I'm supposed to be working the nostalgia buttons here, writing about things as they were back in the Precambrian Era, you know, when I was a kid. But I'm going to touch briefly on the modern era, and look back on things from the here and now. I hope you'll forgive me.
In the fall of last year, I turned 65. A "Senior Citizen." That's an odd spelling for a term that is pronounced "Old Goat," isn't it? But, hey, it's English, so all rules are off. But the point here is to address what it feels like to be a Senior, give an overview of the march of life that I have seen. What a road it's been...
When I was born, in 1948, for the record, the great war against global tyranny had just been concluded. The bad guys, Germany, Japan, and for a while, Italy, had been resoundingly defeated, pounded into the earth never to rise again, and we immediately found them replaced by an even more sinister global tyranny, the Soviet Union. Thanks to our mutual possession of nuclear arms, neither of us dared move overtly against the other, so the years of my youth were spent against a backdrop of uneasy, distrustful peace called the Cold War. Every Monday at noon, air raid sirens would be tested in neighborhoods across America, and we were expected to practice whatever we had settled on as a strategy to defend ourselves from nuclear ruination. As wee tiny school children, we were taught to "assume the position" under our flimsy plywood desks, hands carefully protecting the backs of our little necks, so that the ripple of atomic bombs detonating over our local military bases wouldn't snuff out our fragile little lives. In the affluent neighborhood where I grew up, many families dug fallout shelters into their back yards. I understand these became great store rooms later, sort of underground garden sheds with radiation filters in the ventilators. Meanwhile, our surrogates fought each other to exhaustion in conventional warfare in Korea, Viet Nam, China, Cuba, Angola, Cambodia, Malaya, and probably dozens of other places I've never heard of. It went on long enough for me to grow up and take part in it, and it is a tribute to the resilience of children that we still played. We met in back yards across America, tried on every future career from Astronaut to Zookeeper, and if we were playing when the sirens went off, we just shouted over them. Maybe we quietly understood that if the world was going to end tomorrow, we'd better have our fun today.
But what about the other stuff, the march of everyday life that goes on constantly around us? When I was a young child, people rode on propeller-driven airliners that cruised serenely at 300 mph, taking a full day to cross the United States. Long-haul variants had Pullman-style beds above the seats so you could get a good night's sleep while your flight was in the air. It was a major event, and people dressed in their finery for the occasion. My great-grandmother flew back to North Carolina to visit the part of the family that never moved when I was six years old. It took her twelve hours, including fueling stops, and when she got there she couldn't just pick up the phone and tell us she had arrived safely. No, that was a process.
Like everyone, we had a telephone in the house. It was wired into the wall, and rang with a bell that could have served as the wakeup call on Judgment Day. A service technician came to install it, and that was a production. You showed him where you wanted it, usually in a hallway at my house, and he connected wires from the nearest pole to your house, installed a connection box, and attached your toaster-size instrument to it. Funny, the phone company always referred to it as an instrument, but the sound it made was far from musical. Anyway, once this thing was installed, you were given your number. These used to be colorful, almost romantic. The number at the house where I turned four was Atwater 1-5943. Children always had to memorize their phone numbers, because if they got lost, the kindly strangers who found them would have to call their parents to get directions to bring them home; those were happier times...
Anyway, once you had this monster sitting on a telephone stand, a purpose-built piece of furniture that held the giant phone on top, and had a shelf for your two phone books underneath, the things you could do with it were amazingly limited. You could call any place in town that you could obtain a number for, and that was the purpose of your two phone books. The Yellow Pages held the numbers of businesses arranged by category, i.e., all the car mechanics were together, the florists, and whatever you wanted. The white pages were an alphabetical listing of everybody on the grid. That in itself seemed pretty miraculous. Instead of hitching up Dobbin and driving the buckboard across town to inquire as to whether Joe's Diner served Peking Duck, you picked up the phone and asked him. But great-grandma had a more daunting chore facing her when she wanted to let us know that she had landed safe in Ashville. She had to call an Operator, an employee of the Telephone Company, usually a female with a pleasant voice, an aptitude for electrical engineering, and the patience of Job. She took the number you wanted to call in the other city, and began to lay a trail of connections from city to city across America until she got into your destination city, and the operator there could directly dial the number you wanted, and connect you through thousands of miles of physical wire so you could talk. And this wasn't cheap. You could spend the price of a good winter coat hooking up for a five minute call, hence the golden age of postcards.
