Notes On Becoming An Old Guy

Lately I’ve been thinking about what kind of an old man I want to be. This is a luxury not afforded to other periods of life. Childhood begins unconsciously and passes without much introspection (or too much, perhaps, in my case). Young adulthood is a blur of adaptation: One day you’re a child, the next you are scrambling to navigate the grown-up world. Then there’s middle age, when many of us put our own identities on ice while we play the roles of parents and providers. But old age, that’s an opportunity. I can see it coming, so I should be able to make some deliberate choices about what kind of an old guy I want to be.

I know I don’t want to be Dirty Old Guy. Just the idea of making some young woman uncomfortable with my leering and propositions makes me feel terrible, never mind actually committing such an act. I remember reading years ago about Pete Townshend making drunken passes at young women in an L.A. club. The women told the gossip columnist about Pete’s old man breath, bald head, how out of place he was in said club. The story may have been rumor–I heard a very similar story about Bruce Willis around the same time–but that’s not the point. I was embarrassed for both of these dirty old men who couldn’t act their ages, and they were only in their forties at the time.

This isn’t to say that I want to be Celibate Old Guy, by the way. Consensual shenanigans with a dirty old woman sound wrinkly but fun. Watch that fragile hip!

Old men chasing young women just look like emotionally stunted old men, which brings me to the next thing I don’t want to be: an old man trying to look young. It’s not that I want to be bald, gray, crepe-skinned, and paunchy, but rather that the alternatives are so distasteful. The list of formerly attractive celebrities who have stretched their faces into Halloween lizard masks extends farther than the trail of rock star wigs laid end to end. None of them look younger–they just look like old people in denial.

That goes for wardrobes, too. I don’t want to be an old man in trendy clothing. That never ends well, though sometimes I fantasize about being Old Guy In Suit and Bow Tie. He always seems like such a nice dude, but on me that would just be an affectation.

I don’t think I want to be Bucket List Old Guy. Bucket lists seem like the kinds of artificial constructs that only exist in consumer cultures: “Acquire these things and experiences or you haven’t lived a full life, brought to you by Red Bull®.” Besides, waiting until the end to do the things you want to do seems unfortunate. Life should unwind at whatever pace it chooses, not bunch up around the finish line.

That being said, my punch card is far from complete. If on my deathbed I say, “I never completed a novel,” then I will die unsatisfied.

Which brings us to regrets. I don’t want to be Regretful Old Guy, tortured by what should have been, but I fear that I will be. Regrets already haunt me. I could have been a better father. I could have treated people better. I could have worked harder and gotten my broken brain under control sooner. Wasted time. So much wasted time.

Hopefully I’ll have plenty of time as an old man, and as a non-bucket list type the potential to waste it will be tremendous. As much as I like vintage and custom cars, I don’t see myself as Car Old Guy. That’s just too cliche for an elderly white man. I can imagine having some cool old car, I just can’t picture myself as Car Old Guy. That involves clubs and jackets, car shows and conversations about boring minutiae.

Nor do I see myself as, say, Old R/C Guy, though I can picture my arthritic hands assembling a model airplane. Building models brought me great pleasure as a kid–as did assembling jigsaw puzzles, which is just a two dimensional variation on the same theme. I can see me returning to such pastimes, but becoming an old fart who joins the local R/C club, attends events, and writes for the newsletter? No thanks.

I won’t be joining any leagues, fraternal orders, or organizations. I was not a joiner as a young man and I don’t see that changing as an old man, which is not to suggest that I don’t want to belong. I just don’t want to join anything. I can see myself as Old Diner Guy, that fossil you see every time you visit your local restaurant–the old guy who knows the entire staff and gets a free piece of pie now and then. Frankly, I’m already Diner Guy. I’m writing this from a diner booth I’ve occupied for the last 2.5 hours. My waitress, with whom I’m on a first name basis, will be taking her grandkids to the state fair next week. She didn’t get any photos when they visited on the fourth of July. I like diners. That’s where I belong. They’re clubhouses with pie.

A record store would make another great clubhouse. I have no problem seeing myself as Old Record Store Guy, sitting behind my counter and blathering about Virgin-era Tangerine Dream or the merits of King Crimson’s ’80s lineup. Of course, that fantasy depends upon: A) Selling enough records to break even, and B) Only dealing with the customers I want in my clubhouse.

Besides, I kind of see myself as Travel Old Guy, and a hobby business would pin me down. I don’t think I’d be World Travel Old Guy, though I’d like to see many of those places. International travel requires an awful lot of carbon footprint, and on top of that I think I’d feel weighed down by the responsibility to represent my country well. In my Travel Old Guy fantasy I walk, bicycle, and drive my fuel efficient Scooby-Doo van around the country, stopping when and where I feel like it, destination nowhere and everywhere. Maybe I’ll even pack my unfinished novel and my model airplane.

As Travel Old Guy I’m unlikely to also be Volunteer Old Guy. No manning the polling place for me. I probably wouldn’t be Volunteer Old Guy anyway. At least in the organized sense of the word, volunteering feels a lot like joining and we’ve already covered that.

Gardening Old Guy is out.

I don’t want to be Chronically Ill Old Guy. While I’m sure nobody wants that, some old guys seem to adopt it as an identity. They talk about their health constantly–their pills and appointments and bionic joints. Decline happens, I just don’t want to become my decline.

Nor do I want to be Old Guy Who Refuses To Die. This is easy to say while I’m still relatively young and healthy, but dying is not only inevitable but something of a moral imperative. Hopefully I’ll be able to accept when it’s my time to make room for someone else.

