Sunday, July 12, 2009

Five Things I Like About Getting Older

Popular culture tends to look at aging in one of two ways. The first is that it's something to be avoided at all costs--or at least as a way of looking it is to be avoided at all costs. The other is to celebrate older people who do remarkable things like climb mountains and live to ages such that they have no peers left standing.

For those of us who aren't trying to Botox our way back a couple of decades or who haven't the time or disposable income to start a non-profit or climb Mont Blanc, there isn't much to go by.

For me and other mere mortals, however, there are some very nice things about getting older. The following are among my favorites:

This too shall pass. On her excellent blog, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin discusses how worry can drain us. One of her insights on this struck me: almost everything one is worried about today won't matter in two years. When I wake up at three in the morning and start to brood, I list off my worries and determine she is quite correct. And most of the time it helps me let them go and drift back to sleep.

I've been to this movie before. Almost twenty years ago I had a rather eccentric boss, an immigrant from Israel. He had seen a good many serious things in his life, and as a result had perspective, which meant he was irreverent. When some ridiculous issue came up in office politics, he would say, "I've been to this movie before. I don't need to go to a meeting to see how it ends." It was totally refreshing, not to mention hilarious to watch everyone else's reaction when he blew off a meeting, although now I look back on his attitude as rather unprofessional as well. But as my career progresses, things happen in my work environment and people freak out, as people do, and I know it was ever thus. And often I even know how it will work out. Sometimes that means it's time to go, because the situation won't resolve itself, but mostly it means riding it out and not taking much of it too seriously. So graduating into a recession, it turns out, was a pretty good thing.

There are real things to worry about. Now that I've passed forty, I've watched neighbors lose spouses much too soon. I've seen others face huge debts or foreclosures, get stuck in awful marriages, struggle with the death of a parent. I haven't suffered any major losses in my life, and know there is little I can do to prevent tragedy striking. But watching these people manage the hand they've been dealt with strength and grace grants me humility and, with effort, a sense of gratitude.

Control is an illusion. I like security a lot. A regular paycheck, good benefits, savings accounts, taxes filed. I get a real sense of pleasure from paying all of my bills online because I can see it's gotten done all at once. But once it gets more complicated than a simple transaction and it involves complicit behavior from other human beings, I understand that there isn't much I can do. I used to use up a lot of energy trying to get others to do what I thought was the right thing. But that is of course a matter of opinion, so others didn't always see it my way and in fact decided to do the opposite. Now I try to detach and sometimes it works out my way, sometimes not. And on occasion when it's the latter, it works out better because it didn't go my way. Again with the humility.

Being right isn't the most important thing. In my young life, politics was life and death to me. This only got worse as I got older, but moving to Texas and being exposed to the kind of people I used to think were, well, misinformed, gave me a greater tolerance. Even if we disagree, we can still get through a work or neighborhood relationship. Although I still enjoy a productive discussion, those are difficult to find. I don't really want to spend time with people or media who just reinforce my point of view, but American culture has become so polarized this is difficult to do. Now when someone is trying to convert me, I just switch to another subject. Passive aggressive? Maybe. But I don't believe any arguments I make will change minds, and now I believe preserving a friendship or even a good work relationship is much more important than winning an argument.

Don't wait until tomorrow. The first time I went to New York, I had the privilege of staying at The University Club, a storied place--originally only for men, of course, but now for women too--and was sitting in the watering hole in the basement of the building. I hadn't travelled by myself before and was a little uncomfortable, but was sitting at the bar with my book and a burger. (Okay, a glass of wine, too.) I ended up having a lovely conversation with gentleman in his seventies who told me how he was moving to Paris for several months. A true New Yorker, he was worried about what he would miss in his beloved hometown, and then how his grandchildren might change while he was gone. But, he said, I only regret the things I've never done. Were that I could get to this place completely, as there are a good many things I did in fact do that I would change. But his words stay with me. It's why I went to Toronto last weekend, the reason I bought a single floor ticket and drove down to Austin by myself to see Van Morrison a couple of years ago. I haven't actually seen The Bucket List, but my Dad explained the plot to me because he loved the movie, and I realized I'd already made mine and was busy knocking them out, with great pleasure. It's trite but true--figure out what you want, and go do it, no matter how the "what if" part of your brain is arguing against it. At the very least, you'll have a great story.

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