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Saturday, February 26, 2005

When You Dance You Can Really Love

As I was walking to work this morning, I passed an old man in a fisherman's hat who was driving a bright green station wagon. He stopped short at the intersection for me when he noticed me coming, even though I was about eight feet from the street. He looked confused and a little alarmed with the situation.

Then when I got to work, the first customer was an older couple who wanted to check their e-mail. The old man instantly had trouble sending a message.

"I got my e-mail back," he said. "And now it won't send again. Won't this computer send e-mails?"

"It looks like there's a space in the e-mail address. You can't just have a blank space in an e-mail address. Try using an underscore."

He did, and it sent.

"But they gave us the address over the phone, and they said there was a space in it," he complained.

"You can't have a blank space in an e-mail address. If your friend said there was a space, I'm sure they meant an underscore."

A puzzled look came over his face, and he asked me to turn down the music, which was playing Travis' The Invisible Band at a barely-audible level.

I'm not afraid of getting older--in fact, I'm looking forward to it. As a man, I'm pretty much assured of the fact that I'll only grow better-looking as I age (at least until I hit the "very old" wall, and then I become "a cute old man", at which point I won't care about looking good anyway, because I'll be too busy shitting in my pants and telling stories about "the old days"). I remember being told that high school was supposed to be the best days of my life. This is an egregious lie. Every day that I've lived past high school has been better than life between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. I'm less stupid, for one thing. I have a much greater understanding of the world around me, I get laid more often, and my butt has received far fewer whips with a wet towel since those days have gone by.

I don't agree with Neil Young in his statement that "It's better do burn out than fade away." Mine is a more measured take on life--there's always more to experience, more to learn, more to do--and as long as you can stay healthy, you can be around to do it. At the same time, though, I must admit that I am afraid of getting old. I don't want to shit my pants and live in the past. I don't want to be unable to take care of myself. I don't want to smell like mothballs and cough syrup. I don't want to look forward to trips out to the grocery store every Wednesday because I've been in the house for the rest of the week, my seven cats the only company I have.

Part of my grim outlook on getting old, I'm sure, comes from the fact that I've never had any positive elderly role models. My great-grandfather, who, from what I understand was a nice guy, died when I was about twelve. My grandfather on my father's side was such a creepy character that most of the family stopped having contact when I was a small child. Hardly any member of his family attended his funeral. I never met my great-grandfather on my mother's side. My grandfather on the maternal side is an equally disturbing character, and although he's still alive, I couldn't tell you anything more about him besides the fact that his name is Bobby and he was involved in professional taxidermy at some point in his life, and still may be today.

The older women in my family are better, but still offer little in terms of a shining example of what old people can accomplish. I knew my great-grandmother as the woman who yelled at me with her neck-warble and stinky cigarettes when she lived with us for a brief period in my adolescence. She died after a lingering bout with Alzheimer's (which I used to call "Old-Timer's") disease, and after doctors amputated an infected leg.

"Did you know they cut off my leg?" she asked me once. Her leg had been gone for several months. There are few things more depressing than the idea of waking up every morning and having the shock of seeing your leg missing. It was there yesterday, wasn't it? Was I in an accident? Where the hell am I? Why do I smell like mothballs and cough syrup? Oh, right. I'm old.

I'm aware of one hundred-year-old men who run marathons, septuagenarians who ride their Harleys across the country, and great aunts who hold down multiple jobs--I just don't know any of them. My greatest inspiration to grow old gracefully comes from, strangely enough, one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami.

In his Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Harvard Professor and Murakami translator Jay Rubin re-tells Murakami's thoughts on physical health and writing:
"I've heard it said a million times that fiction comes out of being unhealthy, but I believe the exact opposite. The healthier you make yourself, the easier it is to bring out the unhealthy stuff inside you. . . ."

". . . You've got to have physical strength and endurance," [Murakami] said, "to be able to spend a year writing a novel and then another year rewriting it ten or fifteen times." He decided he would live as if each day were 23 hours long, so that no matter how busy he might be, nothing would prevent him from devoting an hour to exercise. "Stamina and concentration are two sidess of the same coin . . . I sit at my desk and write every day, no matter what, whether I get into it or not, whether it's painful or enjoyable. I wake up at 4 a.m. and usually keep writing until after noon. I do this day after day, and eventually--it's the same as running--I get to that spot where I know it's what I've been looking for all along. You need physical strength for something like that . . . It's like passing through a wall. You just slip through."
Murakami is often described as looking as much as twenty years younger than his actual age--fifty-five.

Upon first reading this, I remember agreeing to myself that physical health is so closely related to mental health. Murakami isn't all that old, but he has served as an admirable figure who takes his physical and mental health seriously. His is the model that I'd like to follow as I grow older.

A lot of people say that a fear of old age is really a fear of death. I suppose it's true that I don't want to die--I enjoy life too much to feel otherwise. But I don't know if it's true that I fear it. I can accept the fact that I'm going to die someday--what I can't accept is the idea that it's inevitable that I'm going to live as an old person who can't experience life or do things for himself.

The thing that I do love about life is the promise of possibility. With each day that I wake up I have the option of listening to a new album, reading a new book, exercising, meeting new people, spending time with those close to me, or any other thing that I desire to do. I don't have to become a stinky old codger; I don't have to be confined to a wheelchair; I can eat my own food and own my own house even after I pass the age of eighty; I can swim and travel and read and fight and love and fuck and write and feel for as long as I allow myself to. Life gives me the possibility to do these things; it is with that possibility that I feel hopeful for my days ahead.