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Header: Jess Anderson in Madison Wisconsin
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Being Older
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To a degree unparalleled in history, I believe, ours is an age in which the idea of youth as the best of all possible times holds the majority in thrall. People have resisted getting old for millenia, of course, in all sorts of ways. But in the developed world the idea that youthfulness is an absolute virtue has since about 1950 seldom seriously been questioned.

I think it's fairly understandable that younger people themselves would be unlikely to question a paradigm that brings them so many advantages, so much empowerment. And I don't take issue with their having those advantages, for the most part.

But I do think that somewhere near the middle point of one's own time span, it starts to become obvious that not being young has a lot of advantages too. It certainly has had for me. Nevertheless, my views about all this are somewhat muddled, which is one reason I want to write about it.

I'm fortunate, I think, to have the genetic qualities I apparently have: to be aging in a fairly kind way, compared to the great majority of my age-peers. I don't want this to be seen as a boast, however, but merely as a fact: I say "kind" because so many people seem to dread getting older, perhaps because they have exaggerated notions of what being older will be like for them.

Somewhere in my collection of great quotations is one that says, approximately, "Old age is the most surprising thing that happens to us." It's literally true that you can't comprehend the nature of this surprise until you're in the middle of middle age; not yet really old, but not by any stretch of the imagination still young.

Lots of people, certainly lots of men I have known, have a hard time in their 40s and 50s, when adjusting to aging and one's own mortality usually become foreground experiences. Coupled with the realization that life has not turned out to be entirely congruent with one's childhood dreams, this phenomenon may be the heart of the so-called "mid-life crisis."

Somewhat paradoxically, the way to get through the transition with minimum psychological scarring, I think, is to stay in good contact with one's so-called inner child, with the idea of life as play (not as a game, just as play), to feel fresh and fully alive every new day, even as we begin to accept the possibility that our minds and bodies are changing in ways that bode the eventual loss of force, of strength, of acuity.

I did not need glasses until I was almost 50, and with the glasses my vision is excellent, but I do not like not being able to see well enough without my glasses to read a book or to read music. In 1999, though, glaucoma was discovered, in one eye, then in the other first. Since then the possibility of blindness has been a big concern.

I hear well, but I do not like having tinnitis, a constant high-pitched noise generated not in my outer acoustic environment but in my inner one. I do not like the fragility of my muscles and tendons compared to the rough and tumble times those sinews have lived through without being injured. And so forth. The surprise element is that nothing you can really conceive of beforehand, other than perhaps a kind of abstraction about it, reveals the reality of even minor infirmities, not to mention major ones.

Getting to be older at all is something worth noting, of course. For all the putative downside to the encroachments of age, at least it's better than the alternative, which for many people is the only available option. I think it's a little unseemly to complain of one's lot if at least you got to live out the more or less normal span of years. All the same, when your own loved ones get sick and die, no matter whether they're 20 or 80, the loss is real enough, and if one is dissatisfied with whatever the status quo is, it's fine to criticize it, as long as it doesn't amount to whining.

I think about my age a lot; that may be an entirely normal part of aging, for all I know. But every day, more than once or twice a day, something reminds me that I'm older now. I get tired fairly quickly when doing something physically strenuous. I love having a nap in the afternoon, and that's something I would never have done as a teenager or young adult. I'm certainly less active, in all senses of the word: socially, sexually, even personally. Much more of my life is in the mind than ever before (and there was always a significant component of it there, anyway).

I even think about my legacy, such as it is: writings, the artworks I've collected over the past 45 years, the lasting results, if any, of my having existed. Perhaps that's nothing more than plain old-fashioned vanity.

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