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Father Time vs. the King of Denial

Published Aug. 24, 2005

I did something really stupid last month. It is painful to retell, but if I can save just one reader from making the same mistake and suffering the same agony, my sacrifice will be worth it.

Back story: In college, I had a very young English lit professor who was, as Chaucer might have said, A fayre mayden, betrothed not / with flaxen hayre and bodye hotte. How hotte? When it rained, she sizzled. I once actually tried to hit on this teacher, an experience so humiliating that the details of it remain closeted in that part of the brain that includes such things as the death of beloved relatives, the pain of dental care and the trauma of one's own birth.

Anyway, last month I decided to consult the Internet to find out what that professor was up to these days. No, that was not the really stupid thing I did. In fact, I was delighted to discover that she has had a distinguished career. Then, I thought: Hmm, I wonder if there are any recent pictures of her on the Web?

That was the really stupid thing I did.

As I sat there at my computer, my wife passed by, looked over my shoulder and said, "Who is that sweet little old lady?"

Think Barbara Bush. No, think Granny Clampett.

When you are 53, as I am, it is unwise to take any action that might suddenly penetrate your carefully constructed latticework of denial and remind you that you are Getting On In Years. This may well be the explanation of that otherwise inexplicable dirge, sung by a million drunks in a thousand bars, "May old acquaintance be forgot."

I applaud denial. It's a powerful tool for peace of mind. When, several years ago, I contracted a serious illness that can sometimes be fatal, I took refuge in the World Almanac. "Hey, in the year 1450, the average life expectancy was 39! I'm already waaay ahead of the game!"

Here's another game I play: I can't be old yet because I am still younger than the president of the United States. This past election was no threat to my state of denial, although it did occur to me that, had Kerry won, his vice president would be one heartbeat away from my sudden decrepitude. Still, denial knows no shame. I have no doubt that when the dreaded day arrives and we get a president born after Oct. 2, 1951, I will rejoice because I am still younger than the pope.

It is easier to accept aging if your milestones arrive gradually. For example, when I was young, I preferred window seats in the airplane, better to fully appreciate the majesty of flight. Gradually I came to like the aisle seats, better to appreciate the majesty of easier bathroom access. I accepted that with grace.

The problem is, there are the occasional big setbacks. As I took my aisle seat one day not long ago, I noticed that the middle seat was unoccupied. The plane was almost full. At that moment, a spectacularly attractive young woman was walking down the aisle toward me, looking for her seat. I realized, to my dismay, that I was actually hoping she sat elsewhere because I wanted the extra legroom. At that moment I had become an old joke, the elderly man who found a magic frog by the side of the road. "If you kiss me," the frog said, "I will turn into a beautiful princess." The man just stuck the frog in his pocket and kept walking. "Didn't you hear what I said?" the frog croaked. "I heard you," the old man said, "but at my age, I'd rather have a talking frog."

So, that was a setback _ as was my discovery that my old teacher had become, in fact, my old teacher. And, most recently, I had the biggest setback of all. I threw my back out.

There is nothing quite like back pain to transform a middle-aged person into Father Time. You walk bent at the waist with one hand on your hip. You become a little teacup, short and stout. An antique. It was during this convalescence that I began to wonder if, at a certain age, there is a better alternative to denial: not just acceptance, but total surrender. Become an old coot. A geezer. I could get an ear trumpet, pull my pants up to my nipples and lean over the steering wheel of my Crown Vic so it looks like my fedora is driving. I could start chasing young whippersnappers from my front yard, waving a four-toed cane.

It's a thought. Hey, I might finally be able to put the moves on my old prof.