When I Grow Up
Six months ago a young woman from the inner city showed up at my door selling subscriptions. She convinced me that buying a magazine would help keep her off the streets. It would also help “fund my trip to Disney World to participate in a youth leadership symposium.” Everything about her looked tired, except for the irrepressible smile she got every time she said “Disney-World.” So I ran my index finger down the list of options and stopped at Men’s Journal, which now mostly piles up, unread, on my nightstand.
But last night after getting into bed next to my sleeping wife I made the terrible mistake of picking up the latest issue and reading it. Next thing I knew I was tearing out pages in a state of semi-panic and circling alarming phrases like: “men lose exponentially more testosterone and muscle mass every decade after turning 40“ and “you can’t stop the natural shrinking of your brain, but you can slow it down!“ Finally, after about twenty minutes of frantic reading, circling, and ripping, I passed out with my reading light still on and a pile of glossy geriatric research on my chest.
When I woke up the next morning, my wife was already drinking her coffee, thumbing through the pages, pausing to read the circled parts. She gave me a look of pity, shook her head, and put the pages back on my chest.
Men’s Journal and magazines like it remind sensitive readers like me how old they are by offering urgent tips on staying young. “Get this motorcycle, buy this watch, use this sunscreen, eat this vegetable, do interval training, get up earlier, drink this scotch, buy this jacket, do more yoga,” and you won’t seem so damn old.
But the magazine was really just a trigger for something that I’m predisposed to anyway—my longstanding fear of growing old. I’m not afraid of dying…I’m afraid that my vitality will evaporate before I’ve wrung life completely out. Before I’ve achieved greatness or explored the Congo or wrestled an alligator or written a novel or made my first fortune or saved somebody’s life using CPR. Before I’ve done that thing I was put here to do…whatever on earth that might be.
Usually when this frenetic feeling washes over me…I make a list. Then I organize the list. Then I do the things in the list in their assigned order. “1) floss, 2) interval workout, 3) drink green tea, 4) discover life purpose…” But this morning, for some reason, I just lay there in bed and stared at my feet. And the image of my 84 year old dad popped into my head. There he was, on the farm, in his cutoffs and boots, shirtless, digging a hole, moving a pile of firewood, smacking a cow on the rump. On his un-furrowed brow was a single shining bead of sweat, a sparkling accent to his bright-blue eyes. In my daydream, as in real life, he either does not know that he is old or he does not care.
But old he is. Beautifully, comfortably, vitally old. He has dazzling white hair and skin that hangs loosely, comfortably, on sharp bones. He’s a handsome old man.
Up at five A.M. most days, he lifts weights, checks the cattle, feeds the chickens, and mows his giant front yard so he can hit some golf balls. Then he has lunch with mom. After lunch, he reads some history—out loud whenever he finds himself fascinated—falls asleep, wakes, stretches, tends the beehives, and so on. He is always occupied but never busy; always ticking his way down an infinite to-do list—fixing, making, or tending—efficient but unhurried.
Last year he invited me to visit Bogota to build a school for orphans. Just this week he called me to say, “I want bigger arms so I’m doing curls with 40 pound dumbbells. It seems to be working.” Sure, he sometimes forgets peoples’ names and gets confused by simple movie plots. But he’s living. He’s gotten a lot out of life without gripping it by the collar—as I have done—and demanding things of it. He wears his age like a soft sweater.
Once I’d sat in that image of dad for a few seconds, I kissed my wife on the forehead, took the pile of pages and put them gently in the trash can. I felt relieved. “You know what I want to be like when I grow up?” I asked her.
“Old,” she said with a wink, “like your dad.”
"Walking Along the Beach" under CC license by JimW