Here’s a coincidence:
My son and I are both seniors.
In a few weeks, he will graduate from high school and embark on a summer of celebratory excess and youthful hijinks to be followed by an exciting new life as a music student in Miami.
At the same time, I, according to entrenched cultural stigmas, will graduate from everything young and fun, sweet and sultry, hopeful and exciting, energetic and lively and possibly end up in a continuing care facility in Boca.
Senior and Senior. One word. Two contrasting definitions.
Up until recently, I didn’t give much thought to being a senior citizen. I am 53 and I couldn’t possibly tell you how young or old I look because youthfulness, like everything else these days, is a condition on a spectrum.
I am certainly not a product of California’s best plastic surgeons. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that I look and feel better than the skeleton of Norman Bates’s mother in “Psycho.” I’ve been told that I have a young face. That’s something.
Moreover, I cherish the hope that I look and feel almost as good as my mother, a charming, elegant and steely Manhattan lady of 83 with a perfectly proportioned figure, a full head of beautifully graying hair and a chipper social schedule of business meetings, artistic events and dining with family and friends that takes her from breakfast to dinner in a stunning wardrobe of muted knit separates and exquisite scarves.
I would never describe my mother as a Senior Citizen.
Apparently, however, to my shock and dismay, I AM ONE.
Here’s how I found out.
I was in the kitchen on a recent morning, nibbling on a meager dieter’s breakfast of black coffee and high-fiber crackers and meditating about why it is that in the 21st Century plumpness is a man-repellant (see previous post). I was relishing my well-matched reverie and spartan meal, and beginning to accept with a delightful sense of serenity that I was going to have to become svelte and sculpted if I wanted to date and mate. Happy visions of high heels and cocktail dresses were floating through my brain. I began daydreaming about arms, beautiful ballerina arms, Michelle Obama arms, guns so famous and fabulous they would need their own publicist.
The kitchen phone scattered my lovely thoughts.
“Hello may I speak to Mrs. Mary Bah-rett,” said a man with a wooden phone-bank voice.
“Who’s calling?” I replied in an edgy squeak, annoyed that I had allowed this fun-sucker to interrupt my happy musings.
His mumbled response sounded something like: “I am calling from the Foundation to Aid Ailing Senior Citizens.”
“Send me something in the mail,” I snapped. “I don’t give money over the PHONE.”
“But this isn’t a fundraising call.”
“What IS IT THEN?”
“We are calling to see if you received your Senior Citizen Prescription Discount Card.”
“We sent you a Senior Citizen Prescription Discount card. Did you receive it?”
I paused to let this statement sink in. My heart pounded anxiously.
“You sent me a Prescription Drug Card?”
“That’s right, Ma’am.”
“Why,” I inquired, my mind clouded with dread. “Is it because I am over 50?”
“Yup, that’s it.”
OMG. I slumped back onto my breakfast stool, devastated.
I was Shocked, Sickened and Ashamed! Without any warning at all, I had been relocated to Senior Citizen camp–a silent but deadly transition. Who could be responsible for this heinous occurrence? I was texting my HIGHER POWER immediately!
I slammed down the phone, bewailing my fate. Goodbye Diva, Hello Diapers. Praise the Lord and pass the Cialis. I’m a SENIOR, I sobbed.
After several minutes of rapid mood swings from deepest depression to highest hysteria, I calmed down sufficiently to ponder my fate. I started thinking about the ghastly image of Senior Citizens and wondered how they had gotten to be such pitiful pariahs. Whence the cultural stigma? Could I hatch a plan to banish it? Before heading out to get a gray-plate special for lunch?
It’s been said that we in the United States do not revere our old people. Senior Americans are, with a few high-profile exceptions such as Carl Reiner and Betty White, portrayed in popular culture as a pretty pathetic bunch: pitiful, leaky, viagra-popping slowpokes, shuffling around in ugly golfwear and ill-fitting dentures, causing traffic accidents and taking up space that could be better used for, say, building more Apple superstores or filming more reality shows about stupid young people getting drunk at the beach. Seniors, at their most desperate, are the excrutiatingly isolated couple described by John Prine’s grimmer-than-grim ballad, “Hello in There”:
“Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome. Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”
How, I wondered, could seniors shake this dreary image?
Maybe it was a matter of moniker. After all, in media-maniacal 2010 names are everything. Names create images. Images stick: Lion of the Senate, Lord of the Dance, Brangelina, Octomom. Maybe we needed terminology that would do for elder Americans what Ms. did for unmarried women in the 1970s. But what to call the graybeards?
It was a head-scratcher, for sure. Tribal Elders had a certain ethnic flair. How about Midlife Graduates (MG for short, kind of dashing) or Wise Warriors (our group website would be WWW. WW.com— COOL). We could name ourselves FAL (Free At Last from the stress and squalor of middle age).
Clearly I could not figure this out on my own. I decided that it was time for the ginormous American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to hold a contest and pick something really twenty-first century, catchy and DANK as the new senior moniker.
A new name would do a lot to erase the ageist stigma. I realized, however, that we elderly also needed a fresh visual to represent fiftysomethings-and-above. We needed a Senior Poster Child so strong and beautiful that he or she would knock the dentures and blue wigs off all the old cliches, to say nothing of staring down anyone who dared to call him or her a Senior.
Then it hit me: Those arms I was dreaming about…those guns, that flawless skin, those beautiful strong eyes, that killer bod, that big brainiac brain…MICHELLE OBAMA. She’s going to turn 50 in 2014! MICHELLE OBAMA was gonna be FIFTY years old!
In four years, in her Second Term as First Lady, the phone would ring in the Private Residence at the White House and the wooden-voiced Pharmaceutical Card Philanthropist would say:
“Hello is this MUSH-ELLE OBAYMA?”
We could not allow that to happen.
We needed to stop the poor beleaguered phone-bank man from using the word “senior” again. Michelle would be the key. She would be the image for the new campaign to rename, and reinvent, America’s Seniors. Michelle would save us.
In four years Fifty Would Not be The New 40. Fifty would be ageless Michelle Obama. Hey, maybe Ageless would be the new word for Aged.
I knew one thing for sure: Nobody, but nobody, would face those guns and call that gorgeous Amazon First Lady a Geezer.
EPILOGUE (FIVE DAYS LATER…)
A Troubling New Question has arisen: Will I have the moral fortitude to wait FOUR YEARS for Michelle to shake up the senior thing? It seems that the G word is now affixed to me with extra-strength denture bond. I’m not really down with that, my peeps. Not down with it at all.
What am I nattering on about?
Just five days after I wrote the preceding post, the kitchen phone rang again. Once again, I answered it with hope in my heart. “Hello, Mrs. Bah-rett,” intoned another wooden phone bank voice. “Who’s CALLLLLing,” I trilled. The voice said: “Hi, I represent a company that will convert your slippery old tub into a safe walk-in shower.”
Slippery tub? No. Slippery slope? Yes.