Now that I’m old and lurching toward decrepitude, I am a member of The American Association of Retired Persons, even though I am not myself retired. I shall be in six and a half years. At that point, I plan to write and read a great deal, play and listen to music a great deal, and engage in many games of Dominion and Settlers of Catan.
In any event, as I considered my dotage, I leafed through AARP’s monthly magazine. It’s an interesting experience, because the ads discuss one aspect of getting older, and the articles discuss another. And I think what I choose to focus on will determine which way I choose to live my last act.
The ads are all bad news. Many of them are for those buttons a person wears around their neck to call for help when they have fallen and can’t get up. Others address assorted ailments that come up with the passage from being middle aged to being elderly: loss of hearing; loss of sight; loss of mobility; and, considering that there are also ads for life insurance, that final passage into The Great Beyond.
My Dad is as blunt a boulder when it comes to these things. Sometimes, the conversation turns to the various minor ailments that afflict him. And yes, every so often, when there are assorted important papers to discuss, he uses such words in sentences as “look, I don’t like to say this, but when I’m not here anymore…”
The ads in AARP magazine remind people my age that things wrinkle, sag, ache, don’t work as well as they used to, and, sometimes, stop working altogether. To read AARP ads is to be one of those Roman emperors who, when leading a parade to celebrate the glory of Rome, made a point of having a centurion constantly whisper in his ear: “Memento Mori (Remember That You Will Die).”
It’s grim stuff, to be sure. It is the kind of thing that can make anyone hole up in a room, and simply stop living, reducing their life to little else besides waiting to die.
And yet…in this same magazine, there are the articles.
All of the articles, it seems, are about what to do in the face of such grim truths. There is a profile of some aging celebrity, which highlights all of the things that they are doing in their advanced years. And then, further along, there are all these articles that discuss things to do late in life.
Most of these articles involve going places and doing things. In earlier essays, I’ve discussed how these are two main goals of my life, so I take solace in the fact that there are all these new things that I can do later.
It’s true that time goes by faster as I get older, because each second is, with each passing moment, less of a fraction of my life. Yet I find that when I can look back on something I started later on, it somehow slows things down a bit, and gives me time to reflect on the fact that there are indeed second acts in life.
It’s worth remembering that when F. Scott Fitzgerald said that American lives have no second acts, he was not saying that Americans can’t reinvent themselves. In fact, what he was saying is that Americans want to get to the end of things…the third act, for many plays in Fitzgerald’s time had three, not two acts. What he was saying was that Americans don’t want to slog through the difficult middle of things, when youth is past and old age, though not yet a place of arrival, is a sure destination.
And this is why, I think, that AARP membership can begin at 50. No, I’m not elderly yet, but I’m getting there, and when I get there, I will have to face some grim things. Yet at the same time, I have the chance to begin anew, and experience growth and change even as I head toward the end of the road.
This is why, I think, there are two exceptions to those grim advertisements in AARP Magazine: travel ads, and notices of assorted gardening tools, such as rider mowers. Yes, I know that the travel ads can paint a picture of someone simply going places just to have something to do, and that the gardening ads can paint a picture of riding around cutting grass because the person thinks they have nothing else in their life. Yet at the same time, for some—a lot, I hope—these ads, along with those articles, of course, are reminders that life’s third act can also be about discovering new places, and about planting new things, and, above all, about watching things grow.