Down the tube(s)

“Age is only a number.” I hear people say that, and I cringe — especially since the peeps saying it are almost always 30 years younger than me. Simply put, as good as their intentions might be, they have no idea what they’re talking about.

Yes, age is just a number. But so are IQ, weight, blood pressure, income and a bunch of other things. And when it comes to those things, I want their numbers to be more in my favor than not.

Of course, some numbers are easy to measure as a minim or optimum. For example, weight and blood pressure ideals can be agreed on. With IQ and income, while we’d have trouble agreeing on an “ideal,” we’d probably all agree we’d prefer more to less. Age, however, can’t be so easily dismissed.

So what’s “the best” age? Or to use the old cliche as a measure, what are the best years of our life?

At this point, having hit The Big Seven-Oh!, I regard the issue philosophically. As long as I’m on the positive side of the grass and in good health, these are the best years. And while that might sound like a cop-out, it’s not. Then again, it’s not a simple, all-encompassing statement either.

Primarily, I’m overjoyed to have made it this far with as little rust on the chassis and with the engine still turning over. But while I may have some illusions about the shape I’m in, I’m not deluded. Everything may work, but nothing works as well as it used to.

A telling example: A few days ago I ran into a friend who had his new puppy with him, which I immediately started fussing over. Then, deciding to pet the little rascal (the pup, not the friend) I squatted down. Or more precisely, I tried to squat, because about a third of the way down, my knees shrieked in protest, burst into flames and then went on strike.

Simply put, I couldn’t squat. Maybe, ultimately, I could have squatted. But had I done it, I wouldn’t have been able to get back up — at least not without a helping hand or two.

OK, I say to myself, I can’t squat anymore. No big deal. How much did I ever squat anyway? And what if I never squat again? So I won’t be a baseball catcher … which I never was anyway. And I’ll never use an Asian toilet, something that’s never been on my bucket list — if you’ll pardon the expression.

See, it’s just an ongoing process of surrender, this aging thing, and I’m doing all right with it. But I’ll tell you what I’m not doing all that well with — my looks.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind how I look, but that’s because I don’t know how I look. I see myself in the mirror or see a recent photo of myself, and I think I look fine. Even worse, I think I look young. It’s weird. I know I must look a lot older than I did a few short decades ago, but I can’t see it.

But even if I can’t, others sure can.

An illustrative tale

Last week my extended family and I — nine of us — went on a trip to London. I’d been to London before, but never with kids, in this case aged 6, 8, 12 and 14. Unsurprisingly, their interests in the city and mine did not dovetail, so while they spent their day doing their thing, I spent my day doing mine, which consisted of practically living in the museums. When not in a museum, I was walking to the next one. At day’s end, as you might expect, I was tired.

But it was a good type of tired, the kind you have after a long day well spent … which, as far as I’m concerned, is any day not spent working. And feeling thus, I shlepped my way to the tube for the ride back to our place.

It was in the middle of rush hour, but rush hour in London is pretty easy to deal with because the Brits as a group are unfailingly pleasant and polite. If there’s a line (or, in Brit parlance, a queue), people line up in order of arrival, and while someone may cut ahead from time to time, in my 10 or so visits there, I’ve never seen it. People say please and thank you. They hold doors for each other. Clerks address customers as sir and madame. And so on.

In the tube stations and on the tube itself, while there’s crowding and crushing, it’s a civilized kind of jam. So when I got on my train, which was standing room only, people gave me enough space to work my way to a corner. Once there, I leaned on the wall, held onto a pole and did what I always do in cities — people watch.

Given their numbers and ethnic mix, London is a great people-watching town. So I was in my little corner of the tube car, and the world, taking in the show, when I got a weird feeling. Though it defies words, you know the one I’m talking about — you feel someone’s looking at you.

Trying to be subtle, I skimmed the crowd. Since I had my back to the wall, there were only three directions from which anyone could be checking me out.

I looked in front of me. No one was looking back.

I looked to my right, and it was the same.

Then I looked to my left and — Bam! — a woman about 10 feet away wasn’t just looking at me; she was staring!

The eyes have it

I averted my eyes, thought I was probably overreacting. Then I looked around the rest of the car some more before I looked back at her. And when I did it was clear — the woman was full-on eyeballing me.

Admittedly, I cut a dashing figure. The jewelry, the beard, the baby blues — they add up, I assure you. Not just another pretty face. Still, while someone might give me a good once-over, even a good twice-over, that’s gotta be about it. But not in this case. The minutes passed, but her attention did not.

At first I was surprised. Then I was curious. And finally I was unsettled.

What was in this woman’s mind? I wondered.

But I didn’t have to wonder very long.

She came over to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and then announced to the entire car in a voice I can only describe as stentorian: “Would someone please get up and give this gentleman their seat?”

I was shocked, first by her referring to me as a gentleman, and second by her thinking I couldn’t do the commute standing. Those shocks were followed by a third, as all motion in the car stopped and then four people leaped up to offer me their seats, one of them a wizened little lady who looked like a contemporary of the queen … if not the queen mother.

A long moment passed, then another. Finally I regained my legendary sang froid.

“Thank you,” I told the mob, “but I’m fine, really. Take your seats, please.”

They did, and almost immediately the car returned to its previous state.

The woman with the million-decibel voice was still standing next to me. Then she spoke.

“You looked like you were in pain,” she said.

I figured I’d defuse her seriousness with some surefire levity.

“No, I’m not in pain,” I said. Then I paused before I delivered the killer punchline. “Just old.”

She didn’t laugh. She didn’t even smile. Instead, contrary to my every expectation, she nodded her head gravely and walked back to where she’d been before the whole shtuss started.

One of my favorite poets and someone I think of as one of the greats of Western literature is Robert Burns. A most famous line of his, from the poem, “To a Louse,” is about seeing ourselves as others see us and what insight it would bring.

I read that poem in Mrs. Duprey’s class in 1962, but I never understood it till last week.