By Tom Robotham
Well, it’s official: I’m an old man.
I could have claimed that status last year, when I turned 65—the age at which one traditionally earns the title of senior citizen. But this year, I passed a more significant milestone: a week before my birthday last month, I received my first Social Security check.
Having spent the last 15 years eking out a living as an adjunct instructor and freelance writer, I’m grateful for this financial cushion. Still, receiving the first installment of my “old-man money,” as a friend of mine calls it, was a stark reminder that I’m rapidly becoming irrelevant in the eyes of society.
If that sounds too harsh, consider this: Five years ago, when my financial position was especially precarious, I posted my resume on one of those job-clearing-house websites. A few days later I got a call from a recruiter who told me she had several positions that might interest me.
“Before we get started,” she said, “I just need to ask a few questions. First of all, what year did you graduate from high school?”
I frowned, not only because that information was on my resume but because the question struck me as impertinent. Nevertheless, I answered: “1974.”
“I’m sorry,” she said after a long pause. “I asked what year you graduated from high school.”
I repeated my answer.
There was another long pause—then a click. She’d hung up.
I could only surmise that my answer had boggled her mind: Did they even have high schools in those days? Wasn’t that when people quit school after 8th grade to drive a wagon on the family farm?
It was the most blatant display of ageism I’d encountered, but it certainly wasn’t the first. Five years before that incident, when I was 56, I told a friend, who’s a few years older than I am, that I’d decided to go back to school to get a second graduate degree.
“School?!” he said. “Aren’t you a little old for that? You should be thinking about retirement.”
I laughed, then echoed Duke Ellington’s response after journalist Nat Hentoff asked him if he planned to retire anytime soon.
“Retire to what?” Ellington said. “Music is my life.”
I feel the same way about my work. Modest as it is, it gives my life meaning and shapes my sense of identity. I firmly believe that if I won the lottery and suddenly had millions in the bank, I wouldn’t change my life in any fundamental way.
Nevertheless, the aforementioned milestone does have me thinking about how much time I have left in this earthly realm.
The short answer, of course, is, who knows.
As time goes by, I grow increasingly aware that I might have no time left at all—regardless of my age. This harsh reality was reinforced a couple of years ago after a 30-something friend—supremely healthy by all appearances—suddenly dropped dead of an aneurism. And good health, of course, is no guarantee of longevity. It’s not wise to dwell on such things, but it’s worth remembering every so often that at any moment, our lives might be cut short in an accident—or by gunfire, as we’ve been grimly reminded lately.
Then again, there are many 66-year-olds who probably have another 30 or even 40 years ahead of them. My ex-father-in law was born in 1915, when the average life expectancy was 54.5 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As it turned out, he died just two years ago, at the age of 105.
I’m hesitant to go so far as to say, “age is just a number.” But it does seem to me that we tend to put too much emphasis on it, with associated expectations like those of my friend who scoffed at the notion of my going back to school in my 50s.
This sense was underscored for me, not only by my friend’s remark but by the attitudes of a lot of other people. After I got divorced, at 51, I made a lot of new friends—most of whom were younger, some by 20 years or more.
When people my age got wind of this, most were skeptical. And when I started dating a much younger woman, many were downright judgmental.
“What could you possibly have to talk about?” one friend said. “The Kardashians?”
I encountered this sort of reverse ageism a lot—the notion among many Baby Boomers that people in their 20s and 30s are just “kids.”
In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, I met many younger people—men and women—who felt like true soul mates. Just the other day, in fact, I spent an hour-and-a-half on the phone with a friend who’s exactly 30 years younger than I am. Over the course of the conversation, we talked about politics, writing, music and the absurdities of life, which at one point had us both laughing so hard we could barely breathe. Our age difference is utterly irrelevant.
Big age differences are perhaps more significant in romantic relationships, not so much because of the numbers—and certainly not because of any built-in difference in interests and sensibilities—but because of each person’s long-term aspirations. In particular, if one person in the relationship wants kids and the other doesn’t, it’s just not going to work. As the father of two grown children, I have no desire to become a new parent again.
But that conflict doesn’t always arise. A close friend of mine is just a year younger than I am and is married to a woman—also my friend—who’s 25 years his junior. They now have two young children and are as happy as any couple I’ve ever known. I know several other people in the same category, including a woman—now in her mid-70s—who’s been living happily with a man more than 20 years younger for at least two decades.
The go-to assumption is that such relationships are doomed to end in sadness because the older person will die when the younger is still middle-aged. Whenever I hear that objection, though, I’m reminded of the marriage between poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Hall was nearly two decades older—but as it turned out, he long outlived Kenyon, who died of cancer at 48.
All of these stories serve as reminders that perhaps age is just a number after all.
The fact remains that for every single one of us of any age, each day is a gift not to be taken lightly. Yeah, I know that sounds like something you’d find on one of those insipid motivational posters, but can you really argue with it?
At the same time, I try to have faith that I have some years ahead of me—a thought that leads me to ponder how I want to make the most of them. The simple answer is that I want to continue striving to be better—a better father and friend; a better human in encounters with strangers, and a better teacher and writer.
I’m not big on “bucket lists” because that implies just checking boxes. Beyond the aforementioned goals, I simply want to experience the riches of life as best I can: to savor the gorgeous hues of the cityscape during a twilight stroll in Paris; to feel the exhilaration of cantering through the autumn air on horseback in the Blue Ridge Mountains; to once again walk down the dark stairs of the Village Vanguard and hear a mind-blowing sax solo by some up and coming jazz player; to marvel at the graceful beauty of a well-turned double play at Citi Field; to experience the bliss I’ve felt a thousand times before while sitting on Ocracoke Beach and gazing at the horizon—and most of all to connect with other people, through authentic conversation.
With all that in mind, I return to my opening statement. Am I old?
I’m glad the government thinks so. But the truth is, I still feel young enough to do everything that I would like to do, personally and professionally. (Well, OK, maybe playing third base for the Mets is out of the question.) Sooner or later, if I live long enough, physical limitations will make some things impossible. For now, though, I continue to dwell, as Emily Dickenson put it, in possibility.