A Yankee NotebookColumns

What? Are You Still Here?

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by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – This will be the week of my 70th high school reunion, a joyous occasion, though diminished a great deal by the absence of deceased classmates and others who for one reason or another won’t make it. Increasingly, as Time’s wingéd chariot draws near, reunions become survival contests.

I remember my father demurring to attend his 70th college reunion. “Vera [his second wife and a classmate] and I are the only ones left. We have a reunion right here every day.”

In a few days, while occupying the seats of honor in the front pews of the chapel, my classmates and I will feel the weight – and the lusty singing voices – of the younger classes behind us propelling us toward oblivion. Still, it will feel a lot like returning home to where my adult life began. If the weather forecast promises fair, I’ll be showing up in a sports car, and with a girlfriend, to boot. This can be characterized as shaking your fist in the face of the gods.

You’d think that after 88 years of life – my birthday was just this past week – I’d have learned a little humility and modesty. When I consider the ravages of arthritis, scoliosis, and neuropathy, I find myself leaning (quite literally) that way. But the comments of old friends – “What? Are you still here? That’s amazing!” – have helped to preserve a modicum of self-esteem. So I’ve been considering what wisdom I might impart from the store I’ve accumulated.

Wisdom, it is said, is the result of experience, and experience the result of unwise choices in the past. Thus, considering this column’s occasional bent toward public service, I’ve dug out and polished off a few gems from my hard-won collection.

If you happen to be, as I am, a low-tier speaker, you will often be given a dressing room roughly the size of a beer cooler. You may be wearing a tuxedo, which means studs and cuff links. Lord Crawley in “Downton Abbey” had a personal valet to fasten all those tiny and devilishly difficult objects. You won’t. In order to avoid a calamitous situation from which there is no escape, you will need to close the lid of the toilet and the drain of the sink. You needn’t ask how I know this.

Then, lounging at home in your recliner, you should never place your iPhone upon your chest as you, perhaps, doze. Any interruption – the dog jumping into your lap is a common one – will cause the phone to slide off your chest and into the hidden infernal works down beneath the cushions of the chair.

You can’t get up without setting the chair up straight; but doing that will likely damage the phone (the steel pivots and cantilevers are to fragile objects what a grinder is to roast beef). Once up, you find the phone invisible somewhere in the lower regions. If you’re elderly, fishing for it with a hand will result in a rash of unsightly subcutaneous purple bruises. It appears gone. But during my last experience with this situation I had an inspiration and called downward, “Hey Siri, turn on the torch.” (She’s Irish) She did, god bless her, and there was my phone, shining through the shoddy of the chair bottom. I fished the phone out, but still got the bruises. Conclusion: Don’t go to sleep in the chair with the phone on your chest.

In the area of generic advice that any old-timer can give you, I repeat the never-changing mantra of orthopedic specialists: Do not fall! Falls are increasingly common as we age, and the landings ever more destructive. Remember how you bounced back up as a kid? That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, often as not, they cart you away in a wheeled stretcher.

Last, and fairly sad, I adjure you to take nothing you hear or read at face value. Thanks to Him Whom I will not name (plus the advent of Artificial Intelligence), lying has become as common as mosquitoes in June, and the internet seems to harbor as many parasites as honest people. These folks prey most on the elderly, whose wits have slowed, making them more inclined to be credulous. My wife and I fell twice for the granny scam, and were rescued from a $4,000 mistake on the second one by an alert bank manager. I even got one last week. A nameless grandson claimed to have broken his nose in an accident. “I’ll tell you what, son,” I responded, “if I can locate you, you’ll have a broken nose, and it won’t be an accident.”

I have as many years now as a piano has keys, which evokes the old Jimmy Durante scene in which he runs up the scale till he falls off the bench. “I coulda gone foider,” he laments, “but I run outta piana.” I hope, as I face another year of gathering still more experience, that I won’t run out of piano.