Do Not Go Gentle

The feisty man’s guide to aging anything but gracefully

Smithsonian magazines Last Page illustration
"I still wonder why that young woman gave up her seat. It's not as if our bodies bear visible proof of our years." Illustration by Eric Palma

She was so pretty, her face etched in sadness peering out the window of the bus. I guess my admiring stare caught her by surprise, because suddenly her face brightened, she stood up and offered me her seat.

"Really, do I look that old and tottery?" I thought. No woman had ever done that before. And why should they? My barber tells me my hair is thicker than most guys half my age. Even my kids believe I'm still sharp enough to conquer all the electronic equipment they give me for Christmas. And it wasn't that long ago that these two legs I'm standing on carried me through all twenty-six miles, three hundred and eighty-five yards of the New York City Marathon.

"Please," the young woman said, smiling and pointing to her vacated seat. Not a sexy come-hither smile, but a benign half-smile reserved for men rendered harmless by their advanced years. Again I thought, "Do I really look so non-threatening? How would she have reacted if I had said, 'Thanks, but why don't we get off this rattletrap and go have a drink?'"

Was it pride or plain stubbornness that kept me from accepting the proffered bus seat? Perhaps there's a more subconscious reason: a need to stand up for older age as a vibrant and productive time of life. So many of my contemporaries have given up and let themselves disintegrate during what they facetiously call their "golden years." And for some reason they seem to take pride in enumerating their ailments in what some wag called "organ recitals."

"Why don't you slow down and enjoy life?" friends keep asking. "Actually, I have," I tell them. "I walk instead of jogging, write articles without crushing deadlines and delight in spending hours sprawled on the floor letting my 8-year-old grandson teach me how to build towering structures with his Legos." But as for enjoying life, those well-meaning friends don't understand that for me, it's a matter of doing the things I've always done. More slowly, for sure, but more thoughtfully too, often mixing reminiscences with the job at hand.

My heroes are the two Pablos—Picasso and Casals—who pursued their painting and cello-playing well into their 90s; not the corporate titans whose golden parachutes landed them safely inside gated communities for unbroken days of golf, bridge and sunsets seen through a martini glass. Or voluntarily inhabit one of the 36,000 retirement communities with bucolic names like Sterling Glen, Pleasant Valley and Meadow Ridge. "Live the dream, an uncompromising lifestyle awaits you," one of their promotions promises. As far as I'm concerned, they can keep on waiting.

I still wonder why that young woman gave up her seat. It's not as if our bodies bear visible proof of our years like a tree's cambial rings or a male elk's antlers. And I'm not convinced that I really am all that old. I take heart in clichés such as "age is only a number" (my wife's, by the way, is unlisted). Of course, down deep I know our biological clocks keep ticking. Even so I'd like to think that ageless philosopher Satchel Paige had it right when he asked, "How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?"

Roy Rowan is writing a book about making the most of old age.

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