Nowadays, as everyone well knows, I can take a 2-ounce "instrument" barely larger than a credit card out of my shirt pocket and dial up a Bedouin tribesman riding on a camel outside Timbuktu using a number I obtain from the Internet. Oh, and the Internet; don't get me started! Oh, well, too late. Computers were things I was aware of during my childhood. They were housed in refrigerated warehouses, and basically solved huge math problems. They were the 700-ton calculators that made the Space Program possible. Now I am sitting here in my living room typing on a laptop that contains more computing power than existed in America in 1955. It doesn't need to be plugged in to power or an Internet wire, and the potential exists for three-quarters of the population of the world to read these words within seconds of the time I push the Post button. The potential also exists for three-quarters of the population of the world to hack into my bank account or my medical records, and use that information to my detriment. Oh, but not to worry. I have a password to keep them all out!
But do you know what these things have really eliminated the need for? Education, or effort of any kind. Watch this. I am going to step away for a moment, and type "string theory" into my Google search engine. Hang on... Okay, I'm back. It just took Google 0.36 seconds to deliver 8,650,000 articles on string theory to my desktop. What the hell else do I need to know besides how to read? Every piece of knowledge that anyone ever dreamed of is right here in the magic box. Oh, and it makes shopping a breeze! Let's say I want to buy a bed liner for my 1999 Ford Ranger. Be right back... Hmmm. 665,000 results, which is the computer's way of telling me, "I found what you're looking for. It's on Earth." Many years ago I read Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic, Dune. Described therein was a fictional event called the Butlerian Jihad, which was a revolution that did away with computers. I recall thinking at the time, "why would anyone do that?" Now, well, all I can say is maybe Frank Herbert was ahead of his time...
Everything has moved on in this fashion, and it's constantly accelerating. Advances in medical science are probably why I'm sitting here typing this today. I am on medications to control blood pressure, migraine, ulcers, diabetes, cholesterol, and water retention. How long ago would these things have combined to kill me without those advances? But these days, the biggest problem my doctor faces is making sure the drug interactions don't kill me. So far, so good. But what I originally set out to do was to explain to my teen and pre-teen grandchildren what it feels like to be a Senior Citizen. I'll give it a shot.
Physically, there are limitations. I have a trick knee and a perpetual lower back strain that limit my mobility to a fraction of what it used to be. The bursitis (at least I hope that's what it is; I'll be seeing you soon, Doc!) in my left shoulder keeps me from raising that arm above my head without pulling it up there with the other hand. I have limitations on the things I can eat if I don't want to give myself some bad problems. We all know what happened last winter. I caught a simple flu that turned into pneumonia and almost killed me.
But mentally, I feel like the same person I was when I was ten. I get up eager with anticipation to see what the day will bring, and if I don't get around as smoothly as I used to, well, that's the natural order of things. I have lived each phase of life to the fullest. Well, maybe that's not true. I've never jumped out of an airplane, or ridden a bike with no brakes down a mountain (Oh, wait, I have done that, just not on purpose), but I have made sure that I've enjoyed every day, and that seems to be what's important. When I was 29, I was told, "You're going to be 30 next week. How are you going to cope?" It turned out to be easy. On the contrary, 30 was my license to skip any challenge I wanted. When my hooligan friends would dare me to stand in the road at a blind corner and try to dodge a speeding car, all I had to say was, "What, at my age?" It was the same story at 40. At 50, it was, "You've been around for half a century. You must be worn out!" At 60, I was informed that I was officially OLD! That's your opinion, punk. Maybe 70 will be the milestone that upsets me, but I don't see it.
So gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell you the secret as I've learned it: Enjoy the age you are. Milk it for everything it offers, then smoothly transition to the next one. If you can pull this off, you won't waste your older years regretting the things you never made time to do. There's a saying that I love that goes, "No one's last words were 'If only I'd spent more time at the office!'" The society that we have to function in requires that we have money to pay for the necessities. It's nice to have some extra to pay for the fun things, and have a cushion for the inevitable problems that will arise, but the trap is if you come to love it too much. I see so many people who feel like they have to work every minute they're awake because they're afraid there's a dollar out here somewhere that they don't have yet. These are the people who will spend their old age being bitter and nasty, because there will come a time when they realize that they've missed the whole point of the journey, and they can never get it back. That mountain of stuff you've collected, those bags of money, don't go with you when you check out of life's hotel. You are a tourist here in life. You came in with nothing, and you're going out with nothing, except maybe memories of the fun you had while you were here. So make sure you enjoy it. Lay up those memories of fun-filled days and years, and you won't die angry over what you've missed.
And reading this, I realize that I've just given young people the most valuable gift I can impart... If they'll only listen. Oh, well, I've done my bit. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
Back in my youth I lived in a small coal mining town and had the run of the place. Folks there all knew each other and I knew no strangers. I walked where I wanted, played with cousins and friends, and always made it home in time for lunch and dinner! For the first 3 years I was the only child and I learned to love it! My Mom always had time for me, my Dad loved me dearly, and my Grandmother was always there to fix skinned knees and remove splinters. I didn't lack for attention at all. Then my little brother was born when I was 3 and I ceased to exist. That was a shock for me, because having been the only child, I was spoiled rotten! I would steal my brothers bottles, steal his pacifier and still being little, I'd hide somewhere and use the pacifier myself! I knew I was too old to do that, but it was my only consolation. My little brother was very sickly. He had a crooked spine which meant that when he learned to walk, he had to have special shoes that had steel toes in them. When he got a little older, he would kick me in the shins with them and leave horrible bruises on my legs. I still have scars. Once he threw my Mary Heartline Majorette doll at me and hit me in the forehead. I had a nose bleed for four hours and couldn't lye down because I'd choke on the blood. When he wasn't kicking me, he was throwing silverware at me at the dinner table! He pinched me, pulled my hair, bit me and punched me. It was all ignored and laughed at because he was "sickly". Bah humbug I say!
I was a good child. I did well in school, had friends, knew how to count to 100 before I even went to school, and we didn't have kindergarten back home, so when I was 4 I was in 1st grade. My teacher was Mrs. Rutledge. She was a buxom woman with red hair, and one day we were having a fire drill. She told us to all be quiet and that we would all line up and go outside when we heard the fire alarm. The little girl in front of me was excited and began stomping her feet. The teacher walked up to me and slapped me hard in the face! She thought I'd been the one stomping. Well, lest you think that all I remember are the bad times and the times of abuse and being ignored, I also have stories of great Christmases, Grandma's wonderful cooking, and the difference time makes. You grow up, you learn things about yourself and your family that sort of makes it all make more sense. We began moving when I was 8, and we moved every year or so until I was 18. I had to learn how to adapt, and I did. I made new friends easily, but school grew increasingly difficult because of all the state laws and rules and the school curriculum changed so radically. I got lost. By the time I was a Senior here in California, I had learned all they were teaching me yet again, and I decided to have fun instead of worry about grades! At the end of the year, I had decided I wanted to be a Court Reporter. I passed all the exams to go to college, and then my Dad came home from overseas and told us we were moving yet again. I was 17 1/2 and even though I begged my Dad to let me live with my best friend and her family and go to college, he wouldn't have it. No way was he going to let me stay. And now that I'm older I see the rationale in that. I wouldn't let my 17 year old daughter be that far from me either. We were moving to Minnesota. I hated the place because we had just spent 3 years in Kodiak Alaska and I couldn't go out side in the winter because I"d fall just looking at the snow! I didn't know a place like California existed and once I"d had a taste of the wonderful warm weather, and the palm trees, and the school and friends and so on and so on, I could not imagine living anywhere else! I cried through 3 states and gave myself a splitting headache!
