Today, I became old.
The Federal government told me so. An official letter from the Social Security Administration announced my eligibility for Medicare. The envelope also contained a red, white and blue Medicare card. The patriotic color theme continued in a 32-page booklet explaining Medicare in age-appropriate 14-point type.
The official pronouncement of being declared old is a reminder that life is full of rites of passage: starting school, getting a driver's license, graduating from high school and getting married. Medicare eligibility is certainly one of the last. It is also a not-too-subtle reminder that we are no longer in late middle age. The past years will certainly outnumber our future years. This can be a gloomy thought, but it also can give life a greater sense of urgency.
In traditional societies, I would now be a village elder dispensing advice on all manner of subjects. Sixteen goats is too high a bride price for a daughter from a family of questionable reputation. Plant the beans in rows running east and west. Check the costumes for the harvest festival; we don't want to repeat last year's wardrobe malfunctions; the whole village was embarrassed. Other villagers would listen because traditional societies have fewer new problems and fewer new solutions, so past experience gained by longevity is a real advantage.
Being a village elder is more difficult in our more dynamic society. Problems and solutions are constantly changing, lessening the advantage of experience. Yesterday's solutions often create today's problems. But the old can often quickly recognize old ideas that are repackaged and renamed as new ideas. On good days, we can provide the reasons why the old idea was discarded. Creating new ideas is difficult, and the shortcut of renaming an old idea is just blindly embracing the mantra of "new."
Being old is a distinct advantage over the young because we have failed more and have more experience regrouping and trying again. We have failed because of our own stupidity, failure to pay attention to details, vanity and a long list of other culprits. We have regrouped and tried again over-and-over. Failure is a harsh master, and regrouping is a difficult lesson to learn.
Some young so called "digital natives" often get excited by new devices that are one-sixteen inch smaller and one ounce lighter than the previous model. Please don't interrupt my afternoon nap to extol this technological break through. These are not technological advances, just minor marketing tactics.
At age 65, I am comfortable both in the digital and mechanical world. In high school, I learned to weld and to operate a host of metal and woodworking machines. I doubt I can produce a satisfactory weld, but I can certainly recognize a poor welding job. Today, it almost seems impossible that we communicated with large main frame computers by means of thin cards with precisely cut rectangular holes. My digital experience started with key-punch cards and has grown as technology evolved. I certainly am comfortable with the digital world and have experienced many technical failures and dead ends. Changing the position of a key command from the upper right to the upper left of the keyboard is not a revolutionary breakthrough, regardless of what the vendor claims. Perhaps I've become cantankerous, but I resent having to relearn key stroke commands for no advantage.
Digital natives sometimes fail to understand the mechanical world. Recently, my son-in-law found two newish lawn mowers discarded by the curb. The mowers basically had clogged air filters. Cleaning the air filter and some minor adjustments resulted in a nearly new lawn mower. Digital natives probably assume all devices are like laptops, DVD players and iPods — when these stop working, discarding them is the only option. Here's a tip: Repair of mechanical devices is often possible and sometimes easy.
Goodbye late middle age, I am ready and eagerly looking forward to being old. I can't wait until age 75 when I will no longer have to remove my coat and shoes at airport security. Age still does have its privileges.
Ted Kruse is a retired academic librarian. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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