Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Old Man

Have you ever wondered where middle age begins or where it leaves off? It's always been a vague mystery to me, a large demographic category with fuzzy borders at both ends.

Once I got past high school, I've not been one to dwell much on my age. Mostly I've been happy to be where I was at the time, and I never found any particular birthday to be a profound marker of how much sand had slipped into the bottom of my hourglass; of how little remained above.

Still, every now and again I've been brought up short by how I'm seen by those around me. one of those moment occurred shortly after my 21st birthday. I was in Chicago at the time, on break from college, and decided to buy a bottle of bourbon in a liquor store. While buying bourbon was not a new experience for me, doing so legally was, and I suppose I was partly motivated by the chance to exercise a right of my freshly-minted majority.

When the middle-aged clerk (think 50s) carded me, I was ready. I casually handed over my driver's license, and paused while he scrutinized it. Imagine my shock when, after doing the math, he concluded that he wouldn't sell me the bourbon because it was too close to my 21st birthday. Too close? What the hell did that mean? I was outraged. But I got no further explanation, and was ushered out the door sans bourbon. That was perhaps the last time I clearly remember feeling that I was too young.

• • •
Living in community for 36 years, I've tended to relate to all my fellow members and even the prospective members as peers. Sure, some of our ages don't match up too well, and some have life experiences that others don't (if you're paying attention, this inevitably runs both ways, independent of age), yet it always takes me by surprise when it turns out that a member's mother is the same age as me. (How can that be? Mothers are always of another generation One that dresses for dinner, wears lipstick and girdles, and does volunteer work for the Girl Scouts.)

Community has sustained me in my non-generational bubble, and I've stretched the boundaries further by leading a vigorous life. At 61 I haven't slowed down much, suffer no significant health maladies, and still work long hours. Middle age for me has meant my hair has gotten thinner and whiter, my middle has thickened, the hearing in my left ear is deteriorating, and I don't always portage the canoe any more (though I still paddle stern).

Three years ago, I married a woman 20 years my junior. While I was worried at the time about what the age gap might mean for the prospects of a partnership where we matched energy, it's turned out not to matter that much that she can't keep up. We love each other anyway.
• • •
Early last week I spent two days visiting Alpha Farm in Deadwood OR. I was there mainly to visit with with my dear friend, Caroline Estes, which I did. Around the edges, I met many of the new, young faces among the 16 or so residents. While Caroline and her husband Jim are both in their 80s, most of the other residents are in their 20s and 30s, with one or two north of 40. It seemed a typical mix and I thought no more about it.

When my friends Peg & Paul drove out to Alpha Wed morning to collect me for an overnight visit in Eugene, they were coming to Alpha for the first time and didn't know their way around. When they got out of their car, they inquired of the first person they bumped into where Laird was. The reply came back: "You mean the old guy?"

I guess I'm no longer middle aged.

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