But I learned a lot in Minnesota. I grew up I guess you'd say. At 18 1/2 I told my parents I was leaving and I boarded a plane, American Airlines, and flew home. I stayed with my friend and her family and we did go to college. But I became ill and my Dad went back overseas, and for a long while I was unable to do the things I wanted to do. I fought through the illness, although it would reappear in the future. I found work, and worked hard at everything I tried. I was learning about real independence, and it wasn't by being out from under my Dad's thumb. True independence is when you can think for yourself, do the things you feel are right in your heart, and take care of those around you to the best of your ability. My Dad left us sitting high and dry when he got back from overseas. He moved again to Seattle, but this time my Mom refused to go with him. She didn't want to take my sister out of school yet again and make her readapt to new schools, friends, and housing. I was getting older and moved out with a girlfriend to Imperial Beach. My Mom threw a fit. Called me the first night and told me that someday I'd wish I had a home to come to. She was very angry because I had gone in the house when she was gone and took my clothes and things and left. She knew I wanted to leave, and she had plans to help me pack my things, but she didn't tell me that. Things hadn't changed much for me. Housework was always more important than sitting down with your offspring and talking with them about their future and things of that nature. It was sick. I stayed gone for a while and then my friend decided she didn't want a room mate after all and invited me to leave. I went back home. I had not enough to make car payments and have my own place too. I had little choice.
Things didn't change much. Home was still a sick environment, my illness came back on me again, and I was out of work for 6 months. I fought through it again and returned to work. I'd been on my own mentally for 10 years. I paid my bills, helped my Mom out, and gave them money for rent every payday. But under the Doctor's care, I took his wise advice, and when I got my bills paid off, I was able to leave for good and have my own place. I loved the freedom so much I laid in the middle of the living room floor for hours listening to the music I liked, and feeling the warmth of the sun through the big windows in the living room. I was at peace for the first time in many years.
I met someone at work not long afterwards. He was very nice, very compassionate, and a good friend. One evening, a Friday evening, I went home, had dinner, and watched a little TV. Then I got the idea to call him and see if I could come visit. He said yes, gave me directions to get to his place, and I was on my way. When I got there he was doing dishes. I knocked on the door and he answered. We listened to music for hours and talked sitting cross legged on the floor. On the way out to my car that evening, he touched my shoulder and said, "Sometimes all you need is a friend!" I was touched. We went out after that and he showed me around San Diego till 6:00 in the morning! We had great fun and he kept me laughing the whole evening! He didn't know I knew how to laugh, he said. One date lead to another, and we spent more time together than apart. Eventually I moved in with him and we had more money for things we wanted. One day after having lunch together, he said that we should get married and I could have a baby! I was stunned! We did. We were married on my 29th birthday. He was 27. By the time he was 28, and just before I turned 30, we had twin sons! When they were 17 months old I gave birth to our daughter as well! Life was good. We had our hands full, had hard times, bankruptcy was in our future, and our son developed asthma. We moved. We moved several times as a matter of fact. We both had to work 8 hour days to make ends meet. Raising kids and working too was difficult, but we did it! We worked hard to be good parents, and tried to enjoy a little freedom. There was ballet lessons, drum lessons, soft ball, wrestling, and what happiness we could bring to our children's lives.
