I recall being in fifth or sixth grade at Saint Gerard’s Catholic School, studying US history with Sister Mary Owen. Everyone loved her. She wasn’t an easy teacher and had high expectations for us all. She was kind and fair. She was talented. I remember sitting in the second seat in the second row from the classroom door which was in the southeast corner of the room. I read, “George Washington had a prominent nose.”
Suddenly the ceiling of the room opened up and angelic tones filled the room while Italianate rays of sunshine fell onto my desk, showing the shadow of my own newly anointed prominent nose. Up until that very moment, my nose had been large, a beak, a hook, a schnozzola. Now it was almost presidential. I do not remember if Sister Mary Owen showed any signs of witnessing this transfiguration, but I have thought ever since that day that had any other teacher led the class, I would have been picked on immediately afterwards. Instead, no one said anything at all. I was left with a new sense of being somewhat more okay with myself.
Today as I think of my encore work, I am reminded of that pre-adolescent period when boys were told we smelled bad, our voices were cracking, and our bodies were growing in weird and wonderful ways. There was no guide book. Hell, there was no talking about these developmental spurts of energy and growth. There were nights back then when my body arched with pain at night trying to fall asleep; my bone growth was such that my longer leg and arm bones hurt. In addition to the usual things that my classmates were experiencing, I come from a particularly Neanderthal-rich stock of primates. We have lots of hair and it grows everywhere and early. Those things, combined with my presidential nose, further complicated an already complicated period of life, pre-adolescence.
Why do I associate pre-adolescence with being in my mid-sixties? Well, in addition to having inordinate amounts of nose hair, ear hair, and an occasional whisker on my nose, I find that the physical, emotional, and social issues associated with aging are either ignored, made taboo, laughed at, or disguised. Just as adolescent development complicated school performance, so too does aging complicate encore performance. I believe that the lasting negative effects of these complications can be ameliorated by having Sister Mary Owen in charge. In other words, we are less likely to get tripped up by the impact of age discrimination if we build a culture of respect. In that context, we don’t need to pretend aging isn’t happening. Instead we can embrace it and enjoy more of the ride.
This week I will be writing about physical, emotional, and social issues that we are likely to face in doing our encore work. In my case, this means addressing the stuff that can help or hinder my work to develop community.
If we don’t believe that the stuff I am writing about here is real or important, consider all of the things we do to diminish the effects of aging on our skin and hair. In the US, women spend approximately $7 billion a year on skin care. That is an average of $100 per person. To get an idea of the scale of that figure, the money spent would pay for four years of higher education for every woman in the US if invested over a 20 year period. College for every one. Furthermore, between haircuts, coloring, styling, and products, the average woman in the US spends more than $50,000 in her lifetime on her hair. While the figures for skin care and hair care for men are not readily available, they are likely somewhat less. Still, the human capital expended on making our skin and hair look healthy and YOUNG is startling. The ads say it all and we sit there listening to them as though they were not discriminatory at their core: “Reverse the signs of aging.”
Our vision and hearing often becomes impaired as we age. For some of us, hearing loss starts early; for others, much later. But we generally do not dispute that there is an age for hearing loss. Vision, too. Macular degeneration and cataracts are terms with which we become familiar after 60. Until I had my first field vision test, I had no idea that they existed. Many people over 60, however, can readily join in conversation about them, usually saying how annoying they are.
Six days a week I get mail advertising cruises, senior centers, and health care organizations. The people depicted in them are my age, but are tanned, botoxed, airbrushed androids with teeth too white, hair too dark (or the snowiest white ever seen), and eyes devoid of glasses. While I am fortunate enough to have somehow escaped the relentless marketing of Viagra, I still get Facebook advertising for mortuary services, again showing smiling funeral directors’ families and some flawless age-mates.
How are we to build community when the people depicted as us we are not a better version of ourselves, but robots? How do we build an encore career that will meet or exceed societal expectations when the realities of physical changes in our skin, hair, vision, and hearing are ignored, made wrong, or made the butt of jokes?