Posts Tagged ‘aging’

If you are interested in how people age, a school reunion is ideal for observations – especially if several decades have passed since graduation. The types are quite distinctive, although since my own recent reunion, I am still puzzling over what the physical changes indicate. However, I am starting to believe that George Orwell was correct when he wrote in his journal that, after forty, everyone has the face they deserve.

In my experience, people tend to age in one of two ways: either they continue to look much the same as ever, or there is a drastic change in them. Very few are anywhere in the middle, and those who are likely to have had major upheavals in their lives. Their bodies, for example, may be similar to what they were when they were young, but a stiffness in their walk may indicate knee replacements, or deep-set lines in their faces a prolonged illness or trauma.

Those who continue to look much the same are often those who take exercise and diet seriously. These people are rather strained – threadbare around the edges is the phrase that comes to mind – but usually move well and seem lightly brushed with age, either mentally or physically.

More often, those who look much the same are heavier set than when they were young, but are still recognizable. They may be bald, or have a limp, but you can easily subtract such incidental changes to see their younger selves beneath, and, once you do, they remain unmistakable. Some of them seemed to have grown into their bodies, so that what what seemed like too large a nose now seems to suit them. If they were clumsy, they have developed, if not a grace, but an appropriateness in their movements. Somehow, they have learned to accept themselves.

In contrast, others look so different that you would never recognize them without a name tag. Often, they have gained considerable weight, as people tend to do as they age because few of us realize that our eating and exercise habits need to change as we age. However, those who greatly changed also tend to be more careless in the way they dress. It is not that they are eccentric so much as they no longer worry about the image they present to the world. To my eye, they seem tired and often colorless

Very occasionally, you do find someone who has changed for the better, but, after several decades, they are the rarest type of all. Often, they have overhauled their lives because of a premature heart attack or some other crisis, becoming slim where they were once chunky, and outgoing where they were shy To be honest, this type often disconcerts me, because I feel that I have never known them at all.

These categories are fairly complete in my experience. However, what I am less certain about is what to make of them. I tend to think that those who look basically the same have been true to their natures, while those who have greatly changed have given up on life, and are preparing to follow the chalk marks on the floor for the rest of their lives.

However, this may be my own prejudice. In theory, those who have greatly changed may have matured, and now please themselves instead of doing what every one expects. Yet judging from their conversation, which is all about retirement and their empty nests, that doesn’t seem to be so. Perhaps Orwell was more accurate than I first imagined.

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When I was young and innocently idealistic, you could always infuriate me by quoting an aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill (as well as about a dozen others): “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” I didn’t like anyone claiming they knew better than me, or implying that my beliefs were a passing phrase. Yet at the same time, I worried that the quote might be right, and I was doomed to become conservative. Consequently, it comes with considerable relief, now that I am well past forty, to realize suddenly that my core beliefs remain the same as they were when I was sixteen.

What that says about my intelligence, I leave for anyone who wants a cheap shot to suggest. But in retrospect, I should not be so relieved. The beliefs I assembled into a world view in my teens were not the product fashionable thought; I may not have read as much of Karl Marx or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as I should have, but I definitely read about them, and thought about what I read even more.

Nor was there any question of just mouthing memorable quotes. I called myself a feminist, so when the time came, I attempted to construct a feminist marriage. I wanted work that was meaningful and useful, so when I was free enough of necessity to choose, that was the kind of work I chose. My adult life has not been a clean break from my teens – instead, it has been an attempt to carry out the beliefs that my teen self developed. I suspect I have fallen short of my youthful idealism, but the point is that I am still trying to live up to my long-ago conclusions, and so long as I try, the odds of me turning conservative are not going to be very high.

That is not to say, though, that how I hold those beliefs remains the same. In my teens, I was passionate and I thought a better world was only a matter of time. All that I and people like me had to do was explain our positions to gain supporters. It was only ignorance that made people oppose us.
Now, I am less passionate and more disheartened. I know, too, that people cling to outdated ways of thought for countless reasons: for power or convenience, or out of fear or a dislike of thought or a discomfort with conscience.

An even harder lesson has been that some of those whom my younger self would have identified as part of the problem can be loyal friends so long as you avoid provoking them in certain ways. Sadly, I know, too, that some of those who claim to be on my side are immoral and unpleasant people that I would prefer to avoid.