In essence what I'm trying to say is I had a very busy and chaotic life and we really had our hands full. Now I am Grandma to 7 wonderful grandchildren. I'm 67 years old now....and I'm tired!!! I decided today to carve out a niche for myself. I am going to relax, recreate, live life fully and to the best of my ability. I am fortunate to have a husband that encourages that. He doesn't mind if the tables are dusty, and the floor is less than spotless. He's bought me so much art and craft kits over the years, and I never made use of them because I was "too busy" with housework and work. Well I've been retired since I was 48 and I have no further excuses to make! I am going to finally take the time to stop and smell the roses before the roses are on my coffin. I'm so tired, so very tired in body. My hips hurt because I have arthritis. I have bad knees and it's hard to climb the stairs. I almost lost Jack the first part of this year. He was so ill he was in the ICU for 35 days and in a rehab facility for 2 and a half more weeks. I found out how quickly you can be removed from the scene. I don't want to miss any more time relaxing and doing the things that are fun from now on. If I want to go out, I'll go out. If I want to paint, I'll paint. If I want to sleep all day, well, I have a very comfortable bed, and if that's what I need, that's what I'm gonna do. I've been busy for so long, and for all the reasons you might expect. I always thought I had to be busy to account for the fact I'm here at all, and I have tried to keep up with things. Now I see that it just isn't in me to be Betty Crocker, and if we have burritos for dinner somedays, well we'll have burritos! My body is tired, my soul is tired, my mind is tired. I need rest, recreation, outings, movies, dinner out once in a while, and I'm also tired of dieting. I feel like I've been on a diet all my life. I know I've always been overweight. If that's what I am, then that's what I am. I am in good company. One half of America is obese! I'm not the odd ball. The skinny ones are!!!! For a change I'm with the in crowd! ha ha ha
Making time for oneself is essential. He never forced me into anything. He's been just the opposite! He always wants me to relax and recreate...I just couldn't work it in. I"d work till I was exhausted and then stare at the TV uncomprehending because I'd be too tired to concentrate on it. Just mindless sitting. Something happened for me today. I don't know if it was the arthritis, or my bad knees, or my aching back. I just don't feel it anymore. I am going to do what he's always wanted me to do. I am finding time for self. It's important. It's an essential. I've had a good life, a rich life, a busy life. I've done much, seen much, and now it's time to rest and recreate the rest of my days. Do I hear a "here here"? With out further ado, I big you good evening and remember to live life like you mean it! I copied that from my husband. Live for the moment! It's the only present we have. No past, no future. Just this one glorious minute to be captured and lived to the hilt! Welcome home self! You are a winner after all and not a loser! Take your life in your hands and really live it!
I turned 65 last fall. I have heard some people call the years from 40 - 65 "Middle Aged," which is true, I guess, if you're going to live until you're 130. But it's a useful bracket, nonetheless, and one I'm going to explore from time to time. By the time you're 40, you have been an adult long enough to know where you're going and how you plan to get there; at 65, you'd better have reached that neighborhood, so I'm going to share some of the things I've gotten out of the journey, and hope that if my grandchildren ever read this, it will give them some insight into the old grouch, and maybe they'll benefit from my mistakes... Of course, with that crowd, that's probably a forlorn hope, but here we go, anyway.
When I was 40, it was 1989, and my daughter was 11 with all the world laid out ahead of her. My sons were 12, and I was pretty much convinced they were going to die at the hands of the street gang that had taken over the neighborhood. Bonnie was... Never mind how old Bonnie was, but she was having a hell of a time with her heart disease, and being harassed at work by the this-is-a-man's-world dinosaurs in the male-dominated industry her career path had brought her to. She was a year from her heart attack, and there was no end in sight to our barely-getting-by existence. Up until I had met her in 1975, I had basically been a happy-go-lucky jerk whose life consisted of having all the fun I could grab. So, what had changed by 40?
Well, I had kids. That's the biggest life-changer there is. You either suck it up, become and adult, and deal with everything they need, or you disappear, and know for the rest of your life that that face you see in the mirror is what a miserable, self-centered a$$hole looks like. I'm still here. I couldn't live in incredible little studio apartments any more, and I couldn't spend money frivolously like I used to, but what were the specific lessons?
I learned that life doesn't move at my whim. Life is sort of like the gears in a transmission, intricate, complicated, and all moving in synchronicity to a end that you can't foresee. You can either get yourself in synch with the flow, or they will grind you up and spit your broken carcass into the drip pan.
