On growing old

I don’t know how to start.  I despise the sweet rhetoric that is so optimistic and feathery, and I equally abhor the moaning of old men who should have already died and who, in fact have been dead a long time but remain breathing.

My old age is apparent to any who observe me—the wrinkles, the false pregnancy (my three year old granddaughter once asked me if I was going to have a baby) and the gray hair (one is grateful for any.) But although it may not be beautiful, age, too, is in the eyes of the beholder. To many who by chance see me walking down the street I am but another old man who is occupying space on the earth that, fortunate for the population explosion, will soon be relinquished. But the beholder also includes me.

I do not look at myself unless it is utterly unavoidable. Even alone, before and after the shower, I find myself avoiding the mirror, and if a towel is handy, I drape the same over the flesh to evade its obvious message. But the kindest part is that out in the world others must look at me where I am free of it. I cannot see my face. I cannot see my rear. I cannot see my walk. I can see my belly and my feet splayed out like a duck, but only if I look down. That being so, the vision of my old age is mostly the misfortune of others.

Having come to the obvious conclusion that I am aged, those around me offer up unnecessary help. I am cautioned about a bump on the path to prevent my falling. I am helped along the way in the dark by my friends as if they can see better than I. When I wish to arise from a sitting position I am offered a hand to assist me in lifting the inglorious heap they observe sprawled out below them. None of these kindnesses reflect my need. They only acknowledge how I am observed by those who wish to be appropriately supportive in the presence of old men. Thus they have been taught, and I accept the same as a matter of entitlement.

I admit to certain infirmities. I can no longer run, for which I am thankful. Walking is easier. I tire quicker and can now take naps without criticism. Old dogs and old men sleep a lot. That one dastardly demand forces me to the bathroom several times a night and interrupts my sleep, but I know younger men who cannot go at all. I am stiff in all the wrong places which gives me the right to complain and to receive, in kind, the socially correct sympathy of my friends. Another bonus: One’s infirmities aid one in conversation with one’s peers of similar age. If nothing else we can always talk about our old, failing hearts, our old, failing teeth, our old, failing gonads, our old, failing backs, our old, failing…the potential for mutual comparisons and therefore closeness with another human being is nearly endless.

If I am called upon to identify someone by name an invisible shield slams down in front of the memory, a shield the name cannot penetrate. I have gotten to the place where I realize names are irrelevant to my happiness. I have an excuse for not remembering them, an advantage that a younger person does not enjoy. I also cannot remember certain events that others are quick to recall in disgusting detail. I understand the function of my mind: It retains that which is useful or important to me. That three years ago I promised something to Harvey when he next appeared in my town, a person I no longer remember, and probably never met in the first place, serves to teach those who deal with old men to get their promises in writing. That includes those who carelessly make bets with me and try a day or two later to collect. How does one remember?

I like old age. Actually I am seventeen years old lurking around in this strange, inefficient covering loosely called a body. I relate to the hermit crab that crawls into discarded shells along the beach and who lives a very nice, sheltered life. I pity men who find old age a hindrance, and who whimper because they cannot, except with large sums, attract young, vibrant, exciting women. Those insensitive old fools would not know what to do with such a woman if they caught her. And any woman who would have one of those deserves what she gets—an insensitive old fool.

I have encountered enough in almost eighty years of life to finally identify that which was really not interesting or worth while in the first place. That includes smoking, booze, long, exhausting, torturous back packing into the mountains and mountain climbing—all to prove one’s manliness, fancy clothes, cuff links, ties, horseback riding that leaves the loins raw and angry, river rafting that provides wet cloths and more hypothermia than joy, fancy French restaurants where it takes fifteen waiters to provide what one good American waitress can bestow in half the time and without all the elevated noses.

I do not like golf and most golfers, most rich people, all bankers, most art galleries, most modern art, Mozart, cruise ships that are populated with the aged who are irredeemably wealthy, caviar, chicken unless it is fried and most fish unless it is also fried. I have discovered the meaning of life which is good milk chocolate with almonds, hot fudge sundaes, and my wife’s 85,000 calorie chocolate cake.

Skiing is now out of the question and was only marginally acceptable on warm sunny days for a run or two for a year or two. I cannot tolerate style shows, dinner parties with more than two other couples, stand-up cocktail parties where the most interesting thing discussed is what someone with whom one is stuck with has been doing, which is substantially nothing except most of the above. The nice thing about being old is that one does not, yes, dare not, waste any of one’s life on any of these discoveries that took a lifetime to try out, endure and discard. One’s life remaining need not be frittered away crapping out on any of this. But what remains to be discovered and experienced approaches infinity. Fortunately, most of this exists in the mind—which is a safer and more convenient place to explore.

