Published June 30, Siskiyou News
I recently celebrated my 80th birthday. How did that happen? The idea of being an octogenarian is thought-provoking, if not terrifying. Thoughts bounce around my head like ping pong balls and sometimes make me crazy. I’ll try to relieve the pressure and preserve my sanity by casting out the ping pong balls unto you, the readers. Bear with me.
There are plenty of scary things about getting older. The fear of dying, for one. But people die at all ages; it’s just that when you are older, the prospect becomes more imminent. But fears of dying aren’t the majority of the ping pong balls rattling around in my head, so I won’t dwell on them here.
For me there are two things about getting older that I worry about more than death itself: loss of relevance and loss of independence.
Relevance. People want their lives to have some meaning. It’s human nature. We can’t all be Jesus Christ, or Muhammad, or Marie Curie, or Leonardo da Vinci, or Galileo, or Abraham Lincoln, but we all want our lives to be meaningful in some way, no matter how small. I’ve been fortunate in that regard, because of the career paths I’ve chosen, as a lawyer and a judge. Whatever you may think of lawyers, you can’t deny that they have an impact on the world around them, good or bad. The same can be said of judges. The job description entails making decisions that impact others. Although you may agree or disagree with their decisions, depending on whether your side won or lost, you can’t deny that they made a difference. But I’ve been retired for years. Since retirement, I’ve tried to maintain some relevance by writing: books, stories, articles, and columns, including the one you are reading now. It’s true that my columns have limited circulation. It’s not exactly like writing for the New York Times, but I know that my stories are getting out there to the people most important to me, the people in our community. I also know that somebody reads my stories because I get feedback, some positive and some negative. For sure, I prefer the positive feedback, but I appreciate the negative as well, because it helps me focus and perhaps reconsider my ideas; and it also helps me improve my writing. If people go to the trouble of criticizing what I wrote, then I know I at least made them stop and think, even if I didn’t change their minds. For example, some time ago I wrote a piece, using the voice of Bobby, my eight-year-old self, suggesting that Bobby and his buddies thought it was stupid that the world leaders who attended the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference didn’t talk more about nuclear energy as a possible solution to the planet’s environmental problems. Afterward, I was taken to task for suggesting that anything as horrible as nuclear energy should be discussed by the scientific community. I appreciated the rebuttal to my article. It made me feel like Galileo must have felt, back in the day. Galileo’s belief that the earth rotated daily and revolved around the sun was met with opposition from other astronomers and the church. He was tried by the inquisition, found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. My writing is strictly a hobby, but it helps satisfy an old guy’s need to be relevant. Hopefully it won’t lead to house arrest, and I’ll be able to continue it into my 80’s and beyond.
Independence. The potential loss of independence may for me be the most powerful of the worries that come with aging. Particularly the ability to drive. As long as you can drive, you retain the ability to get around without having to rely on others. This is a big deal. I remember when my dad, in his 90’s and living in the Bay Area, got to the point where driving was hazardous for himself and others. I am the oldest of four siblings. My younger siblings, two of whom also live in the Bay Area, all tried to convince him he shouldn’t drive any more. But he needed to get one final opinion from me as his “first born,” and when I corroborated what he had already been told, he conceded and never attempted to drive again. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but necessary. And for him it was awful. Losing his independence was palpable and excruciating. My time will come as well, but so far, so good. Except for a couple of glitches along the way, I’ve been fortunate to have been blessed with good health. One glitch occurred with frightening suddenness a little more than a year ago, actually New Year’s Eve, 2020. I woke up that morning and noticed a problem with my vision. Lines that normally should have been straight were wavy, one of the well-known symptoms of age-related macular degeneration, a retinal disease that can lead to blindness. I feared it would end my ability to drive. The good news is that today macular degeneration is treatable, albeit with injections to the eye, which sounds a lot worse than it really is. Since then, I’ve been getting the injections regularly, and I’m fine, but realize how fragile health can be, and how things can change in a heartbeat. Maintaining independence, and specifically the ability to drive, is a big deal. For me, so far, so good.
What’s the moral of today’s rant? Live each day to the fullest. Inevitably, there will come a time when that is no longer possible. I can only hope that ten years from now, when I’m an octogenarian looking at becoming a … what comes next? … I’ll be relevant and independent.