Big Five-Oh!: Facing, Fearing, and Fighting Fiftyby William Geist, Bill Geist
Everyday eleven thousand birthday boys and
Following the trauma of passing the mid-century mark, Bill Geist lies about his age, shops for a Harley, receives liposuction counseling, finds himself the oldest guy at at rock concert, buys "relaxed fit" jeans, and damn near buys a Cadillac! It's enough to make a grown man cry . . . so what else is there to do but laugh?
Everyday eleven thousand birthday boys and girls hit the Big Five-Oh - that's one every seven and a half seconds - and here's a gleefully grumpy glimpse of what's in store when you(or anyone you know or anyone you think you know, if you could just remember their blasted name) cross the Great Age Divide and start the long, strange trip into the Golden Years.
It's the startling receipt of an AARP membership card that initiates the author's comical ruminations about his condition. He covers agingthe humorist's classic materialin something life 50 short checklists and brief essays. Among Geist's complaints: He's contracted CRS, or "Can't Remember Shit" (his case seems confirmed by the repetition of a few favorite gags). He wants to wear a name tag for his own edification. His bawdy reportage segues to narcoleptic parties, maturing kids, health spas, trifocals, the music of John Tesh, incontinence, and the grand opening of a funeral home (where guests nibbled on finger sandwiches "from the caterer, not the back room"). With particular attention to urology and his (or anybody's) libido, Geist seems to aspire to the post of Dirty Old Man, which is okay if it's funny. Happily, most of the time it is, with just an occasional lapse. Make what you will of his sex advisory: "Just Keep It to Yourself. At this point why drag others into this ugly business?" For the ladies, he has a few comments on Premarin and the fitting of fiftysomethings into bathing suits. Geist, of course, has an attitude: Gail Sheehy, he has concluded, is full of that stuff he can't remember (see "CRS").
He covers his subject with an acerbic wit that occasionally calls for a large dose of Maalox. If the AARP card so affected Geist's spirit, what will happen when his Medicare card comes 'round? Still, this is way funnier than Modern Maturity.
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Read an Excerpt
50 Ways to Tell You're 50
1. Test-drive Cadillac
2. Have to "double pump" to get out of taxicab
3. Longer recovery time between orgasms (six weeks at VA Hospital)
4. Never heard of Grammy winners
5. Make grunting sounds putting on socks
6. Drop Playboy Channel, pick up Food Network
7. Attend menopause awareness seminars to meet chicks (men)
8. Able to periodically defrost Hungry-Man Double Entree TV dinner with bare hands (women)
9. Take three tries to call own kids by correct names
10. Switch from frozen margaritas to Sustacal and vodka
11. Can't read menu
12. Can't hear specials
13. Couldn't remember them even if you could
14. Now play air guitar only to "unplugged" records
15. Can't buy CDs because don't know how to open them
16. Fight with toddlers over last disposable diaper in box
17. Ear hair
19. Can't see squat (eyesight's failing)
20. Can't see dick (literally)
21. Mall walk
22. Can't recall last sex act (and there was no second party to ask)
23. Aroused only by buffets
24. Wear name tag as much for yourself as for others
25. Support no-fault farting candidates
26. Canvassers signing you up for organ donor program ask, "Mind if we wait?"
27. Let out pants on the first of every month
28. Can't stay up for Letterman/Leno (and wouldn't know Conan if you saw him on the street)
29. Can't tape them; don't know how
30. Must put some of your birthday candles on side of cake
31. Camp overnight at Tower Records for new Tesh release
32. Dig barbershop quartets
33. See withered old codger on street and realize he was one year ahead of you in school
34. Leave turn signal on
35. Forget to zip up
36. Forget to zip down
37. Go to movies you forgot you've already seen (but it doesn't make any difference)
38. Branson vacation
39. Enjoy CBS programming
40. Annual medical checkup beginning to sound like Don Rickles' act (e.g., doctor asks if you'd like a sonogram)
41. Obsessive-compulsive reminiscing
42. "I'd Rather Be Square Dancing" Bumper sticker (on your RV)
43. Habitually "off-line,"
44. Clip "get acquainted" coupon for early-bird special
45. Say "Eh?" and "Huh?" a lot
46. New nickname "Twinplex" (ass is getting so big they could show movies on each half)
47. Fall asleep (rather than pass out) at parties
48. Hangovers last longer than three-day flu
49. Have nightmare you're on a bus to Atlantic City with white-haired folks holding complimentary rolls of nickels
50. Stop flipping motorists the bird--and they start flipping it to you
"Ahhhhhh!" I scream, slumping to the couch.
My wife, Jody, rushes in and sees me in obvious pain, clutching a letter.
"Is it ... the phone bill again?" she inquires.
"Worse," I reply. The worst, in fact; the worst thing one can receive in the mail, now that a Unabomber suspect has been apprehended and the military has stopped sending out draft-induction letters.
"Who's it from?" she asks.
"Deets," I reply.
"The bursar at Will's [our son's] college?"
"No. Horace B. Deets, executive director of the AARP ... the American Association of Retired Persons. I'm eligible to join!"
