The Golden Years

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Before my retirement, my patients would often ask, when told that their cataracts, or droopy lids, or dry eyes, were associated with aging, "What’s so golden about the golden years?" It’s a question easier asked than answered.

Certainly, there’s no gold in the physical changes of aging. The balding pate, dimming vision, lessened hearing, impaired sense of taste, balance, etc., are hardly grounds for rejoicing. But there are advantages, one of which is the realization that the physical aspect of life isn’t the only, or even the most important, one. And there’s another: a lessened automatic respect for authority.

A child, of course, respects authority because he respects his parents: the original authority figures. This respect carries over into respect for most other adults. And his respect for his teachers likewise extends to any others who claim to teach or have authority: doctors, lawyers, professors — any "experts." Many of us never outgrow this ingrained respect for those who write, lecture, or teach in any way. If he’s wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard, he must know what he’s talking about.

My first inkling that the "experts" may lack expertise — or at least common sense — involved the automobile. As a teen, my concern with automobiles was that they accelerate quickly. And they should look good. As I aged, my priorities changed: was it reliable? Could I get in and out easily? Did it have a nice cushiony ride? But the automobile experts didn’t seem to age with me. They continued to rhapsodize about g forces on skid pads, oversteer, understeer, and other exotica. It dawned on me that these experts didn’t really understand automobiles at all. While I regarded the automobile as a means of transportation, and therefore to be as comfortable and dependable as possible, they regarded it as an engineering challenge which only peripherally was involved with anything as mundane as carrying people about. Yes, the rear seat passengers can’t sit up straight, and their knees are under their chins, but the auto gurus rate it AA anyway, because it’ll slip through the slalom at 85 miles/hour. Uh-huh.

Airplanes are in the same boat. Bigger, but no better. A recent TV program about the next generation of airliners featured an Airbus representative extolling the immensity of the company’s newest offering. He showed a possible configuration that would include a large lounge area, and, if I recall rightly, said that there would even be room for an exercise facility on board. Whoa! If I wanted to work out, I wouldn’t buy a ticket to Europe! If an Airbus-using airline wants to take a really giant step forward, let it skip large empty spaces aboard, and simply space the seats farther apart. Have you ever tried to tie your shoes on board an airliner? And why should you have to keep your elbows tucked in against your sides while you tried to cut your entrée, to avoid bumping them against the sardine in the next seat? Skip the lounges and gyms — just give us more room. What’s a plane for, Mr. Expert? To get us there comfortably and safely, or give us a place to lounge about or exercise en route?

Some challenges to the "expert" status quo don’t involve matters of common sense, however. For these, the Internet has proven absolutely invaluable. Without it, for instance, would I ever have heard of April Glaspie, our ambassador to Iraq in 1990, who gave the administration’s OK to Saddam Hussein’s plans to invade Kuwait? No, my knowledge of that invasion would be entirely from the usual sources: TV, news magazines, the radio. All would offer the learned pronouncement of "experts" who did not, however, refer to Ms. Glaspie.

Do you think your accountant or tax preparer is an expert on tax law? Think again. An hour on the Internet can make you better informed about tax law than your attorney, although admittedly, it may not make any difference. You may know about the law, but he knows how the system works.

Are you worried about the flu? Should you get a flu shot? There’s been more information regarding the dangers of the flu vs. the dangers of the shot on this website than you’ll find in a mountain of newspapers, or an ear-numbing series of broadcasts. How about cholesterol? Just exactly how dangerous is it? Should you have bypass surgery for your clogged coronaries? Isn’t it amazing how the widely quoted "experts" manifest such uniformity of opinion about these things? You can find alternative views on the Internet, and not written by some loony who claims to be getting the information from aliens.

Between the information available on the net, and the experience that comes with antiquity, I now regard the pronouncements of "experts" with considerable skepticism. In addition, old curmudgeons are given a bit of leeway in certain things. No longer, when confronted by some absurd bit of modern "art," must I find some justification for disliking it. And I can interrupt some oenophile who’s rhapsodizing about the subtle hint of boysenberry in his merlot and declare, "Wine is to be drunk, not talked to death" and get away with it, because I’m a crabby old fogy, and must be tolerated. Hot dog! There’s some gold in those golden years, after all! Right there, under the dust and rust.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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