Sunday, October 4, 2015

Time will tell

I love the Saturday morning paper. Sitting down with a coffee and turning the big pages. Scanning through the World News, checking out the Business section, reading the Sports headlines, checking out reviews (theatre, restaurant, wine and books). It is usually the news closer to home that captures my closest attention.

Last week, Ian Brown's column, My year of aging semi-gracefully made me laugh out loud when I read it in the Globe.   I didn't realize he had actually published the pages of the diary he kept in Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year. Using mathematical rounding, I still land closer to 50, but if all goes predictably & well, I will be 60 soon enough.

And I will be in good company. Later in the paper, Margaret Wente was pointing out that the seniors crisis is at hand. Canada now has more people over the age of 65 than kids under 14.

At work, by 2020, 35% of the current workforce will be eligible to retire; 8,000+ before the end of next year. I'm not in either cohort but will certainly be impacted by such a massive exodus. The forecast is that government will be smaller, but hopefully if I stick it out there will be opportunities to contribute to something that really matters.

The next while I want to play close attention to what brings me true job satisfaction and then look for opportunities to do more of the same. It is easy to get off course, do the busywork, or get distracted.  I had a very unpleasant experience with someone at work last week, but I also had a great exchange with several mentees and had a chance to meet the Premier of Ontario. I have a new manager, new senior executive, and changes on the horizon. Will try to make the best of what the next day/month/year/decade brings.

copy and pasting below for easy reference should the Globe archive content by the time I'm 60.

Review: In Sixty, Ian Brown chronicles his journey toward the end

“What will I remember as I die?” For most of us the answer is, of course, nothing; we can’t remember much, even now. But this is the existential question that drives Ian Brown to keep a diary as he hits the Big 6-0. Suddenly panicked by the idea of time running out, he figures he had better starting paying better attention: “If you take the trouble to write down the details,” he writes, “you get a second chance to live it.”

But his latest book, Sixty, may find his biggest audience yet; there are so many of us in the same creaky boat. Written with his trademark gutsy candour, and full of self-deprecating wit, Sixty sets out to document what Brown fears might be “the beginning of the end.”

Previous surveyors of life stages – from the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to the author Gail Sheehy – largely ignored the finer (and funnier) points of old age: Erikson lumped all the years from 65 to death into a stage called “maturity,” while Sheehy’s most famous book, Passages, is billed as a “roadmap” telling us what to expect in our “20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.”

It’s this “and beyond” that Brown decided to parse, beginning with the days of his 61st year. He doesn’t want to lose the future the way he’s lost the past: “I can’t get away from the nagging feeling that somewhere along the path of my life, I misplaced twenty years,” he writes. “I am not sure when or where.”

Brown was inspired by another man writing down the details of his life – Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel cycle, My Struggle. Brown’s writing is just as edifying, but much more accessible and, Lord love him, much shorter. He’s much funnier, too; he describes his growing baldness as “a monky tonsure … like one of those bare spots in the centre of a Druidic circle of standing stones, the place where sacrifices were made,” and details his hemorrhoid, which he names George, “a rich, lustrous, steamy affair” that “feels like the intersection of Highway 410 and the Trans-Canada Highway … Honestly, there is no greater indignity known to man.”

While his daughter Haley encourages him to keep a diary, telling him to “write true things, and forget about trying for the HuffPost-style self-help manual,” Brown, for his part, envisions creating a YouTube channel called “Ow, What Happened?” in which he will describe “what it feels like to be sixty in a world that doesn’t want to admit that one day it is going to be sixty too.”

Brown’s 61st year is busy – it includes an abundance of travel, from Australia to the Cotswolds, and many locations provide moments of introspection. After viewing the Chelsea Flower Show, he’s envious of gardeners, whose life meant something, “even if it was just consistent, conscientious, care-bound weeding.”

One of the book’s many charms is its distinctly male point of view. Having grown up with brothers, I didn’t realize there was so much I didn’t know. Sex, for example, rears its head all the time. Who knew this was still such a driving concern for newly retired, past-middle-age men? (I thought it was who would fix their lunch.) Brown and his friends still have fantasies that young women on the train might want to have sex with them.

