"Don't ever get old," my mother-in-law tells me.
I tell her I don't like the alternative.
She says, "well, you're set up pretty well." I start to argue (she's my mother-in-law. It's my job), but she's wandered off so I'm stuck arguing in my head. How is my setup different from hers? I have good kids, but so did/does she. What's so great about what I've got? What's so wrong with what she's got? And is there really a landing pad between growing old and croaking?
I have nothing better to do today - it's very hot and I'm sitting really still, trying not to perish from heat stroke - so I gave it some more thought. And I realized that I am set up pretty well, at least for now. The trick is keeping our balance as everything changes around us.
My best friend, who is also dealing with aging parents, has been noticing what differentiates an annoyed/annoying old person from a pleasant/pie-baking old person. Here are a few things she's come up with:
Cranky people get stuck in their ways early on. If you want to be happy later, practice flexibility now. Try new food. Guard against dismissing ideas out of hand. Remember that change has always happened and it's not something new that's designed specifically to piss you off.
This comes to some people more naturally than others, but it's never too early to start cultivating your inner nice person. I don't mean to lose your love of taunting your kids with embarrassing childhood stories in front of their friends. File that under "Joie de Vivre" and have at it. It's the taunting that goes on inside your head you have to be careful of. Watch the inner monologue because that stuff is going to come out loud and clear on down the line. Admit it: your filter's going to get clogged and you're just going to chuck it. Start filtering out the crap now so what comes out later is what you really want to be saying.
Start figuring out what's important.
I am not high maintenance. I am not a neat freak. I have not once been mistaken for Miss Manners. But sometimes I flip out. And it's stupid stuff I flip out over.
Nobody likes to be nitpicked, henpecked or micromanaged. It's not a matter of stopping the flow of criticism, it's a matter of not letting stuff get you. My friend gives things the Five Year Test: if it won't matter in five years, let it be. "Don't sweat the small stuff" is cliche for a reason.
There's stuff that's important now, but won't be later. If by the time my children reach a certain age they are still not putting their underwear in the hamper or are going out with their hair unbrushed, it's their spouse or friend or footman's problem. Not mine. My job of polishing the outside is done. It's time to enjoy what's inside.
Trust people who are trustworthy.
Figure out who these people are before you start forgetting if you've had lunch or not. This is hard because the person you choose to help you make important decisions may have their own brain eaten by a zombie and start suggesting things that are not in your best interest. Do the best you can.
It's not about you.
Another friend recently told me that people do what they do because over time they become more and more self-centered. It's like your fingers freezing off when you get stuck in the arctic (work with me here. There's a parallel that made sense when I typed it. See reference to "heat stroke" above).
The trick is to A) not get stuck in the arctic and B) become less self-centered so there's a greater margin for error on down the line.
Remember all this.
Write it down. Mark it on your calendar. Put sticky notes on your head. Write a blog post in which you refer to yourself as "you." Do it until it's easy.
Old is as old does. When my mother-in-law tells me not to get old, I'm pretty sure what she means is to not get to the point where I can't get out of my own way, mentally. I figure I should start practicing now if any of this is supposed to do any good in the future. And if it doesn't? Then I will have been unnecessarily nice and friends will decide that zombies have eaten my brain.