It came early in life, one of those lessons we abruptly learn when we think we can't get much smarter. Still wet behind the ears at 16 or 17 (and drinking whiskey despite my age), I was telling everyone at the old Frontier Bar in Basalt how tough I was as a cowboy and bronc-rider.
In what I thought was a magnanimous gesture, I deferred to an older cowpoke in the crowd (he must have been at least 50) by saying, "Well, old man, why don't you tell us some of your stories?" In the blink of an eye, his hand grabbed the front of my shirt, and he quietly spoke in my ear, "Listen, you snot-nosed little sumbitch, I ain't old, and if you don't clean up your mouth, I'll mop the floor with your sorry ass." OK, point well taken.
Calling someone "old" is insulting - on that we can agree - but when does the math indicate that you no longer can avoid the spiraling plunge into supposed frailty? I've likely seen more of my life than I will ever see again, but am I at 50 percent of using it up, or 70 or 90 percent? Some of it, no doubt, depends on the skill of the bus driver I carelessly step in front of, but the truth of the matter is that it's not something I struggle with.
A recently released study by the British has conclusively defined "old age" as something that begins around 59. Huh? Of course the Brits would say that - those blokes whose strange accents and preference for decidedly dry humor makes it almost impossible to see them as anything but "old." Excuse me, "older." Ask any person 70 or older around Aspen when "old age" starts, and you'll likely get a laugh or a blank stare.
Thoughts of mortality come around, but they're tinged with a hard sense of reality. This past summer, I was standing in my horse pasture, watching the geldings graze through a soft summer afternoon and considered that the day will come (probably not with those horses, but with other, younger ones, yet to be) when I fade from the earth, and no matter how much I love those damned horses, my absence won't make a ripple in their existence, other than my daughter will take on the ownership mantle and their lives will change very little. And then I jumped in my Jeep and drove off, feeling younger than hell and wondering what it might be like to be old and wonder such things.
Used to be when I looked into the mirror, I saw my father staring back at me. It was somewhat unsettling but also carried a certain comfort, a validation of my ancestry, so to speak. Years ago, I surpassed my dad's final age and no longer see him in the mirror, and honestly, I miss that. Somewhere under the layers, I see a young boy, someone who was once me, a tenacious personality, uncompromised by life's unrelenting joys and sorrows, someone I miss terribly, a kid who isn't letting go and keeps asking if I'm going to abandon him. Nope, I'll never let myself get that cynical.
I'm fortunate to have survived a life of ups and downs, and I've had more than my fair share of the good and the bad, and you'll never get me to buy into that "grow old gracefully" crap. There are no illusions about becoming an "old sage" or a "respected" member of the community. If you want to ski with me, I'll still wait for you at the bottom of every run. Hiking is stronger in my blood than ever before, and I envision myself and my horses (and dogs) chasing cows through the mountains when I'm 80. Somewhere in my mind, I surmise that when I can't do all of that, I will either become a writer or get a job.
The Brits (and a ton of other people) don't realize it, but "old" cannot be defined chronologically. To attempt to do so is the downfall of fools.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.