Normal Older People, As Seen By An Old Man

[For my Deering peeps…hope it makes sense now…]

“Old Man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you” — Neil Young

I never thought I’d get old, until I was. Until about 50 years old, I felt like I was still my same 25 year old self internally. At my 30th High School reunion, I didn’t recognize nearly anyone at first … they were so…. old. The jinx was on as soon as I said that. The mirror suddenly revealed an old man: not bad, or ugly, but most certainly old. My classmates mostly were bank presidents, computer geeks making a lot of money, engineers making a lot of money, and so on. So what if they were old? They’d made something of themselves.

At about 40, my body decided I was old. My joints creaked, it was harder to get up from sitting down, I ran out of breath running to catch a bus in the winter and so on. Twinkies, Mac and Cheese, Ramen diet catching up with me? Nah. Couldn’t be. 40 was not the age people were supposed to feel old! But 40 hit hard. Of “sex and drugs and rock and roll”, the only one I’d really indulged in has cost me some of hearing — not much, mind you, but enough to miss little things or details in things. I could still be young but my body was not having it anymore on the larger scale.

Sleep apnea, a few too many car wrecks (related to the sleep apnea), diabetes, all took their toll. About age 50 or so, my legs would, for no particular reason, simply stop working and I would fall. Oops. Turns out some nerve in my neck had gotten messed up and contributed to the problem, and my C5/C6 vertebrae had to be fused. If something went awry in the surgery, I could either die or be paralyzed. Holy…. I had never even considered that. Death wasn’t even on my radar. “C’mon, really? No, really?’, were the thoughts that ran through my head, over and over. I got a grip on it all, had the surgery, and recovered. About 2 or 3 years ago, I rolled over, fell out of bed and hit my eye on the corner of the nightstand. I’m blind in one eye, but amazingly that didn’t make me feel older. It was just a weird thing that happened and hasn’t changed much. My depth perception — for picking strings on a guitar or bass was made much harder, and that part — the can’t learn new things/can’t get better at old things part? That makes me feel old. (See? I’m now “that old guy who talks about all his ailments, because there are so many of them”.)

Oh, yeah, then COVID hit. I didn’t get it. I don’t know many people that died from it, but all of that got old and now I want to get back in the world… sort of.

“I am an old woman, named after my mother… Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo”– Bonnie Raitt, “Angel from Montgomery”, written by John Prine.

In seminary, our class had the feeling that we were unique — a bridge between the very old and the very new. That feeling has followed me my whole life. I often think of the trajectory I thought we would take as a people… and how we’re really not there. Jimmy Carter, I recently learned, had solar panels installed on the White House. That was the future I envisioned — new, mellow life, loving each other, solar panels not destroying the environment, us living in harmony with each other and the world. In 1980, Ronald Reagan came into office and immediately ripped the solar panels off, and I haven’t understood the world since. Reagan brought back all the things I didn’t want in America — war, conservative ideas like not paying taxes for schools, racism, classism, sexism and so on, including the love of things. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day. This led to, in my humble opinion, cocaine use and disco — two things I absolutely couldn’t stand. Also, Southern Rock was not my idea of progress, because I could hear the “America is No. 1” in it. I loved democracy so much, I thought it was too obvious. Flags and yelling “We’re number 1”! aren’t democracy. Democracy is a living, breathing thing that requires action and care for each other.

Music, by the way, never really got “back to where it once belonged”. Since 1980, there have been some incredible gems, but they are rare on pop radio. I think the last time I enjoyed the radio was during the “alt-rock” phase in California in about 2000. Roots rock, classic rock, blues, gospel, and Stax-type Rhythm and Blues are still wonderful joys that renew my soul. I no more need to hear about “booty”, “pimps” and “gangstas”, “trucks, tractors, and young girls in short pants” than I need a hole in my head — but that’s what’s on the radio. John Lee Hooker and Hank Williams, Sr, Ladysmith Black Mumbaza, Joan Baez and Harry Chapin will do me just fine.

That leaves me loving “my” music — from the late 1950’s to the late 1990’s — and not really growing. I’m actually ok with that. In the same way that previous generations thought singers with a Big Band orchestra was “real music” and the Beatles was “not real music”, modern pop, to me, is what Dan Ackroyd predicted: “pre-programmed electronic disco music”.

