The Big Zero and My Aging Brain

What’s the big deal about approaching another decade?  Six-Oh. Six-Oh. Six-Oh. A few months away now, but increasingly the numbers echo in my brain.  Why does the simple zero at the end of a number give it so much power, especially when it’s applied to age? In fifth grade, I learned that a zero was a nothing, just a place holder. It can’t be multiplied or divided and it doesn’t count when you add or subtract.

But put it at the beginning of a new decade, like what was long ago ‘the big four-o” or more recently “the big five-o,” and it rises to a whole new level of significance. Greeting cards focus on these marker years. Their already lame jokes get less funny the higher you can count and the closer you personally come to the next big O.

I now have I little time left “in my fifties,” which until recently I considered “roughly in the middle of my adult life.” In less than a year now I’ll be legitimate for senior discounts. I’ll be ten years from seventy. I’ll no longer be “prematurely grey,” or “an early retiree.”

I’ve always known this time would come, but it looked a whole lot different from the other side of fifty. In our thirties, my friends and I were adamant that you wouldn’t catch US trying to hang on to our youth.  As we sat around the table finishing our bottle of wine, considering our mortality, we all agreed that we would never dye our hair. We would treasure every wrinkle. Never waste all that money on wrinkle creams at cosmetics counters. As the candlelight flickered on our tight skin and innocent faces, we agreed that we baby boomers were going to pioneer a whole new and dignified way to approach old age.

I kept quiet about my own secret weapon. I was a high school teacher, and I had found my fountain of youth. In my mind I was convinced that all the time I’d invested teaching teenagers would keep me eternally young and With It. And of course I’d want to be With whatever It is.

So here I am twenty years later. It came and went, or maybe it’s still on its way, but now I couldn’t care less. I’m happily ensconced in this funky body, like the old sofa in the living room: a little slumpy and lumpy and yet serviceable. Nowadays I try to sit in it with a little more gentleness and gratitude. I oil the leather, thank it for holding me so well without complaint. I lift weights to smoosh around some of the lumps. I reinforce the joints with supplements and pay more attention to maintenance.

After all seventy isn’t far away. And yesterday I met a seventy-five year old man who just returned from a 150 mile trek in Nepal “with 40,000 feet in altitude gain.” I was startled by my reaction to his story.  At first I felt some hope: I could add one more challenging location to the growing mental list of places I plan to see before I die. But part of me felt instantly tired. My inner retiree seems to harbor secret plans to hang closer to some beaches, preferably ones with mild climates and good food. She was not thrilled to hear that I might come up with some other plans for her.

But most of the time I’m not so worried about my body and what it will or won’t do in the future.  I’m fairly convinced that I’ll do what’s right when it comes to my body, or right enough. Already I eat better for its benefit, drink less, keep it exercised and stretched. I can imagine myself continuing that trend and eventually losing those extra pounds so that I’ll have less of a burden to carry to Nepal or the beach.

It’s my mind I worry about. And it’s not the thought of dementia. I figure the best thing about that is that I won’t know it. Besides, I can imagine myself being more at peace if the mental train DID slow up a bit.  As it is, my brain has given itself the job of aging everybody around me. Lately I’ve been noticing old people everywhere. I mean old, with grey hair and liver spots and leathery skin. Invariably I discover that they’re younger than me. I saw a woman in some photos last week and was convinced it was my grandmother, until I noticed my clothes on her.

Last summer I went to a rock concert in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, 1967. We got there early, and my aging brain got started before the bands even came on stage. All those grey-haired, bald people decked head to toe in tie die. How could they be nostalgic for Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding company? Weren’t they supposed to be at home waiting for Lawrence Welk?

And the bands: by some fluke the lead singers weren’t much older than Janis and Grace were in the sixties. This was more like it. Them I could relate to. But the grey guys manning the guitars and drums, the “original members” still taking their stations on stage? They couldn’t be the actual hip and outrageous members of the original bands. There had been an alien take-over of the Jefferson Starship. The one woman on stage “of a certain age” had great legs. My brain reminded me that “the legs are the last to go,” and it spent a fair amount of time imagining her workout schedule and the amount of time she spent on hair, make up and wardrobe to camouflage the inevitable.

When Big Brother began and Kathy (the new Janis) struck, “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart, Baby” I began moving this body-sofa, and its joints started loosening and its hips started swinging and its legs started jumping. Just like all of the old graying and tinted dancers around me. The energy that pulsed from the crowd couldn’t have been generated by the geriatric set. Impossible. My brain hand been lying. When I looked over the crowd I saw passengers on a transport vehicle to forty years before.

As my body moved and I sang along, for a few minutes my brain forgot to age. “C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together got to love one another right now,”   I sang with Kathy/Janis.

And it was 1967 ….or 2027. I was…we were…19 or 91. And there was no difference. This starship was ageless, mindless, and free.

In the months that have followed, my mind seems to be growing younger as I notice all the times I judge myself…or others…for their youthfulness. I remark on how “good” Hillary and other high-profile mature women look, only to find they have used Botox, had cosmetic surgery. It’s not that I haven’t considered it.  But when I look in the mirror and I see my face,  I find myself humming, “Time to love one another right now.” And I see where it begins. Right there in the mirror. That’s where I’m starting, my youthful brain decides, again and again.

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