Age before beauty … and everybody else

In yesterday’s post, I grew up some. And while it’s nice to look back now and then, the true way of Man (in the word of the re-elected president) is: Forward.

So, now that my direction is correctly re-directed … starting today I begin making plans for being old. Easy enough. I’m probably already about three-quarters of the way there. Some would say closer. And I even have a goal – something to aim for, to achieve, when I reach old age.

When I’m old, I want to be a grumpy old man – just like my father-in-law. The man who, at times, I believe is the Grumpiest Old Man on Earth.

This isn’t my father-in-law. In fact, my father-in-law probably would growl that this guy is a lousy representation of him. And he’d be right – he wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a scarf.

Yes, someday I want to succeed him. Put on his Crown of Crabbiness and see how it looks on me. Lift up his Scepter of Sarcasm and beat some of my loyal subjects with it. But until I do, my wife and I are deeply immersed in the research necessary to attain this lofty goal. In other words, we spend a lot of time with him. And it’s quite a learning experience.

Lesson 1: Going to the Chinese Buffet.

“Yeah, you got a booth? Near the food. I’m 82 years old and I can’t walk very far.”

As he motors by her, heading straight for the southern-Asian fried chicken wings, the demure hostess has only just opened her mouth. She may have intended to say something like, “Hi, how many?” But it isn’t really necessary. My father-in-law has decided to save this poor woman the breath needed to utter these words. She’s probably been saying them all day and needs a break. And, despite his not-far-walking affliction, he’s even leading the way for her.

My wife and I, bringing up the rear, look at each other. In silence we communicate that this person may not understand this mannerism, may need a translation. We approach.

“Hi, what my father-in-law said was your food looks so appetizing he wants to be seated as close to the buffet as possible, so he might gaze longingly at it while enjoying his dining experience.”

Surprisingly, she smiles and laughs. “Oh, he’s all right, he’s kind of cute. He just can’t wait to eat. We like that!”

My God – it works.

And it works every time. He walks into a store, barks out an order and the clerks fly – first because he scares the crap out of them and second, so they can get what he wants as quickly as they can. And then they thank him for shopping there.

When I’m old and grumpy, I’m even going to have a grumpy dog. Three of them.

Or he’s standing at a customer service desk, where he buys his lottery tickets every day, and growls and howls when the girl behind the counter doesn’t recognize him. That’s probably because she’s never seen him in her entire less-than-two-decade-long life. Or today is her first day on the job.

“Well, the other girl knows who I am.”

Wait a minute – shake head for clarity – does that even make sense? Of course not. But remember, he’s the grumpy old man. It’s OK. Evidence: The next time he comes in and she’s there.

“Oh, I know you, you’re the man I didn’t recognize the last time!” and then happily runs his numbers.

Now, does that make sense?? Of course. Because when you’re old, you can be grumpy and actually thought to be … lovable. What might appear as belligerence is taken as benevolence – as long as you’re old.

Old and grumpy is golden.

When I am old, I still will have friends. And this is how we’ll play.

Lesson 2: You’re old, but never too old.

The three of us are sitting in a restaurant (he likes to eat out), in a booth (where else?), at another buffet. By the way, I believe my father-in-law feels the all-you-can-eat buffet is the greatest American invention since manned flight. And the only reason the Wright Brothers wanted to fly? The nearest all-you-can-eat buffet was three towns away.

My father-in-law is talking about an acquaintance, who happens to be in her 90s. Talking about one of her health issues. A poor health issue.

“I just hope when I get old I don’t have to deal with something like that.”

The statement struck me as about as odd as the buffet item I’d just seen that looked like pot roast but had a sign above it that said: Prime Rib. I stopped chewing.  Probably not the best idea. Since it allowed me to point out that he was 82.

“What? I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been. Never been better. I’m talking about when I get old.”

Finally, something that made sense. And precisely why I want to be just like my father-in-law when I grow up and old. Just as Mark Twain, one of my favorite old and grumpy men, once said:

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Grow up, young man, grow up

One of the best parts about growing up is you never know you’re doing it. It just happens, whether you like it or not. And that’s a good thing. Unless you really, really don’t like it, but that’s a different story and a whole ‘nother issue.

Growing up happens in a lot of ways. Take social situations. When you’re a kid, you often say some very immature, really stupid things during them. You can’t help it, you’re just a kid. But, without doing anything but living, you grow up. You gain experience, knowledge even. Just by living your life, day by day. With your eyes open. And your brain functioning. Most of the time.

And then over time, something changes in you. You find confidence. You gain maturity. You become an adult. And you find yourself, while mingling among other adults at  social gatherings, uttering some very mature … but really stupid things.

Oops, seems I may have gone a little on the high side in the “Guess How Much I Weigh” contest.

This is called growing up.

And that’s just one example. You gather up lots of them during the course of your life. So many that you eventually create a big, steaming pile of them. And they’re all crammed inside your full-grown, adult mind.

And before you know it, you’ve grown up so much, and for so long … that you overload your circuits. You contract Alzheimer’s, forget whether your pants’ zipper goes in the front or the back, your right from your wrong, even how to chew with your mouth closed. And you end up sitting on a park bench all day, yelling at every poor fool that walks by, “Who the hell are you, … and dammit it all, that’s KING Charles when you’re addressing me! Off with your freaking head!”

But I’m getting ahead of my point. Let’s get back to the growing-up part. Let’s find a good part about growing up. Let’s go back to the summer of 1973. My summer of 1973, to be more specific.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And that’s MISTER Dickens when you’re addressing me, dammit.

I was 15 at that time. A really lousy age to be. Especially when you live in a rural area, far from the center of town and most of your friends. You’re not old enough to drive a car to hang out with them, which pisses you off. Yet you’re too old to be seen having your mother drive you to them, which pisses you off.

