Ah, the Golden Years -- that conference on aging set me off: spunky old Granny peering benignly through her bifocals, passing out cookies to the grandchildren and Polident to Gramps, shooting a television commercial for the Bell System before slipping into her leisure suit to whip across the links in the golf cart. (Gramps stays home to work in his woodshop). The two of them, they're a pair. You'd never know they were--dare we say it? --old. Maybe the Venerable Bede was old, but our pair today is 70, 80 "years young," and happy as all get out. Old is something else, an affliction of the flesh that Miss Clairol and the clever surgeon, taking a tuck here, a tuck there, have conquered or at least concealed. Old is the way certain social diseases used to be before we all got modern and enlightened and penicillin. So, remembering how much fun we had being "junior citizens" in the 4th grade, we'll let them romp through their golden years as "senior citizens,"--or, worse, "seniors," which sounds like a sportswear size-- before they slip off the shuffleboard court and into the sunset.

So much for the dignity of age, a quality we sometimes appear to believe can be conferred by decree or plenty of regular exercise, rather than a quality that accrues--or fails to--in the course of a lifetime, the way we grow up, or fail to. We do, however, grow older--it's one of those inconvenient but ineluctable truths of life--and with any luck at all and barring some magical new elixir of youth, we'll be there soon enough, bellying up to the bar at the old Spry & Sprightly, just like the kids in the singles bar downtown, acting like a bunch of damfools, as crusty old Gramps might, with justice, say. Of course, Gramps is getting a little dotty.

When we refer to the aged, we try to call them anything but old, as if that were tactless. We compliment them, when we do, for seeming "young," as if retaining one's youth or the appearance of it were the goal of life, instead of surviving and losing it. It's nice, of course, to be spry and sprightly at 70 or 80, as increasing numbers of people of that age are. But it's also possible to be just plain tired, and not have that considered a social embarrassment, like senility. It ought to be possible to be 70 or 80 years old, not young, and to be respected for that: for having survived, for gaining in perspective, in experience, even, it may be, in wisdom, and for having grown into your wrinkles the way you grow into your character--by trial and error and struggle.