In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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As you read this essay, you are aging. The older you get, the more you become an emissary from a vanished world — in my case, a world of black-and-white photographs taken by a Brownie camera, the sun bleaching the faces of the squinting subjects.
What is your strategy for getting older? Follow these handy tips, and time will be your ally.
Learn To Fail
Most of us attempt to get better at our hobbies and careers. We want to improve as tennis players, as firefighters, as sushi chefs. But we forget that failure is also a talent — often a more adaptive talent than success. Life is mainly a series of defeats that usually catch us unawares. But if you willfully undertake projects at which you’re destined to fail — designing a solar-powered rocket ship, for example — you’ll develop the strength necessary to live for years and years and years. So choose a task you’ll never do well, and start trying. (Possibly, just by dumb luck, you’ll build a solar-powered rocket ship.)
Do Everything As Slowly As Possible
In a novel whose title I’m too old to remember, a character believed he would live longer by doing tedious, repetitive tasks, like taking apart a radio and putting it back together. Try this yourself. For example, when you leave the bathtub, dry yourself so slowly that most of the water just evaporates. If you live slowly enough, one hour becomes two.
Remember: Miracles Are Real
Every year more than 1,600 medical miracles are recorded in Canada alone. (I invented this statistic, but it could be true.) Cancer sufferers are suddenly cured; arthritis disappears. Do these miracles come from God? No one knows. The point is: never lose hope.
Napping is an art, like ceramics. A great nap can reinvent a day. You awake to clearer, fresher air — happier air. And old people are allowed to nap. In fact, it’s considered a virtue.
Have Tea With Friends
Coffee is for chatting; tea is for real talk. (Coffee suggests a “coffee break” — a rushed, finite time. Tea is timeless.)
Ask For Help
All of us need assistance, and as we age, we need more of it. By the time you’re seventy-nine, you’ll need more friends than ever. So start asking for help — with cooking, folding towels, dog grooming. Ask young people, but also ask the aged, even people older than yourself. (Three hundred octogenarians can lift a car easily, if they act together.)
I have a friend — I’ll call him Portsmouth Pete — who in his youth would ask every single woman at a party to have sex with him. More often than you’d expect, one would say yes. (His ratio of success was approximately 1 in 26.) Once you are aged, you need the same spirit of blithe request. Who knows why people might wish to help you? Perhaps their guru told them to. Perhaps they’re incredibly bored, or they’re plagued by guilt because they recently robbed a bank. In any case, there’s no harm in asking. And don’t be bitter if they say no. Notice whether this 1:26 ratio holds true in old age, too.
Take Walks In The Woods
The Japanese have a word for a nature walk: shinrin-yoku, which translates as “forest bathing.” Scientific studies show that forest bathing reduces stress, anger, insomnia, and anxiety. (Really.) Find a nearby — or distant — forest, and go for a hike. The best weather is a light mist, just less than a drizzle, when the leaves sparkle with quasi-sexual alertness.
Wear Ironic Clothes
Once you are older than fifty, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a shirt with pictures of large toucans on it. You may wear a necktie if you’re a woman or a tiara if you’re a man. Your clothing says: “At my age I can dress as absurdly as I like. The rigid Laws of Fashion no longer confine me.”
Write Poems About Growing Older
Here is one of mine:
I’m a time
I’m a time
Go Too Far
If you’re walking from the bathroom to the kitchen, walk a little farther, to the vestibule; then turn around — or maybe spin around — and proceed to the kitchen. Over the course of six months this extra walking adds 12 percent to your muscle tone. (I invented this statistic, too.)
Stop Worrying About Becoming Famous
Until you’re twenty-four, there’s a chance you’ll be a celebrity, even if you’re completely talentless, but as the years go on, that possibility diminishes. By the time you’re seventy-one, it’s infinitesimal. Also, you’ve lost touch with the inner circle of pop culture. You open People magazine, and you’ve never even heard of any of the stars. (OK, maybe two out of eighty.) There’s a whole new pantheon of harmless-looking people with interchangeable names like Ryan Fletcher and Owen Basil, as mysterious as Polynesian deities. Besides, you’re already famous in your neighborhood, or in your occupation — known as a trustworthy orthodontist in northern Long Island or an excellent social worker in Arkansas — and that’s good enough. Instead root for one of your grandchildren to become world-famous.
Study Zen Koans
The older I get, the more I admire Zen Buddhism. When I was a teenager, I’d read a koan like this and be completely baffled:
Pick up a stone deep in the ocean with dry hands.
After I turned fifty-five, such paradoxes began to make sense. There’s an essential duality to the nature of life — between what I want and what I can achieve — that is beginning to penetrate my thick skull. I have even, at stray moments, heard the sound of one hand clapping while walking in a forest, or in downtown St. Louis. I’m not exactly a Zen Buddhist; I’m just old, which is almost the same thing.
Remember: You’re Moving Through Space As Well As Time
Calculate as best you can how far you’ve traveled across the earth’s surface. Instead of saying, “I am seventy-eight years old,” say, “I am 620,000 miles old.”
Make A List Of Your Failings
Here are some of mine:
Post the list on your refrigerator, and consult it daily. How will you improve if you don’t honestly assess yourself?
Stand Up For Your Beliefs
There’s nothing like a ninety-three-year-old at an antiracism rally to bring tears to everyone’s eyes. Be that person.
Most experts on aging advise “staying young,” but that’s nonsense. The youthful are young; it’s their talent. The aged should instead grow deep in wisdom.
How do you become wise? I have no idea.