|Back in our day . . .||
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!
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?!??