I don’t know if I am unusual in this or not, but in the middle of life, I see myself on a continuum. Once in awhile I’ll spy a little girl, with long, light-colored hair, who seems bookish and sensitive, and think to myself, I was you. Other times I’ll see an older lady, one with spunk and her own style, and think, I’m going to be you.
It’s strange when you realize there are things, for one reason or another, you will never do again.
I’m physically strong for a woman and always have been. It’s something I took a little pride in; I liked being able to do things and not always stand off to the side or have to ask for help. “Let me do it,” was my go-to phrase. One time at a carnival, a midway booth was testing strength with hand grips. They had two, one for each gender. I surprised the attendants by testing past the top rating on the woman’s grip, so they handed me the one for guys, on which I scored “weak man.” (I could see it was a slur against men but I was happy to merit the rating.) In my glory days, I never did try one of those swing-the-hammer-ring-the-bell strength tests, but I secretly wanted to.
I can’t believe now, some of the physical tasks I used to do. I never hired anybody for any of my many moves; alone or with a few friends, I did it, hauling furniture, boxes, etcetera. I haven’t hesitated, when I saw a nice-looking piece of furniture by the road to pick it up and walk it home. Tables, dressers, a pine coffee table. For years, each season, I’d carry huge, old-fashioned window air conditioners – up a flight of stairs and back down. Again, I don’t know how I did it. They must’ve weighed 100 pounds or darn close, and given their sharp-edge boxy shape, were awkward as hell. The worry, in addition to losing a grip, was tripping over the stupid cord and taking a tumble, but I psyched myself up – you can do this! – and proceeded.
A couple years ago I managed to get a 6 foot long cherry wood dresser down a flight of narrow stairs. First I had to stand the piece on end to get it around a tight corner. There was a hairy moment or two when it got wedged against the wall part way down the stairs but was freed and it – and I – eventually reached the first floor unscathed. I knew that was the last time I would ever do a physical feat so extreme. I crossed a line. I was pushing it and my confidence in my ability to successfully pull off stunts like that was diminishing. (In this case, the imagined bad scenario was losing hold of the dresser and having it careen on down the stairs of its own accord, stopping only when it crashed into an immovable object such as a wall.) And I didn’t want to hurt myself. All my parts have a few years on them and they’re all originals. I need them to keep working. Never again, I thought.
I will never do a back dive into a swimming pool again, although to be honest, it’s been decades since I executed one. Still, for a long while, I imagined I could do one if I wanted. I no longer think any such thing. A back dive?! The hand-stands, which I never felt whoppingly secure with in the first place, are vague-ish memories. I do not expect to ever roller skate again, and ice-skating seems unlikely as well. I sucked at both, and my fear of falling, which rather impeded my crappy skills, I’m quite certain has not vanished.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go on a roller coaster again. I like amusement park rides but I never liked those. I remember just waiting for it to be over. Same for anything that turns riders upside down and/or suspends them in that compromised position. Or free falls, so that one’s internal organs feel as though they’ve been left behind. Never again.
If – and it’s “if” – I climb a tree again, I doubt very much I’ll venture as high as I used to. I get dizzy just thinking about far up I’d go, where a branch snapping, or a foot losing its hold, would have meant disaster. Besides, getting up there is one thing; it’s climbing back down that is the real pickle. How would I explain what I, a grown woman, was doing stuck up in a tree?! “I just wanted to see if I could still do it…” [Side story: I also liked trying to see if I could fit through small spaces. There’s a particular gate not far from where I live and not long ago I got tempted to see if I could squeeze between the rungs. It’s in a spot where people come to walk, run and bike, so I made sure no one was around before trying it. The mortification of getting myself stuck was definitely on my mind. I know exactly how peculiar a grown woman, who I dare say has been described as looking “elegant,” “sophisticated” and lord help me, even “glamorous” would appear doing such things in other people’s eyes.]
I will not be wearing a tube top again. They were never good news in the first place, providing no boobage support and constantly needing to be yanked up. Same goes for strapless dresses lest they have built-in structural features to keep them where they belong. It’s been a long time since I had a strap-less dress and any I previously owned were the keep-yanking-’em-up variety. Never again. I still wear short skirts and dresses, since I’m lucky to have the legs for them, but I’ve got limits now, or rather the hemline can’t be too limited. Sexy is one thing; foolish is another. Same goes for any apparel with kittens, monkeys, cartoon characters, or any other childish accents. No more. There will also be no big bows in my hair or on my clothes. Small ones – I do so like bows! – maybe.
Are there things you will never do again?
I am easily pleased and easily disappointed. I’ve always been wired up this way, although I will say that age has filed down the edges of both to a degree. Both used to exist in such relief and what I see now – as I write these very words – is that these feelings dovetail with an overall tendency toward responsiveness in general to external stimuli, be it people or events.
