70 candles: Another Baby Boom milestone

Opinion: Columns

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By Doug Deuchler

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I look at that number — 70 — and I think, "Me? No way! I'm not ready." But the reality is that very soon I shall slip into my eighth decade. 

"So what's the big deal?" a younger friend asked me. "Age is only a number." That's true, but we only get so many numbers. 

I'm finding the transition into this new decade is just a tad scary. I have never been afraid of the aging process till now. But this birthday seems different. I may be able to concentrate on being less apprehensive. But can I actually learn to embrace turning 70? It's an emotionally tricky milestone, to say the least.

I'm proud to have been born in 1946, the beginning of the largest demographic bulge in the history of the world. Every adult male I knew as a child — from my dad and my uncles to our neighbors — had fought in World War II. 

We, the first Boomers, were born into the highly energized postwar period. Our parents' lives went "on hold" when our dads went off to war. Many of our moms worked in war plants. My mother had assembled wrist watches at the Elgin Watch Factory until Pearl Harbor. After that, she and all the other "gals" in her section put timing mechanisms in torpedoes. 

In our childhoods, we little Boomers were often told how lucky we were, born into such a booming period of opportunity, enjoying our carefree lives, often in "better neighborhoods," with Eskimo Pies, Sugar Pops, Howdy Doody, hula hoops, coonskin caps, Bosco, Sky King, and all the rest. Many of us working-class kids would become the first members of our families to graduate college.

Ah, yes. To paraphrase Dickens, it was the best of times. My father got a new Chevy Bel Air the same month I got a Schwinn "two-wheeler" bicycle. It was the worst of times. Everyone's house smelled like an ashtray, every kid shared chicken pox, measles, and mumps in our crowded classrooms (and occasionally polio), and father didn't always know best.

The first of the early Baby Boomers have been turning 70 since January. I'm in very good company. There are 2.1 million of us: folks like Cher, Bill Clinton, Liza Minnelli, Jimmy Buffett, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Dolly Parton, Diane Keaton, Steven Spielberg, Ben Vereen, Sylvester Stallone, and even that orange-looking dude who puts his name on buildings. 

Milestone birthdays force you to confront your own mortality. There seem to suddenly be so many new things to consider at 70. (Notice I said consider, not worry about. I'm trying to be upbeat.)

For instance, our culture seems obsessed with memory loss. Probably nothing but cancer is more terrifying. I bought a big green-colored jar of Gingko Biloba but I can't seem to remember where I put it.

Eating a healthy diet and portion control have become significant issues. But at the Lake Theatre I have been known to completely devour a family-sized bag of Twizzlers before the trailers have even finished playing. 

I don't ever feel old on the inside. I usually forget to ask for my "senior" discount in stores. I teach film classes to "seniors" but don't seem to notice that lately many of them are younger. I guess I haven't fully faced up to being a senior.

Attempting to become more physically active, I joined a water aerobics class, Aqua Motion, at Gottlieb Fitness Center. In my first session I found the sudden transition — jumping into a pool chock-full of seniors — a bit daunting. But they were all so fun and welcoming, I'm now a proud participant, thrilled to see men and women in their eighth and ninth decades in running shoes, sweats, swimsuits, and workout clothes.

You can run but you can't hide. Lots of us don't want to grow old, so we keep buying jeans with ever-bigger butts and distracting ourselves in various ways — like getting tattoos, pretending we're ageless. But if you're not getting older, you're dead. So deal with it, I tell myself.

After a while, of course, your body develops a mind of its own and betrays you. Every day it seems like something new is either growing in you or on you.

In China I'm told young people revere the elderly. I'd have to see this to believe it. In America at a certain point you're simply invisible. 

In Walgreens recently, I was writing a check (Yes, I'm one of those old coots who still writes checks). The young female clerk told me the total: "Nineteen-oh-one." As I wrote in the amount, I quipped, "1901? Why, that's the year I was born!" She responded, "Cool." No, dear, I'm not really 115 years old.

If you ask me, growing old gracefully is way overrated. Avoiding negativity is a good tactic in general but there's no need to wear rose-colored glasses. Sometimes it feels so good to fuss.