"Ahhhhhh!" my wife screams, slumping to the couch.
We all hear a random scream now and then, and what with violent crime dropping and the number of people turning 50 accelerating, chances are the next scream you'll hear will be from someone hearing from Deets:
"Stand back, folks. Give him some air. He's going to be all right. He's not hurt, just aging rapidly, that's all. "
"What happened, officer?"
"He was AARP'd."
Another unprovoked AARPing. AARP attack. AARP-related injury. I guess your AARP letter is an induction notice of sorts--a notice of induction into old age.
"Like seeing vultures on your telephone wire," as one recent recipient describes it.
"What next?" asks another. "A letter from June Allyson and a free box of Depends?"
Along with lots of "funny" birthday greeting cards on the subject of your turning into an amnesic, decaying, incontinent, doddering old fool, there will come your letter from Deets. I thought I took it pretty well, simply canceling all plans for any sort of birthday celebration and going to bed for three days.
How does he know, this Deets? You may not want anyone to know, you may have been able to keep it from your best friends, but somehow Deets knows: you're turning 50.
About one week before my fiftieth birthday the mail arrived and there it was, the AARP letter.
"And I'll bet you screamed 'Ahhhhh!'" said Melinda Halpert, AARP's director of membership development.
"Exactly," I replied.
She said some people call and request that the AARP letter be sent to friends as a practical (cruel) joke.
But it's no joking matter. "Some people get quite angry," Ms. Halpert said. "One woman called and said she didn't want her mailman knowing how old she was. Another woman was living with a younger man who had no idea she was so old until our letter came."
I asked her if this Deets had a sadistic streak. "I've never seen that," Ms. Halpert answered. "He's actually quite nice."
"And you?" I asked, accusatorially. "You're probably not even 50 yet."
"I'm not 50 yet," she admitted. "But believe me I can feel it coming and am very empathetic."
How did they know my birthday?
"Driver's license files, magazine subscriptions, that sort of thing," she said. They get them any way they can. But they get them. Almost every American who's turning 50 gets the letter from Deets.
On his fiftieth birthday, President Clinton said, "I'm going to be all right until I get my AARP card in the mail, and there will be a couple of bad hours there."
President Clinton didn't get one because AARP doesn't send them to government buildings and he lives in one. So Horace Deets gave it to him personally, like a subpoena server. Deets always gets his man.
"We're working on ways to make the letter more palatable," Ms. Halpert said. "We realize turning 50 brings up a lot of complex issues and psychological baggage." (With me it was like the carousel at JFK Airport after three 747s just landed.)
"Our letter to 50-year-olds now begins: 'You're not retired, you're not moving to Florida, you're not old!'"
So why call it an association of "retired" persons?
"We think the American Association of Persons would be a little broad," she explained. She said the age limit used to be 55, was dropped to 50, but probably won't go any lower--hardly necessary with millions of people now turning 50 every year. (There are 33 million members already--about a third in their 50s.) "And you can get an associate membership at any age," Ms. Halpert said. As if ...
You just send them a check for eight bucks. And you get what? A bottle of cyanide tablets? Nope. You'll receive (or be eligible for):
* Modern Maturity magazine--the largest-circulation magazine in the world, with articles on energetic old people (Springsteen was on the cover!) and products that will help you overcome the litany of aches, pains, leaks, and so on currently besetting your obsolete body.
* enrollment in the AARP pharmacy service (you'll be sick a lot now)
* supplemental group health and hospital insurance (sick and hospitalized a lot now)
* low-cost life insurance (sick, hospitalized, and dead now)
* FTD florist discount (attending a lot of funerals now)
* their pledge that "You're welcome at any one of four thousand local chapters.... Meet new friends ..."
I called Eva Germano, county membership chairperson, to see what was shaking over at my local chapter, AARP Local #3969.
"We have monthly meetings," Eva said, "with speakers from different hospitals and things. It's interesting, but you can't come."
"And why not!?" I snapped indignantly. "I'm 50!"
"You can be a member of national," she explained, "but you can't come to our local meetings until you have applied and we have an opening. Can't get in." I imagined members of the Gray Panthers with Uzis blocking the door.
"We do get openings," she said. "People stop coming. Some die." (Good excuse for missing a meeting.)
"We don't have any people in their 50s," she said. "Our meetings are in the afternoons, when you people are working." Eva seemed not too keen on the idea of letting working people--you people--into an association of retired persons, and she would seem to have a point.
"We've never turned anybody down, but we have to check the application and make sure you're not trying to join two chapters. That's illegal." Of course, of course. Can't have people from another chapter coming to listen to your hospital speaker. There'd be pandemonium.
I asked her how many members were in the chapter, how many came to a typical meeting.
"Why do you want to know that?" she replied. "I don't know you well enough to tell you that." Jesus, it's like I was asking Eva her cup size. Classified, I guess. Need to know basis. Wouldn't want Saddam Hussein to find out AARP's troop strength in Bergen County.
OK, Eva, OK. Any other activities?
