Love the Ones You’re With

Here in Milwaukee we’ve gotten ourselves engaged in a debate about senior centers. The county government, always strapped for cash and having put off needed maintenance for years is now looking at five aging senior centers and wondering what to do.

Senior advocates like myself and my comrades in the League of Progressive Seniors sense the beginning of the end for senior centers and so we are making noise, a lot of noise. But none of us ever really goes to a senior center. It’s not that we wouldn’t be caught dead in one, it’s just that we’re not there yet. We might never be there.

My father, widowed at 89, lived across a ball field from the local senior center.

“You should go, Dad.”

“Nah, just a bunch of old people over there.”

And at the time, I remember laughing at his reaction and being a little proud that my healthy, capable father didn’t want to be lumped in with old people but he was in fact old, very old, and lonely as only a man widowed after a 64 year marriage could be. But I reinforced the stigma of aging by basically patting him on the back for repudiating his own age peers.

The stigma of aging is profound and powerful, at its most intense when we who are old accept the stigma as valid. I’ve been struggling against that by being very public about my age and calling out ageism when I see it in conversations or social media. I want to be a role model for meaningful aging, not so much to other people but to myself, hoping my external life of action and community involvement will beat back my internal fear and loathing of my age.

“You’re not old,” a younger colleague said to me yesterday. “I wouldn’t consider you old.”

Why? Because to consider me old would put me in a stigmatized group? And you like me too much to do that? That’s sweet.

A local think tank released a study of senior centers called “Young at Heart.” To me that put the stigma of senior centers in capital letters. Of course, they think, old people would want to be young at heart because that would be tons better than being what they are – old at heart. The title felt weird and patronizing, like we were worn out adults on our way to become children again.

Even though I hang around with younger people a lot of the time, there is a great comfort and camaraderie being with people my age. We are funny and profane, wise but impatient. We don’t, after all, have all the time in the world. We understand each other’s jokes and remember the mistakes and painful alliances from years ago. We feel free and triumphant in a lot of ways but, despite that joyfulness, we are often stuck in the mud of stigma, not coming from other people, coming from ourselves.

Maybe senior centers, reimagined, could be the place where we learn to love the age we are. Maybe a different kind of senior center might have gotten my father to cross that ball field and be with people who remembered Benny Goodman and could dance a great swing. We need to be with people who know the words to Dylan’s songs and want to compare notes on anti-war protests. We’re out here. We just need some magic.

I Know My Place

On the bus last night, doing outreach to homeless people in our town, bundling up hot meals in plastic bags, forgetting sometimes to include a fork because I always make at least one error when I am doing this work, I loved my colleagues for their matter-of-factness about life and situations, ours and theirs, and their distilling compassion into tangibles like underwear and bug spray, and I follow one of them deep into the woods where a man is sitting waiting, his speakers blaring rock music that has him mesmerized, so loud it is that I stand back by the trees and wave to him, his friendly visitor who asks no questions until we are on the path back and then the answers are spare because that’s not how we do things, we wait for information to find us not the other way around and back in the bus my friends talk about how they loved New Kids on the Block when they were younger and how their bedrooms were plastered with posters and I remembered but didn’t tell them about Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and because those things felt like artifacts from a hundred years ago so I just sat and listened which was just as well.

One Eye Seeing

The week has been eye-opening. Illuminating. Clarifying. Humbling.

I had cataract surgery on my left eye. The process had all the accouterments of having surgery except I got to keep my jeans on which gave the whole thing kind of an outdoorsy feel. The operating room, the IV, the warm blanket, the faraway chatter, the fleeting admonition to myself to think only of paddling our canoe as a way to steady my nerves, the sudden having it be over and finished, all of it was like getting my cochlear implant although then they drilled a hole in my head while I was busy paddling.

This time they inserted a tiny tool in my eye and broke up my old lens. Oddly, I could see this happening, the shards of the lens like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope and I was fascinated and taken by this, the colors moving, and then I saw the looming dark profile of the surgeon bending over me like a shadow in a closet in a very scary movie. I knew it was the doctor though so it was all okay. After the light show, unbeknownst to me, he inserted another little tool which had my new lens spring-loaded so it unfolded like magic while I was dozing, I guess, because it wasn’t clear to me, as they say, until much later.

Since the surgery, I have been washing my face every morning, yes, with soap, and putting on moisturizer and walking out the door. I figure with all the doctor’s precautions about infection and the four times a day steroid drops I ought not be confusing things with Maybelline Great Lash. Why screw things up for the sake of vanity.

But truth be told, I have been feeling lately as if my true face ought to be sufficient, that I can’t be bothered doing everything I used to do to make my face look better. I will just go around and have my face. I do have a killer haircut, that is one important indulgence, but make-up, I’ve been letting it dry into shards on the shelf, like my lens, I guess.

Years ago, I would look at older women who didn’t wear make-up, the ones who wore flannel shirts and old jeans on their way to the day’s garage sales, usually these were women who five minutes ago were doctors and lawyers but were now retired, and I’d think “Why are you giving up?” After a while, the older I got, I started to regard their facial nakenness as liberation. They earned the right not to care anymore. Soon I would be there and not care, too. Just like them. Screw the patriarchy and its fucked-upness about what women should be doing with their faces.