Yesterday, as I was at a huge party with 30 friends who hadn’t seen each other for a while, there was a soundtrack playing in the background. I knew every song, and pretty much loved every one. I’m pretty sure everyone else did, too.

“If weren’t all crazy, we would go insane” — Jimmy Buffett

I just started today (in 2021) re-reading Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of The Holy and the introduction talks about his being spiritual and liberal, just before Hitler came to power. Otto, the book says, didn’t choose to join the National Democrats, or National Socialists. He chose a smaller group — the Democrats — and that didn’t stop the rise of Hitler, of course. But Otto was dead by then, so we’ll never know what would have happened when he and evil faced each other.

My beautiful friends from that era feel like the smaller party that Otto joined. They had the right idea, but no one cared about it, because the world didn’t want to care about anything. I never gave up, my denomination never gave up For years, “liberal” was used an epithet. Now, as the country moves farther and farther right, liberals are called “far left socialists”. We’re not, but we haven’t moved. The rest of the country has. As they back onto a cliff, they yell at us, “You’re gonna fall!”. In the meantime, the world of the left is totally different, with an agenda we never could have perceived. I’m hopeful about all the incredible youth movements of the past few years, but I don’t have the energy for, or interest in, such urgency. Save the planet in 15 years from climate change? Did I mention I’m old? But I’ll try. Save American from racist Fascism? Absolutely, til the day I die, but that’s an old cause — being against racism, not fascism. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought we won World War II.

As I looked around yesterday at my friends, I thought, “Wow, they are great people. Not a one of them is famous, but I like every one of them. In a world that seems absolutely nuts at times, these people are … normal. My normal perhaps, but “normal”. I thought to myself, “I get it. We have become Harry’s generation”.

“I guess I just wasn’t made for these times” — Brian Wison and the Beach Boys

Years ago, when I was first married and lived in Bridgeport, there was a member of my congregation named Harry. He was retired, I think. I always saw him at the diner. I always saw him in church. Harry was old, and maybe looked lonely, but he fit in Bridgeport. Everywhere he went, people knew him, and said “Hello” and shook his hand, or gave him a hug. The people who did that had been friends for years. They all grew up during World War II or maybe Korea, but the world that they inhabited made sense for them. Nazis were bad. Frank Sinatra was good. America was righteous, and promoted peace unless it couldn’t help it. They all went to church. They all drove an American car. Communism was wrong. Democracy was right.The barber always had “Theme from a Summer Place” playing in the background on the AM station. Men shaved, and worked hard. Women cooked and worked hard. It was what it was, and it made sense to them. They were the inhabitants of that generation’s world. We were outsiders looking in. To us, they were ok people, with strange habits, and strong values that we didn’t always hold. I’m sure to this generation, we are the same, and I’m ok with that. I like my normal. I like it a lot.

Some of us are more neurotic, some of us are less. Some of us have seen harder times, some not so much. Most of us are liberal, some not so much. None of those things really matter. We all want what’s best for each other. We all want what’s best for the world. They are our people, and we are a part of them. We put up with them sometimes, and they put up with us sometimes. Do we look like a unified people? Not by ourselves, but we know each other when we see us. We know we’re not alone, even if COVID made us lonely for each other. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my tribe, my people, especially my Deering friends. They are good people.

“The end, my friend. My only friend, the end” — Jim Morrison and the Doors

While I’m talking about getting old, I probably should talk about getting really old, and that thing that comes after it: death. I don’t think about death very often. It’s not something that runs through my head. I’m a Christian. Because of that, I don’t have any fear of death. I don’t long for it. I don’t look for it. If it happens, I’m ok. If it doesn’t, I still have things to do, and people to see. I have tried — and still try — to make every day the best I have for the world. I try to be my best self. I try to tell the people that matter I love them. That’s one of the best ideas my generation had. We were smart to keep that one.

Do I “hope I die before I get old”, as Pete Townsend said? The answer comes from years ago, when Bob Kyte quoted Bob Dylan “Those not busy being born are busy dying”. That’s an old one from the memory banks, but it’s still true today. I worry about the world. I don’t worry about death. I don’t mind getting old, but I don’t want to be dying until I’m dead.

Resisting with Peace,

John

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