Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Getting older...

The funniest thing happened to me last week while I was teaching piano to one of my younger students.  She is a sweet, smiley, funny little girl who is a pleasure to teach and I enjoy our time together every week.  She also loves to talk.  Non-stop.  Mid-music, mid-lesson, even mid-thought, and while I prefer she not talk mid-song, she is so impossibly cute that it's hard for me not to listen to her endless questions, comments and general chatter.  Whoever said that bartenders and hairdressers are always in the know have never taken piano lessons.  We piano teachers are privy to a lot more of what goes on in our students' private lives than just their knowledge of music theory.  So, during one of our many conversations, she asked me how many students I was currently teaching this year.  When I told her 22, her eyes widened.  "How old is your oldest student?" she asked.  I responded that this year I was teaching an adult one morning a week.  When she asked me how old he was, I said he was in his early to mid fifties.  Then she tilted her head up at me and innocently asked, "so is he older or younger than you?"

Had this come out of someone else's mouth - someone my own age - I would have been super-insulted.  But I laughed, of course.  To a nine year old, forty-two must seem absolutely ancient.  When I  informed her that I was exactly the same age as her mother, she just shrugged and got right back to the music, as if our entire exchange was a non-issue.  

I related this funny story to a few of my friends and while it got quite a few chuckles, it jumpstarted a conversation about aging and getting older.  I have noticed that I'm holding my novels further and further away from me in order to read (I'm happily in denial...) and while, as a redhead, I will never turn gray (I'll turn blonder and then white instead...), and thus am not currently coloring my hair on a regular basis like almost all of my friends, my bathroom cabinet is filled with anti-wrinkle cream, hydrating lotions and 'promise-to-make-me-look-younger' makeup.  I've noticed more and more wrinkles around my eyes, which I keep telling my children are caused because I smile so much, but let's face facts: none of us are getting any younger.

I remember visiting a close friend in New York about 8 years ago.  I was about 34 years old then, and psyched to be 'on my own' and away from the responsibilities and constant demands of being a full-time mom, even if only for a few days.  My friend and I were walking through Soho when a couple of young guys walking by whistled at us and invited us to go out with them.  We politely declined, laughed it off and continued on our shopping excursion.  But I couldn't help feel elated that a stranger looked at me and thought me young and beautiful enough to whistle at.  Especially when every morning I looked in the mirror and saw nothing but a sleep-deprived, hair-messed, pulled-at-the-seams mom who was more likely knee-deep in laundry and dirty dishes than the carefree young woman those young guys seemed to see.

Truth be told, I feel better about myself now than I did 8 years ago.  My kids sleep through the night giving me my much-needed beauty sleep and they regularly help out with chores, so I'm not always knee deep in laundry.  I've lost all that post-pregnancy weight and I maintain a healthy lifestyle.  And now that we are not in need of babysitters, going out at the last minute is doable.  And I can wear white with no worries that there is peanut-butter and jam handprint stamped somewhere on my backside.  Yes, the forties are definitely giving me more "me time" than the thirties ever did.  And yet, we all wish, for some reason, that we were still in our thirties.  Or twenties...

I think what scares me is the ageism that is rampant everywhere I go.  I see it and you must all see it.  The way young people in general ignore older people, or even turn away averting their eyes.  I've seen it in shops in Canada and here in Israel.  I'll walk into a clothing store alongside an older woman and the saleswoman will come straight over to me and ask me if I need any help, while completely ignoring the older woman and allowing her to browse on her own without offering a helping hand.  Truth be told, I hate being helped in stores and much prefer to look around on my own, while I'm sure this older woman could have used some advice and a helping hand.  But I think that what's really going on underneath it all is that we are all afraid to admit to ourselves that one day we will be that old woman.  So we ignore her.  We don't mean to, but subconsciously we don't want to contemplate the possibility that in the not so distant future, that woman could be one of us.  That we will be the one holding a cane, wearing a hearing aide, and moving slower than just about everyone else, and that terrifies us to no end.

My grandfather, Zaida Good z"l (may he rest in peace) once told me something that I have never forgotten.  He was an amazing guy who had had a difficult life.  From all the pictures I'd seen - of his wedding, of holding my mother as a baby - he always seemed like an older man.  The Holocaust had clearly aged him and even though he was in his late twenties when he married my grandmother, to me he always looked so much older.  But he was always exercising and eating healthy.  He bought a used rowing machine when he was in his seventies and was still using it well into in his eighties and I'd watch him, giggling all the while, as he rowed back and forth as he watched the news.  He'd walk to and from shul three times a day in rain, snow and sleet and he always boasted that he was wearing the same size pants for over twenty years.  I think they were actually the same pair of pants.  One Shabbat I was looking at all his old pictures and came across one that was taken right after the war, before he married my grandmother.  I mentioned to him that he looked so young there, younger than I'd ever seen in any other picture.  He laughed and said, "you know, Chavale, that when I look in the mirror every morning I get the shock of my life.  In my head, I always feel like I'm that guy in the picture and it's only when I look in the mirror that I see that I'm older.  Inside I'm still twenty-eight, but that's not what everyone else sees."

So... age is mind over matter.  It's a cliche, but we've all heard it before and we know it to be true.  I know very old 40 year olds and very young 60 year olds, but I still can't forget what my grandfather said.  Even if you feel like that young 25 year old girl trapped in a 42 year old body, no one else sees you that way anymore.  We're lucky that we are part of a people who revere the aged, that we give them the respect and dignity that they deserve.  Not so in other cultures and countries.  

So the question is, if given the chance, would you want to live forever?  And if you could freeze time and live forever in good health at a certain age, what age would that be?

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, the average American isn’t interested in living forever—let alone extending life spans much beyond where they’re already at.  As of 2013, the current average U.S. life expectancy is 78.7 years. (This is the average between men and women - women generally have a longer life expectancy than men.) Pew’s findings show that our average ideal life span is 90 years: that’s how old most of us would choose to be when we die. The majority of those surveyed (56%) said they would personally refuse treatments that, if they existed, could prolong life by as little as a few decades. An even starker figure: only 4% of us want to live to be older than 120 years.

According to the Harris Poll - and this surprised me - the average age most adults would choose to live in perpetuity in good health is 50.  I would have thought twenty-one would be a popular choice, but apparently, most adults chose middle age as the perfect age to be stuck in forever, if given the chance.  

So while most of us don't want to live forever, we also don't want to age.  But since you can't have it both ways, we are stuck with the only option.  Aging.

And as my grandfather once said, "it's better than the alternative."

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