Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Final Frontier: A tourist in the Land of the Old

I have a friend who, through no choice of his own, has become really truly OLD. "What's it like?" I asked him.

"I feel like a tourist," he replied. "I should write up my experiences and get Lonely Planet to publish my book."

People are always in search of hot new adventure travel destinations -- so how about coming up with a travel guide to somewhere none of us have ever been before: The Land of the Old.

And you thought ANTARCTICA was the latest hip travel spot!

Face it, guys. I'm 62 years old. I already have my visa ready and my passport stamped. Now my question is this: "How can I make this trip truly memorable, what will I see when I get there and how can I go first class?"

My friend offered some hot tips on accommodations. "If your package-tour nursing home isn't five-star and the going gets rough, just take a break from your exhausting pace and spend some time at the local Museum of Dreams. For your convenience, this museum is open all night."

Another high point in my friend's guidebook was his section on exciting things to do. "One really exciting -- even dangerous -- thing to do is to fight to get America's rights back. Forget about your walker and your back pain. Throw your heart and soul into the adventure of trying to save the soul of American democracy!

My friend is a member of 'the Greatest Generation' and he knows what things SHOULD be like. "The Great Depression? World War II? The McCarthy era? Been there. Done that. Younger Americans are blithely saying goodbye to their Constitutional rights without a backward glance but not me. I fought for them! I KNOW what they are worth. And I will spend every second of my old age fighting to get them back!"

"But what happened to the rest of the so-called Greatest Generation," I asked my friend. "Their Social Security, pensions, freedom of speech, elections and religion are being stolen by the crooks in the White House and they do nothing. Why aren't they too out fighting back?"

"I guess they don't realize that old age is a time for adventure -- and fun. The privilege of fighting injustice is the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower and the Manchu Picchu of touring the Land of Old Age! Visit there IMMEDIATELY. Give it first priority on your itinerary. Stop being an armchair traveler. Get out there! And start your journey by picketing the White House."

I got a confession to make. I've ALREADY been to the land of the old. It was back in 1973. A doctor hypnotized me. First she took me back in time to when I was a baby and then back to when I was a little kid. "If you can take me back in time," I told her, "surely you can take me forward in time too."

"No can do."

"But would you try?" Okay.

It was easy. Suddenly there I was -- at age 88. Only there were two of me. Door number one led to the image of me as a fat silly old woman living on cat food and junk (obviously George Bush had succeeded in privatizing Social Security -- but I digress).

Behind door number two was my other possible self and I was Enlightened -- a spiritual being with all the whistles and bells. "What can I do to become the one and not the other?" I asked myself. With 9,239 days left to go before my 88th birthday, I still have time to figure it out. But a tourist's guide to old age would still be a help. Somehow I think that Medi-Care and face lifts are not going to be enough.

As far as I can see, the whole purpose of growing old is to be able to claim to be wise. That means that the currency most readily accepted in the country of Old Age appears not to be dollars but good deeds, tolerance and love.

So. How do we become wise? The choices that we make each day get us there. Every day we make hundreds of choices and we just have to watch each choice we make -- door number one or door number two.

Billions of people on this planet are packing their bags, buying their tickets and getting ready to travel to the Land of Old Age. "You've been there," I told my older friend. "Please write us a guidebook." If I am going to be a geezer, I want to make sure that I see all the sights.

And if my friend's book sells well, then maybe Lonely Planet will publish a sequel, "Touring the Land of the Dying". Or -- God and defibrillators willing -- there is always the possibility of a third book, "A Tourist Returns from the Dead". Hopefully, with these tourist guides in our backpacks, old age will become an interesting destination and none of us will have to fritter away the last part of our lives lost in a place where we can't even speak the language.

PS: Christians believe that if you lead a wholesome and charitable life, avoid committing election fraud and refrain from bombing civilians, you will go to Heaven when you die. Tibetan Buddhists also believe in an afterlife. They believe that when you die after having led a kind and generous life, your spirit will leave your body through the top of your head. Buddhist adepts prepare for death by temporarily sending their spirits up and out through the top of their heads -- but woe to those who forget to bring it back in again. "Do not try this at home."

What happens to bad guys -- such as those greedy SOBs in Washington who gleefully steal little old ladies' Social Security money -- when they die? Just the opposite. Their spirits are forced to leave out through their bottoms (and apparently make a farting sound as they go. Eeeeuuuu.)

From "Amy Goes to Probate Court" (Long Version): At 10:45 pm, I got another call from the hospital. "Come immediately," said the nurse. Elizabeth, Amy, Jason and I rushed there -- driving frantically into the night, racing down the hospital corridors -- but it was too late. My father had passed away just seconds before we arrived. I held his limp, precious hand. It was as warm as mine. We all cried.

Elizabeth bent over Pop and kissed his head. "Goodbye, Grandpa. I love you." She and Jason left and then it was time for Amy and me to say goodbye. We held his hands in silent vigil until it finally became obvious to both of us that the glorious spirit that was my father had gone away to another place and only a cold, unanimated lump of nothing human was left. I placed my ring on this cold body's finger, kissed it, wrote "Oh, Pop. What are we ever going to do without you?" on his left ankle, wrote "Go with God," on his right ankle and drew a heart on his chest so that when he got to Heaven, God would know that he had been loved, kissed his forehead and left.

That night I received a great boon from my father: He taught me that the true essence of a man was not his body but his spirit. And that the spirit, the essence of a man, obviously lives on. It leaves its body at the moment of death, leaving behind little more than a log or a rock. I saw this with my own eyes and now I will never, ever fear death.