Hardesty: Getting old in the American cult of youth

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I will turn 55 years old in a little more than a week.

That’s partly a statement of fact, partly how could I possibly be 55 years old?

In a lot of ways, I still feel 25. In other ways, I feel 125.

I pull back muscles in my sleep — to the point that I can’t walk upright for several days to a week, if not longer. I mean, just trying to get up off the couch is an ordeal. I try every remedy known to medicine to get the injured back muscle into some semblance of working order again: painkillers, ice packs, heating pads, hot water bottles, therapeutic creams that make your back feel like someone started a bonfire on it, everything. Nothing works. And just when it seems like my height shrinkage from 5-foot-11 to 5-foot-5 will be permanent, the excruciating back pain magically disappears as quickly as it came on.

I walk into rooms of the house on a mission to do … something. But in the few seconds it took to get from one room to the other, I completely forgot what I wanted to do. So I stand there in the middle of the room, racking my brain trying to figure out why I went in there in the first place. Sometimes it comes to me, sometimes it doesn’t.

Then there’s the word “classic,” which I have come to discover is relative. For instance, I recently decided to watch a television show called “Classic Video.” Music videos. Classic ones. So I’m thinking I might get to watch some grainy old Led Zeppelin, David Bowie or Jefferson Airplane concert footage from back in the day. I eagerly settled in to hopefully watch Robert Plant, Grace Slick and Ziggy Stardust do their thing …

… And instead I got Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and someone I’ve never heard of.

I didn’t know for sure that it would be Zeppelin, Bowie and JA, but I thought it would at least be from that era. You know, the classic era. After all, the show was called “Classic Video.”

And then it hit me: To the thirtysomethings who likely produced the video show, Britney and Christina are classic. The producers were probably in grade school when the two pop icons were driving a stake through the heart of grunge music in the late 1990s. Classic videos, to me, are “Stairway To Heaven,” “Space Oddity” and “White Rabbit.” Classic videos, to them, are “Baby One More Time,” “Genie In A Bottle” and the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

And then something else hit me: I’m getting old. Not old in the sense that I need to start cemetery shopping, but old in the sense that things I took for granted most of my life — walking upright, remembering things for longer than five seconds, classic music meaning my music — are no longer a given.

Aging is part of nature — our bodies eventually give out — but it’s defined harshly by modern American culture, which not only celebrates youth but worships it. It’s easy to be thought of as old — and even to think of yourself as old — in a society obsessed with looking, feeling and staying young.

In fact, our culture has institutionalized aging. I recently discovered that when you turn 55, you get certain discounts at restaurants, hotels and grocery stores, so I have those perks to look forward to. But most fun of all: You become eligible for senior living communities. Yes, in the United States, you are a senior at age 55. I’ve seen the flyers touting their peaceful serenity, their relaxing gardens and fun activities, the excitement of playing pickleball.

And maybe they are wonderful places and the people who live in them enjoy it immensely. But on the long list of things that come with age, cynicism is right near the top. And my cynical self sees this as just another way of putting “old” people out to pasture. I half-expect these flyers to say: “What, you’re 55? Well, clearly you’re unhip and have outlived your usefulness; how about some farina before bed tonight, Mr. Hardesty?” I can even hear the condescending tone.

And there’s all kinds of weasel-wording associated with what they call these places: 55-and-over communities, 55+ housing, retirement communities, independent older living. The marketing suits have spent a lot of time coming up with these euphemisms; it’s why they make the big bucks. But it all means the same thing: If you’re 55, you’re a senior. And if you’re a senior, you’re old.

The website seniorliving.org even says: “Once you turn 55 you start to enter the senior age demographic.” That’s a nice way of saying, “You’re 55, and you’re old.”

So, when I hit 55 in a few days, I’m off to retirement, right? Maybe a villa on Bora Bora? A condo in Puerto Vallarta? A beach house in Fiji?

That’s a hard no on all counts. See, I can be called old at 55, but I can’t get all the goodies of actually being old. Sure, I can get a senior discount at Arby’s and McDonald’s (but not Burger King – I’ll have to wait until I’m 60 for that; flame-broiled comes at a price, I guess) — but no Social Security until I’m 62 (at the earliest) and no Medicare until I’m 65. And that’s assuming that by the time I hit those ages — if I hit those ages — Congress hasn’t pushed those eligibility ages even higher.

So I can be called, treated and classified as old, but I can’t get “old” money for another seven to 10 years? Got it.

But honestly, I don’t really feel old. I have “senior moments” from time to time like I detailed earlier, but overall, I don’t feel all that differently than I did when I was 25. My energy level is pretty much the same (some would argue that when your energy level has always been low, how would you know the difference?), my routine is pretty much the same (I was a night owl when I was 5, and I’m a night owl at 55), and my hobbies are pretty much the same. The hands of time have moved forward 30 years, but, for the most part, I feel like I haven’t. 

But those years did go by quickly. One day I was 25, and the next I was turning 55. One day I had my whole life in front of me, the next I was getting senior discounts and wondering how I could possibly be 55 years old.

So I’m getting old. At least, that’s what restaurants, stores and hotels think. If they want to give me discounted food and merchandise because they think I’ve got one foot in the grave, let them. But I’ve got news: 55 may not feel tip-top, but it still feels pretty young — a lot younger than I thought it would, quite frankly.

Eventually, age will catch up to me, like it catches up to everyone. But even then, it’s all relative. I recently had my six-month dental checkup, and upon entering the office, my dentist for the last 30 years walked toward me and said cheerfully, “Hello, Tom!”

“Hi there, it’s good to see you!” I responded.

He didn’t miss a beat. “Well,” he said, “I’d rather be seen than viewed.”

Indeed, doc. Indeed.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.