means I pay the price after a weekend stint of sports or chopping wood. Tack on the fact that my metabolism is slowing and of all a sudden I'm going to the gym four times a week, playing the next-to-impossible game of catch-up on a well-deserved and expensive investment in a sprouting beer belly. "Youth is wasted on the young," I remember reading somewhere, and certainly the argument can be made for it being true.
As for the glasses, I'm still getting used to them, keeping them perched on the end of my nose where I peer out on a world increasingly intent on leaving me behind. I'm sure my fondness for them will wear off, but for now I'm enjoying the comments that they impart an illusion of brains. As for watching the elderly, "That could be us in 30 years," my wife and I say to each other, and sincerely believe and hope that it is. What I don't tell her is more and more I'm noticing the old men sitting alone in the park, worn shoes and hearing aides, tossing stale crusts of bread to the ducks, the empty seat beside them perpetually in shade.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal. His book, Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters from the Pacific Northwest will be out next year by OSU Press.