In fact, there are moments when I regret my lost conviction and feel that every cause is a collision of half-truths. But then I tell myself that, even if that is true, I still have an obligation to take a side, and that the world view I formulated decades ago is still true –even if applying it to what is happening around me is more complicated than I once imagined.

In other words, I believe less intently, but more deeply. More importantly, because my views take in more factors and reflect reality better than they did when they were new, they are truer than they were then. I guess you might say that my heart is still that of a twenty year old, and if my brain is not, it is still as far away from being conservative as it was then.

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When I was growing up, I was amazed that my parents could recall World War II and the abdication of Edward VIII. Similarly, the thought that Queen Victoria was on the throne when my grandfather was born, or that his life spanned the development of the first airlines to transcontinental flight made him seem a living fossil. I’ve only recently considered that I’m well on my way to becoming a living repository of the past myself.

Not every change I’ve seen seems major. For all the fuss at the time, the change from black and white television to color was only a refinement, not a radical shift in technology or culture. Acting or production didn’t change because of color TV – only the number of old black and white units in the landfills.

By contrast, the introduction of the personal phone was more radical. It greatly reduced the number of public phones in any given area, and left those remaining in obscure corners, where they were left in mounds of litter and could be easily vandalized. More importantly, it encouraged people to stay connected wherever they went, not just via phone, but via the Internet as well. It created a culture where someone walking down the street alone and talking loudly of their personal affairs was not assumed to be insane, but a normal consumer.

Another major change has been the shift in attitudes about smoking. When I reached legal age, non-smokers like me took for granted that if you went to a night club or a pub, you would have have to peel smoke-sodden clothes off as soon as you reached home and put them in a separate wash. If you really had problems with secondhand smoke, you didn’t go out. But now, the norm has shifted, and smoker are the ones who have to go to special efforts to indulge their vices.

Similarly, while alcohol remains an important part of socializing, it is no longer an inevitable one. Time was, if you wanted to talk business, you went to a pub or a lounge. Now, you go to a coffee shop instead. From one perspective, that’s one drug exchanged for another, but it means that one folkway has become overgrown while another has become two-lane highway.

But the largest changes I’ve witnessed so far are the rise of the personal computer and the Internet. The personal computer revolutionized writing, removing the makeshift conventions of the typewriter with higher standards of typography. Accounting ceased to be the manual entry of lists or the painful efforts to use a typewriter as the spreadsheet came into its own. And when digital cameras came along, the personal computer meant the end of the dark room and an era in which photos were cheap and plentiful.

As for the Internet – let’s just say I wish that I was thirty years younger or it had come along thirty years earlier. For somebody like me, who has spent a good part of his life researching, the Internet is like being let loose in some science fiction equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. If I half-remember a fact, I can get the details in a minute. If I need to talk to someone, I have several ways of contacting them immediately. If I want to research a topic that I know little about, then I can do so in an afternoon rather than days, and without leaving the house – and that’s even with sifting through dubious and outdated material.

That’s why I have little sympathy with people like Ray Bradbury, who a few weeks ago denounced the Internet as a waste of time: for anybody who reads or writes for a living, the Internet is so immensely convenient that I took to it as if it were made to my personal specifications. Parts of it may be bad or mad, or plain silly, but the Internet saves me hours of time every day. Bradbury doesn’t know what he’s missing.

When I was young, I used to worry that, when I reached my current age, I would become conservative and hopelessly set against all changes. Apparently, though, my fears were needless. I’m far from approving of all the changes I’ve seen (I especially deplore the shift from the culture of liberal optimism of my teen years to the conservative pessimism and stoicism of today), but I’m fascinated by all of them. Not only that, but I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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When you hit middle age, how you face change can become a dilemma. Either you decide to accept every change that comes along in an effort to feel that you are still part of the mainstream in our youth-oriented culture, or else you reject every change as something dangerous that should be denigrated at every turn. Only a few seem to find an alternative to these reactions.

The reasons for this dilemma are not hard to see. As most people age, they start to associate change with decay and, ultimately, with death. It becomes something to deny, either by taking on the mannerisms of someone half your age, or by denouncing it.

