"Lord, grant me strength to cross these brittle bridges as they fall,
I'd rather go down singing, if I'm going down at all
if you do what you've always done, you'll be what you've always been;
words of inspiration calling out, "it's time to shed that skin."
- "One-Way Ticket" from the upcoming Bing Futch album "What's Old Becomes New Again"
The elderly are not respected as much as they should be in the United States of America. Just about everywhere else in the world, our senior citizens are held in utmost respect and treated with dignity. With age comes experience. With experience; wisdom. You don't get old by being careless and stupid, though some would argue that luck has a lot to do with some cases. Cicero said, "rashness is the characteristic of youth, prudence that of mellowed age and discretion, the better part of valor." This quote isn't in my cranial library of Awesome Things To Say In Order To Drive Home A Point because it's, well, awesome. It's actually a line from the 1979 Walt Disney Picture "The Black Hole" and, to add even more gravitas to the delivery, it was spoken by a floating robot. But it's stuck with me all of these years because it capsulizes the span of a human life as related to wisdom, especially where it concerns self-preservation. When I was younger, I spoke my mind no matter what the price, threw caution to the wind and just let it all hang out, because that's how I was rollin'. The blowback from that period of time was enormous, and I eventually learned to be more careful and responsible with my words and actions. Now, in the late stages of my 40's, I go out of my way not to cause any ripples. Throughout the whole presidential election race, I abstained from posting anything in favor of anybody. Felt it best to just leave it alone. And if you're gonna say something, say something nice.
I've always seen our 30s as God's gift to us for surviving our 20s. The innocence of childhood gives way to the angst of puberty and the teenage years find us beginning to emerge as personalities into the light of each living day. It's no wonder that so many people begin to lose their fucking minds in those twentysomething years, experimenting with this and that, shooting for the moon and digging deep into the dirt, loving and learning and lying and living and leading up to that magical age around 32 or 33 when, suddenly, this whole Life thing begins to start making a whole lot more sense. That's a gross generality, many people have it all together from teen years and never hit the speed bumps that most mortals do. I think those people are probably artificial intelligence wrapped in an amazingly pliable exoskeleton. Everybody hits the skids at some point, don't they?
I suppose there's really two ways to age; gracefully or totally in denial. Those that go with grace just embrace the process, step up their games and meet Time in the center of the court talking about, "bring it! AND loving it!" Those in denial never see it coming and succumb to the effects of gravity, slowly grinding to a sludgery halt on a badly-patterned sofa, parked for the remainder of their days in a passive position of reception; two-way signal disrupted. Sinking into the sands of the future. We are brilliant beings of Light, slumming in organic pods that, like groceries that have been sitting on a shelf for too long, eventually degrade, rot and decay. It's our ongoing struggle each and every day to push forward while the relentless ticking of the life clock sets the rhythm that moves us. As They Might Be Giants so plainly sang it, "you're older than you've ever been, and now you're even older. And now you're older still." Not to put too fine a point on it, amirite?
Still, with age comes wisdom. The griots of Africa are the oldest members of the tribe. With no written language, it's up to these wise men to contain all of the history of a people. Their language and songs, stories and legends. Their ways of life, the skills to maintain them; the knowledge of survival tactics, helping new lives adapt without going the way of Darwinian population reduction. When a griot dies, it's like the Library of Alexandria burning down to the ground. There's a reason that indigenous peoples look to their elders. The elders have been there, done that, got the t-shirt AND wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster film. Why do we need to go sticking our fingers into a firepit in order to discover that fire burns? An elder can relay that info to you pretty quickly. Do we really need to bang around under the hood of a vehicle, breaking things and spilling fluids when kind old Uncle Charlie, who knows a thing or two about cars, would be happy to share some information? In this country, older folks are often derided, laughed at, ridiculed and treated as a burden. Is that any way to treat the wisest amongst us? Especially when they can keep us from killing ourselves?
Whenever I'm around older people, I do more listening than talking. You never know what kind of nugget of awesomeness you're going to pick up. Why, just in conversation in the check out line at the grocery store, I've learned everything from how to cure a toothache quickly (use a pressure point on the back of your hand) to the best way to prepare a spaghetti squash (aerate the beast.) Longer conversations in post offices, bars and the front porch of Cracker Barrel have resulted in insights to the human condition, reflections on political and social change and what it's like to experience wondrous love and agonizing loss. To see through the eyes of a senior is to look through the window of time in such a way that's simply not possible through any media you'll find on the planet. Face to face, in the moment, being able to see the person before you and imagine, if possible, the things that they've seen, felt, heard, done, endured and celebrated. That's more valuable than anything you can book-read.
And I get it; time's change fast. It can be difficult to relate to our elders when our only frame of reference can come from a library of Netflix titles. Advancements in technology have come at an increasingly rapid pace over the past 100 years, so it's not unusual (pussycat!) to have a conversation with someone who didn't even have a television in the house until they were thirtysomething.
Somehow, with the help of angels, I managed to survive my 20s and went stumbling into my 30s bemoaning the fact that I was "losing the '2'." I was officially "old." Go ahead and chuckle. I'll wait.
However, instead of having the scales fall from my eyes in my early 30s, I continued to sputter and spin my wheels. Losing both of my parents to cancer in my late 20s didn't help matters. Having a falling-out with the family over funeral arrangements mostly closed the door on having that support (except for my late Aunt Loretta, who never wavered in her love and support for me); so all of my familial elders were out of the picture during these tumultuous years. I struggled with everything. Marriage. Parenthood. Love. Career. Balance. I sucked at all of it.
