Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Journey to the West: The Octogenarian Shuffle

When I stopped writing my preliminary (sort of) autobiographical sketch a year or so ago (The Journey to the West), It was left at about the time I was to finish my first year of University. I still contemplate continuing, but as the next few years of my life were unpleasant, roughly the years from 1948-52, I have been hesitant to continue. From 1952-54 I was in the Army, another unpleasant experience, from 1955 until 1960 also, but for different reasons. In 1961-62 I was in the New Guinea Highlands. After that I survived in several different cultural, geographical, and marital contexts until at last I arrived where I find myself at the moment. As this particular contribution is part of my current life it is obviously out of place chronologically by many, many years. But as it clearly is part of my Journey to the West , a journey growing ever closer to its end, I thought I might mention it.

I clearly have it, the Octogenarian Shuffle that is, although I have resisted admitting it for years. I believe it began in earnest when I turned 80 and has now reached the point where I can no longer deny it. I no longer walk as once did, I distinctly “shuffle.” I don’t like it. It is obviously a gait that belongs to an old man. And it is, I believe, symbolic of other shuffling as well. I was not prepared for how one’s life begins to shuffle around, and be shuffled around, as you begin to age. This doubtless occurs to different individuals at different ages, but as I began to realize clearly for the first time what was happening to me at 80, and for want of a better term, I simply call it the “Octogenarian Shuffle.”

One of the first manifestations of the Octogenarian Shuffle occurs when you realize that other people now regard you quite differently than they once did. They begin to regard you as more or less incompetent to perform acts you have always previously performed, driving, for example. I began to realize that those around me were going out of their way to drive me places that I had always driven myself. No one suggested I could not drive, they just seemed to increasingly insist they should drive. This also manifested itself in their stated amazement that I could actually drive myself all the way back from a hundred miles away. This rather paternalistic attitude also has to do with lifting and carrying things. Whereas all my life I have lifted and carried things, even relatively heavy things, now they are increasingly taken out of my hands by others. Not long before I turned 80 I was surprised to learn they did not believe I could still ride horseback. I notice they are constantly checking on my behavior. If I wash a dish, for example, they inspect it to make sure it is clean. No matter what task I undertake I notice I am being watched to make certain I’m doing it properly. This extends even to the most menial of tasks, like shelling peas or baking potatoes. Frankly, I find this insulting, but then I realize they think they are actually looking after me.

Not only are your everyday tasks and responsibilities being shuffled around, so, too, is your social life. By the time you reach 80 many, if not most of your peers have disappeared, some to cancer, some to strokes, some to heart attacks, some to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and even suicides. I suppose this should make one fearful for one’s own well-being, but interestingly enough, I do not find myself worrying about this. It does, however, narrow your social horizons and nowadays, at least, even affects your correspondence and contacts with others. I now, for example, have only one person who communicates with me through the U.S. mail. As I refuse to twitter or create a Facebook page I guess I am slowly disappearing from the community at large.

Similarly, by the time you reach my age, depending upon how lucky or unlucky you are, you have probably had even your internal organs and other parts shuffled around. Some have new knees or hips, some have stents or artificial lenses in their eyeballs, and in extreme cases some may even have new hearts or livers. Some organs are shuffled out and others shuffled in, it just depends upon your health insurances, finances, or whatever, sort of like “the luck of the draw.” In addition to this cyborgification (if there is such a word) there are also the hair implants, wigs, plastic surgeries like belly tucks, face lifts, and whatever.

Of course none of these things happen exactly on the stroke of 80, they all develop gradually over time, but you only realize what is happening at a certain point in time. Your hair grows gray only gradually, as does your baldness, the way you walk changes only gradually, the “minders” only slowly take over your life, and eventually you begin to realize you are not the person you once were, the Octogenarian Shuffle has finally begun to take over completely.

This phenomenon does not occur only with respect to the obvious physical manifestations of your being, like walking, or having your hands begin to lightly shake, but also applies to your mental condition as well. Your short-term memory is especially vulnerable, but as you might well have had lapses of memory all your life you can never be quite certain if this is a completely new condition or if it is something that is just becoming a bit worse, doubt shuffles in to disturb your peace of mind. You find you cannot spell words you have used all your life, and you begin to question even your phrases and sentences. Finally, if you are paying attention at all, you begin to wonder if anyone is actually sane, or if it is just yourself shuffling reality around in a great game of Crazy Eight. In any case your Journey to the West continues inexorably towards its inevitable conclusion, and there is nothing, nothing at all, you can do about it.

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