2015-09-03 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Being good sure is a drag

I was recently on the phone with an older relative, an uncle on my late husband’s side who is in his 60s, both of us bemoaning the aches and pains that come with working on a house.

“At least I’m old,” he said. “What’s your excuse?”

I laughed. I had none.

“I tell you what,” the uncle said. “If I had known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” He grew up during the 1960s and was no stranger to the experimentation of that decade or the years of hard living that followed. “None of us thought we’d make it past 30,” he told me. “But here I am.”

I would argue that my generation suffers from the opposite problem.

We came into adulthood just as the baby boomers were tumbling into middle age. All that get-healthy, live-longer advice targeted at them spilled over onto our population. At an early age, we were conscious of the fact that we would probably live a long time as long as we took care of ourselves. So we stocked our fridges with blueberries and kale, swapped out coffee for green tea, swallowed our supplements and took up yoga.

In romance, too, we’ve been trained to be good.

My friends and I grew up in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, where safe sex took priority and no sex was even safer. The high divorce rate of our parents’ generation meant that we aspired to more lasting marriages. We read relationship advice books, we seek our marriage therapists, we cultivate our own identities to ensure that we don’t lose ourselves to our partners. Sometimes I think the tendons in our necks must be standing out from all the straining to get it right.

I’m no different from anyone else of my era. My fridge is filled with berries and leafy greens. I only drink tea. I drive around town with a yoga mat in the trunk of my car. I’m awfully smug about how good I’m being. But truthfully? I’m not having much fun.

A few weeks ago, I met up with another friend, a man whose wife died less than a year ago. Grieving is hard and lonely, and sometimes the only thing we can offer our friends who are moving through it is the comfort of our presence. When I asked him how he was doing, he said what most of us say when we’re hurting: “I’m OK.”

Still, he was quick to assure me that he’s grieving the right way. No quitting his job, no selling his house. He had, he insisted, been very good.

After our time together, we walked down the sidewalk and stopped at his car. It was shiny, sporty, black and brand new. My friend gave a bashful shrug, but I could tell he was proud. He’s from the generation familiar with the thrill of not being careful.

“So I’ve been a little bad,” he said. The car made an excited chirp as he unlocked the doors. “And you know what? It’s a lot more fun.” ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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