Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Medicare knocking at my door

What was meant as a glib reply to a friend's e-mail yesterday unexpectedly set off some ominous arithmetic in my head: On Dec. 30 I turn sixty-five and officially join the Medicare "generation."

Our family doctor of some twenty years marked Stew's induction into the ranks of the elderly last year with a prostate exam, of the digital kind, and a jokey "Welcome to Medicare!"  Next time I'm Chicago it will be time for my own government-paid, head-to-toe physical and probably the same quip.

Becoming an AARP member, or not having a full-time job, are not as definitively indicative of life's final stretch as getting your very own Medicare card, which actually arrives a month before your sixty-fifth birthday.

AARP will sign you up and then clobber you with useless mailings, solicitations and lame publications as early as your fiftieth birthday, while you may still be working, and keep at it until long after you die unless some thoughtful relative mails in a cancellation notice in your stead.

And with the ever-so-"flexible" and "efficient" American economy, your employer can lay you off and effectively send you into retirement without waiting for your fifty-fifth, sixty-second or any such arbitrary birthday. Losing your job is not necessarily a marker of old age or incompetence anymore. Often it's just bad luck.

The ticking of the Medicare clock, however, is precise and inexorable. If you choose to continue to work after your enrollment, goody for you, particularly if you love what you do and you're not doing it just out of economic necessity.

Indeed, I'm jealous of octogenarian artists, writers, scientists and other inspired sorts who whistle away the hours in their garrets or laboratories until they keel over their easels, typewriters or beakers without even a final "ciao." Way to go, I say.

That bliss, sadly, is relatively rare. Besides, even joyful work doesn't necessarily extend your life though it certainly simplifies choices: It saves you the chore of  deciding whether you'd rather spend a month in the Patagonia, take up scuba diving, write a novel or do anything else other than work.

As I approach the sixty-five-year-old threshold--hey, there are three days left--what I feel most is the pressure of time, both short- and long-term.

During the recent funeral of an uncle I noticed the Laniers seem to be long-lived tribe. My dad died a few days before his ninety-fourth birthday; my uncle at ninety-two; and my aunt Ofelia at ninety-six, though during her last couple of years her mind kept flickering like a fading shortwave station.

My mom lived to be eighty-eight. Stew's family is also of durable Norwegian stock, good for about  ninety years, the last couple of which Stew's dad spent in a nursing home reaching for the ass of a young nurse he fancied.

Our actuarial tables would suggest that Stew and I might be around for another twenty years or so. A friend counseled us to divide that remaining time into three parts: The go-go years, when we can still climb Machu Picchu and trek through the Galápagos; the slow-go years, when cruises with off-shore excursions may be more appropriate; and finally the  no-go years, which we might spend in a nursing home like Stew's dad, though in our case hoping for a comely male nurse to join the staff.

When we retired our friends kept posing the same tiresome question: But what do you do all day long? The question, though well-meaning, to me had a whiff of contempt, as in "what do you when you're out to pasture or otherwise useless"?

It's a question that becomes more impertinent and irrelevant every day.

Fact is that anymore I find time becoming a tyrant, not because of any boredom and emptiness it might bring, but because of the constant proliferation of interesting things and projects swirling in my head, clamoring to be mastered or at least attempted before the no-go years.

Priorities suddenly are a preoccupation, though I haven't developed a system for ranking--or abandoning--projects because I have only twenty or twenty-five years in which to accomplish them.

I would like to write something substantial, a book-like creation, though the subject eludes me. Photography, an on-and-off hobby since I was a teenager, suddenly is taking more of my life now that I have more time and money to devote to it. Gardening beckons too, though I don't know if it's an avocation or in the hostile terrain of San Miguel a challenge, in the order of man-versus-nature.

Having more time to read also constantly reminds me how much I don't know. And with the usefulness of any new knowledge suddenly unimportant--remember, I'm not cramming for a final exam or to impress my boss--I'm free to careen from one topic to the next.

I'm now on a tour of the battlefields of the American Civil War, which I know little about, after which I could take up a novel with no special practicality except it's a fun read. My tolerance level also has dropped significantly. I don't put up with boring books, articles, TV shows or movies. I don't have to. There's not enough time.

It's a pretty enjoyable existence I'd like to keep go-going as long as I can. And I'm not going to let the addition of my Medicare card to my wallet wreck the feeling.

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