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Refusal to age gracefully by boomers is getting old; Essay: At a time when they should be embracing a well-earned chance to relax, they are trying to be something they are not ... spunky.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Then come kiss me, Sweet-and Twenty,

Youth's a stuff will not endure.

-- Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

A new book titled "The Anti-Aging Zone" just made a splash with a full-page ad in the New York Times. It promises "to turn back the aging process in 6 weeks."

The ad doesn't make clear whether the book's "revolutionary proven plan" will make you six weeks younger, whether you have to wait six weeks before it starts to work, or whether after six weeks you'll never get any older, just kind of stop where you are for good.

Deeper in the same paper was a more modest ad for the "world's most potent anti-aging moisturizer." Sophisticated New Yorkers no doubt are lining up to buy the stuff, which is called About Time.

Well, it sure is! It's about time they got it. But not the face cream, not the book. The message. The one up there, Shakespeare's message: Youth's a stuff will not endure.

With apologies to the King of Siam, it is truly a puzzlement why the generation that seized control of this country a decade or so after World War II, the generation that has manipulated the culture for 30 years, still refuses to accept the inevitable, put on their cardigans, retire to the garden and read a book.

Do we need to hear forever about 70-year-old whitewater rafters and pole vaulters? Do we have to watch vitamin-stuffed geezers on television commercials splitting logs with axes, or doddering touch football players laughing as they fall, in picturesque slow motion, into the mud, grinning through inappropriately perfect teeth?

When will these people finally let go?

A lot of people think America belongs to the young. It doesn't. It belongs to people who aren't young and can't face that simple fact.

I have a friend who used to sit on his porch wondering about things like that. He had four teen-age daughters and once he said, plaintively, "I wish we could go back to the time when there weren't any teen-agers."

That seemed like nonsense at first, inspired perhaps by his perpetual exasperation. On further examination, the sense of it emerged.

For in fact teen-agers are a fairly recent phenomenon. Phenomenon is the right word here. Why? Because teen-agers are not really people, not individuals with minds alive with their own thoughts, not like adolescents.

Teen-agers are a market. They should be understood that way, collectively.

They coalesced into a market, a demographic unit, in the late 1950s when advertisers realized that as the general level of wealth rose, some of it was trickling down into the hands of the sons and daughters of the generation that stoically endured both the Great Depression and the war, with all the attendant deprivations these historic events imposed.

These sons and daughters, unstoical from birth, these first teen-agers, became known collectively as the baby boomers. They formed a great bulge in the population, and there are 76 million of them left.

They are the people who began disturbing the peace in the Sixties, disregarding the laws and norms of society, who then grew into one of the most law 'n' order-obsessed generations ever.

They grew up accustomed to having money and spending it on products designed to appeal to juvenile minds, a habit they've yet to shake. They became the addictive consumers who still shape the culture; they inculcate the same suburban values in their children, the same tastes, the same belief in a God-given right to perpetual freedom from deprivation.

Since there are so many boomers, and though they are gray, they remain a prime target for advertisers. Owing to their numbers, they continue to rule even as they perceive through the mist just ahead of them the first stages of decrepitude. This vision has put them into catatonic denial. Thus the desperate popularity of such books and potions as those mentioned above.

These products have been devised to dispel the fears of death that afflict this generation. Many among them have made it their business (literally) to perpetuate the idea of youth, which to them is represented by physical activity and sport. They are trying to drag youth's physicality into stretches of the life cycle where it is inappropriate, and occasionally grotesque. In their attempt to avoid being old, they have lost all notion of what it is to be mature.

Another new book just out in California suggests just who the boomers' heroes are. These are not recruited from their own generation. Not at all.

The book -- titled "What's Age Got to Do With It?" -- was written by a boomer from San Diego named Kelly Ferrin. It is a collection of "inspirational" stories of "103 super seniors" who have some dubious achievements to flaunt.

All of these seniors are of the pre-boomer generation. They are put forth as exemplars the boomers might wish to emulate (though one would have thought the boomers would have been done with the role of protege by now and assumed the responsibility of mentoring).

Among these heroes are "Banana" George Blair, 84, who water-skis without skis, and John "Doc" Ball, who still skateboards at 91. There is Mary Cunningham, 91, who sky-dives. There is Jane Mathis, a member of the Steel Magnolia Karate Team at 79, and Jewett Pattee, a 75-year-old transcontinental cyclist.

These people, Ferrin believes, are greatly admired. They are practicing what she calls "preventive aging."

Ferrin is 39. She went to the University of Southern California on a golf scholarship, and it was her frequent association with elderly people while playing golf as a youth that led her to a career in gerontology and "motivational speaking." Her book is one of those hortatory cheer-leadership tracts that suggests that positive thinking, exercise and the right vegetables will open the door to luminous eternity. You can get older without getting old, she says, whatever that means.

Ferrin says her purpose is to dispel the image of "a youth-obsessed society." So why depict old people engaged in the activities favored by the young -- rigorous sports like sky-diving, rock-climbing, running hurdles? Is that how older people should be perceived today? Is that the way the boomers imagine themselves: fading away in a sweaty glow.

Ferrin is not the only one given to silly euphemisms like "preventive aging," and contradictory propositions like "getting old without getting old." Another academic working the same rich vein of boomer apprehension has put out a book titled "Brain Fitness."

Dr. Robert Goldman -- a specialist in "sports medicine" (another boomer invention) -- promises that certain drug and nutritional therapies will not only defeat Alzheimer's disease, but bring about a host of other desirable changes in the elderly. His list includes: improved memory, enhanced sexual energies, relief from depression, faster thinking, more restful sleep, happiness, improved sex drive.

Does there seem an preoccupation with sex here? Is the pope Catholic?

Generalities often suggest sloppy thinking, and it is difficult to encapsulate in a single word or two the ethos of an entire generation, though there seems to be a determined effort to do this, with formulations like the Lost Generation, the Me Generation, Generation X.

Some of these expressions say more than others, but all fail. What is required is a more explicit and elaborate description. Maybe something direct, like the last words of Captain Kidd, uttered just before he plunged through the trapdoor of his gibbet:

"This is a very fickle and faithless generation."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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