Who wants to be the person perpetually responding to every which way the wind turns? I’m in absolutely no danger of becoming a nonresponsive automaton, so bringing the easily pleased/easily disappointed trait down a notch or three can’t hurt. Age in and of itself helped, yes, but maybe consciousness about being too responsive factors in as well.
Taking the edge off is good but that’s probably about as far as I want to go. I know that if I wanted to be all Buddhist and Zen, I’d strive to become dispassionate, centered at the same level of calm mindfulness no matter what happened around me. Yeaaaah. Not a chance. Not only will I never be like that, I don’t want to be. I like my passion, I like being plugged in.
Long ago I heard the idea that people have what amounts to an invisible wall around them that monitors or screens incoming stimuli. My “wall” is very, very low. EVERYTHING comes in. By contrast, I have a sister who is quite different. When we were kids, she could sit with a book or in front of the television and I could repeatedly say her name in an attempt to get her attention, and she wouldn’t look up or hear me. (No, in this case, she wasn’t just blowing off her younger sister.) I was dumbfounded and would actually take to waving my arms around to snap her out of it. She was somewhere else. Her stimuli screening wall was very high.
I sure wouldn’t want to be my opposite: hard to please and hard to disappoint. Maybe some would say that is being calmed, but to me it sounds like being deadened. Giving up. I’ve written before about how excitement winds down with age and I expect that there’s a natural progression in most people to shift on the pleased/disappointed spectrum toward less of both. Go around the block enough times and you get a pretty good idea of how things work and what to expect. No sense getting overly excited about any of it. I know there are older people who belie my generalizations – the older lady who gets more appreciative and pleased with what life has to offer in her “twilight” years; the old man who’s more ornery and displeased with everything he sees (feel free to swap out the genders on my examples) – but I’m thinking of how most people age.
Yeah, I suppose it’d be nice to be easily pleased and hard to disappoint, but the people embodying that particular trait combo must be like unicorns. I personally stand no chance of being one, but think few are. I come across people who persistently play at it in a manner of speaking; uttering vague niceties and saccharine clichés that suggest being easily pleased, but I don’t believe them. These are the autopilot speakers, who always say things like “Isn’t that nice?” Or “What an adorable baby!” And “Every day is a gift from God.” However, their talk might as well be on a loop tape for all the more depth and sincerity it has. (Like they could look at a random baby and accidentally blurt, “Every day is a gift from God.” Oops, reboot.)
It’s an interesting thing, trying to find this balance and working with or against one’s own innate tendencies. I know how I’m wired but I realize also, given a few years behind me, that the feelings of being easily pleased and easily disappointed are transient. I can expect neither to stick around too long. I can’t or don’t hang onto them, which sounds a bit Buddhist after all.
When you get older, things aren’t as exciting as they once were. That’s generally accepted as common knowledge. Even as someone who can still get pretty excited over a variety of things other adults might find commonplace – from finding a quarter on the ground to glimpsing the ocean after a long time away to the prospect of a big bowl of pasta for dinner – I have to say it feels true. I’ve been trying to parse out why exactly, though. Is it because all is so fresh and new when a person is young, unsullied by repetition or knowledge of prior disappointments? Or is it because younger people have limited control over their lives and are dependent on others to introduce exciting events or circumstances, and the randomness and surprise generate excitement? (A big, special event or gift or vacation successfuly planned and executed by someone else IS more exciting, I reckon, than one you do for yourself, whether you are 5 or 50.)
Is it instead because life deals out so many frustrations, disappointments, and painful losses along its path that 1) older people are too wounded to get excited, too muted or distracted by the weight of assorted difficulties that sap their attention and energy? or 2) essentially a lot of things that were supposed to be exciting, which came with lots of advance press turned out to be a big, fat bust, or short of that, were merely blah, humdrum, or flat when they occurred?
When I was a child, still in gradeschool, my father’s work took him briefly to Florida and it was decided to combine that obligation with a family trip to Disney World. I have to tell you the “magic kingdom” was all I could have hoped for and more. I was besotted with the place and told myself when I grew up, I’d come back and work there. (I did no such thing and my naiveté over how fun I thought it would be to work at Disney World or any amusement park both bemuses and sort of touches me now.)
Since that trip, I have always wanted to go back to visit but I haven’t. Not for any interesting reason. I do wonder, though, what would Disney World seem like to me now? The excitement of that first trip could surely not be matched. Moreover, I’d be much more likely to notice and mind things I hadn’t on the childhood trip. Oh…things like commercialism, white-washing of history, the conditions for employees, and whether the entirety of Disney is good for children or not. Yeah, here she is, Ms. Buzz Kill! Or more kindly to myself, maybe Ms. Knows Too Much.
I’ll tell you a story that might illustrate what I’m talking about. When I was older, living on my own, a radio station sponsored a contest to win a trip to an amusement park (not Disney) located in an adjacent state. The contest was one I was sure I had a crack at winning: coming up with as many words as possible using only the letters in the name of the park’s new roller coaster. When I put my mind to something, look out. I wanted that trip. I came up with over 600 words and won one of the trips. I could take a couple people with me and did. On the designated date, we drove several hours to our lodging, only to get a cool reception (we probably did look a little ragtag, certainly not high rollers), but worse, discovered no meals were included in the prize. Probably would have been better to have known that beforehand. [Insert unhappy face.] So, tired and hungry, we found ourselves prowling a local grocery store for provisions the first evening.