I have always feared death, as, indeed, any honest person will admit. That fear is endemic in the species and can also be found in abundance in all other mammals, birds, fish and cockroaches, so we have nothing on them. But as I have grown older my fear of death has lessened. That is one of the kindnesses of Mother Nature. Having lived a full life, the end does not seem nearly so horrible. But my idea of eternity is, indeed, horrible and the promise of eternal life, here or elsewhere is unacceptable. Think of having to live through all of what we have already experienced—and forever. After about five hundred fifty three thousand years or thereabouts one would surely have experienced all there is to experience and beg to die, and, being unable to, one would discover that eternal life is actually hell.

Remember, a beginning always demands an end.

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26 responses to “On growing old

  1. Gerry-

    As I approach 60, I embrace such comments as the one a friend of mine made: We are blessed with far-sightedness (which makes us need reading glasses). We gaze at our beloveds without seeing the marks of aging, protected by the haze of our vision at close quarters.

    Jo-Hanna

  2. Gerry–you had indicated in an earlier post that you would be speaking about aging and I have waited for it with anticipation.

    When I met you in 1994, you did me a great favor–holding up a mirror to my relationship with my father. It was particularly fortunate since, three years later, my mother was diagnosed with the illness that would be fatal a year later. I was able to see the extraordinary care my father took of her and don’t know that I would have appreciated it or him at an earlier time.

    My mother died when she was 73. Another 50 years would not have been long enough with her. However, in the 10 years since then, both my brother and I have come to have a remarkable relationship with my father.

    He is 5 years older than you are. He and I have gone together to Nepal, Thailand, the Czech Republic, Austria, and–this past May–Spain. He and my brother have gone to China, Israel and are going to Alaska next month. I am sure he did the more exotic trips for us, rather than out of any deep desire of his own, and he has advised us this year that he’d like to stay closer to home going forward.

    He shuttles between my brother’s home and mine and we both wish we could get him to stay longer. He fixes, cleans, invents, reads, is worshipped by the pack of dogs and cats that share the house. He likes good coffee and has a deep appreciation for a dish of ice cream at about 3 in the afternoon. If we ask him not to do something because we think it will be too much for him or not safe, he will immediately do it.

    And I am thrilled–until something happens and the “old guy” shows through. Maybe he suddenly dozes off and misses something I want him to see. Or his table manners reflect age and solitary living. Or the groaner joke that I know will be coming because it always has does. I am afraid of losing him and respond to that fear by getting angry. Fortunately, it passes quickly.

    Having him is one of the best things of my life. Thank you for that. I apologize if this is too personal.

  3. Gerry thanks for the gift of these observations. I have to say, I smiled the whole way through because I can just hear you saying this.

  4. Gerry: A few months ago I asked you to remember a name of a man you represented in the seventies who died of alcohol poisoning in the Cheyenne City Jail. His name was Donald Leroy Ellis. Dick Pickett remembered his name after a few days of thinking about it. The Jury gave you $60,000 for wrongful death. I looked up the case in the State Archives to find out how you got around sovereign immunity. Simple answer–$300,000 in insurance.

  5. I don’t have anything profound to add, but I just read a portion of this to my wife who enjoyed it.

    She would like the recipe for the 85,000 calorie chocolate cake.

  6. Paw paw,

    Don’t forget about planning that trip to Cuba!!! You have to go before that geezer Fidel dies. it won’t be the same once he’s gone. It will end up turning into another tourist spot like Jamaica.

    I would love to sit in on a chat between you and Fidel talking about what you here in the “silence”.

    I know the National Lawyers Guild had a “legal” trip out there every March through its Labor & Employment Committee. But I prefer Jamaica, Canada or Mexico, this way there are no restrictions on travel, hypothetically speaking of course.

    Remy

  7. Mr. Spence:

    Thanks for writing this blog. It is quite a gift for someone like me; I only wish I had found it sooner! As an aspiring advocate, I appreciate your insight. I have worked in the law for only eight years, and am currently on the path to becoming an attorney. I hope I will be able to do my part to stave off injustice throughout my career.

    I look forward to reading your words for years to come.

  8. Gerry, you are a national treasure. I lament that we do not, as do the Japanese, fully and appropriately recognize our masters as such. Your expertise, knowedge and gifts are every bit as important to our culture and ultimate civilization as any master swordsmith or calligrapher.