Most of all I don’t want to be Fearful Old Guy, Angry Old Guy, or Fearful Angry Old Guy. I imagine the world gets more terrifying as we become weaker both in mind and body, but I hope I don’t cave into the impulse to view humanity as a bunch of predators who are out to get me.

I guess what it comes down to is that the kind of old man I want to be is essentially myself but more considerate, thoughtful, and deliberate. I want to be the kind of old guy that if younger people think about him at all they think of him kindly. “James, the old guy who used to sit in the back booth and read and write? I didn’t even know he was sick. Just last week he was telling me about his plans for a road trip through the Northeast. That’s the way to do it, I guess. Just live your life until the very end. I’m glad I got to give him one last slice of free pie.”


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6 replies »

  1. OH the timing! I was just talking about this subject, and the fact that I have been sick for three years and it seems (SEEMS) that finally there is a diagnosis, I was saying to Tomás that I had never planned on being chronically ill in my mid-50’s. I was looking forward to the whole thing – the menopause, which many women freak out about, was totally welcome – no more monthly nonsense interrupting my life, the freeing up of certain responsibilities and the ability to relocate had been the plan, but then The Illness showed up and is still stubbornly holding on, and it has robbed me of the beginnings of “Old Kel.”

    Cancer runs in my family, so I have been on perfectly pleasant terms with the fact that I will probably have cancer of the whatever at some point. But a (seemingly) chronic nerve degeneration (still don’t have all the facts) was not something that ever crossed my mind because nobody in my family had it. It has been cancer, cancer, cancer, all the way down the line. I took that as my exit card and never gave it a second thought.

    I was in frustrated tears last week, because I said that very thing, my identity is becoming “Sick Kel” and I hate it, I rail against it. I fully expected to have an answer and something to stop it when I posted photos on FB a few months ago pictures of the freaky tests I was taking, with somewhat humorous commentary. It was important for me to maintain some humor, and I have hung onto it for three years, but I realized I didn’t get a chance to start delightfully kicking back into being “Old Kel” because this fucking thing has robbed me of it, it has turned me into “Sick Kel” and I am so angry, and I don’t want to be angry.

    Now all I can do is hope that medically we are at a finish line and I get fully diagnosed and hopefully there is a medication to stop the symptoms. I want to be Old Kel, unencumbered with doctor bullshit for a while – the sick part of old age is not supposed to happen until at least 10 years from now.

    As you wrote, I kick myself for so much wasted time in my 30’s and 40’s, just floating along…..when your time has been taken out of your control, you really kick the shit out of yourself at how much time you wasted while healthy.

    That rant aside, I loved this post, because it reminded me that despite battling a health issue, there are still many versions of “old Kel” that could manifest that I don’t want. I don’t want Angry Old Kel or Fearful Old Kel either. I am printing this out and hanging it eye level to help me take back some control from tripping and falling into “Sick Kel” – there has to be a way to cope with whatever this is without it engulfing me.

    Thanks for writing this, Himes. Your thoughtfulness on the subject is much appreciated. But I tell you, Old Kel has no idea how to dress, young Kel and middle aged Kel didn’t have a clue either. Jeans, cheap sneakers, and a wifebeater – is this the ensemble of the young? Because that is all old Kel has. I have stopped dying my hair purple and blue. Rainbow hair belongs to the millennials.

    So, maybe Old Diner James won’t be too embarrassed when Old Clueless Kel joins him for a piece of pie. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I started making my mental notes on being an old guy a couple of years ago when I turned 70. I had successfully avoided the subject until then because I hadn’t felt old, just “older.” At 70 I recognized that the nonsense of “(pick an age) is the new (whatever sounds younger)” was a waste of time. Bad knees, bad back, onset of arthritic body parts, and multiple night-time trips to the bathroom all added up to looking in the mirror and saying, “It’s here.”

    I long ago learned one lesson from my father. As he got old, he embraced his angry and resentful inclinations with a new vigor. He seemed to always be revisiting long ago slights and betrayals with a focus that gave them life and renewed strength. That left precious little room for joy and happiness. I was determined I was not going to be that Old Guy.

    The first thing I decided was that regret had no positive payoff. Of course I have a long, long list of moments I’d like to go back and redo. No one can go through life without those moments. The key is to turn them from regrets into lessons learned. In my case, there were many times I had to make the same bad choice several times before it became a lesson learned because I’m so darned stubborn. Lessons learned eventually transform into wisdom.

    Once I let go of regrets, I came to the second valuable lesson. Over the years I often wished I could change things about my life and because I was still young I had the impression there was time to make those changes. Now I recognize that my life now is what it is. Between bad luck and bad choices, I retired with only Social Security to support me. That’s not going to change. So I spent considerable time adjusting my lifestyle to my income. At first, I felt impoverished, but I eventually got to the place where I had everything I needed. That required learning the difference between wants and needs. Wants are many, needs are few. I don’t have much of a financial cushion, but I know I will always have a roof over my head, food on the table and my medical needs met.

    The third and most important step was recognizing all the reasons I should be happy and proud of my life’s accomplishments. At the top of that list is the abundance of friends and loved ones. I may be dollar poor, but I am wealthy in my relationships. As for accomplishments, I can honestly say that my life has made the world a better place. I didn’t cure cancer or bring world peace, but I did help found a gay service center in Berkeley that’s only a few years away from its 50th anniversary and still serving the community. During my ten years on the Board of Directors of the Sacramento United Way, we began devoting resources to emerging needs in the community. I co-founded the Oak Park Neighborhood Association that was instrumental in driving out gangs, drugs and slum lords and becoming a livable and desirable place to live.

    All in all, it adds up to a life well lived that finds me now enjoying joy and contentment. James, your essay shows that you are well on your way to Old Guy Nirvana. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 3 people

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