The amusement park held a special “grand opening” for a select group of which we were included. I didn’t give a flip about the roller coaster (and was more interested in the snacks & drinks tent), which was just as well as the ride malfunctioned on its maiden spin and riders were unloaded and walked down from an unpleasantly high point. My companions and I had access to the park on a subsequent day as well when it was open to the public. The grounds were theoretically separated into geographical themes, but I soon noticed not much difference among them, all with a certain homogenized vibe, down to the food, which was supposed to represent the cuisine of various countries, yet all tasted the same, mediocre at that. Should I now mention there was interpersonal friction among our little group that started early and never fully let up, making the trip even more crummy, capped off with a sullen, several-hours drive back home? Yes, well.
The youthful Disney trip and the “young adult” amusement park prize trip were so very different. I don’t want to draw too many conclusions but I can’t help but make some. I had nothing much to weigh the childhood trip against, no knowledge that might work against my excitement. The prize trip I came to with excitement and hopes, but knowledge that took away from the experience. Was I too jaded, too inclined to weigh actuality against expectations, and end up disappointed? As an adult, do I merely tote around too many notions of how things should be?
I don’t much like Official Holidays now. There’s something about the excited expectation and subsequent, typically less thrilling reality that doesn’t sit right in my being. I am MUCH better off when lovely days come along by happenstance and feel like a holiday. I throw myself into such days, excited and happy, and pleased to note, not at all jaded. Is it ultimately that my capacity for excitement isn’t diminished but that expectations are really my bane? It’s weird. I am easily pleased so long as I have minimal opportunity to generate expectations or excitement in advance. Is that it? And how true is that for other people?
As I write this, I keep coming back to a particular mental image, namely that of a typical old lady being feted on her birthday, a paper party hat incongruously strapped onto her gray-haired head, a sheet cake on the table in front of her. I think I’ve seen variations of this scene a lot, in life and onscreen. I always wonder about the elderly lady. Could she possibly be enjoying the event? Is this exciting? It doesn’t look that way. It looks like all the excitement is over for one life and that this is the end zone, stuck in a paper hat, trying to look gracious and pleased.
Think of all the senior lady must have lived through in her decades – sex and love and passion and vacations and marriage(s) and children and deaths and jobs and homes and Christmas gatherings and family reunions and delicious feasts and leaps into swimming pools and driving tours and ceremonies and funerals and parties and monopoly games and feuds and lush gardens grown and luncheons with ladies and arts made and symphonies heard and on and on with all that goes into a long life. And yet the people around her expect her to be excited over the paper hat and cake. I really can’t fault her if she isn’t.
A lot of us hold off fully inhabiting our lives. We’re waiting for a magic something that will shake things up, put us on a different trajectory, get us to the place of a vision of ourselves that exists in our (over) imagination. In the meantime, we fill up our time many ways, depending on our personal inclinations, be it with distractions, compulsions, addictions, people, relationships, children, pets, or busy schedules. There are many things to pick from.
We’re not what we think we should be, even if we’re the only ones who know it. Sometimes we fall short in ways indicated by time markers: by age “X” I should be [fill in the blank]. Our lives should be more thrilling, more accomplished, just plain more. Reams of material have already been written on why people feel this way. It’s the Culture, it’s the Media, it’s the Economy, it’s the Times. Maybe so. We measure ourselves against external forces; judgment systems we had no part in making, but that are omnipresent. I don’t know about you, but I’m not anywhere near ready to throw off all those outside elements, maybe in no small part because so many of the people I see who have are whacky, and not tethered to society the way the bulk of us wish and need to be. It’s wise to keep your society membership dues up to date and there’s plenty of reminders in the form of people who haven’t.
That said, I’m old enough now to take a cool look at things and ask myself, “What if this is it?” “What if things get no better than they are right now?” I’m forcing my own hand. It isn’t as grim as it might sound. In fact, there’s a certain degree of relief – not fatalism – in this kind of thinking, at least for me. I’ve seen too many older people who are bitter over the turns their lives have taken. Somewhere along the way they said “This is it”, but they weren’t putting a good spin on it. They meant “This is it and it sucks Big Time and I am going to live out the rest of my miserable days reminding myself and telling anyone else I come into contact with, that I feel that way.”
That mindset, found on a psychic road well-traveled, is not what I’m shooting for, not now. Allowing that this may be “it”, makes me reevaluate what’s at hand, and what’s within my control and capabilities. Some people would call that settling, but that’s not how I feel. Settling sounds like giving up, losing hope, being resigned, and riding wherever the tides go. I intend something more active than that, namely if this is it, what’s possible from here?