Last weekend I reached a magical age — the one that lets you say you’re turning fortysomething for the last time; the one that Romans enumerated as “IL” or “XXXXIX” or “XLIX,” depending on who was chiseling the stone; the one where you get your AARP application promptly in the mail.
I was feeling fine until I saw my AARP application in the mail, then I started feeling annoyed and irritated. I quickly realized the source of my irritation: Nobody has ever said definitively how it feels to get older.
Oh, poets have taken a shot at it over the centuries, but their comparisons to “changing seasons,” “aging wine” and the “rise and fall of empires” don’t quite cut it, you know? Growing up in South Florida, I’ve known only one season. I drink beer, and old beer is just nasty. And the only empire I’m familiar with is the Klingon Empire.
Some say getting older is the worst thing that can happen, and others say it’s the best thing in the world. The truth is both of them are lying. So I will try to fill that void and tell what it’s like to get older. This is mostly for younger readers, so keep reading if you fall into that category. Nearly everybody does.
First of all, no matter what the calendar says or what the mirror tells you, inside your head and your heart you will feel like you’re 21. Maybe 22, because you get used to being of legal drinking age. As you get older, you will feel alert, energetic, clever and interested — you just won’t feel like proving it all the time.
You will develop a strange relationship with time. These days of boredom, confusion, awkwardness and frustration will become your “good old days” in retrospect.
You will find yourself remembering how things used to be and thinking “things were better back then.” Things weren’t better, but you will feel they were — and your feelings about the past become very important to you as you get older.
What’s more, time will speed up the older you get. This is a scientifically proven fact and there’s no escaping it. (It has to do with entropy or microscopy — something like that.) The anniversary of some event will spring upon you, and you will say, “Has it really been that long?” Yes, it has.
You will begin to realize that you know a lot of stuff, more than you thought you knew when you were young. In fact, you will realize that you were an idiot when you were young, because all the stuff you thought you knew then doesn’t compare to all the stuff you think you know now.
Events that make your blood boil today will seem hardly worth a yawn when you’re older:
• A religious leader embroiled in a sex scandal? Yeah, I’ve seen that movie before.
• An elected official accused of taking a bribe? I thought he ran on the bribery ticket.
• A corporate fat cat caught stealing profits? Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
It’s not that you’re jaded or cynical. You’re old. You’ve seen it before. The guy who said there’s nothing new under the sun knew what he was talking about — because he was old.
You will become suspicious and resentful of change — even if you can believe in it.
When you’re young, people who are older than you seem stupid because they never want to have any fun. When you’re older, people who are younger than you seem stupid because all they want to do is have fun.
Between the two, the people who are younger than you are most annoying because they think they know everything. And they can outrun you. And they’re having all the fun.
As you get older, your body becomes capable of mind-boggling feats: All of your joints — including those in your toes — can crack loudly whenever you stand up, bend over or in any other way, move. You can sneeze and throw out your back. You have to read a magazine at arm’s length. Parts of your body hurt for no apparent reason.
You will begin to think about parts of your body you’ve never considered before — your heart, your bones, your colon. I never thought about my colon before I turned 40; now I think about it all the time.
You will be surprised by your first gray hair. That first gray hair catches everybody by surprise because it comes along when you’re still young. Of course, you will pluck that first gray hair — and you will be surprised when it returns, with friends.
If you’re lucky, you will discover the delicious decadence of a midafternoon nap. Taking a nap when you’re younger seems like a waste — or even a punishment. But trust me, when you get older, you will find that there is nothing better to do in the middle of the afternoon than sleep for an hour. Hopefully you will not find out about this behind the wheel of a car.
People will respond to you differently as you get older — especially younger people. You might be shocked when someone addresses you as “ma’am” or “sir.” Younger people will suddenly “straighten up” when you are around, speak in whispers near you and sometimes ask you for advice.
And no matter how much money you have, how much power you wield or how contemporary you are in your tastes, young people will use “old” as the final adjective to describe you, as in “that rich old guy” or “that powerful old man” or “that cool old dude.”
You will begin to read the obituaries of people who are about your age, and you will compare your life to theirs and wonder how much time you have left to turn things around.
If you have children, you will begin to notice how, in their tastes and attitudes, they resemble your parents. You will hear yourself say things to your kids that you hated when your parents said them to you. (“Because I said so” works and is very satisfying.)
And everything you thought was cool, fun and worthwhile is now a punch line or part of some new “retro” craze.
Getting older isn’t the best or the worst thing in the world. It’s just what happens before you die.
Considering the alternative, I think I’ll keep giving this getting older thing a go — and go ahead and fill out that AARP application.
• You can reach Carleton Bryant at 202/636-3218 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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