At this age, conversations can become tedious. One needs a medical dictionary to keep up with friends' health updates. Back in the day, we engaged in animated chats about drugs and sex and rock & roll. Now we seem to endlessly discuss crap like A-Fib, tinnitus, knee- and hip-replacement procedures, prostate biopsies and restless leg syndrome. 

I remember old folks boring me to tears when I was a kid with their tales of youthful diligence and deprivation, so I am usually on guard that I don't commit this offense. I resist using "in my day" in any conversation with younger people.

Life was definitely different when we septuagenarians were coming up. Every memory is American history.

Our first 1951 black-and-white Admiral TV had mahogany doors that opened and closed over the screen. My mother always made us keep them closed when the television was not in use. I think she thought Milton Berle or Gabby Hayes or Ricky Ricardo might be able to watch us if we didn't. 

If you're 70 you remember when Cokes and candy bars cost a nickel, comic books were a dime, and lots of kids kept pennies in the little slots of their penny loafers. I thought I was very cool because I put dimes in mine. This meant I always had money to make a call from something called a "pay phone."

We had a "party line" in our house. For a slight reduction in our monthly phone bill, my family shared our telephone line with a couple of other unknown "parties." Our phone ring was two longs and a short. Though we were never, ever supposed to do it, as a small kid I loved cautiously picking up the receiver to listen in on the conversations of the other "parties." My mother would get furious with me if she caught me, but, frankly, the daytime drama provided by gabbing strangers was always far more fascinating than anything Ma had going on her kitchen radio.

I digress — which also seems to be a habit of my new age group. 

As we march into "old age," many of us struggle with a persistent, irrational dread of getting older. No one wants to lose their youthful energy and face the inevitable health problems that come with it. Mortality lurks. We have more aches and pains — usually from overdoing it. (We think we're 50.) We buy sympathy cards at an increasing rate because we are losing dear ones more frequently. Most of us are "making do," living on less. And we fear being forgotten. These are all real issues, difficult to disregard.

There is a name for this: gerascophobia. The term comes from geraso, which means "I'm getting old."

We males especially dread turning into cranky old men. When I was a kid I was convinced this eventually happened to all guys. Those crabby codgers who seldom smiled would always be yelling at us for riding our bikes across their lawns, or losing a ball in their bushes. But now I clearly see we're not all doomed to become abrasive, joyless geezers. If you're an annoying jerk as a kid, chances are you'll be like that at 70. It's that simple.

As older Baby Boomers turn 70, it's better to celebrate all that's good about this age. And there's a lot. For starters, less tendency to people-please. It's easier to turn stuff down. We know our values. We understand what makes us happy; most of us are pretty mellow. We've gotten better at tuning out negativity. Most of my friends tell me they avoid toxic situations and boring people. 

Yes, we may be distressed by the ravages of the years on our appearance. My pal Michael Termine is frequently told how great he looks for his age. But Michael admits, "I would rather be an ugly 35 than a great-looking 70." 

But 70 years after Mozart was born, he'd been dead for 35 years. In 1900 life expectancy was 47 years. But that's because the millions of babies who died of everything from diarrhea to diphtheria brought the average down. 

We need to grab the quality time that still lies ahead.

There's not that much we can do about aging, so you might as well not worry about scary health stuff in advance. It just poisons the present and sucks the joy out of it. 

There's still a lot of gas left in the tank. Gerontologists say the most important thing we can do is keep busy and stay involved — working a bit, perhaps, volunteering, and playing. We need to re-examine and reshape our lives.

I didn't always listen so well to my father, but I do remember him saying the most important thing you can do as you grow older is to be flexible. Life is ever changing and you have to keep up or you're sunk.

Perhaps we older Boomers will alter perceptions of what it means to grow old. We've always been so full of ourselves, thinking we have all the answers because of our vast numbers. 

But maybe we'll put a new spin on turning 70. I'm definitely stepping into a brave new world. 

Am I ready for it? 

I'd better be!

Doug Deuchler is a longtime educator and historian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent, film class instructor and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.

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