Embry gleefully announced yesterday that she was going for a job interview regarding a consulting assignment which would involve evaluating agriculture programs in the war-torn country of Mali. When I asked her where Mali was, she said it was in Africa, but it took her a while to find it on a map. It is one of the countries in the middle of the African continent that straddles the Sahara Desert and the rain forest. That she knows absolutely nothing about farming and still has an office at the Urban Institute where she works on occasional assignments did not hold her back for an instant. I have got to give her credit: Moxy, baby.
My question to her was how many people age 73 get to interview for a job in an African country ravaged by an ongoing civil war for an assignment where they have zero prior experience. And, I added, while on the job, the chances of being kidnapped by one of the rebel armies is probably around 50 percent. This morning she spent a couple of hours on the internet frantically trying to find out as much about the country as possible before rushing off to the interview. My only consolation was that I figured there was no way she could possibly get the job.
And then there was the announcement this morning by Joe Biden that he is running for President of the United States for the third time. Biden was born in 1942 and will turn 77 this year. He is my age. But, hey, Bernie Sanders has already turned 78. And our current president is no spring chick. And perhaps the most amazing thing is that on all the morning news shows I skimmed through this morning, I did not hear one word about age. That would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago. It was certainly a big issue in 1980 with Reagan, and he was under 70 when he started his first term.
I am a loyal member of an informal gathering called “the men’s group” that meets every Wednesday morning in the apartment house where we live in Washington. I am the only one who refers to it as the “Old Codgers Club,” but that is in effect what it is. Of the 15 or so men who regularly show up, there are always at least a couple who get there with the help of a walker or motorized wheelchair. At 77 I am one of the younger ones in the group with at least two in their nineties and a bunch of others getting close to that. But do these guys think of themselves as old? Not for a minute. When I asked yesterday how many agreed with me that Joe Biden was too old to run for president, there were no takers. “Go for it, baby,” was the unanimous response, “anyone who can beat Trump! And besides he probably has the best chance.”
It is not that we codgers are naïve. We know what loss is. We know what mortality is. There is no one in our group, as far as I know, who is not an orphan. We have all lost our parents. Some have lost a spouse. Some have lost siblings. My only sibling, a younger brother, died about ten years ago. Some have lost a child as Embry and I have. Most have lost friends, some best friends.
Yet we keep on going.
So what is it about us “old codgers” that keeps us going as far as we can as long as we can? Having spent my career in the development of seniors housing, I have visited a lot of retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes. I have seen a lot of old folks in not-so-good shape. I know that as we age we slow down and that people slow down at different rates and in different ways. I know that eventually we all die. So much of what we can do as we get older depends on health. So much depends on luck.
I also know that I am one of the lucky ones and deeply grateful for that. I try to walk about four miles a day and swim about 600 yards a day in the lap pool in our apartment house when I do not walk. I still get out on Wednesday nights in the spring and summer to race my sailboat (with a lot of help from my younger crew!), and Embry and I still travel a lot. I am active as a volunteer board member in several non profit housing organizations and treat these opportunities like I would a full time job; and if you are reading this, you know about my blog.
I am especially lucky—blessed is probably a better word—since I am also a polio survivor. I doubt that there are many other polio victims who are able to do the kind of things that I can do at my age. I think there is something about the human condition that we humans keep going for as long as we can, knowing that while there is a lot we can’t do anymore, there is also a lot we still can do and, dammit, we are going to do it. We are going to keep going.
And it is not just us humans. Embry said she learned about aging gracefully from Minette, our first pet, a cat, part Siamese and part Russian Blue, who died in her nineteenth year. She continued to do almost everything she did as a younger cat but just slowed everything down—not jumping as high (as a young cat she could easily jump from the floor to the top of an open door) or running as fast. And that was true of all our pets and, I suspect, of all living creatures. It is the miracle we call life.
Still I wonder if 77 might be too old for anyone to run for president. Biden would be in his mid 80s toward the end of a second term. I just checked out the life expectancy of someone his—and my–age (male, 77), and right now it is just over nine years. Then I thought, hey, wouldn’t that be neat—to serve as a great president for two terms and be loved and respected by all–okay, by many–and then die of a heart attack the day following the inauguration of the next president. But can anyone my age keep working that hard for eight or nine more years? I know that I would not stand a chance. Nor would I want to even try. I can’t imagine the stress that is associated with 18 months of campaigning followed by the hardest job in the world.
Perhaps such concerns put me in the category of “ageist.” Yet I think part of the “art of aging” is knowing when to slow down and when doing less is better than doing more. That is not all that easy. It is really hard to give up things you loved to do. For the last few years, every time I boarded my sailboat, Second Wind, for the first time in a season, I wondered silently, is this going to be the last year. But I will be out there again for the first race of the season on May 1. I am just another one of those old codgers who is determined not to throw in the towel.
And I am hardly the only one. As I am writing this, I just got a call from Embry: she got the job! “Don’t worry,” she exclaimed with great enthusiasm, “They told me that they don’t let any of their workers visit Timbuktu without bodyguards.”