The above photo of a lovely middle-aged woman is part of what Unsplash gave me as “OLD woman.” It reeks, doesn’t it?
But first, a complaint from someone who isn’t even there yet and she’s already mad
Let me set the stage here. I just came in from the gym, where I was practicing box jumps, Belgian split squats and Turkish get-ups.
They’re hard. That’s why I do them. At 69, I am now in full training for a return to Kilimanjaro next year. I am also rehabbing after two shoulder surgeries and I have a hand surgery as soon as I return from Africa in late June. You heal, you deal, you train. You keep right on going.
Over at my website Walkabout Saga, I’ve got women and men in their much later years talking about workouts and challenges and how to get stronger and better. I have athletes and trainers and everyday folks in their sixties and seventies and eighties Cutting. It. Up.
But I digress.
The first article which caught my eye today was this from Medium peep Kerala Taylor:
She’s spot-on. Tired of not finding photos of anything like her, she has hit the outer edge of the impenetrable hedge that society has created: past this border (call it forty-five) YOU NO LONGER EXIST. Agree completely. Not with that assessment, but with her frustration and the demand for photos of real people in middle and later years doing what we are actually doing: living out loud.
I penned her a long response, and challenged: try writing about men and women MY age and see what Unsplash gives you. Nothing, for that matter. And if I go to the paid sites, the best I can find is a silly staged photo of some grey hair of eighty struggling to lift a one-pound dumbbell. WILL YOU JUST PLEASE.
It’s not that those folks don’t exist. It’s that many more of us can haul some serious weight around, we lift, run, swim, compete, set records, hike mountains, skydive, you name it. Too many of our kids are always at their computers or devices. Their bodies look like it, too.
Readers and commenters have raked me over the coals for not showing older baddassery. I don’t blame them. However, folks, YOU punch in “old athlete” into Unsplash and see what you get. You get old folks OR young athletes. The combination doesn’t compute. Nor will you see photos of older Black women who are also seriously badass athletes.
Society does not see us.
It isn’t aspirational, they say.
I have a rude two-word response to that. Because if those of us who are out there running ultra marathons at ninety, hiking the high country at eighty, doing aerial silks at 68, setting weight lifting records at 100 aren’t aspirational for folks hitting middle age, what the hell IS aspirational, pray tell?
The other article, the one that inspired the title, is from a fellow professional journalist and Medium peep Melinda Blau:
This smart, funny-but-sad piece brings back an incident from Jinja, Uganda back in 2015. I had just finished rafting Class V waters of the Nile, which world-class kayakers fly in to use for competition practice. I had some busted ribs from a horse riding accident. I’d already climbed Kilimanjaro, the Everest Base Camp and Macchu Picchu and a shitton more than that.
Here is what I looked like, at 62, earlier that day:
I was trying to sleep, as in the morning, I was leaving my hostel to go for a week-long ride from Arusha to Lake Natrone by camel, a solo traveler, accompanied by four Maasai men and a Meru cook. Suffice it to say I live an interesting life.
Outside my window a loudmouth German child in his twenties was talking on his phone at great volume. I walked outside and politely asked him to please tone down. He scowled at me, then to his friend, he said,
What? No. Just some old lady.
If you read Melinda’s article, you’ll see my point.
That idiot child likely couldn’t keep up with my hiking pace for a mile, much less nine days of it, up the side of a mountain. I have left behind my fair share of arrogant guides who told me I couldn’t do a climb, that it would take me five hours. THAT climb, in Myanmar, I did in two.
THAT guide, Zaw, never questioned me again. Because when I came down, and was able to prove what I had done (I took before photos at the base of the climb with my watch, and then again at the top, with my watch and a local clock in the background) he was shocked.
I said to him:
How would you feel if I told your nine-year-old son he would never amount to anything?
“I’d be furious.”
Of course you would. How is that different from dictating to me that just because I am sixty-three, and a woman, I couldn’t possibly climb that mountain? (to be fair I had to cross four of them side-by-side en route to the temple at the top)
“I never thought about it that way.”
Until you are there, and suddenly you are forty or fifty, or sixty or seventy, and the world is calling you an old hag, or a silly old man or whatever choice insult they are wielding that particular day, you are clueless. You’re not gonna get any of DAT onya. EWWWWW.
Until you’re there. Now you are navigating the age hate, prejudice, the limitations placed on tourist offerings if you’re past fifty (REALLY, that would be the Petito Moreno glacier in Argentina for starters) because of the reek of age-hate, disinformation and prejudice world-wide.
You will likely not recall the insults you hurled at older folks, but you sure as hell will feel the slings and arrows that are now being hurled at you.
As George Carlin said in his riff about balding, while making fun of men who shaved their heads, “wait a while.”
If you’re fortunate, your turn is coming.
How to prepare? I suggest you do what both Melinda and Nancy Peckenham did: spend time with much older folks. Funny how you find incredibly motivated people living full and expressive lives. Such people are aspirational.
The other advice I have for those who have nothing but disregard for us grey folks? You’d better get your ass in gear, start training, eating better and put the cigar and that bottle of vodka down. Because dementia begins in your twenties, starting with bad food, sedentary habits, smoking and drinking. Colon cancer among much younger folks is on the rapid rise, among all other lifestyle illnesses.
Frankly, it isn’t we greybeards who are old in this regard. It’s younger folks who are aging their bodies fast. When you get to a certain point, and you can only age into it, you figure out what really matters. And you realize that youth for the sake of youth, which most of us never appreciated when we had it, is long gone. All that matters now is being youthful going forward, and that takes hard work, discipline, effort, and the ability to laugh long and hearty at life’s vicissitudes.
And they are many, including the next crop of pissy younger people pissing on older people. They weren’t born that way. Society teaches us to hate. And as Melinda quotes Ashton Applewhite, it’s the final -ism to which we will all be subject, but only if we’re lucky.
Folks who are aging well tend to be focused on staying healthy and youthful while doing our best to make peace with those pieces of us which fall off and roll under the couch. At least we can make fun of it, for age, IF you are fortunate, also bestows a sense of humor about the inevitable.
That also takes hard work. But it’s worth it. So is getting old enough to appreciate getting old enough to appreciate it.
Yes, that was intentional. Just like aging well is intentional just as it is aspirational.