The trouble is, neither of the usual two reactions is very satisfying. Nothing is more undignified or embarrassing as a middle-aged person trying to pretend that they are young. A fifty year old woman who tries to dress as a teenager risks being ridiculous, because they don’t have the body of a teenager. The same is true of a fifty year old man who tries to keep up physically with a twenty year old.

Similarly, if either tries to keep up to date on the latest music or Internet fad, they risk acting like an over-aged puppy pathetically trying to please. The fact is, youth culture is not something you are expected to understand or belong to when you’re middle-aged – one of the whole purposes of youth culture is establish an identity that’s different from that of the middle-aged.

By contrast, by rejecting the culture of your generation, you risk losing your own roots for the shallowness of a wannabe who can never belong. You might as well apply to a club whose entire purpose is to blacklist you.

The trouble is, going to the opposite extreme and denying the value of everything new is no better. By doing so, you only increase the impression that you are out of touch (which most people younger than you tend to believe anyway).

Just as importantly, you risk missing new things that you might otherwise appreciate. All that lies behind the elderly curmudgeon is a constant, unending complaint that the world has changed since you first became an adult, and you don’t like it. That is a petty and small-minded attitude for anyone around you to endure; you can see it almost any day in The Globe and Mail, which on subjects such as Facebook or file-sharing often gives the impression of being written by embittered seventy-five year olds for seventy-five year olds.

All the same, pursuit or rejection are by far the most common ways that the middle-aged respond to their growing perception of the unavoidability of change. It takes tremendous sense of structure to resist either response and simply have faith in your own taste, accepting the changes that suit your taste and rejecting those that do no, and fostering a tolerance for other people’s preferences. Yet, considering that the alternative is either to be ridiculous or unpleasant, it seems the only acceptable alternative.

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At the gym this morning, someone made a comment that implied that I was a decade younger than I am. That’s not the first time I’ve been pegged at younger than my age,but I admit that the mistake evokes a hypocritical reaction in me – or at least an inconsistent one.

On the one hand, since age long since ceased to be a matter of whether I can buy a drink, the mistake pleases me. I’m not the first member of my family to be consistently mistaken for being younger than I am, and I exercise hard, so I’m gratified that my effort has some benefits. Also, if I’m being honest, there’s a smug little part of me that enjoys knowing a secret that others don’t (I’m not particularly proud of this part, but it exists).

Another thing: when I’m perceived as younger, younger people are often more open with me than they are when they know my age. I can whet my curiosity about them a little more easily, because they perceive me as a contemporary.

Nor can I deny the satisfaction of believing that I look younger than most people my age. When I went to a high school reunion a couple of years ago, I enjoyed observing the receding hairlines and loss of hair color in my male friends, because, so far, I haven’t been much affected by such things. I also noted that, although an injury was limiting my exercise then, I was still fitter than most. These are vanities that are more often associated with women than men, but I suspect that they’re common to both sexes. Or maybe I’m just an unusual man.

On the other hand, part of me is affronted by misapprehensions about my age. With all that I’ve gone through, I can’t help thinking that it should show on my face and body. Like a scar, signs of aging are signs of survival and respect. I’ve earned middle age, and I’d like to enjoy its privileges when I’m in it, rather than ten or fifteen years from now.

The truth is, there are advantages to being perceived as your age. You are taken more seriously than a younger person, and, for the most part, treated more politely. Fashion isn’t supposed to apply to you (not that I ever followed it anyway), and your eccentricities are treated with greater tolerance. The young can be surprisingly intolerant of difference sometimes.

All things considered, do I really want to be mistaken for younger than I am? At that same reunion, I met a woman who had had plastic surgery, at least part of which was for a more youthful appearance. I believe that she wanted her appearance to match her sense of herself, rather than simply to look younger, since she had other signs of a conflicted identity, such as using different versions of her name throughout her life. But I was intrigued by the decision, and wondered if I would ever consider doing the same.

In the end, I decided that I probably wouldn’t. But that’s an easy decision when a few crow’s feet and a sagging neck are your main signs of aging. Will I feel as defiant when my hair falls out or turns white? I can’t say, so I’ll probably feel just as ambiguous the next time someone makes the same mistake.

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