February 28, 2022
There is no purgatory for war criminals. They go straight to hell.
–Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador
As Putin, the twenty-first-century Stalin, sent Russian tanks in a rampaging, bloody assault on Ukraine early Thursday morning, we realized that from that moment life will be transformed in some as-yet unknown way for Western civilization. That goes also for Donald Trump, who praised Putin for his “genius” and “savvy” the day before Russian troops started murdering Ukrainians. The stain of those words attaches to him forever. It is the stain of moral turpitude.
In the face of numbing tragedy, we push on with life. When the war was one day old I turned 73. At first I barely noticed. Nearly everything will change before I’m 74.
Some birthdays set the stage for big thoughts. The Washington Post last week ran a story about two women in Florida, identical twins, who just celebrated their 100th birthdays. They both looked great in the photos, and of course, identical. They’ve outlived both their husbands. I was impressed, as were others who read the story. They’ve lost track of more birthdays than me. They were 27 when I was born.
I’ve been making that same comparison since we landed in our new town. I’ve met lots of younger people who embrace their lives with energy and smiles, in the neighborhood, at the YMCA, at hospitals and doctors’ offices. I do that mental calculation, how old was I when they were born. There’s usually three or four decades worth of years’ difference. They’re all busy with jobs and kids. We’re in the grandstand, watching.
Birthdays at every age come with some kind of theme. Gifts, parties, cake with candles and funny hats, friends and “Happy Birthday” for the kids, maybe subtract the hats for the teens (maybe not). Later, adult beverages may be added. Parents’ birthday celebrations depend on what their kids think of them, and may get a little awkward, as in, what in heck is really appropriate? What do you give the sixty-eight-year-old who slouches around the house in a threadbare sweater and never wears earrings or a watch? With gray hair birthdays may get a little wistful, a little, or a lot more solemn, more portentous.
For the oldsters, life’s theme for a couple of decades has been: how do we keep up? We live uneasily in the kids’ universe, which we call “online.” “Kids” now includes the twenty-, thirty-, and forty-somethings and their children down to preteen. The text messages flow continuously, nearly every thought, decision, and act transcribed and transmitted. Making a doctor’s appointment or a restaurant reservation or paying a bill entails a text message at one or both ends. Awhile back I pulled out pen and paper and wrote a longhand thank-you note to someone, complete with envelope and first-class stamp. I received a thank-you for my thank-you—a text.
It’s the world we live in. The grayheads either adapt or retreat into the underworld of geriatric helplessness, when the kids step in and take charge of their lives. The frailties of aging are matched by the marvelous effectiveness of modern medicine, meaning we live longer with debilitating illness, never mind the costs. Then the dark side: still-young people, in their forties and fifties, even later, who had launched their children into the world and looked forward to getting some rest, now are drafted into caring for their own parents.
When Sandy and I were first married and moved into our fixer-upper in the Vanderbilt neighborhood of Nashville, we charged hard. We sanded down and refinished all the floors and painted all the walls and ceilings. I talked to a plumber, and built a full bathroom upstairs, running the water and power lines and drain connections. Later we stripped old linoleum and laid down a parquet floor, tile by tile. I tuckpointed the chimney and built a brick patio. I installed and connected the power for vent fans in the attic. Then, with three kids, we moved away.
Later, at our Virginia place I installed a drop ceiling in the basement, built another bedroom, and put up paneling. We wallpapered, stripped wallpaper, and painted, over and over. I bought a kit and assembled an eight-by-ten-foot utility shed. I installed a children’s swingset, complete with concrete-anchored pilings. When the kids left I dismantled it. I built another patio, this one with flagstones. We planted dozens of shrubs and hundreds of flowers, year after year. I rented a tiller and tilled and replanted. We slaved away on the lawn, seeding, fertilizing, reseeding, refertilizing, weeding, watering, year after year.
That was then. I said goodbye to all that. When we arrived here we looked at a couple of “country” houses on big lots. We thought hard, and ended up with our postage-stamp-size front and back yards. I bought a shoulder-powered push mower. We hired painters and a plumber. We hired an electrician. In the spring I planted some flowers and veggies. In the fall I half-heartedly tossed some grass seed around by hand. I barely pay attention to it.
What’s that other bromide about adding years? The one about experience fosters prudence and wisdom? Prudence, or patience, has to do with slowing down. Blood pressure may have slowed down, so heat isn’t rising to the brain as quickly. Tempers and passions tend to cool over a good dose of years. We don’t get as steamed up. We’ve learned from our mistakes or seen how getting steamed up just upsets others. And really what’s the point? The point, in our seventies as at any age, is to see the good in humankind, to extend to others respect, compassion, kindness, love.
The wisdom part is up for debate. As Biden called down sanctions on the Slavic butcher Putin, septuagenarian carnival barker Trump went dark. We reach out with compassion, but meanwhile know mendacity and disloyalty are distributed across all age brackets. If the exception proves the rule, we’re witnessing an argument for listening politely to some old folks, but locking up others.