Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Age Ain't Nothing But a Number

A lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, but I can deal with that, especially since most of them don't read my blog. But y'all really need to stop talking about people being too old for things. And you need to be careful how you ridicule people about their age. All of us were young once, and if you asked us what we thought about getting older when we were in our teens and early twenties, we had these very idealistic notions of living to 100, but no clue about what would happen between the ages of 40 and 99. Now that many of us find ourselves in that range, trust, we are rethinking and reimagining what "old age" is supposed to look and feel like as the years stack up and whiz by.

As many of you know, I am steadily walking on the road towards 50. God willing and if the creek don't rise (like the old folks used to say when I was younger), I will arrive at that golden shore later this year, and let me tell you...Baybee! While I never assumed I would not live to see this leg of the journey, I didn't see any of the stuff that would line my path. Like I had no idea what it would feel like to lose friends before they reached this same milestone. I had no idea what it would feel like to look back and recall things that happened 40 or more years ago. I have parents in their 70s, and I remember what it was like to have grandparents in their 70s when I was a kid. I have friends with grandchildren. Have we even discussed perimenopause? (As an aside, I am about to re-read and watch the new movie Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret because OMG, I have an eight-year old and it has been 40 years!!!)

I can clearly remember sitting in an elementary school classroom and being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then I remember the moment when I was in college, sitting alone in Sisters Chapel and how it inspired my personal statement for my law school applications. I remember sitting in a lecture hall where a professor was explaining some arcane legal concept that sounded very much like he was speaking in a foreign language. But it was in that moment when I said to myself, wow you are really here! I was 21 years old then.

And then as if time suddenly sped up in a flash, I just read a FB post about a young man who had been one of my younger brothers' students in high school a few years ago. He just passed the bar! And it all seems surreal that just a few years ago, he was a high school senior escorting a young lady to her debutante ball, and during a break, he was chatting with me while I calmed my months old baby in my arms. I was at his college graduation that took place the weekend of my 25th College Reunion and chatted with him just a year ago about law school. Now that baby I was holding is almost as tall as I am and this young man is about to launch into the world. I tell you this because time waits for no one. YOU will be older sooner than you think in the blink of an eye.  

My issue is not hyper-sensitivity to the ways in which we seem to be at war against aging, because hey, I am in an intense enough battle against going grey. It is the utter disrespect and disregard for the elderly that has become the norm in this society. While I was agitated by statements that were made this past week about the President, my frustration has been building against this intolerance for years. It is beyond sad when compared to how other societies revere their elders, we make tasteless jokes about people forgetting their names and needing to wear adult diapers. Ha Ha, very funny...

Just wait until you become the punchline of that joke. Trust, you won't be laughing.

When the issue was our societal intolerance for children, I chimed in because I have a child and remember what it was like when she was younger, and the world turned a blind yet judgmental eye towards my perceived shortcomings. I was that mother on the plane, and I could share stories of other places where my child's behavior was less than angelic. Turns out, she has some neurodevelopmental processing issues, something I just learned. But nobody had time to show us any grace, except for ONCE at the Target from a cashier who immediately understood. Every other time, people have heaved and sighed or let her run into the street when I had difficulty managing her energy (but we'll address all of that another time).

Instead, let's talk about my experiences on the other end of the spectrum as a caregiver. I have been subjected to similar levels of intolerance when it comes to people's attitudes towards senior citizens. I have had people question why I took advantage of some innocuous perk, such as a discounted movie ticket or meal, and feeling self-conscious (as if my Mom hadn't earned her free drink or popcorn). How the same accommodations that I needed for navigating a stroller in public are even more necessary when pushing a wheelchair, and how people will still act like they don't see you. How this entire debate over providing public unisex family bathrooms is both short-sighted and unnecessarily transphobic.

Admittedly, I take particular and personal offense to the Alzheimer's and cognitive decline jokes made at the President's expense because I live with the reality of both. Y'all think these tasteless elder abuse comments are funny because you disagree with his policies? Meanwhile, on your side of the political spectrum, the front-runner is a caricature of a former wannabe playboy who is only a few years younger. What else suggests that there are discernable differences between the 80 year old man who stutters and the 76 year old man who thinks every woman still wants to sleep with him? 

The assertion by former Ambassador Nikki Haley that Biden is likely to die in the next five years is what prompted this rant. Because take a number lady, you could be dead in five years too! So could I. So could Donald Trump or anybody else for that matter. According to another saying from the old folks, no one knows the day nor the hour...

Let's revisit Haley's real intention in making that statement in a bit, because other people have been taking swipes and it should be unconscionable for this level of disrespect to be tolerated. I mean, why does the Speaker of the House, third in line to the Presidency, get away with making a joke about soft food without someone sending him jars of Gerbers smashed peas to represent the balls he gave up in every round of voting he lost to get that job? (Yep, I think I will do just that when I'm done here). Like really, Sir, you don't even have a fully formed spine the way you bend over backwards to appease people...

But it struck me how this level of disrespect for the elderly isn't typical in other cultures. In a week, all eyes will be on the British again as they set to crown their 74 year old sovereign, a role he inherited upon the death of his 96 year old mother. He will become the oldest monarch to ascend to the throne. Since I don't live in the UK, I can't know if people ever mocked Queen Elizabeth because of her age, but based on the outpouring of global respect that was shown at her passing, that would come across as unseemly. Other cultures demonstrate their reverence for their elders by giving them places of honor by respecting their life experience. In this country, we make jokes about dentures and walkers, while warehousing our elders in nursing homes and waiting for them to die. 

