In the last two weeks my wife has been told that she needs to wear a compression sock for a damaged foot, that she has hearing loss in both ears, and that a bone scan has confirmed the early onset of osteoporosis. It comes as a bit of a shell-shock to process all of this in so short a time period. It’s as if one day you’re 35 with the whole world in front of you, and you wake up the next to find yourself a middle age replica of the parental figures of your childhood. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to hear these things and still maintain your equanimity. Welcome to the golden years — a place where patience and humility become dependent on the law of supply and demand.
I remember when my own parents were in their mid-fifties and things began to happen with their bodies. My mom was diagnosed as a diabetic and my dad had prostate surgery. The hopes of watching “Bones” McCoy perform his futuristic medical wizardry on the previous decade’s TV screens sadly did not come to pass. My dad’s complaints of constantly being full, which I suspiciously thought at the time was because he just didn’t want to spend money eating out at a restaurant, fell on my deaf, unsympathetic ears. I thought his irritation was about money, my own teenage rebellion, or an attempt to circumvent the loss of control he was quickly losing over me. I belatedly understand now that — GASP! — it had nothing to do with me at all. Somehow I suspect he’s enjoying this right now. I too am always feeling full lately.
I’m walking in his shoes a bit, and it’s making me grumpy. I foresee a time in the not-too distant future when Gorgeous and I will be splitting meals in restaurants, and also getting that certain look from the waitress for taking up a whole table at the dinner hour for one stinkin’ entree. Better order an appetizer and glasses of wine too to save face.
These are all a part of life’s little indignities.
It is true that as you get older you begin to lose patience with the world around you. Where once you kept quiet and walked away thinking, “that person is an asshole,” the passage of time somehow removes that particular governor. I watched this happen with my parents too. I can still recall cringing when one of them would publicly raise hell with some poor person for an infraction deemed to be either insulting or below an unspecified standard of service to which they felt they were deserving. As two-foot tall me stood there watching them, praying that no one recognized my existence, I recall promising myself that someday I would act in a more dignified manner. Unless you’re a Kennedy, a Cuomo, or a Bush, you never want to act as your parents did. It’s still a good goal to have, and sometimes I even achieve it.
I worked in an office environment for my entire professional career. I took very seriously a mantra that one should “know when to hold ’em” in order to survive. Indeed, the landscape was littered with many former co-workers who flamed out early by not knowing when to keep their traps shut. Either they remained stuck in dead-end, soulless jobs or they were terminated. For my own survival then, I took a lot of showers, drove many car miles, and worked-out on ellipticals in order to get a better alternative version of the negative work conversation that took place earlier in the day. My revised and extended reenactments were always incisive, succinct, and wounding. Walter Mitty had nothing on this boy.
I think the jury is out on whether this is actually healthy, though. There is something to getting things off your chest, clearing the air, and not keeping too much buried inside. But “fair-fighting” methods employed with loved ones don’t always transfer well to the office. Sometimes you just have to wear that plate of armor.
Even in retirement, I do feel my patience is tested regularly. One of my pet peeves is with purposeful public displays of insincerity. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is with banking institutions. Except for savings and loans, which I think are preferable but not always as convenient, nearly all banks now are huge, national corporations. I am with Wells Fargo, but I’ve noticed that it really doesn’t matter. A handful of years earlier I banked with Bank of America and they were really no different. I don’t know why exactly, but the management of these institutions have decided that their employees should go absolutely overboard when a customer walks into the branch. All I really want to do is get in line, but before I do I’m received by their representatives at the door who speak in platitudes to greet me. When my turn is called, instead of the teller just saying that he/she can help the next person, management has instructed that they must say, “It would be my pleasure to serve the next customer.” The poor dears can’t even use a contraction.
As we negotiate the financial transaction, I am then asked a question that is ostensibly friendly (i.e. “So how’s your day going so far?”), but I can tell that it’s a rote recitation that has been forced upon them by a management determined to have its staff portray a “friendly bank” atmosphere. These exchanges are false. They aren’t real to me. They become robotic interactions given with a smile but with a feeling of, “I could really care less.” I have a much more sincere conversation with my local Chinese restaurant proprietor when I pick-up the take-out meal. She is genuinely glad to see me each time, and I think about this later in the evening as I begin to feel the effects of the MSG in my body. It may be heartburn and light-headedness, but dammit it’s sincere.
One of my favorite drinking games with friends during my twenties was to pick the one attribute of your parents that you hoped to not someday emulate. Besides wanting to avoid my mother’s habit of making every single story an epic and interminable experience, I also hoped not to be the malcontent that they both sometimes were. Nobody likes malcontents, especially an old malcontent. Just like when Paul Simon had to wear the turkey suit on Saturday Night Live, I also don’t want be Mister Alienation.
I still don’t want to be Mister Alienation. So if you see me dining with Gorgeous in a restaurant someday, please don’t think I’m angry with her if I’m yelling from across the table. It’s probably just that her hearing aid batteries need replacing.