My ageism rant

Long before I became a quintarian (I think I just made that up) I was aware of the ridicule suffered by our seniors. Suffered generally, by the way, with grace and quiet acquiescence. They get it. They’ve long expected it. Hell, they made fun of old people when they were young. And while this social skewering of our mostly honorable and wiser elders continues unabated and generally unrecognized we worry sweat beads these days about whether somebody might be offended by wishing him “Merry Christmas.”

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Two old men in their eighties meet in a park everyday. They sit on a bench for hours and talk about their lives.

“I’m so old,” complains one man, “I can no longer pee in a stream. It sputters and spurts. Every morning I get up, go to the bathroom and stand at the toilet for ten minutes sputtering and spurting and dribbling until my bladder is empty.”

“I should be so lucky!” says his friend. “Every morning at the stroke of seven I relieve myself and every single morning, like clockwork, I release a long, strong, steady stream. I could knock over a horse with that stream! Every morning at seven!”

“What’s wrong with that?” asks the other man.

“I don’t wake up until 7:30.”

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Rimshot.

Actually, it’s a pretty good joke when told well. The problem is the jokes add up to stereotypes and I wouldn’t even mind that so much if it was occasionally acknowledged that the generalizations are comic and not universally real. And if you think that should be obvious, think again. Find a teenager and raise the subject of ageism, or for that matter somebody in his twenties or thirties. They’ve never given it a moment’s thought and can’t relate. They’ll smile, maybe roll their eyes a little and then acknowledge it’s not nice to make fun of old people. And even that’s not right. It’s fine to make fun of old people when the joke is a good one! It’s just not fine to believe that old people are jokes themselves.

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Pastor Smith receives word that the oldest member of his congregation, Maude Hemmings, has taken ill and is hospitalized. After his Sunday sermon he rushes to her bedside to while away the day visiting her, bringing her local news, good humor and inspiration. While he’s there he idly treats himself to a bowl of peanuts next to her bed, but when two hours have passed he realizes with sudden embarrassment that he has eaten the entire bowl of peanuts.

“Maude,” he apologizes, “I’m so sorry I ate all your peanuts. I didn’t even notice what I was doing. I’ll bring you more peanuts tomorrow.”

“Oh, please don’t do that, Reverend,” Maude says with a sweet smile. “I hate peanuts. It took me all day to suck the chocolate off of those.’

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Okay, so technically that’s not really a joke about aging. It’s a joke about the “ick” factor of eating a bunch of peanuts after they’ve been in somebody else’s mouth. But would it be funny if she wasn’t old or if her name was Judy rather than Maude?

Old people, fat people and Southerners. It’s always open season on them and nobody has even considered passing laws, creating regulations or invoking rules of respect for these soft targets that can’t effectively defend themselves against wholesale mockery. I guess I should say I think Southerners sometimes enjoy the generalization because it allows them to gain the upper hand over competitors who assume them dull witted. It’s still wrong but nearly universally accepted as good, innocent fun.

But oh, do we ever worry about pretty young women! Until they get old, that is. And of course, pretty young women with Southern accents are the best targets of them all.

When I was in my twenties and thirties, before my Grandma Georgia was victimized by Alzheimer’s and eventually died, I remember asking her to tell me about her life. She’d tell me where she was born and the names of her siblings. She’d answer any questions I asked but I didn’t ask the good ones. I think she did the best she could but she was no autobiographical fount of information and I was a lousy interviewer in those days. So, she’s gone and I really don’t know much about her and what I really wanted was a sense of what life was like in the first half of twentieth century America. And what concerns me is that I think I was an oddball in that respect. I don’t know anybody else who has expressed any great curiosity about the lives of their parents, grandparents and beyond. I don’t know anybody who has any interest in the wisdom acquired by our elders, their views of life and death and philosophies toward humanity. Who ever asks these questions of old people? I never have and before too long, if I’m lucky, I’ll be one.

I wonder what it’s like, keeping all those experiences, observations and philosophical conclusions to yourself because nobody cares enough to ask what you think? I’m already getting less likely to inject my opinions into conversations uninvited. I find myself getting quieter as I get older because it’s hard to get excited about the same old topics and it’s getting harder to find new ones of interest. And besides, who really cares what I think?

I’m marginalizing myself, I suppose. Not sure that’s a bad thing, I just find it kind of sad.

And maybe I’ve just answered the charge I posed myself in the first paragraph. It may be that the reason the elderly suffer indignity with grace and quiet acquiescence is because they’ve just reached a point where they just don’t much give a damn.

Still, it would be nice if someone did.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved 

Contentment

“Contentment” is a word you don’t hear very often anymore. It’s such a passive word. These days we’re all about superlatives. You can’t even buy a small Coke. You have to choose from “large,” “extra large,” “big gulp” and “belly buster.”

Don’t get me started on Starbucks.