Eight years ago, my children took me to a play at the Tarragon Theatre called Talk Thirty to Me – the comedic confessions of 29-year-olds who were horrified at the idea of turning 30. I had just turned 60. When it finished, the mostly young audience spilled out onto the darkened streets to congratulate the playwright, Oonagh Duncan, who had just hit the Big 3-0 herself. I wondered if they knew they were about to experience their heydays.

This is why Brown wishes he’d started his diary earlier – to save those memories: “I had my heyday in my thirties,” he writes, “but I never noticed.”

When my own children were teenagers, they used to scream, “What’s the meaning of life?!” I remember shouting back, “The meaning of life is to give life meaning!” (I was probably preoccupied – fixing lunch.) But now that they’re headed for their 50s, I’d rather give them a different piece of advice: Read this book!

Plum Johnson won the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for her memoir They Left Us Everything.



Hey, kid. Stop calling me a senior!

The news is grim. The seniors crisis is at hand. Canada now has more people over the age of 65 than kids under 14. The infestation of old people is only going to get worse. Well before the last of the boomers shuffle off this mortal coil (somewhere around 2059), more than 25 per cent of the Canadian population will probably be over 65.

It won’t be pretty. Daycare workers will switch to looking after wrinkled oldies. Health and pension costs will explode. Vast warehouses of demented people will replace schools as economic growth slows to a halt and social creativity decays. Would you want to live in such a world? Not me.

Fortunately, old age isn’t what it used to be. I used to dread it. I had always thought that seniors were preoccupied with dentures, hearing aids and Shoppers Drug Mart seniors’ specials. Now I know that’s not the case. They’re more likely to be complaining about the dates they’ve met through
“Some of the women are very superficial,” groused a 70-ish something man I know. “They’re just in it for the sex.” Although he’s happy to oblige, he wants to find a woman who likes him for himself. Also, it was awkward to explain to his 40-year-old daughter (who keeps an eye on his) finances why there was a $132 charge from Holiday Inn on his Visa card. “We didn’t even stay overnight,” he said. 

“It was just a nooner.”

Other seniors really do make life a nuisance. In the tranquil little country town near our place, the peace is shattered every weekend by roving geriatric motorcycle gangs. They love to rev their engines up and down Mill Street, with their old ladies on the back. And I do mean old. You’d be amazed how many motorcycle grandmas there are.

Old age is changing even faster than we think. As our lifespans extend by leaps and bounds, we’re also growing older more slowly. Sixty really is the new 50, or maybe even the new 40. If functional old age doesn’t start until 15 years before you die, then most of us won’t enter old age until our early 70s. A lot of us will make it to our mid-80s in reasonably good shape before we efficiently fall off the cliff.

So what will we do with all that extra life? It turns out we’ll do pretty much the same things we’ve been doing all along – hopefully without embarrassing our kids too much.

I confess that this realization took quite a lot of time to dawn on me. I had always thought that turning 65 would be a sort of reverse-Cinderella moment, when youth and love and work would all be snatched away and I would turn into a miserable, wizened crone. Then I turned 65, and none of that happened. Instead, there was a sort of liberation. For the first time in my life I felt that I could, within reason, do exactly what I wanted. And what I wanted was pretty much what I already had (except for the youth part). Work, love, friends, good books to read and woods to walk in. Not much has changed, except in good ways.

Not everything is perfect. Our memories are shot. My friends and I have conversations that go: “I really loved that movie, oh, gosh, what was it called, with that great villain. Casper Sousa? Who played him, anyway? He was terrific.” Fortunately, God invented Google just in time for us, along with artificial hips and other mental and physical aids.

Now that many of us won’t be entering true old age for quite a while, it’s time to revise the language. For starters, we should abolish the odious term “retirement age.” There’s no such thing any more. Almost every “senior” I know is doing some kind of productive work, paid or unpaid, part-time or full. Nobody is “retired.” Everyone is out there in the world, and some are busier than ever.

The other word we should retire is “senior,” with all its dreadful, infantilizing connotations. “Senior” makes me scream. I may be old but my marbles are intact (mostly). My abs are firmer than yours (maybe). I am, in fact, exactly like you, only a little calmer and a little older.

For example, I now know that most people’s interest in sex and passion never goes away, no matter how old and senile they may be. What goes away is the opportunity. This fact may be revolting to the young, but it keeps life interesting for the rest of us. Handsome young men have no idea how older women secretly eye them on the subway, and that is probably a good thing. Sadly, they don’t eye us back. You need an 80-year-old to do that.

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