Irrational optimism at age 84
Editor’s note: This is another in a series of occasional columns by long-time Ann Arbor resident Robert Faber on what he describes as his most recently acquired area of expertise - growing old.
At 84, all the literature says, I should be approaching old age. I’m reasonably sure that some day I’ll get there, maybe even die at the end of the process, but I can understand that only in the abstract - I don’t really believe it will happen to me. I’ve never accepted that any of those unpleasant or inconvenient rules of mortality applied to me and deep down I still don’t - but I am getting closer.
For the first time in my life I now occasionally tie the fact of my age to the reality of life, recognizing the relationship between the accumulation of years and the end of their use. One of my new routines is reading the local obituaries - searching, of course, for the names of friends I hadn’t seen for a while and may never see again.
It happened to my parents, but they were old - well, my dad was 74. And my sister died at 80 - but she had been sick, so that’s different. And various friends of mine died at ages ranging from about 10 to 75, but that’s sort of a part of life and it’s common knowledge that life is full of sad and senseless tragedies.
But clearly, none of that applies to me. After eight decades of denying both the fact and signs of aging, I’ve perfected the art of self-denial. I realize that for many, a long, serious illness can leave you lying somewhere between going and gone, but otherwise you can always exult in still having things to do.
And that’s a large part of how to approach that last phase - just keep planning and trying and doing. The beauty of life at any age, but a requisite for old age, is: Tomorrow.
At 82, billionaire T. Boone Pickens spends his days promoting the long-term goal of harnessing the power of the wind, while fellow billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who’s 94, was still maneuvering to buy General Motors until the economy recently ruled otherwise. But regardless of need or skill or size of the prize, it’s still the lures of Tomorrow that keep us in the race.
It’s foolish, of course, to plan on immortality, but even more foolish - dangerously and destructively foolish - is to allot the limited time of that most important segment of your life (as each segment always is) to a downside. It is also true, of course, that we don’t have as much control of our emotions or our physical condition or our psychological attitudes as this piece of literary buoyancy suggests, but we can try - we must try.
The end may be tomorrow, but today I’m trying to finish this article, and tomorrow I’ll adjust my backswing so I can break a hundred, and then I’ve got a very serious poker game with my friends, and I’ve got an appointment with Apple to learn how to better manipulate my new computer.
This is not all just “make-work.” Each activity means a lot to me, and even if I fail at several of these tasks, even if I still can’t break a hundred and I lose my shirt (again) in the poker game and I never figure out that damn internet connection -- so what? I assume I shall and I intend to use all my time and limited skills to those ends.
And that’s the whole point. I’m doing all this for me, and if I succeed in any or all of this I’ll be way ahead of the game and happy and satisfied and busy planning the next tomorrow. And if it doesn’t work as planned -- again so what?
We can’t plan all that effectively in the dark of the future, so even if my plans go awry I will have had a lot more pleasure and fulfillment than could have been achieved with worry and anguish and remorse. In short, it’s all mine to build and use and enjoy, and it’s the here and now for me to embrace or reject, and if and how I screw it up affects nobody but me.
Of course, much of that last section is not altogether true. In one sense I’m doing all of that for me, but in the larger sense it’s for my wife and children so they’ll have much easier days while I’m still around, and for my grandchildren so they’ll have some more good memories to help sustain them in their old age.
And maybe I’m even doing some of this in the name of vanity, flirting with the highly unlikely possibility that some small part of my last few efforts will outlive me and maybe contribute something to the world or society - or at least to somebody - and thereby help satisfy my ego. Hey, when you’re old enough you’re allowed to dream.
Bob Faber has been a resident of Ann Arbor since 1954. He and his wife, Eunice, owned a fabric store and later a travel agency. He served a couple of terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.