Northside SF
The Final Word

Tell me one good thing about getting older,” I challenged a friend the other day.

“Oh, there are plenty of good things about getting older,” she said. “For one thing, it gives you more self-assurance.”

It seems to me that I’d better get older. Self-assurance tends to evade me at times. Most times. And these are very dicey times. I’m sure that over the centuries times were always dicey, but these are our times. We’re stuck with them. I’m always amused when I hear people talk about how they wish they’d been born a hundred years earlier or something like that – times that were allegedly slower, more contemplative, more civilized, more romantic. I say to them, “Just think about the plumbing a few centuries ago.” Running water is a good thing. Water you don’t have to boil before use. In short, all the amenities that the people living in northeastern Japan are going without right now following the giant quake there.

You didn’t have to be here going through the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 for this horror in Japan to give you pause and a very uneasy feeling. I was watching the TV coverage in Japan where the stunned victims of the quake, and the tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear terrors seemed to be predominantly older people. There’s a reason for that. The average age of a Japanese citizen is 50 years. That’s the downside, perhaps, of embracing a low-fat diet and maintaining low cholesterol – a downside of living longer, “with all of its attendant fears,” as Paddy Chayefsky wrote. The average age of an American is 35. I say downside, yes, a little facetiously, because as one gets older, the inevitable disintegration of the body creeps up nefariously, and the desire to seek new adventures wanes decidedly.

I feel for the people suffering in these quakes – Japan, Haiti and New Zealand – who’s next? Because if you lose everything, it’s overwhelming to think about starting over again, particularly when you’ve reached the age when they let you into the movies with a senior discount. We encounter all sorts of tribulations as time passes – and time inexplicably seems to accelerate. Nothing but trouble comes the easy way. There’s divorce, foreclosure, health crises, the death of loved ones – and yet another message from Charlie Sheen. The latter has abated somewhat, mercifully. 

When I’m not writing obituaries, I am reading obituaries – the “Irish Sporting Green,” as Michael McCourt describes it. I like to read stories about people I wish I had known, people who may have taken the world as it is and converted it into a certain personal magic. Having a life well lived is a mild antidote to pain, despair and disappointment. But it does not protect us from pain, despair and disappointment.

This is why, I think, our parents did not tell us about how awful things will turn out. They wanted, for the most part, to protect us. My mother would say mysterious things to me, like “Be happy while you can, it doesn’t last all that long.” There’s a grim presentiment. We kept the Sword of Damocles well sharpened in my house. I sensed that I should not press the point with her.

I went on my reckless, merry, thoughtless way into young adulthood. It amazes me how fearless we are when we’re young. Try it, what have you got to lose? I don’t think I’d call up every Indian restaurant in Manhattan until I found someone who was willing to hire me as a sitar player. Yes, I did that – I even kept the job for a few weeks before I was found out to be a fraud. We may carry the fraudulent things into adulthood, and cultivate ornate deceptions, but, sadly, we tend to lose our fearlessness along the way.

Perhaps we can take some of that innocent bravado that accompanies a lack of experience and use it against pain, despair and disappointments. If there’s a good thing about getting older, it’s to be able to regard the kids and emulate their style – blithe in their perception, youthful in their heart. After all, it’s their world now. May they be happy while they can.


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The Final Word