    Thank you for being you. Thank you for sharing who you are. Thank you for allowing me to be a small part of that legacy.

    Peace, Love & Respect

    Jim Moriarty
    Maineframe
    TLC Class of 1997

  9. Your words are moving and saturated with images. You were commencing a legal career when I was a mere papoose in my mother’s arms. At an early age my parents taught me, “Life is a journey, what ever road you travel enjoy the ride.” Everyone grows and matures at different paces, whatever age we are lucky to attain – we are merely survivors of our condition. That condition can best be described by my friend Leonard Nimoy, who expressed it this way, “The miracle is this: the more we share the more we have.”

    The internet has allowed you to freely bloom – success! Share more.

  10. maryanne murphy

    Gerry, I love you. To me you are authentic, brilliant, and creative and you have done what I hope that I am able to continue to do which is to “declare” yourself through your work and life. Thank you.

  11. I just finished a jury trial in front of 101 year old Federal Judge Wesley Brown.
    He takes the stairs every morning to his office on the fourth floor of the Federal Courthouse, and I still cant sneak anything past him.
    Quit complaining candy-ass.
    When you’re 101, I’ll pay more attention to your musings of being “old.”
    Love
    Kurt

  12. Kurt: You changed my perspective. I am just a child at 80. Thanks. Gerru

  13. But, Kurt, as you can see above, I can no longer spell my name.

    Gerry

  14. I’ll be 60 in a few days and, as a law school student, am constantly reminded of my age. Thanks for making me laugh – I needed that.

    Linda

  15. This is an amazing post! While reading it I smiled the whole time. It is unbelievably great. I learned as much from your post as I did from the book “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which took me six weeks to read. I can also see, from the sharpness of your post, that you have much more wisdom to share.

    For me … I am comforted from the frailties of life when I think of the eons of time, for which I had no consciousness. Time that existed before I remember or was anything. This is my comfort, when I cast this preexistence reflection forward to consider what comes after this life. Peace, perfect peace without want, need, or desire awaits us all. If only we had a monument of courage like yours that would stand against time.

    Referencing backpacking, having just returned from the Wyoming Windrivers wilderness area, I can even relate when I count my insect bites and sore body parts. But I must say that the wilderness has a special feeling. It existed before me and is mostly void of all things human. For me that is a great thing. It causes me to strictly reflect on the immediacy of the day. What is important now, today, like making it to the next hiking destination so I can eat, converse, recover and sleep. And hopefully, should fiber prevail, dig a hole in the dirt left by time.

    Love, Your Pal

  16. Thanks Hans Peterson.

    Your comments hit me in the heart.

    Love,

    Gerry

  17. Gerry –

    I am a law student embarking on his third and final year of law school. Thank you for your post. I see a connection between this post and the post you made regarding the bar exam and the cost of law school being a fraud. With the amount of law school debt my colleagues and I face, I stand at the crossroads of choosing my career path with an irritated stomach wanting to choose a virtuous one. I want to do good. I want to be a good man. I want to be a champion of the people. I want to be a trial lawyer. Can I succeed without selling out?

    Your post has helped me put in perspective what is important. Being only 24, I hope to learn sooner form what you say can take a lifetime to learn. Some of my friends working at big corporate defense firms this summer organized golf outings- inviting me and other law students. None of them were golfers until they thought they needed to practice golf so they would play well in front attorneys at their firms who “mattered”. Golf is expensive and I dislike it too. They were socialized into playing it. I do not think I’m going to play with them anymore.

    Instead of joining my colleagues at the large corporate defense firms, I choose a large plaintiff’s firm for two reasons: First, to hopefully be on the good side and, second, two to attack some of my large law school debt. Unfortunately, I never found a good mentor at this firm and I am strongly considering becoming a public defender. Your words inspire me to plunge into the abyss of public service while focusing on what’s most important in life.

    I, a 24-year-old soon-to-be-lawyer who will be your age someday, would overzealously cherish any other advice you provide. Thank you. I’ll be staying tuned.

  18. I was your age, in fact, a year younger, when I graduated from law school. I was not in debt, but I had the responsibility of a wife, one baby, and another coming. I needed a job. I couldn’t get one because I was the first Wyoming law school honor graduate who had failed the bar. When I passed it the second time, I was obviously damaged goods.

    I ran for prosecutor because I had no other choice. I needed work. I knocked on all the doors in Fremont County, Wyoming, and was elected. I served two terms as a prosecutor before I decided I couldn’t do that work any more. (We have all sinned.)