Then, suddenly, I turned 36 and the angels were like, "homeboy's thick as a brick, let's go to plan B."
That was the year that I met Jae. In the first week of us dating, she let me borrow a book called Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian L. Weiss M.D. That, in turn, re-awakened the long-dormant spiritual voice inside that had been screaming to be heard over the ruckus of reckless living, and I stumbled upon, in my own library, a book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels.
This, coupled together with an extraordinary experience with salvia divinorum, resulted in a cosmic explosion inside of my spirit. Now, this is how funny life is. After a while, I began to wonder how on earth I'd come into the possession of The Gnostic Gospels. What was it doing mixed in with all of the Disney books and coffee-table impulse buys? Upon careful inspection, I found a "from the library of" mark inside and deducted that a former girlfriend had planted it there some nine years earlier. Oh, the angels had been trying, but I just wasn't buying.
So, where is all of this coming from, you might wonder. Well, in January, I bought a t-shirt that reads "Life Begins at 50." Having just turned 49, I was already owning the big Five-0 for the entire span of 2016. Next month, I'm taking some time off and allowing myself a little vacay. 14 years have passed since I decided to plug back in and get my shit together. It's been a lot of work. There have been major stumbles along the way as I tried to shake loose from the grip of the past and stride boldy into the arms of "The Big Whatever." The studying, the counseling, the removal of bad habits and the embracing of good ones. The rebuilding of familial ties and the daily dirty dealings of introspection and implementation. Learning to love again. It's been a non-stop rush of go-go-go and every year, it's gotten a little better, then, a lot better and now, this year, ridiculously better and, okay - we're not dead yet and here comes 50.
But, as Bette Davis so famously said, "getting old ain't for sissies" and I never truly grasped that until earlier this year. Those of you who are familiar with my travels know that I'm a mountain biking enthusiast and that, coupled with on-the-road life, I like to live an active adventure every day. Loading gear up, taking gear out, setting gear up, breaking gear down. Carrying, pushing, shoving, carting, supporting, stacking. Not to mention the beating I take when hitting all of those roller coasters on tour. There have been more than a few times that I've walked, nay, hobbled off of some beater of a beast pulling a Murtaugh saying, "I'm getting too old for this shit." I'll tell you something what; my body aches a lot more than it used to. My fingers and hands, constantly working on keyboards and instruments, argue back where they used to acquiesce. I'm in pretty good shape, but I can feel the changes taking place where I felt a bit invincible before. It's a sobering thought, contemplating one's own mortality and mobility, but I'm going to keep moving, if not moving smarter, because if you don't use it, you will most certainly lose it. Buddy Ebsen, the talented dancer who became Jed Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies" lived to be 95 years old. It's told that a woman once asked him, at age 88, how he remained so active. Ebsen's reply? "I dance a little every day." If those aren't epic words of wisdom, I don't know what is.
I'll be honest. There were times during this year's tour when I was a burned-out husk of a dude. Body aflame, mind all staticky and jumpy, scrambled to the point of "what state am I in?" and, boy, isn't that the question of all time? I felt it was insane when I booked it, and extra dates always crop up, which made my deliriously ambitious schedule absolutely insane at points during the summer. Add to that the stress of the vehicle breakdowns with Imua and I was fairly ready to fly home at one juncture and just decompress. Next year is already booked up pretty solid, so I'm trying to learn the word "no" when it comes to extra shows. Don't get me wrong; I love to travel and meet people, see all the beauty in this country of ours, eat lots of local food and, of course, play and teach music. But I could certainly work out a schedule where I'm not living like a twentysomething. Sleep on the floor of a seven passenger van with four other people every night for months at a time? I never had the experience so it's tough to imagine. Touring came for me at a point where I could do it solo and in relative comfort. Still, some of my aches and pains can be attributed to the wear and tear that I'm getting while on the road. My left lower back gets angsty whenever I'm in and out of the vehicle a lot, something about the weight on my left leg and the pivoting needed to step down out of the cab. My left thumb, the one I use for melodies, unconsciously hooking the wheel on long drives, has placed strain on that digit as well as my left wrist. Now aware of it, I try to steer with better, and healthier, hand placement.
See? It's stuff like that that you just don't think about when you're younger, but you'd damn well better think on your feet as the body begins to taunt you with, "oh, you think you can still bang around like back in the day, eh? Take a long draught of this Reality Check Lager."
So, I'm not even 50 yet and I've joined the Cranky Chorus of folks who talk about what ails them. I used to just nod and listen, thinking that having those sorts of problems weren't anywhere close to being something I needed to be concerned about. Now, I'm one-upping with the best of 'em. Granted, I'm not having surgeries to replace or fix body parts and organs; my doctor says that I'm in fantastic shape. But now, this is the age where you start having things "checked out." The world colonoscopy comes to mind.
But, there is no retirement that I'm working towards. I'll be a musician until the day that I can't be a musician any more. It's not a question of "wanting" to, it's just who I am and these bones will drag along for as long there's something with wheels nearby. And I'm not dyeing my hair, either. As far as I'm concerned, I earned the snow on my mountain and, besides, when the gray grows in more, I'll look like Billy Ocean. Win.
Apart from the body-horror stuff, I'm in a great place socially, mentally and physically. There's more work to be done, but it truly never has been better. I'm planning on moving forward, and often, into the Great Wide Open, keeping my ears open to our elders and my spirit tuned in to the Divine Radio Station. There are more flying lessons to take and more bones to break, but here we go. I got a one-way ticket leading away from the same-ol', same-ol'. This old man is finding a way to reinvent and renew each and every day. Evolution is waiting. Destination? I'll let James T. Kirk have the last word here.