• Getting Older Has Its Rewards

    • Posted on Jul 19, 1998

    7/19/98

    Today, I turn 55 and I’m lucky enough to have a column in front of me that I wrote for the Cedar Falls Record in July of 1978, “On Turning 35.”

    This find is thanks to a summer project of compiling (for publication) the best 100 columns of the last 1,500 or so I’ve written since first appearing in the now-defunct Record in February of 1978. I was 34 at the time.

    What a shock. How young I look in that Cedar Falls Record picture. How much my face has changed, with deepening character lines on the forehead and around the eyes, also known as wrinkles.

    So I have a rare opportunity to reflect on personal change, and it’s been both enlightening and discouraging.

    Let me begin with discouraging.

    In that column, I wrote about how happy I was to be growing older. (Thirty-five seemed ancient.) “I think youth is best left behind,” I said. “I know such an idea is almost heresy in a culture that worships wrinkle-free skin and Pepsi-swillers, but it’s true.”

    I went on to say why I was glad to not be 18 anymore: I was no longer obsessed with ideals, no longer needed to be “out” on weekends, no longer felt obliged to debate everyone I disagreed with.

    As a silly 35-year-old, I derided 18-year-olds for “riding around in cars with fat tires and high back ends …” and “Watching Charlie’s Angels or some other jiggle shows, listening to Kiss or Death or some such decadent ear-killing creeps.”

    Evidently I had no fear of winning the 18-year-old vote.

    Then I had detailed what I had learned in the 17 years since I had turned 18: Free lunches aren’t worth a damn; pets are a terrible nuisance but worth it; talking to kids under 10 helps you remember how to learn again, and talking to kids under 5 helps you remember what a mystery the world really is; and “anybody who doesn’t have at least one full hour completely to themselves every day probably knows somebody they’d like to kill.”

    At last, a point that makes real sense.

    That’s what’s really discouraging. Though that “On Turning 35” column was moderately entertaining, it was basically silly, a piece of fluff. Surely I could have done better.

    So here’s what was enlightening about reading the ancient piece: I really have changed. I still believe growing older makes more sense than trying to preserve youth, but beyond that, I now know that not everything worth doing is fun. At 35, if something wasn’t fun I avoided it. The result was a search for short-term pleasures that eventually left me feeling empty.

    “Fun,” in other words, is a trap that needs to be avoided (except as an occasional reward) when seeking a long-term goal. I’ve learned that whenever I forget about fun and just do the work, there’s a kind of satisfaction, and eventually joy, that comes from finishing a hard job. I’m now working on reading long transcriptions of interviews, and it’s tedious, dull work, with few rewards. No fun.

    But occasionally there’s a flash of insight, a revelation, a fresh idea, a jewel in the dung-heap. Then it all begins to make sense, thanks to forgetting about fun.

    That may seem obvious, but I hadn’t learned it by 35.

    I’ve also learned that vast numbers of people never seem to learn anything. Jerry Seinfeld and friends come to mind. They’re perfect models of non-learners. Every episode shows them repeating the same mistakes, falling into the same patterns, struggling with the same problems.

    That’s what makes them so funny and so pathetic at the same time. What they do is entirely predictable; how they do it gives the surprise.

    So too with many of us. We have all the tools for learning and change, but we refuse to pick them up and use them. So we’re doomed to repeat ourselves, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Then, maybe, we finally decide to grow, or pay more for remaining the same, as Norman Mailer once put it. But there’s no guarantee.

    That may seem like a dark view of people, but how many people do you know who have learned much of anything recently?

    Finally, I’ve learned that I can do better at nearly everything. I’ve found that I need to stretch myself more, to take a few chances, to push into things that I might otherwise avoid for fear of losing or being embarrassed.

    The result? I’ve been embarrassed more than a few times, and it’s painful. I went to a classical guitar master class last month, and played for a group of seasoned guitarists and a world-class teacher. The result even now makes my face glow red, but I had to do it.

    In short, I’ve tried to learn and grow, and it hasn’t been easy. I’ve lost friends along the way, and even made a few enemies. Still, I’ve made new, better friends.

    And I’ve learned to appreciate people who stretch themselves, who know they can do better.

    Even if it’s not always fun.

    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Aging & Birthdays
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.

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