Trouble with Old People | Who’s Ahead?

by Steve Van Auken

Note: This column is satirical. Please read Mr. Van Auken’s writings as a sort of tongue-in-cheek Guide for Millennials to the Greatest Generation.

I used to imagine that when I got older I would have some wisdom. I would think deep thoughts about man’s inhumanity to man. I would not think about why my lawn has more dandelions than anybody else’s on my block. These things wouldn’t matter to me anymore. I would be free of competitive feelings. My thoughts would soar.

Then I actually got older. It turns out that competitiveness doesn’t go away. It just takes on weird forms.

Take ballroom dancing. It is on every short list you will ever see, of things that older folks should do to promote cognitive flexibility. And they are right. When I’m trying to learn some new step, I can feel my brain reacting in pain. It doesn’t seem to believe that enhancing its potential is a good thing. What it really wants is to sit on the porch, taking on another mystery novel and yet more coffee. The parts of my brain that handle these things are already highly developed. They can do their work with half their neurons tied behind their back. Why should I demand that other, underdeveloped parts of my brain get involved?

And yet here I am. Our instructor, Tomi, has demonstrated a new step and now she is looking at me with an expression I’ve come to know well. It says, “I’ve shown you this move three times. You have to do it now. Assuming you drove a car to get here today, you should have the cognitive ability to do it. Get on with it.”

Meanwhile, other couples are moving around the dance floor. They glide. They flow. Some of them actually coordinate their movements to the music. But I am not thinking about the beauty of it all. I am thinking about how inept I am. I can’t say I’m feeling sort of like I did when I was the next to last one chosen for baseball in fifth grade. (The actual last guy chosen had a big blue cast on his leg.) I am feeling exactly like I did when I was the last one chosen for baseball in fifth grade.

So much for outgrowing competitiveness. By the way, did I mention that ballroom dancing is the very last bastion of male-centric decision-making in our society? Yes. The man makes every decision about which move to make. All the time. Whether he wants to or not. (He doesn’t.) There is no shared decision making. There is no shared accountability. And yet so many women love ballroom dancing. Would it not have been possible for us to receive our ration of male privilege in some other area? Say, in choosing movies? Or opting out of that new horror, the wedding shower that both women and men are expected to attend? But no. Here lies your privilege. Take it or leave it. Irony can be brutal.

Senior competitiveness exists in other places where you might not expect it. Like bird watching. We birders are supposed to care deeply about deep things, like preserving the environment, and introducing children to the joys of nature. And we do. When we’re not too busy trying to impress each other.

Birders tend to be older, but we still have the urge to advertise our accomplishments. Some are quick to tell you how many species they have on their life list. (Rule of thumb: they have more than you do.) Dedicated searchers will give you the details of how they traveled to South Padre Island, Texas, and laid in the dunes for two days in order to catch a glimpse of the Collared Plover, after the recent hurricane had blown it up from its home in Guatemala.

My competitive goal is more extreme. It is to impress Marie Morgan. She is my friend and a birding mentor. For years she has coordinated the Christmas Bird Count for our local affiliate of the Audubon Society. I thought I had her two years ago, when I told her I’d seen a Prothonotary Warbler in the Valley. Before that, I had only ever seen one in a book.

“Oh yes,” Marie said. “Was it just north of Station Bridge? On the west side of the trail? Low, in the bushes? Near the marsh where the eagles nest? I’m so glad you got to see it.”

I continue to live in hope that someday I will have a really impressive sighting, maybe the beautiful but now rare Dickcissel. But I might be afraid to tell her. She probably has a pair of them nesting in her geraniums.

If you are not an older person yourself you might imagine that the arrival of a new generation marks the natural end of senior competitiveness. You might suppose that a new grandchild would remind people that our time here is limited and that we ought to become models of patience and selflessness. You would be wrong.

The arrival of a grandchild opens the final frontier in keeping score. It gives us one more chance to re-balance the scales with our friends who may have been slightly more successful in other areas of life.

Bill Gates, at his high school class reunion: “And so after Melinda and I got back from seeing what our foundation is doing to teach dry-land farming techniques in Sub-Saharan Africa, we were able to share our learnings at the Congressional hearing last week. I think they were listening. I think it will make a difference.”

Sam Krongan, former Junior Class Assistant Treasurer: “That’s nice, Bill. Our grandson, Tyler, might make the travel team in soccer this year and his coach says he’s already the best on his team in staying out the way of the bigger boys and keeping his uniform clean. Who does your grandson play for?”

You might conclude from all this that aging-into wisdom is a totally unrealistic goal. Not at all. Like some others my age, I find that if I am mindful, I can avoid pointless competitiveness. I wish I had learned earlier in life how to focus on the things that really matter. In fact, that’s what I decided to talk to our grandson’s kindergarten class about last week when they had Grandparents’ Day. You can see us all here, in this class picture. He’s the smart-looking one.