So, as you can imagine, you spend most of your days of 15 being pissed off. Especially during the summer when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to do with it. So what’s a pissed-off, not-full-grown man to do?

You work. For your grandfather. On his dairy farm. As I’ve mentioned before, dairy farms consist of a lot of cows. Can’t make milk without them. And cows can’t make milk without a lot of … hay.

Hay is a very interesting thing, actually. It’s made out of grass, which is very supple, very light and grows up very high and fast in large fields during the summer. When it gets to that point, dairy farmers come along, cut it down, let it dry out in the hot sun and then bundle it up in large lumps, called bales.

Reader, meet hay bale. Hay bale … reader. Great, we’re all acquainted now.

Here’s the interesting part. What once was light and supple, is now very stick-like, scratchy and heavy. Which is good for cows, because that’s the way they like to eat it. So much so, they eat lots of it. Which is good for the farmer, because the cows are happy, full and make lots of milk.

But … in order for all of this to work, all of this hay has to be brought to the farm and be put away in barns. Hay can’t get wet, don’t you know. Well, now you know.

And this is where the pissed-off 15-year-old comes in. Along with his only-slightly-less-pissed-off 14-year-old brother.

“Son, this is how it works. You go in the barn. Your brother here, he gets up in the hay wagon. He picks up a bale of hay, passes it to you, and you take it and stack it in the barn. But here’s the fun part. When you get them stacked up really high, all the way to the roof, then you two get to use this nice conveyor belt and the bales will come right up to you. Nice and neat, nice and easy.”

A photographer’s rendition of the “fun, nice and easy” part.

“How much do those things weigh?”

“About 75 pounds.”

“My brother weighs 75 pounds.”

“Good, then just imagine your brother has pissed you off, so much so you pick him up and throw him in the barn. Ought to be easy for a constantly-pissed-off 15-year-old boy like you. Okay, I’m going to get another wagon full of hay. Let’s see if you two can empty this one before I get back.”

I threw my brother in the barn a hell of lot of times that summer. Over and over. And my grandfather was wrong. It wasn’t easy. After more than a dozen of brothers, I mean bales, everything from my fingertips to my cell membranes hurt. Ached. Screamed at me, enough already!

But fortunately, my grandfather was right about one thing. I was 15 and constantly pissed off. And that meant I wasn’t fully grown up yet. Which also was good for him and the cows that summer.

Because the more it hurt, the more it pissed me off. And the more brothers I threw in the barn. Right up to the roof. And on to the next wagon, and the next barn. After a while, it didn’t hurt as much. But by then it was too late.

And by then, the summer was over. I was back at school, back in town, back among my friends. And back standing in front of my locker, when one of them came up to say … hey. Sort of.

“Holy crap, what the hell happened to you?!”

“Whatdaya mean, what happened to me.”

“I mean, wow, you’re really different.”

“And you’re really retarded.”

“No, I mean it, look at yourself. You don’t notice it?”

So I did. I went to the boy’s room and looked in the mirror. Really looked in the mirror. That’s when I realized that all those bales, the aches, all that pain … had paid off.

Me, circa May 1973.

Me, circa September 1973. Well, sort of. I wasn’t wearing a hat.

I went back to my locker.

“Oh my God, what happened to you?”

“Why, hello there Sally. How was your summer?”

“Not as good as my fall …”

That’s when I realized the second time my grandfather was wrong about lifting and throwing all of those bales of hay, all summer long.

This was the fun part.

Some secrets are best left secret

Meet Besse Cooper. Besse once worked as a schoolteacher in Georgia. Doesn’t she look like a nice old lady?

I don’t mean old. I mean OLD. Besse is sitting in front of her birthday cake. Those candles add up to 116 years. And that, spelled out, is One Hundred and Sixteen years.

Besse is one of only eight people in the world, one of only four Americans, to reach the overly-ripe old age of 116. At this time she is officially the oldest person in the world.

They’ve named a bridge after her. That humbled her, sort of. “I’m glad I gave them a reason to name it,” she quipped.

And, just as what happens to every oldest person on Earth who ends up within earshot of a reporter, she too was asked the same old, age-old question: What’s the secret of your longevity?

“I mind my own business – and I don’t eat junk food.”

I could be wrong, but I think the old bird cut the reporter down to size and answered the question – in the same sentence.

Now, Besse here, made me smile as well as made me think. I’m 54 years old. I would have to live another 62 years to reach 116 years old. And that, spelled out, is Sixty-two years.

Sheesh. It’s going to take a long time to get to that point in my life. Even longer than it’s taken me to get to this point in my life. But gee, just think of all the things I can look forward to.

  • I’ll have to fill out a federal income tax form 62 more times. And I’ll have to come up with 62 more creative ways to claim my pets as dependents.
  • I’ll get to live through 2016, 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036, 2040, 2044, 2048, 2052, 2056, 2060, 2064, 2068 and 2072. And that means I’ll also have to live through watching 124 more Republican and Democratic National Conventions on television. And maybe only once, stay awake during one of them.
  • I’ve got 62 more years to say to myself that this is the year I’m going to open that 401K account and start saving for my retirement. After all, I’m not going to want to work forever, right?
  • I’ll be able to shovel snow during 62 more winters, mow grass during 62 more summers, rake leaves during 62 more autumns and slip in mud during 62 more springs.
  • I’ll have 62 more years to work on solving one of the world’s greatest riddles: When two socks go into a clothes dryer, why does only one come out?
  • I’ll have plenty of time to come up with a cleverly snide answer to the question: What’s your secret to longevity?

Wow. So much to live through, and so much time to do it in. I know what I’m going to do first-thing tomorrow.

Go right out and buy myself 116 Big Macs.