"We did have a six days-five nights bus trip to Quebec last year," she said. I almost asked her how big the bus was but I knew I'd never get it out of her.
Caroline Goffredo, program director of Local #3969, called to tell me that she had the authority to divulge other activities, such as: a speaker on defibrillation; a speaker from the local paramedics' unit; a bus trip to a New Jersey dinner theater; singing; and "I play the piano."
I sat on the couch and read my Deets letter out loud to Jody. "'You have to be 50 to join, but you don't have to be retired,' it says here. See, it comes with a temporary membership card, and, honey, if I join you're automatically a member and you'll get an AARP membership card too!"
"Don't!" she barked. "Don't you dare!"
Losing Our Minds
Neuropsychiatrists sometimes refer to this distressing mental affliction as STMLS--"Short-Term Memory Loss Syndrome."
Laymen without benefit of medical training or expertise, however, often call the malady CRS--"Can't Remember Shit."
There are scientific studies, performed by real researchers in white lab coats, purporting to show that people over 50 do not actually suffer much memory loss, that our ability to store and retrieve information declines just ever so slightly over the years.
I agree with that conclusion only if "store" and "retrieve" is defined as writing information down, putting it in a box, and retrieving it from said box--and providing my wife is around to tell me where I put the box.
Just such a scientist cautioned me that I should therefore use the qualifiers "alleged" and "allegedly" when referring to any alleged middle-aged memory loss.
No problem. Now, Mr. Science, could you please tell me where I put my allegedly lost car f--ing keys? Thank you.
Whether you call it STMLS or CRS, it's bothersome: at the store, when you can't remember what you came to buy; at work, when you can't remember what you were hired to do; or at home, when you can't remember what you named your child.
The problem is, there is too much to remember these days, too much information arriving too fast. Names, for one thing. I'm in the news business, where we meet many, many new people all the time, and perhaps because we know we'll probably never see them again, we immediately forget their names. This we call "Newsheimer's Disease." We train our brains to flush those names as we move on to meeting a new batch of people the next day. But in this mental process I tend to flush the important names, too.
This becomes problematic at the office Christmas party, where I am well acquainted with everyone there but know only a third of their names. So, I am reduced to cheap trickery, saying, "Have you met my wife?" and waiting for my wife, Jody, to say her name and for them to divulge theirs. This is not a great solution. With even mildly intelligent people I come off as either rude (for not introducing them by name) or retarded (for not remembering their names) or a jerk (for trying to trick them with such an obvious ploy).
You must remember not only lots of names but lots of appointments, errands, addresses, phone numbers.
My telephone number when I was growing up was 2138. To call my office answering machine on a credit card today it's 1-800-321-0288-212-975-4321-830-252-3456-7890-#-5645-123400. And then I hear a message. If I'm using the proper phone company. (There was one nice, good, reliable, monopolistic telephone company when I was growing up, which suited me fine and which incidentally gave you a rugged black phone to use that you didn't have to throw away after every call like you do now, but I digress.) Anyway, screw up on one number when you're dialing and you start over.
Remembering to call people back is a problem. You are on the phone, you take a second call on call waiting and say you'll call that person right back, but you forget--sometimes forever. All these technological advances are purportedly to serve humankind. But that's the problem: we're human!
I was told once that if I needed to remember something I should put a rubber band around my wrist to remind me or tie a string on my finger. But, being human, and an aging one, I often can't remember why I put them there in the first place. And besides, wearing twelve rubber bands on each wrist and strings on your fingers cuts off your circulation and marks you the fool, I find.
How bad does it get? Pretty bad. And Jody has just as advanced a case of CRS as I do, so we're of little help to one another. If we saw a murder and had to testify, we'd be jailed as uncooperative witnesses: "I do not recall ... I do not recall...."
At a cheerful lunch with old friends, questions arise: "When was that, that we went to that great place, you know the place, with those guys, you know who I mean, what's his name and what's her face? Oh, where was that? I can't remember why on earth we went there, but it was fun. Wasn't it?
When having lunch with fiftyish companions, try to take along a younger person to fill in the blanks: names, places, current day of the week, month, etc. They're also far more adept at remembering the specials.
In the car, children are good for reminding you--however rudely--to turn off the turn signal and the windshield wipers. And for reminding you of why you are in the car and where you are going.
Questions and more questions. Did we see that play? Have I read that book? Did we see that play? Have I read that book? (Did I write that already?)
Trying to pick the popcorn from beneath the ever-widening gaps in your teeth in the darkness of a theater, there are whispered questions between we two:
"Haven't we seen this film?"
"I don't know yet.
"I think we have."
"Maybe you're right."
"Isn't this the one where the guy ..."
"Oh God, it is."
"I can't believe this."
"You never can."
"Can we get our money back?"
"On what grounds?"
"No, but we could sneak into the theater next door."
"We may have seen that one, too."
"It's hard to say."
"Let's just stay here."
"I don't remember much of this one anyway.
"Just don't tell me the ending."
"How could I?"
The world is all so fresh and new, and life so endlessly fascinating, when you ... Can't Remember Shit.
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