Old-timer Ernie waxed philosophic when he ate corn: the more gnawed cobs, the more profound his utterances.
During a six-cob session, he told me the best thing about being old: No one expected anything of him anymore, and when he did stir himself to action, people expressed amazement and appreciation.
Since Ernie’s favorite activity was to drink beer while bellowing scandalous songs from his days in the navy, I believed the amazed part.
Since turning 65, I recognize the truth of Ernie’s words. Others do expect less. Teenage baggers with spiked hair cart groceries to my car without my consent. When I attend meetings like those I used to facilitate, others allow me to sit in silence and look wise.
When I took a bowling class, fresh-faced classmates offered one another advice: “Start your release sooner,” or, “ Move a couple of boards left.” Their feedback to me: “Nice try,” and a vacated seat so I could recover from rolling two gutter balls.
When I walk with younger friends, motorists who stop for directions address their questions to those with unlined brows, as though my wrinkles mean I can no longer recognize my neighborhood.
I notice these age-based reactions without letting them disturb my nap. I do, however, sometimes worry that I expect less of myself.
During the years I worked as a consultant to small school districts in Northwest Colorado, I drove alone through the darkness of winter on narrow, two-lane roads curving along rivers and through ranchlands.
I maneuvered steep passes buttressed by frozen waves of snow, made lonely by the absence of homes and fellow travelers. I sang with the radio as sparse snow thickened, then fell with increased determination.
Now, I hesitate to drive three miles in full daylight if a skiff of snow is blowing across the highway.
I used to anticipate the challenge of walking into a workshop filled with 75 professionals sizing up the stranger who would instruct them. I liked convincing skeptics I had content knowledge, could make training meaningful, and was serious when I said we would keep the break to 15 minutes.
Now when a friend asks for volunteers to tell stories of the past to first graders, I avoid eye contact.
In my personal life, I thought nothing of cleaning bathrooms while doing laundry, scrubbing floors while making a shopping list, re-potting houseplants while calling my sister, cooking dinner while preparing to party.
Now I feel unduly burdened by one such task, and it takes most of a day to prepare for an evening out — there are so many more problems to camouflage.
I’m not in denial. I notice my growing timidity and fuss about it. When I grow too disheartened, I remember another pearl Ernie shared during his corn-eating orgy: “I’m easier on myself now, finally free to do things because I want to, not because I need to prove something to myself or to others. At 68, I’m 200 pounds of blue-toned steel, and I can pee into the wind if I want.”
At the time, caught up in a whirlwind of goal achievement, I chuckled, but missed Ernie’s point.
He wasn’t offering toileting advice. He was advising me to relish the absence of expectations as I aged; to do those things I enjoy, not those others expect.
It’s OK to relax into the rhythms of the life I now have rather than trying to maintain my past self.
In celebration of Ernie’s wisdom, I think I’ll eat some corn and sing his favorite song — the one about Columbus and the cabin boy.