I’m Not 60…I’m ‘Sexagenarian.’

On September 20 I passed a milestone that everybody said would be very difficult: I turned 60. It seems like just yesterday that I turned 50 and friends were warning, “Fifty is nothing…but you’ll really feel it when you are sixty.” A few years ago a formerly heavy colleague, newly slim, confessed that “I had to get my diet and exercise in order, because I didn’t want to turn sixty and realize my body has totally fallen apart.” And it’s become popular for women’s magazines to have features called, “Sexy at Any Age,” with photos of gorgeous celebrities grouped by their decade. For some reason it stops at 59, unless they are talking about men.

So post-birthday, I’ve spent the past week waiting to feel the axe of old age upon my head, and guess what? Nothing has happened. My hair is no grayer and my body is no more stooped or saggy than it was last week. This new decade is not as scary as it seemed when I was 10 years away from it.

It could be because we have many friends now who are post-60 and say it’s a blast if you have the right attitude. Several friends at my 60th birthday party last week were living proof: they looked fit and gorgeous; passionate about their grandchildren, work, interests and travel; and as carefree as eight-year-olds. Not a bad place to be.

Here’s one thought: maybe the key for surviving the 60s is to think and act like you did in “the 60s.” I have to admit right here that I sat on the sidelines during the free love decade (and am happily married and have no plans to start such debauchery now.) But my mind was more open and I felt the possibilities were endless. So why not make a mind-blowing change in the concept of what it means to be 60-plus? Let’s start by declaring that we’re not in our 60s…we’re “sexagenarian.”

Doesn’t that sound better?

Ten years as a sexagenarian sounds pretty exciting. I’m now in the company of people like Helen Mirren, who, someone once declared, “put the sex back in sexagenarian.” Being a sexagenarian sounds as racy as being a dancer in “Hair,” something I wasn’t allowed to see in the 60s. It sounds as daring as wearing a Catholic school uniform with fishnet stockings (which I kinda did, in 1968.) Yet because of the “gen” syllable, it also sounds vaguely healthy, like oxygen or a yoga retreat. I like it…I’ll take it!

So I now have a whole ten years in this fun new decade before I have to redefine my age all over again. It’s probably not too early to start thinking about how to spin the 70s, which are already looking challenging. Somehow “septuagenarian” doesn’t have the same ring. If you read or watched “Game of Thrones” you know that a “septa” is a humorless female religion teacher. It also sounds too much like “septic.” Maybe we can think of something different.

And don’t even get me started on octogenarians.

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A Crash Course in Humility

How do you react when you are out driving and notice that a nearby motorist is driving a very beat-up car? Not a well-used or old vehicle, but one that has clearly been in a serious crash?

I have to admit that my first instinct has always been to keep as far away from them as possible, because maybe the disfiguring disease will drift back to my car like an airborne virus. Or I’ll assume the driver is careless, another reason to keep at least 18 car lengths away. Either way, the sight of a caved-in bumper, a crumpled headlight or a beleaguered motorist standing next to a roadside wreck makes me both uncomfortable and grateful. Car wrecks happen only to other people, either through carelessness or bad luck. Until it happens to you.

A few Sundays ago I was taking our son out for his first driving lesson. It was an empty parking lot near our home, next to an office building. John, his learner’s permit recently won, was eager to start driving. His older brothers had volunteered to teach him the road skills, but I felt confident that I could at least teach him the basics of our 10-year-old Acura, whose handling I knew so well. I had done the same for our older kids, using an old Sentra with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a wheel that required serious arm muscles to turn. I had warm memories of those times, and had no reason to think this would be different.

Feeling buoyant rather than apprehensive, I went over the safety precautions first and explored the seat belts, gas pedal, brake and turn signals. We adjusted the seating and the mirrors. We turned the key, and John gingerly stepped on the gas, then the brake, then the gas. His movements were tentative; the car responded overeagerly, but he seemed to get the hang of it. After a few minutes we felt confident enough to attempt a turn, and that’s when we got into trouble. We learned too late that the very handling that made the Acura a pleasure to drive for an experienced driver made it too skittish for an inexperienced one. John’s touch on the wheel was too much; the car swerved too far to the left and moved too quickly. John was paralyzed with fear and I didn’t react in time. We plowed into a wall that had looked comfortably far away just a few seconds earlier.

Luckily, neither of us was hurt, and the wall was OK. But the front driver’s side of the car now looked like the Elephant Man. After several minutes consoling John, I drove it home. Luckily the car drove as smoothly as it did before.

The verdict was grim: no interior damage but some pretty extreme plastic surgery. A new bumper and fender, new $700 head lamp, new radiator support. One body shop, affiliated with an Acura dealership, quoted us $6,000 to do the work, more than two-thirds the value of the car. We were hoping that we could avoid going through insurance, but this didn’t look good.

“Hey, this is going back to a young driver,” I pointed out. “Can you just make it safe and cut corners somewhere to save money? It doesn’t have to be perfect.” The guy at the high-end dealer – who no doubt was used to pumping up the price and figuring insurance would pay for it – acted insulted and said that everything he was proposing was absolutely necessary.

So I left the car there and told him I’d think about it, then canvassed friends for other recommendations. I found another place that many said was worth checking out. So I fetched my car from the high-end shop and drove it there. The car still ran like a champ, but it attracted more than its fair share of somber glances from other motorists and pedestrians. What were they thinking of me? I wondered. Did they assume I was a bad driver, or careless, or unlucky? Did the drivers apply their brakes to add a little more distance between us?

Wish I could have told them that I’m a good driver, and I’m cautious. I’ve only had one accident that has been my fault, nobody was hurt, and it was 14 years ago. But I just learned two humbling lessons: one, you don’t put a responsive, high-horsepower piece of machinery in the hands of a new driver, even in a parking lot, and two, I don’t have the reflexes to be a driving instructor.

A happy postscript: the nice guy at that other body shop is doing the work for way less than half, and he even gave me a ride home. And John’s next driving experience will be with a licensed driving teacher in a car with two sets of controls.

You’ve Got Plenty of Sympathy

liliesToday in Target I saw something that I thought I would never see: a six-pack of sympathy cards.

I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!

You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?

A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.

Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support:  don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.

Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.

One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.