When a hospital staffer inspires comparisons to Nurse Ratched this is not a good thing– as anyone who has seen “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” can tell you.
Jack Nicholson’s character R.P. McMurphy encountered his nemesis on the ward of an insane asylum in the iconic 70’s flick. I crossed paths with her doppelgänger two years ago at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.
My Nurse Ratched was the technician who happened to be on duty the day I got my first bone density test. The procedure was as straightforward as a CT scan, and concluded with a computer-generated printout consisting of random numbers. I had no frame of reference for what the numbers meant, so I asked the technician if she could explain their significance. And that’s when Little Miss Sunshine mumbled something about my bones being average… for a woman of my age… followed by her glass-half-empty prognosis of “It’s all downhill from here, anyways!“
Suppressing an urge to bark, “Gee, is this what passes for bedside manner these days?!”, I bit my tongue, snatched my paperwork and made a beeline for the exit before my inner-grammarian could lecture that “anyway” was an adverb, and adverbs could not be plural, thus there was no such word as “anyways”.
But I digress…
Under normal circumstances, my exiting a health care facility with the velocity of a bat out of hell would not raise any eyebrows. I’m a germaphobe, and my idea of a bad time is hanging out anyplace where staph infections might thrive. But on this particular day, the contaminant that set off the Code Red alert in my head was that insidious strain of thinking which equates getting older with a slide into nothingness. Nurse Ratched’s parting shot was the tell that indicated her status as a carrier.
In hindsight, I guess I’ll never know if she meant any harm that day. Who knows what her elders had been preaching since Baby Ratched first crawled out of her bassinet? Maybe she’d fallen victim to the not-so-subtle social cues that tell all of us “it’s all downhill from here after we turn 30, or 40 (or whatever the hell the new 20 is supposed to be). Certainly, her sensible, beige, rubber-soled shoes; I-don’t-give-a-damn halo of a coif; and perma-pinched expression did little to attenuate my belief that Elvira had left the building many moons ago. Maybe my self-appointed Oracle of Doom & Gloom just wanted to give me the 411 on aging lest I sally forth under the false impression that growing old would be child’s play.
Whatever the case, if given the chance to do it all again I would have patted down the quills of my ego, challenged Nurse Nasty’s assumptions about the trajectory of me and my lovely bones, and encouraged her to bone up on 19th-century German philosophy.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.“
The fear of aging is the abyss of our time and culture. In the process, far too many of us are wasting our youth thinking we’re old as we anticipate uncharted territory and assume the worst.
This theory first occurred to me when my brown-eyed, dark-haired, South American friend Sylvia told me how birthdays “depressed” her. Nothing new about this lament, I know. But what makes my friend unique is that she confided her fear when we were freshmen in high school. Apparently, Sylvia’s turning ten– or “crossing into the double-digits” as she put it– was what tripped her panic buttons.
My own experience as a model left me with a motherlode of tales from the front lines of gerontophobia: from the well-meaning fashion photographer who encouraged me to lie about my age (because being 23 could prove detrimental to a mannequin’s wealth), to the bloodsport that passed for entertainment in make up rooms from New York to Paris– where the super models who’d preceded me were judged mercilessly, by former colleagues, for having had the temerity to turn 30.
Eventually, I came to understand that the fashionable set had nothing on the civilian population, as they too were marching to the same sad drummer: savaging themselves in the process.
I’ve seen 40-something friends freak out over gray hairs; 50-something friends cry over laugh lines; and 60-something friends look back on images of their 50-something selves and marvel at “how young and beautiful I was back then.”
In each instance, it occurred to me that the only thing “old” about any of my beautiful friends was their attitudes. My personal measure of beauty, after all, has always been the twinkle in one’s eye as opposed to the tautness of one’s ass, but try telling that to someone whose self-regard is directly related to their body parts.
When Bette Davis said “Old age is no place for sissies”, I know she spoke from experience. Far be it from me to question the wisdom of any diva who survives the slings & arrows of aging out of ingenue roles in Hollywood. But if we don’t get our minds right and consciously reconsider the myths and misconceptions we have internalized about aging– that which is destined to be a bumpy ride will certainly morph into the highway from hell. And since clicking our heels three times and going back to Kansas ain’t exactly an option, would it kill us to walk the walk with courage, fortitude and grace?
My mother’s generation are masters at this art. They use genteel terms like “aches & pains” to describe any afflictions associated with climbing the corporeal ladder; while we Boomers have gone hog wild with our wall-to-wall talk of high cholesterol, hot flashes and incontinence wherever and whenever we please.
A) That’s just not cool. B) Your age-related breakdowns are not nearly as interesting to others as they are to you. And C) If we, as children, were spared the play-by-play on exactly what can malfunction as one grows older then why have we not passed on the favor to our youngin’s? Call me old fashioned, but when a ten-year-old is well-versed in the argot of a pharmaceutical sales rep, I think that’s kind of creepy. Erectile dysfunction, anyone?
Have you ever visited one of those tourist sites where climbing a ridiculously high number of steps is part of the attraction? The kind of place where the staircase is spiral and the quarters are cramped, dark and poorly ventilated? Perhaps, like the rest of us, your visit happened to fall on the kind of summer day where the thermometer reads “¡No Mas!”
Whatever the season, such climbs are an apt metaphor for getting older: where we are as likely to meet a fellow traveler who’ll inspire us on the way up, as we are to be brought down by draughting behind all the wrong people.
Where do you fall in the scheme of things?
Are you the climber who embraces the challenge without complaint or breaking a sweat, even if the going gets tough, with a spring in your step?
Might you be more of an average joe who ascends in fits and starts, complaining the entire way and whining “How much longer till we get to the top?!” every time you encounter someone on the descent?
Or, are you the irritant who feels compelled to count each and every step out loud, no matter where you are on the trek? You know the one I’m talking about. The one who imposes their bad attitude on everyone within earshot as they huff & puff “Four hundred and sixty-five! … Four hundred and sixty-six! … Four hundred and sixty-seven! … Four hundred and sixty-eight!” as if the rest of us can’t count.
Don’t be that person.
Don’t sheepishly accept anybody else’s paradigms on what life is supposed to look and feel like as you grow older.
Photography Courtesy of Gilles Bensimon
Don’t lose perspective and overlook an inch of any view while you’re lucky enough to be on the journey– no matter what the signs say.
Photography Courtesy of Gilles Bensimon
Don’t be cavalier about the caliber of company you keep along the way.
And if anybody ever tells you “It’s all downhill from here, anyways!“: channel Mick Jagger as you instruct them to get off of your cloud…
Photography Courtesy of Gilles Bensimon
… before soaring higher in search of like-minded rockers.