A Whippersnapper’s View of Living Well Vs. Living Long

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2014 09:07

writer.russell-frankI can tell you exactly when I rediscovered the joy of being the baby of the family: Dec. 28, 2000. That was the date my sister Wendy turned 50. Meryl was already 54. Which meant I was now the only one of the three of us who was still a whippersnapper in his 40s.

For the next four years, whenever one of my sisters said, “I can’t believe how old we’re all getting,” I replied. “Speak for yourself, sweetheart.”

Then I, too, crossed the half-century threshold. You would think my sisters would have been glad that we were all 50-somethings together, but they dread my milestone birthdays even more than I do: If their baby brother is 50, they must really be old.

Six years later I could again taunt my poor decrepit sisters about being in a whole different decade than I.

Now I’m about to catch up once more. I don’t mind turning 60, really. But it’s like being behind in the sixth inning of a baseball game: The situation isn’t critical yet, but one can’t squander too many more opportunities.

These thoughts cross my mind most often at work when I’m in meetings or when I’m asked to weigh in on some policy or procedural matter. At those moments I want to turn to my fellow graybeards and say, “Hey, we’ve only got 20 good years left! Is this how we want to be spending our time?”

Which raises the question: How do we geezers-in-training want to spend the years that remain to us? On New Year’s Eve, revelers at my town’s First Night Celebration were invited to contribute to a public bucket list. Most of the postings, unsurprisingly, were devoted to places people had not yet visited or thrills they had not yet experienced.

I asked myself if I will feel like I wasted my life if I don’t make it to Machu Picchu or never jump out of a plane. My answer: Nah. I haven’t been everywhere and done everything, but I’ve reached a point where I’ve been to enough places and done enough things to get the general idea about the wondrous variety of life and landscape on Our Planet Earth.

Call me jaded, but lately when I read travel stories in the newspaper, I wonder how many charming cafes/shops/plazas/inns/cobblestone streets one needs to experience in one lifetime.

Recently, at one of those restaurants where they drizzle designs on the side of your plate and combine ingredients seemingly at random, like chocolate and chili or steak and strawberries, I realized I’m less interested in new flavors than in continuing to savor the ones I know I like. I feel the same about experiences: I don’t need to go to Kathmandu or swim with dolphins. Just give me more meals and conversations and walks with the people I love.

The realization that I don’t need to race around the world before I die has resolved a big money-management dilemma for me. Before, I couldn’t decide whether it made more sense to splurge now while I’m still spry, or squirrel away as much as I can so I can support myself for as long as I need to. If anything, I was leaning toward the splurge. I’d joke about spending it all and then blowing my brains out – not literally, but gently, with an overdose of some kind. Better to live well than live long, right?

But that’s middle-aged talk. Things will look different from the edge of the cliff. As far as I can tell, more of us want to cling to the edge with all our might than swan dive into the great beyond.

It’s going to be interesting, though, to see how the culture changes in the next couple of decades as the cliff gets crowded with more and more of us baby boomers. Painless, foolproof assisted suicide may become the norm. Which means there will be more discussion of what we are and are not willing to put up with.

One septuagenarian I knew was very clear about it: When he could no longer sit in his favorite chair at 5 o’clock drinking his sherry, listening to opera and reading The Economist, he wanted out – no tubes or hospital beds for him. And out he gently went on his own terms.

Things are not always as clear-cut as the choice between being kept alive in a hospital and dying at home. Many of us decline slowly, getting used to aches and incapacity by degrees. And while the trend line is all in one direction – toward the cemetery or the urn – we might find life unbearable on Tuesday, then bearable again on Wednesday. Even chronic sufferers can still enjoy sitting in the garden and listening to birdsong.

This is tough stuff. Whenever I return from a visit with my dad, who’s about to turn 96, my loved ones have to put up with my gerontophobia for a while. At such times I don’t sound like the smart-alecky baby of the family. I sound like an old guy who’s terrified of getting older.

But then I think of my daughter who’s getting married this summer, my two younger ones who are still in school and the grandchildren who are sure to come along some day. With all those plot lines to follow, I’m probably going to want to stick around a while. Which means I’d better not max out the credit cards after all.

Former Sonoran Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University. Email him at rbf5@psu.edu.

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank March 15, 2014 09:07
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