WWDD? (What Would Dad Do?)

What does it mean to age?

Yeah, some of us start with more to work with...

I know some of the physical happenings: bones thin, the body shrinks, synapses slow. Blood pressure tends to rise. So does weight. Genes and life choices pair to set us on a path that varies widely from person to person, but leads us all to the same crummy place. (But, apropos of Easter, I will acknowledge that some of us think the physical end is just the beginning of something beautiful and eternal. I envy those of such certainty.)

Here at C?WC?, I indulged in plenty of caterwauling before the recent milestone birthday, but made no acknowledgment of the day itself. Waking up on that morning, it felt just like any other day, any other Monday. And since, I’ve had plenty of time to roll “I’m 50” off my tongue, with line readings ranging from the exuberant to the mortified to the matter-of-fact. I’ve also thought more about aging, beyond the physical.

As the Crisis has repeatedly shown, for some of us aging brings reflection on the past, from warm nostalgia to contemplation of regrets, the choices made and not, good and bad. It has also, at times, brought thoughts about family, of being childless in the later years, of losing parents, of feuding and making up.

This week, thinking again about turning 50, I tried to remember what my father was like at that age, how he confronted a milestone and the continuing march toward mortality it marked. Of course, I was 12 back then in 1972, when his 50th came. I have no memory of any birthday party to celebrate the event. Nothing out of the routine that seized on the supposed enormity of the day. Not surprising, since he was not of this Baby Boomer generation that self-aggrandizes at every turn. And even if there had been something distinctive about the day, would I, the self-absorbed pre-teen contemplating the coming summer, really have noticed?

No, I’m sure for Dad that June 16, 1972, was just another day in a largely unremarkable and meaningful, sad and joyous, difficult and rewarding life. It hits hard at times, how we are so different in experiences and temperment. Take work. The man, for good or ill, was a workaholic. I, any one can tell you, am not. And each day, when he got up to go to the South Glastonbury Post Office, I’m sure he did not carry the dread of the waiting day that I do, that stuffs my pores each morning as I try to write another few thousand words for far-too-little pay.

Not the post office, of course, but not too far from it. Right near the smithy and the trading post...

The post office, for him, was a great gig. The commute was maybe 5 minutes. Sure, he was out of the house by 6:30 every day, but he had a two-hour break at 10 that let him run errands or see his kids on the days they were home sick, with maladies real or feigned.  Increasingly as he aged, the break also meant time to slump into the living room chair and close his eyes for a quick nap. The work was not too demanding, and the job gave him what he seemed to love above everything else: being with people. Talking to them. Helping them. The post office was basically a two-man operation in what was then still a quiet corner of a pretty small, though, growing suburb. Maybe not quite a Mayberry feel, but nothing like the way the town is today, with the McMansions and oversized SUVs plying sinuous, hilly roads more fit for horse-drawn wagons.

So my father, lucky man, woke up each day knowing he would do something he loved. Even though the nights, for several decades, meant taking on his second job, cleaning offices. Trust me, I know, you don’t get too excited about emptying other people’s garbage and cleaning their toilets. But even with those tasks ahead, he found a way to stay upbeat, primarily – again – by seeing people; the secretaries who worked late, the owners who never seemed to go home.

Since before the Crisis began, I have struggled to find that daily contentment that seemed to greet Dad. Obviously, that trait is not genetic, or at least not dominant. I have inherited the peasant-Italian worldview of my mother’s family, that finds the lurking, nascent gloom in every bright beaming light. And age does not diminish it, the same way it robs my blood cells of their plasticity and tells my follicles to shut down for good.

A Christmas past...

This is what I thought yesterday about aging: Did my father look in the mirror and increasingly see a face he barely recognized? And on some days, did he stare at that face and think that he hated the person behind it? If he had such thoughts, did they scare him? Would he be stricken with sadness if he heard his only son express those sentiments?

Sonuvabitch, who’s a downer today, huh?

All right, let’s try to end on an upbeat note, a personal resurrection to offer hope for better days to come. In the midst of the gloom, I have had infinitesimal moments of gladness, brought – surprise, surprise! – by playwriting. I went to a local playwrights’ group a few weeks ago and had one of my short plays read. It got a good response, and some constructive criticism that truly was. Two weeks ago, I went to a workshop in NYC. The woman leading it had extremely complimentary things to say about the play I submitted, one I really like and will be very sad to see go unproduced. And this week, I was in touch with a college professor who is working with one of my plays in her drama class. I wrote it as part of a contest of sorts with other playwrights I know solely online. The students picked my play (and several others) out of about 30 submitted. Mine, she said, was generating the most discussion (I think she meant in a good way) and she liked it too.

Wow. Small successes. Enough to  make me not hate that guy in the mirror. Today. If only I could do that kind of writing for a living…well, at least I can do it, and know I don’t totally suck at it.

Maybe that’s one good thing about aging. We can still learn. Improve some aspect of ourselves, our talents. We can, if we choose, lighten up. I’m gonna try. Really. It’s what Dad would want.

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~ by mburgan on April 4, 2010.

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