There are no movie and singing stars anymore. None. Now all actors and singers are “SUPERstars!” The real superstars are “MEGAstars!” (In a perverse, word nerd way I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where the publicity flaks take us from here.)

How many emails do you get in which people use so many exclamation points they must have bought them at Costco?

Calm words are boring, I guess. When I ask people how they are nobody just says “fine.” Everybody is “excellent,” and “awesome!” If you tell somebody you’re “fine” these days they think you’re either deeply depressed or too busy to be bothered. “Fine” has become, in effect, a benign way of dismissing people.

I guess there’s something pathetic about plain old contentment that just reeks of giving up and settling for less.

What’s going on here? Why are we all driving for higher levels of okay? Remember when being okay was a good thing? Now it makes you suspect. If you tell somebody you’re “okay” they think you’re brooding or pouting or about to launch into some self-serving tirade. “No, really, I’m okay!” When you put an exclamation point on it like that it looks like you’re covering something up or being super defensive. Not just defensive, see, SUPER defensive!!! Or, maybe you scare people by being calm. Maybe they suspect you’re going to be the next guy in the news who walked into his former office and shot up the place.

“He was a nice guy. Always quiet; kept to himself. Said he was ‘fine.’”

Something is driving us these days and I don’t think it’s just the cultural evolution of semantics. I think, for some reason, a lot of us are screaming for attention.

And I wouldn’t mention it, of course, unless I had a theory. Here it is:

We baby boomers have been screwing around with America’s social foundation since the sixties when some of us suddenly decided we had no further need for our parents, teachers and other authority figures.

This was evolving when I was still in high school. We still had a dress code and we still addressed teachers as Mr. This and Mrs. That. But just a few years later there was a brief but widespread attempt to equalize the social standing between students and teachers when students began addressing teachers by their first names. Teachers at the time, many of them children of the sixties, nearly unanimously and warmly accepted this practice as enlightened and hip. I don’t know for sure why this cultural experiment didn’t jell but I suspect it caused a structural breakdown that even those young boomer teachers who opposed the rule of authority had to admit caused some real disruption in classrooms. When “Mr. Farber” confiscated your hash pipe and sent you to the office there were consequences. If “Phil” tried do do that, you probably laughed and Phil smiled, too. In any case, it didn’t last very long but I do see a social pattern that can be traced back to that era.

Young people these days almost never say, “You’re welcome.” Instead they say, “No problem,” which is hardly the same thing. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” are ancient pleasantries, expressions of respect. But now it’s gotten to the point I don’t even want to thank anybody because I dread the kickback I know I’m about to receive. When I thank a waiter for bringing my meal he says, “No problem” and honestly, I feel a little insulted or, at least, brushed aside. I want to respond, “I’m greatly relieved that my presence, requiring you to perform a small part of your job, isn’t creating a problem for you,” but I don’t. I know he wasn’t trying to insult me but by not acknowledging my respectful gratitude with an equally personal and gracious, “You’re welcome,” he is unconsciously diverting attention from me, his customer, to himself. Not only does it abruptly terminate the intended exchange of pleasantries, it draws a faint line between us. In effect the waiter is saying to me, “You’re doing your thing (ordering a meal) and I’m doing mine (bringing it.)” In an unconscious effort to equalize the social standing between us the waiter is rejecting the relationship that naturally exists.

Being a waiter isn’t demeaning and neither is being polite. We are all subordinate to others at times in various circumstances and that’s a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble and respectful of others. But when we blur the distinction between customer and waiter we rob ourselves of an opportunity to experience a supporting role in society. At other times, in different circumstances, the waiter is a customer, too.

Carolann thinks I’m a nutball when I start prattling on about this stuff. She says I’m too picky about words and she does have a point because I take people far more literally than they generally intend. The thing is, when I don’t I’m confused. The subtleties and shadings of implications in our language are powerful and I hate being forced to go through life unclear about everything everybody says. I find myself constantly guessing what people mean as opposed to what they say. I’m never sure what to believe and isn’t that true to some extent for all of us these days?

When was the last time you fully believed or understood something you read in a newspaper or saw on TV? It’s popular these days to accuse the mass media of having a political agenda that slants the information they provide us. I hate political bickering and won’t go down that road just now but I do think what we’re seeing, hearing and reading today are more shouts for attention, the clamoring of an ever more desperate generation of narcissists growing old without contentment.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Running away from home

I believe the urge to travel is born in Americans even as we are nesters by nature. We are a nation of immigrants after all and of native tribes forced to constant mobility for survival. The immigrant in us wants nothing more than to make a secure, permanent home and yet the tribesman needs to see what lies beyond the next peak and to follow streams to their ultimate destinations.

I suppose that’s romanticizing my own lifelong wanderlust and my paradoxical nesting instinct but I do believe it is largely an anthropological matter and a nationalistic one as well. Most societies either stay put or keep moving. Americans tend to want both at all times.

