By Harriet P. Gross
Writing personally about life as defined by each decade’s Big Birthday, which I did here several weeks ago, inspired me to revisit two old chestnuts about aging’s stages. And in the process, a new one fell off the tree.
First must come the timeless Riddle of the Sphinx: What creature moves on four legs in youth, two in adulthood, three in old age? The answer is man, who crawls as a child, walks erect as an adult, then uses a cane as a senior.
Second: Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man from “As You Like It” lists infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice (a person, not an ideal), and finally pantaloon — this last, the sad clown figure we often refer to as someone in “second childhood.”
The latest — and most succinct — is this little takeoff on Shakespeare by poet Richard John Needham, who classifies seven ages in seven simple rhyming words: spills – drills – thrills – bills – ills – pills – wills. After thinking about these for just few short moments, many of us should be able to relate.
I was sadly startled recently by a television commercial featuring Henry Winkler; the former teenage comedy idol “The Fonz” is now a portly “graybeard” hawking an elder-directed financial product. He’s been transformed over several decades from Shakespeare’s ebullient lover to his comic pantaloon. Winkler’s first character was truly funny; this latest is truly pathetic. How the once-mighty has fallen.
Viewing the slide of Winkler from TV star to paid pitchman coincided with a response to my column from a faithful reader who reminded me of an honored Jewish view of aging. It comes from Pirke Avot through the pen of Yehuda ben Taima, who wrote, “The age of readiness for the study of Scripture is five years; for the study of Mishna — 10 years; for fulfilling the precepts — 13 years; for the study of Talmud — 15 years; for marriage — 18 years; for pursuit of livelihood — 20 years; for strength — 30 years; for understanding — 40 years; for counsel (please reference “justice” in Shakespeare, above) — 50 years; for old age — 60 years; for fullness of years — 70 years; for might — 80 years; for being bent — 90 years; for being as if already dead and having passed away from the world — 100 years.”
Of course, a lot of things have changed in the many generations since the codification of Pirke Avot, and science and medicine’s advances against old age are among the big ones. Today, 18 seems to us more than a bit young for marriage, and 90, for at least some, doesn’t automatically necessitate being “bent.” Case in point: my own uncle, whose ninth-decade birthday will be celebrated in just a month with a massive family reunion. He is still tall, straight and whole in mind as well as body. But as I write this now, I marvel at the calendar coincidence that will place our forthcoming birthday party on the afternoon of Kever Avot, following a morning visit to the cemetery where the honored guest will be sure to point out to all of us, with some possessive pride, his already-reserved final resting place.
The one thing that rings truest today is ben Taima’s citation of 13 as the age for “fulfilling the precepts,” which reminds us of the basic values inherent in becoming bar and bat mitzvah — children of the commandments, expected to understand and accept them, and commit to living by them.
Years ago, I heard Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the famed “On Death and Dying,” give an electrifying presentation on what makes life at any age worth living. Productivity, she said. Not health, but doing something productive. At the end of life, most people are old and unhealthy, and they will not get better any more than they will get younger. But they can and must stay productive: “At the point where a person is lying flat on his or her back, unable to move anything but one single finger, we have to find something productive that s/he can do with that finger.” I’ve never forgotten that.
So I was also acutely aware of Kubler-Ross when I considered Henry Winkler, with his receding hairline and enlarging midsection, earnestly recommending a somewhat controversial monetary plan to folks much like himself. Productivity, perhaps? He can’t reverse aging, but he can tout reverse mortgages, maybe actually helping some others while boosting his own retirement income.
So I wonder: Maybe I should reclassify him, from Shakespeare’s pantaloon to ben Taima’s fullness of years? (I hope, for his sake, I’m right.)