But I looked at myself in the mirror this morning, my bare face and mascara-less eyelashes blending into a beige, unremarkable landscape of deep wrinkles offset by my two blue eyes, one of them way more capable of taking in the detail than the other and I thought, “Jesus H., Jan, why are you giving up?” So I went to Target this afternoon, which, yes I know there are whole stores devoted to make-up where some 25-year old could give me advice but I’m not there yet, I’ll never be there, there isn’t enough time left for me on the planet to make that leap, and at Target I bought all new make-up – foundation, powder, new eye shadow, new mascara, and, a brush for my blush.

I also bought sunglasses. A pair of $15 sunglasses. This is remarkable in its own right because the years of prescription sunglasses which cost what I paid for my first car are over. I can also push my sunglasses up on the top of my head which makes me feel young and sporty like I used to feel when my sunglasses doubled as a headband for my hair.

I guess all of this goes by way of saying. I’m not dead yet. And I’m not giving up.

Life is a Blur

I have cataracts, just like my old dogs who are dead now but not from cataracts, from other things that happen at the same time like extreme old age which I don’t have yet but I’m working on it, the cataracts giving me a hint of what is to come, the blurring of everything valuable into one big colorful stew like the lights on the San Diego freeway a few days ago where I resolved to drive like I lived there so I punched the gas going down the ramp and merged like a Las Vegas dealer hides the Ace of Hearts in a deck of cards he’s shuffling for tourists from Des Moines, the turn signal on my rented red car clicking like a timer, there is only so much time, I tell myself, make the most of it.

The Lead-Up

People have birthdays everyday, for heaven’s sake. So no reason to get all intense about it, right? Wrong.

71 is some business.

You try being 71 and come tell me birthdays are mundane, everyone has them, and, oh, age is just a number. 71 is some shit.

Earlier this week, I read in the morning paper about a colleague who had died. He was 82. I went in the shower and did the math. Just 11 years older than me. Just 11. I have shoes that are 11 years old. And they look like new. Time flies. Go figure.

It depressed me mightily, thinking about my dead colleague and my rapidly advancing age. I fell quickly into thinking like a patient with a terminal illness, my days are numbered, I thought, but whose aren’t? Living is a fatal illness when you get right down to it.

My dad died when he was 89. So if I’m my dad’s girl, I might live another 18 years. And I could be tooling around the two lanes just like him in his big Oldsmobile, hitting the hills in the Michigan countryside like Steve McQueen sending his Shelby Mustang flying over the hills of San Francisco. Honest to God, I sat in the passenger seat and heard the bottom of my dad’s car hit the pavement on the way down. He was no piker when it came to driving. All in, the man was, all in.

Growing up, I heard the term “hell bent for leather” a lot. My dad was often hell bent for leather but I hung back. It wasn’t my nature. First of all, you have to be pretty out there to be hell bent. And secondly, there’s a fair amount of risk implied being hell bent for leather and I never liked risk unless the odds fell entirely in my favor which is contrary to the whole notion of risk.

But I’ve changed. I’m not afraid of risk anymore. I don’t know what happened. The only thing different about me is age. A lot of age. A lot of age got me out from behind my safety glasses. And it’s great. I can see better and drive a lot faster.

The definition of “hell bent for leather” uses the term “recklessly determined” which I think is impossibly perfect and beautiful for what I want to be in my remaining minutes or 18 years. Recklessly determined to be healthy, to be strong, to make change, to show up, to drive like a wild woman who scares the passengers.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Here’s to 71. It’s the shit.

Slow Walking

We have another dying dog here.

Our beloved Minnie is on her last legs. She stumbles going around corners and down stairs, her back legs weak and spindly, sometimes going in the direction opposite her destination. It’s awful to watch.

On top of that, she has an ever-increasing dent on the right side of her head, the consequence, the vet said, of some neurological event which paralyzed that side of her face. As the muscles in her head and face atrophy, the dent deepens. She is still beautiful, this dog, despite all this.

Our old girl has an aura of patience and forbearance, tolerance and peace. And loyalty. She will always find where we are and lie down. She will wag her tail at the prospect of a walk and so we walk around the block slower than one might with a baby just learning to take her own steps.

So we are wrestling with the prospect of putting her down which we know we have to do and probably should have already done because we are treating her the way my grandmother treated her 99-year old mother, smoothing all the creases from her wrinkled sheets every twenty minutes.

A dying dog is a sad thing. But there are 10,000 sad things on any given day. This one is hardly the most tragic, it’s just the culmination of the relentless passage of time which, I suppose, is itself tragic if you’re in a mood to think of it that way.

I miss the young Minnie, the Minnie who ran on the beach and could fetch a stick in Lake Superior’s waves and bring it back to the shore holding it in her mouth like a cigar. I loved that dog, that fearless, quiet, sweet dog who swam in water just freed from the spring ice.

Who are we talking about here? You or the dog?

I don’t know what you mean.

You’re old enough to know that old dogs die.

Of course. It’s not my first rodeo.

Maybe it is. I guess it’s all about how you think about it.