For as long as I can remember I have explored the Western U.S. and embraced its heritage. My father was born and raised on the plains of southwestern Wyoming. He took me there often and to get there we had to cross some startling and impressive landscapes. There was never a single day of our travels that wasn’t breathtakingly beautiful and completely different from the day before it.

When I was twelve Dad and I were given special permission to watch a Pueblo Indian bonfire ceremony outside of Taos, New Mexico. That was a day or two before we were caught in an Arizona flash flood and forced to dodge boulders bouncing onto the highway.

I have fished for trout in the Yellowstone River during a snowstorm while being watched by a family of moose that surely thought we were crazy.

I saw lightning explode a tree outside of Denver.

Bits and pieces of old memories and far away places dance in my head fairly constantly.

Tuba City, Arizona: an unremarkable town of Dairy Queens and KFCs plopped smack in the middle of a fabulous nowhere, an arid land of beautiful red rock mesas and spectacular cumulus sunrises and sunsets. One constant view, a million shifting colors; nine thousand people bored out of their minds.

If you wish to see the entire Western U.S. from the top, climb eleven thousand feet up the Beartooth Highway from Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana. Above the timberline you will meet tiny ground-dwelling marmots dancing through breathtaking fields of wildflowers between lingering patches of August snow. Looking down at Rocky Mountain peaks may bring tears to your eyes. It should surely install God in your heart.

My heart aches for these places and the thousands of others like them I have never seen. And yet I fear I cannot travel fairly constantly without being tethered to my hearth and kin. I need my home and I need just as desperately to leave it.

It’s a uniquely American dilemma.

Carolann and I have long talked of getting a nice motorhome someday and easing our way into a lifestyle that will give us the best of both worlds. Someday, we figure, we can run away from home for a few days or several weeks at a time secure in the knowledge that our children are well and that our century-old house awaits our return.

It was a good plan until last weekend when it finally dawned on us that “someday” never comes.

We will take delivery of our new home on wheels on Tuesday.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

From there to here and back again…

Shortly before the Christmas of 1997 my son Jeremy gave me the second of three great gifts he has bestowed upon me, the first being his own life. He gave me a daughter-in-law, dear Emily.

Five years later our youngest son, Nathan, made us grandparents for the first time with the child whirlwind, Isaiah, who would soon dub me “Bompah.” And a couple of years after that Jeremy and Emily presented Carolann and me with a second grandson, Tyler.

We were delighted by our mini population explosion. As every grandparent knows, grandbabies are an opportunity to travel back in time and get it right; to raise one’s own child again giving greater care this time to matters wondrously, joyously trivial and with far less attention paid to the dull necessities of character and behavior.

Somewhere among the weddings and birthings I turned fifty and the AARP had hunted me down with a sleuth like efficiency that would make the CIA proud. If you’re even close to fifty the AARP knows who you are, where you live and what you’re up to. I’d bet my first Social Security check they know where to find Osama bin Laden and that they sold him one helluva life insurance policy.

Late 2001 and early 2002 was a hard year in which my life took serious turns. For one thing, I was fifty. You can’t ignore something like that. During that time I was fired from my job because I was inadequate. Losing a job is usually easily and reasonably dismissed as managerial idiocy but in this case I had to admit they were right. I wasn’t, and could not become, what they wanted

That, as my grandma would have said, is a hard pill to swallow.

That same year my father died. He is still my hero. He was only seventy-two and the most physically fit seventy-two you can imagine. Silver haired, bright-eyed, upright, quick of step and quicker of mind he keeled over from an attack on his heart nobody ever expected. And suddenly, for the first time in my half-century of existence, I found myself vulnerable, frightened and much worse, mortal.

I know I’m giving testimony before a congregation of believers. Many of you arrived at this stage in life before I did. Some of you feel it just now creeping up on you. It’s the sudden realization of the preposterously obvious:

I am not going to live forever!

Of all the surprises life delivers, the joyous, the painful and the sublime, I’m now convinced that nothing in life can prepare you for this hideously lonely revelation which you always knew was coming.

Don’t tell me you’re not afraid to die. Well, tell me that if you like but don’t try to sell it to yourself. It is a lie.

Since then I’ve learned to put my life in proper perspective. My grandsons keep me young of heart. My wife and children keep me young in spirit. And frankly, I just have too damned many important things to do, and even more unimportant things to ignore, than to waste what’s left of my life as a sour ingrate, the guest of honor and sole attendant of a self-inflicted pity party.

No, I will not discard fifty-six wonderful years of love and laughter as if they had never happened or bitterly bemoan their passing.

In that spirit I offer you this resolution: that the business of our later years is to celebrate who we are, where we started, where we’re going and why we matter.

If life is a banquet, as it surely should be, they are clearing the table for my dessert and I intend to savor each bite.

I deserve it.

© 2007 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved