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Satchel Paige was right, pretty much

by Jay Brakefield

It struck me recently that our culture treats aging as a
disease. It may be; opinions seem to be divided. I'm not interested in the technicalities of that debate. I'm just an old guy (please don't call me a senior citizen; more on that soon) enjoying being 71 and retired and thinking about what it means to be old and what it's like to age and die.  And thinking about how we think about aging and dying.

If you believe in an afterlife, death may not be so threatening, though as the old saw goes, everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. And the older we get, the closer we are to that bourn from which no traveler returns, as the Bard wrote.

So we whistle past the graveyard, to invoke another cliché. We make jokes about aging, about loss of hair and strength and muscle tone and sex drive, about bad knees and bad backs and absent-mindedness. We buy cute greeting cards featuring cartoon versions of “seniors.”

I'm not offended by these jokes. I make jokes about being old. Until a recent haircut and beard trim, I was often told that I looked like Santa Claus, and a kid in my trailer park followed me around, telling me what he wanted for Christmas. On a recent trip, when a convenience-store clerk kept up with the Santa talk, I signed the credit-card slip “Santa Claus.” The charge went right through. Maybe next time I'll be Al Capone or W. C. Fields. I'm mildly offended by being called a “senior” or a “senior citizen” because it seems like an evasion, a euphemism. What's wrong with being old? It's commonplace that our society once respected its elders, that other societies regard them as repositories of wisdom. That may be true. The National Heritage Fellowship program was modeled on one in Japan called National Living Treasures. Plenty of fertile ground there for scholarship. I'll leave that to others.

Having met plenty of old fools, I know that age does not automatically bestow wisdom. But it does give one a certain perspective. When people talk about how rotten the world is, the viciousness of our politics, the worthlessness of today's kids, a person who has lived 60 or more years and read a bit of history can offer perspective: Things have always been pretty bad, but people have soldiered through and found reasons to live and love and reproduce amid the chaos, hatred and wreckage.

We're inundated with information about dealing with old age and its perils. Well, life in all its stages is fraught with challenges. Children are vulnerable and dependent on adults to keep them safe. If you get the wrong parents, you may not survive childhood or may do so with lifetime scars. Teenagers and their families go through a years-long rough patch involving throbbing sexual urges, outsized emotions, tears, rage mixed with love. Then there's college (or not) and finding a mate and a career, establishing a home and a family of one's own. None of this is easy for most of us, and some fall by the wayside, sidelined by drugs or alcohol or their own shortcomings, their failure to live up to standards imposed by family, society, themselves. Sure, some people seem to have an easy path to the top, though this is often deceptive. Many find that when they get there, it's not what they thought. Famous people complain that they have no privacy. Rich people fear the exploitation and danger that money can bring.

Then there's middle age, during which many deal with teenage kids (see previous paragraph), career stagnation, thinning hair and expanding waistlines, aging parents -- you get the idea.

At last we arrive at the “golden years,” during which we're supposed to enjoy the fruits of our lifelong labors. Of course for many, those years are hardly golden. People are living longer, and many “older” people are still dealing with parents in extreme old age. If they haven't made adequate plans for retirement, they may face financial obstacles and a job market not geared for them.

But it's quite possible to love being older, to revel in being able to have a conversation with an attractive person without being viewed as a potential sexual aggressor. The diminution of that powerful drive need not be a negative; it can let you relax. There's nothing like doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. Of course, as you enjoy your 70s, you know that if you survive into your 80s and beyond, you will face physical and mental decline and a loss of self-sufficiency. Ultimately, you will be gone, having existed for a nanosecond in the greater scheme of things. So what? You weren't here before, and nonexistence didn't hurt a bit. Of course, you may have been someone or something else before and may transition to a new form of existence after shuffling off your mortal coil, but the thing I've never understood about that is the connection: if I was someone else and don't remember it, what survived? Where's the “I”? Too deep for me, man. I'll eat when I'm hungry and drink when I'm dry, and if the blues don't kill me, I'll live till I die.

And oh, yeah, that headline. “How old would you be,” asked the great Negro Leagues pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige, “if you didn't know how old you was?”

Kinda puts things in perspective, don't it?