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Opinion

Being Old Is No Excuse to Give up on the Future

The more I age, the more I strive to care about the world my grandson will inhabit.

By Rafe Mair 21 Feb 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair's column runs every second Monday on The Tyee. Find his previous Tyee columns here and more of his writings on The Common Sense Canadian.

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Mair's advice: Avoid bellyaching old bastards.

Whoever said that they are the "golden years" must have been a failed alchemist -- though I suppose that's redundant.

I can tell you that they are shitty with either an abundance of that commodity or into the laxatives.

I find myself, having recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of my 39th birthday, now firmly ensconced in the medical system. Where I once went to the doctor at the end of an ambulance ride, I now have ear doctors, eye doctors, orthopedic surgeons, foot doctors and my family doctor vying with my chiropractor and dentist for my attention. Did I mention my pharmacist? Visits to her put paid to the argument that we have socialized medical care.

When Wendy and I take a cruise, we pay damned near as much for cancellation insurance as for the airfare, and even on our last trip I was in sick bay for a "staph" infection.

This does get cheerier in a bit, folks -- just indulge me a bit more.

A senior citizen's guide to insults

People, perfect strangers or someone you don't much care for have the unmitigated gall to ask you about your obvious defects, and in the event you need help in the instant retort department, here -- no fee required -- are some that I've found handy.

In all these I will be speaking to someone I've never seen before.

When I'm doing a speech, I head off future rudeness about my rather halted, cane driven pace by saying: "When you get to my age the knees are the second thing to go!"

Stranger: "Well, Rafe, what's that you have in your hand?"

RM: "It's a walking stick -- often called a cane, and I'm surprised you have to ask."

S: "Well, well, Rafe, (patting my tummy) putting on a bit of weight, I see... will it be a boy or a girl do you think, har de har har."

RM: "When we get a bit older, we either put on weight or we lose our goddam manners."

S: "Why don't you get your knees operated on Rafe? My uncle had them it done and now he climbs the Matterhorn every other week!"

RM: "Why don't you have a facelift -- it will enhance your sex life and teach you to mind your own bluddy business!"

None of these rejoinders make friends, but who wants to be friends with assholes like that?

Avoiding conversational ruts

Dinner conversations run the full gamut, from the latest deaths through who now has cancer, and how our pal collapsed into a coma and the doctors don't have a clue what's wrong.

There is a defence to this -- Wendy and I impose a 10 minute rule -- 10 minutes for deaths, ailments and, what was that word again, oh yes, Alzheimer's. Another five minutes is devoted to grandchildren (and my imminent great grandchild), then it's down to business with politics, politics and politics.

There is good news, I guess. It's good if you want to keep the mind alive.

Rule #1 says that when you can't remember a name, a word, or an event, stay with it until you have it, for it exercises the mind -- otherwise your brain loses the acuity necessary for other thinking.

Rule #2 says always concern yourself, indeed worry about, things to come.

Everyone reaches that point where you realize that you're in your last decade. You hear news about an event that will occur in 2025, that the world's population will be such and such by 2050, you get the drift, so you tune out and get another little denial into your cranium. This has a fatal mental flaw, because you only concentrate on all the things going on now and bitch.

Rule #3 says to avoid coffee shops and old bastards that meet every day to bellyache.

Forgo these axioms and you tell everyone, ad nauseum, how you don't like the kids' music (no one your age ever has, including your own parents but you forget that). The movies aren't like they were when we saw Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. This new bunch of pantywaists aren't a patch on the Montreal Canadiens in the '60s and '70s. Tiger Woods would never have dominated like he has when Nelson, Hogan, Nicklaus etc were in their prime.

Keep asking: What's next?

Now here's the subtle part.

It's OK, indeed necessary, that you get on about the Internet, cell phones and Blackberries, as long as you're trying honestly to get into the debate about where this is all going to take us and how we should respond. But it can't just be bitching -- it must be an honest appraisal of what's to come.

What will be the effect of e-books on society and, of course, the book as we know it? What jobs will there be in the world as it's devolving for our grandchildren?

Positive reminiscing is also healthy. As I write this, I'm listening to Beethoven on an eight gig iPod and remembering the old gramophone and what an improvement the Hi-Fi was and how tapes gave an even better sound. And now the iPod! This is a marvelous historical sequence when you don't just compare but wonder what's next? And read up on it and ask questions.

I think of how badly I treated my wife back in the '60s when most men wandered, it being considered fun to say, "I had a strange piece of tail last night -- I went home."

I've changed dramatically and so have most men, and it's healthy that we remember those evil -- and that's the right word -- days of yore and gauge how far we must go and when and if equality will truly happen.

There are, of course, great lessons in history. George Santayana taught us that if we don't learn about past blunders, we're doomed to repeat them. A good example is Churchill. You can look back and get teary about his war leadership, but you can also glean very important ideas for facing the future, even, no especially, a future you'll never see.

One needs a mental crutch to make my system work.

I have nine grandchildren, many of them in their twenties, and one, my namesake, is 31. As I sit down to write or when I make speeches I ask myself how Kenneth Rafe Mair III would see this. What do his glimpses of life to come tell him? What challenges does he have? How does he see himself making a living in the uncertain world he lives in? (In fact, with a university education he's become a fireman and I said "good for you" when I heard.)

It's not an infallible solution, of course. I still ponder on death more than I would like. But when I do, I remember Samuel Johnson's famous aphorism: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

My advice does do this. It gets you welcomed into conversations of the young and it makes what life you have left more bearable, more responsive and a hell of a lot more fun.  [Tyee]

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