I learned that, with the exception of firefighters and an occasional individual who you remember because it's such a rare quality, people are basically lazy and selfish, even those in positions of authority, and those whose job it is to be helpful. They will get out of any work they can dump on someone else, and you are at the top of that list. From President Kennedy's, "Ask what you can do for your country," to Lt. Kermit Tyler's response of, "Yeah? Well don't worry about it!" when informed that a huge fleet of planes was approaching Pearl Harbor; from teachers to cops to the guy at the DMV window, if you need something done, you'd better be able to do it yourself.
I learned that money doesn't grow on trees, and if you come up short, nobody knows you. We filed bankruptcy in 1981. Bonnie's other medical condition had flared up and her treatment had been costly. We had three very young children, our car had gone belly up after two years of ownership, and, like everyone knows, there were other bills to be paid. We tried to set up something with Bonnie's doctor, but his response to our efforts, and in full knowledge of Bonnie's fragile medical condition, was to send a collection agency after us. Did he care? To the extent that he didn't get 90% of his money, he probably did.
I learned, as you might imagine from that one representative story, that the only thing people love is money. As long as you're on top, everyone is your friend; the first time there's a little hiccup in your prosperity, you're on your own. I'm not saying I've never been helped, and sometimes that help has come from surprising quarters, but for the most part, your friends are your friends for as long as you don't need anything.
I learned, again as a consequence of this, to have a sense of humor about life. As Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, "Time is not a river, as Einstein theorized—it's a big f***ing buffalo herd that runs us down and eventually mashes us into the ground, dead and bleeding, with a hearing-aid plugged into one ear and a colostomy bag instead of a .44 clapped on one leg." This is reality, and you'd better have a good sense of humor about it, or you'll wind up one of those bitter, angry old farts who snarls at everyone, becomes outraged at the concept of children having fun, and dies alone and despised. Mean people really do suck.
I learned to be patient, for life doesn't move at your pace. "Everything comes to he who waits," goes the old saying, and I would append, "...as long as he who waits works like hell while he's waiting." Sew the seeds of the crop you want, tend the soil, and results will come. They may not be exactly the results that you want, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?
I learned to thrive in the chaos, turn on a dime, and make the surprises work for me. It's the only way to be, for events don't line up to enhance your preconceived notions of the way things ought to be. They happen to you, and like the star of a kung fu movie dodging arrows and blocking kicks and punches as he moves through the crowd toward the final boss, you have to dodge, deflect, and absorb what comes your way until you win or you lose. Well, we always lose. Like Jim Morrison said, "No one here gets out alive." What matters is what you accomplish along the way, and how you are remembered by those who knew you.
So, am I cynical? To a large extent, yes. Life hands you road apples every day, and it's a question of how many times you can be kicked in the ass before you figure out that this isn't fantasyland, and neither the world nor society owe you a damned thing. But it's also a question of how you respond to it. Despite everything I've said here, I still like people. I welcome the opportunity to get to know new folks, both in person and on-line, which is why I continue to post here despite the fact that our grandchildren don't read it, and our children rarely do. Friends? Forget it. Occasionally a stranger passes through and we thrill to see a new city listed on the counter. Did they read it? The counter doesn't tell us, but we hope so, and we hope they enjoyed it. Maybe someday, someone will even take the time to say hi to us; hope springs eternal...
For better or worse, I am the owner of a 19th Century soul. When I say to you, "I am your friend," what I mean is that I will step in front of a bullet for you. Sadly, that meaning has passed out of our culture. I realize that no one feels the same way about friendships any more, and yet I continue to seek them out, and I strongly recommend that you do, too. Because the journey is long and often unpleasant, but all that matters in the end is how much fun you had along the way, and friends are a big part of that. So trust, love, laugh and enjoy; just be ready to turn on dime, and always take care of yourself. Sometimes you're all you have...
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??