Recently I showed a young friend a photo of me when I was 18. He looked curiously at the photo, then at me, and asked, "What happened?"
"Oh, I don't know," I said. "Let me see... could it be the cumulative damage to tissues that surpasses the body's ability to repair them, eventually wearing down essential organs and systems, leading to muscle and bone loss, impaired hearing and vision, and greater susceptibility to disease? Not to mention the damaged cells, loss of neurons, and shrinkage of the brain."
When I was young, I thought aging was a matter of wrinkles and gravity. At 70, the buttocks have gone the way of the tits, but wrinkles hardly matter to me anymore. The grave, not gravity, is more of a concern. I look around for inspiration, but all I find are those irritating clichés: "The golden years," "The best is yet to come," "Life begins at 40," "You're only as old as...," and, excuse me while I throw up, "the twilight years."
When I was young, in the 1950s, I thought gays would always be oppressed. As we began to win our rights, I was amazed by our sheer numbers and variety. Still young, I never gave aging a second thought. When I see today's young waste their youth, I want to rescue them from folly or run them over with my walker. I don't feel like I wasted my youth, but of course I did--we all do, don't we? I was lazy in mind and body, settled for less, overindulged, and chased leg rather than ledger. Then comes old age, when you know all the answers, but no one asks you the questions anymore.
Oh, and when I was 21, I thought all older men were friendly because they wanted my body. Well, duh, sex is the driving force on this planet. But I should have said to myself then--and I say to youth now--don't be so arrogant, you little shits. Dogs that men can be, most gay men are gentlemanly about their cruising, and while some of the older men who were nice to my younger self did want my body, just as many did not. Some of the men who were friendly to me were just friendly. Age has much to offer youth, such as practical and esoteric input. And what better person to advise youth than someone older, someone who has confronted and survived the runaway bulldozer called "civilization."
But wisdom does not come automatically with age. After all, most of the world's problems are created by older men. People change and grow throughout their lives, but certain things follow them. If someone is a fuddy-duddy when he's young, he will most likely be impossible when he's old. The old can be set in their ways, dogmatic, niggardly, and suspicious, and lose touch with the flow of events. Some people harden as they age, and others rot, but some of us do ripen.
If there is advice the old could give the young, it's the usual stuff: watch your diet, exercise, reduce stress, and definitely prepare financially for old age--this is your time to get it together. If you don't want to get stuck singing in a single key, have new experiences and cultivate stimulating friendships. Fascinating friendships can be found in the gay world, but here's another cliché for you: Love is where you find it. The idea is to get off your precious butt and seek. Life is constant research. You always have to go farther than you think you have to go, and you shouldn't cut yourself off from the straight world.
Some more advice: Don't freeze up and be impatient with the elderly. That might be you in 50 years. And above all, don't lose your sense of romance. Like Moms Mabley said, "You're never too old for nothin'."
Ye olde philosopher said that the first 40 years are for finding a place in the world, and the next 40 are for finding a soul. Death comes after we have made our life count for something on this incredibly beautiful planet. I see the Earth as one big compost heap, with everything feeding off of everything else. The question is, did you make good compost?
Don Paulson is the author of An Evening at the Garden of Allah (with Roger Simpson). He lives on Vashon Island.