Whether that observation gets written off as a hyperbolic generalization or truth is based on your perspective. What I have witnessed firsthand in these the last 20 years of my adult life is the constant centering of self over everything else. We've become so ruggedly individualistic that we don't care about anyone, except for our pets. I could veer way off topic with examples, but just scroll through social media and take note of how many of these self-care gurus actually have families, let alone people who like them. Theirs were some of the loudest voices against COVID mitigation, those who thought that the risks were acceptable to cull the herd, and if that meant losing grandparents and other elderly relatives, then so be it. To quote their patron saint, Ebenezer Scrooge, "If they would rather die, let them hurry up and do it to decrease the surplus population."

Thus, when I see calls for Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to resign, yes it rubs me the wrong way. I don't know the state of her health other than the published reports of shingles. I understand that her extended absence brings the work of confirming federal judges to a halt, but the Senate has other constitutional duties to fulfill. And I think that if she has been in some form of cognitive decline since the death of her husband last year, she made the right call in choosing not to run for reelection again next year. However, we don't place age limits on public service, and she is the same age as Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who just won reelection. I was a Hill staffer when the late Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) had to be escorted around the Capitol by his staff. Several Senators have continued to serve even as they battle serious heath challenges, and at least two very prominent ones died while in office. Just last year, another veteran Senator in his 80s broke his hip, and I don't recall hearing any impassioned pleas for him to resign before his term ended for the good of the country.

That doesn't mean that people ought to treat these jobs as lifelong entitlements, and I can respect the arguments made in favor of giving younger people a chance. I remember that fateful night in September 2020 when I saw the breaking news that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died. Lots of think pieces were written about her refusal to step aside and how that led to the current ideological leanings of the Court. Hard to say what the future might have looked like, and I'm guessing Ginsberg felt the same way right up to the moment before she died. And that is the actual point here: none of us knows the day or the hour, so as long as we're here, we have the right to give life the very best that we have.

That means we allow Clint Eastwood (92) to continue to direct films, if that's what he wants. If Rita Moreno (91) and Chita Rivera (90) want to stage a dance-off to see who the better Anita was in West Side Story, have at it. And we're not going to prevent Mel Brooks (96) from doing whatever the heck he wants, even if we're not sure that part two will be as funny as the first part he directed 40 years ago. If William Shatner (92) ever gets another chance to really blast off into space, who's going to stop him? Dan Rather (91) is a lot more entertaining now that he isn't sitting behind a news desk. For her 90th birthday, Carol Burnett got a primetime TV special. We should be happy to learn that Jack Nicholson (86) is still living his best life. Weren't y'all just praying for Betty White to live long enough to see her 100th birthday a year ago?

If nobody is the least bit worried about Smokey Robinson (83) or Mick Jagger (80) breaking their hips onstage, why are we convinced that Joe Biden needing a phonetic spelling to help him from mispronouncing someone's name is some doomsday indication of mental frailty? The very idea that the country would be better off with a restored Regime of Donald the Trumpet or under the leadership of a cranky Bernie Sanders (81) versus jolly Joe Biden is...

Which brings me back to the racist fear-mongering of folks like Nikki Haley in her sideways attack of Madame Vice President. This ain't the first time Haley has tried to score points by throwing cheap shots, but this recent tactic of hers proves that she is in dire need of attention. Mad that nobody cares that she's running for President too, she's made the cynical gamble that people are far more afraid of another Black President than they are of losing this democracy to authoritarianism. So what do you think they see when they look at you, Nimarata?

What y'all need to fear, more than Black people running the country again, is Marjorie Taylor Greene or some other loose cannon sycophant being chosen to ride shotgun with the Donald. Because if he is reelected, then that puts the inmates back in charge of the asylum, and they just might succeed in destroying the country this time. 

Furthermore, I don't get why Haley isn't satisfied that she was the catalyst for Don Lemon's ouster from CNN as a sexist jerk. How many others have tried and failed to get him fired and cancelled? Girl, take that victory lap because that is the only decent fight you've picked and won in recent years. (Yeah, I said it--y'all seem to have forgotten how Lemon was famously uninvited to the cookout during the Obama years. Look at who is now past his prime and out of a job at 57?)

Let's begin our conclusion on that particular triumph, because ageism is the one form of discrimination that all of us will face, if we are lucky to live long enough. Everything that you ridicule can possibly become part of your lived reality if you don't screw up and die young. Describing a woman as past her prime isn't the worst thing that a man can say, but if that same man has a history of being an asshole, it can be the cherry on top of the shit sundae he gets served on the day he is forced to clean out his office. You still think dementia jokes are funny when the projection in global diagnoses is expected to triple by 2050? Where will you be in these statistics, one of the millions at risk, or one of their un/der-paid caregivers? Irony would be if one of these unruly toddlers you want to have banned from airplanes grows up to be the person who develops a cure. But karma is more likely: that child will be one of the Certified Nursing Assistants who is emptying your urinal and serving you soft food one day in some nursing home where your self-care centered grandchild will only come by to visit if his brunch plans fall through.

Yep, in 20 years, ANYTHING is possible if you are still here. 

There is a reason why we give out participation certificates and honorable mentions to young children while reserving Lifetime Achievement Awards, Presidential Medals of Freedom, and Kennedy Center Honors to folks over 50. We recognize what people have actually accomplished in their lives instead of what we see as their potential. We can all understand the excitement that comes from being the young phenom, but we respect the wisdom and knowledge that comes with age. We mourn when the lives of young people are cut short due to some tragic, unforeseen circumstances; we celebrate when beloved elders like Harry Belafonte or Cicely Tyson reach the end of a long journey of lives that enriched us so much.

Let our elders live and thrive! If they are still in positions of leadership or otherwise still able to contribute to the world in some way, be smart and patient. Sit with them to learn, be available to assist, and be wise enough to heed their warnings. In the words of an African proverb: The youth can walk faster, but the elder knows the road.  

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