    Today we have young lawyers in our firm. They get little practice in the courtroom because it is so hard nowadays to get to trial. You will enjoy a lot more experience at the public defender’s office and help a good many more people.

    Unfortunately, in the private plaintiffs’ practice most of those who get representation are those with cases that will produce a sufficient fee. A greater percentage of ordinary Americans who do need legal help can’t get it because they can’t afford the fees. Today, in even the most simple case, the time and expense involved in discovery, endless motions and court appearances make it impossible for the private attorney to take any but cases with sufficient potential recovery.

    In your situation I lean toward the public defender. However, you will probably encounter a horror there–too many cases, not enough time to prepare or the resources to properly defend. Too often the public defender must pled his client facing the trying circumstances in which most public defenders find themselves.

    Both the public and private system are broken.

    But you are not.

    Gerry

  19. RLG

    I failed to identify my above comment as in response to you. Gerry

  20. I just can’t get over how incredibly well Gerry can relate to people. I think of his words, his life, just about every day. He keeps things in perspective for me and from reading these notes, today I got another fix. It’s even better than the once-per-month travels to Africa to mentally sort through the poverty, the kids dying of malaria, the sexual diseases, seeing few old people (avg lifetime is 37 where I go).

    I am settled. Nothing really bothers me anymore. Gerry has through his words basically prepared me for whatever the heck happens next.

    To be contented as I feel at this moment is truly powerful.

    Cruise

  21. Rejoice Not In The Fact That “Lies” Are Planted In The Bible, But Rejoice In The Fact That The Light of God Is With Us Revealing & Exposing Those Lies. {Mark 4:22}{Revelation 2:2}

  22. Dear Mr. Spence,

    Beautifully written and, as always, simple, colorful and honest. While we have never met or even spoken on the phone (we have briefly corresponded), you have been a real inspiration to me — almost like a father figure — through your books, videos, and t.v. appearances. There are so few inspirational people today.

    When I told a former client that I would be retiring in a few years, he was stricken — as if he was losing his only real protection against this increasingly harsh and vindictive world. I feel that way about your retirement; fewer and fewer courageous trial lawyers standing as a rampart between the citizens and the government. I wish you the best in your retirement and hope you find an occasional poker game.

    Kevin Mahoney

  23. Kevin: Thank you. Hard to live up to the image you and others create of me. But you made my day.

    Thanks,

    Gerry

  24. All I can add is that I’m blogrolling you today. Fantastic post.

  25. Thanks for this reminder and perspective. An attorney friend forwarded this today, nearly a year after you posted it, and I happen to have just finished cleaning out my aged mother’s apartment yesterday, who just crossed the one-way threshold of a nursing home. I’ve been looking at her life, photo by photo, letters and cards, learning old and new facets of her life, rummaging through the little material stuff that’s left, and thinking about what she did and didn’t accomplish, her actions and behavior over the years, what she’s leaving in her wake. And so of course I’m looking at the same in my own life, though I’ve got to admit, I’m feeling so immensely fortunate and grateful that I’ve been able, by essentially brute force and refusing to take any other path, to turn an arcane niche into a rewarding and approaching solvent practice, and having found a loving partner who approaches life with the same tenacity. I arrived in law later in life, after having gone through hell, 12 years and a million miles in a truck (through Wyoming twice a week to and fro) to get a BA, having lost all my personal possessions to crack dealers during law school and my home and dog in foreclosure, and, despite that unbearably obscene crush of student debt (still in default) to have built up from nothing to find satisfying, challenging, rewarding and FUN work and often get paid for it, what joy… that’s what law is about, what life is about. Working for Pig, Dog & Duck, P.A. would be hell on earth, pantyhose, billable hours, life is too short for that. If we are able to each find a way to do what it is that we uniquely can do, and lots of it, and connect with those uplifting souls who support and lighten the journey, and smile, exhausted at the end of the day (even as it ends earlier each year!), if we can do that, the slowing down, forgetting, the big belly and saggy butt, bifocals that don’t do enough, friends dropping like flies, those are a hell of a lot easier to bear when wrapped in the comfort of a life well lived, risks gleefully taken, leaving the world a little bit better place. Thank you!

  26. Well, Gerry, you hit the nail right on the head. I have, at 72, been bemoaning the fact that I am now on blood pressure medicine, the prostatitis causes me much irritation and I do get a bit out of breath after a stair climb.
    I now, feel better. I guess I can accept the “belly”, I love fried chicken and fried fish with hushpuppies.
    Thanks for making me feel better.

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