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A New Look at an Old Subject
What You See Isnít What You Get
I have been a ďseniorĒ citizen for four years now and that label is beginning to irritate me. No, Iím not in denial. I havenít been trying to hold on to an illusion of youth by undergoing cosmetic surgery, driving fast cars, and chasing young women. Iím just chafing at the dissonance between the public perception of ďfifty-nineĒ and my self image. Itís like having to listen to a beautiful song being played off key by tone deaf musicians, over and over and over again.
No wonder aging Americans spend billions of dollars each year to maintain a youthful appearance. They are well aware that, in our image obsessed society, how others react to them often hinges more upon what they look like than who they are. But I refuse to acquiesce.
That wasnít always the case. As a haole kid growing up in Hawaii in the 1950s, I was frequently the target of teasing and worse because I looked different. I cultivated a dark tan in an attempt to blend in. But as the sun browned my skin it also lightened my blond hair, so I still stood out. When I asked my parents to dye my hair black, they empathized but refused, and used the moment to talk with me about acceptance of self and others and the shortcomings of first impressions. It took a number of similar experiences before their message really sank in, but once it did it had a profound impact on my life, affecting even my career choice.
I graduated from college with an undergraduate degree in Business Administration. Despite excellent grades, work experience, and strong recommendations, I couldnít find a job. I got interview after interview because of my credentials, and rejection after rejection because of my beard. Frustrated to the point of obstinacy, I went to law school to learn my rights. Once there, I discovered the law prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of sex, race, religion, and certain other protected characteristics -- but it was not illegal to discriminate solely on the basis of facial hair. Ironically, after graduating from law school I was recruited by a firm sight unseen on the strength of my record, but not offered a position because of my beard.
Now I am bristling (thatís a bearded guy reaction) at the unwarranted assumptions being made because of my age. To be fair, I was once guilty of that which I am complaining about. I remember a discussion I had with a group of friends in 1966 while a senior in high school. On the cusp of adulthood, facing dramatic and uncertain changes in our lives, we speculated about our futures. At one point, the focus of conversation shifted to aging. Thirty was middle age. Forty was old. Fifty was one foot in the grave. What were the odds we would be around to see the new millennium? Surviving until then became one of my goals. I envisioned myself, ravaged and frail, tenaciously clinging to life long enough to welcome in the New Year, 2000.
Today I can chuckle at my teenage angst. The year 2000 came and went and I wasnít even close to decrepit. Okay, maybe I canít push myself quite as hard and as long as I used to and my strength has diminished a little. But I am in better physical condition and more active and alert than many ďkidsĒ 10, 20, even 30 years my junior. True, I donít have the head of hair I once did, but I still have more than some younger men (plus Iíve made up for the loss on other parts of my body) and it has not yet started to turn gray. I still have all my teeth and think in terms of corn on the cob, not baby food. If I wanted, I could easily conceal my deteriorating eyesight by wearing contact lenses. My skin is not as smooth, taut, and blemish free as it once was, but a rugged and wizened look fits my personality. And, if memory serves, my mind is as sharp as ever.
On the whole, I feel as good as I did in my thirties. Yet it has become increasingly evident that others no longer see me as I see myself. I am now Mister or Sir instead of Dave, beyond dad to grandpa, a hunk turned geezer, over the hill and soon to be under it. Eventually my reality will catch up to this perception. But not any time soon.
Around the half-century mark there is a once in a lifetime confluence of vigor, time, money, perspective, and freedom. It is a threshold not unlike oneís twenty-first birthday. What lies beyond is both worrisome and enticing. Some shy away and cling to the past. Others endure and plod on. Still others embrace it with passion. I see a future that promises to be at least as active, exciting, and fulfilling as my past: outdoor adventuring, socializing with friends and family, learning more about subjects that interest me, building things with my hands, writing books and articles, donating my time and expertise to worthwhile causes.
Young is as young does and Iím doing. And donít be misled because Iím moving a bit more slowly than I used to. Iím just taking the time to savor the wonderful experiences that have become available because of my age.