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BUTTERFLIES ARE HAPPY
7/17/2010 5:26:02 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]

Today, the 17th, marks another birthday—whoopee!—this time, one year shy of a monumental benchmark that will establish me as a bona fide octogenarian. It brings to mind that Rodney Dangerfield often is credited for the cliché, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

Truth is, that self-inflicted reprimand was made originally by Eubie Blake, the great American musical icon who died in 1983 at the age of 100—actually, he was ninety-six, but as Peter Hanley writes: “In the final analysis . . . the fact that he was only ninety-six years of age and not one hundred when he died does not in any way detract from his extraordinary achievements. Eubie will always remain among the finest popular composers and songwriters of his era.”

Mr. Blake was a frequent guest on NBC’s Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and I happened to be watching the night Carson asked him how old he was.

BLAKE: Pretty old.
CARSON: How old would that be?
BLAKE: Gettin’ up there close to a hun’er.
CARSON: You’re in pretty good shape for a centenarian.
BLAKE: A who?
CARSON: A guy pushing a hundred.
BLAKE: Shoot, man, I know I gonna live this long, I’da took better care a myself!

The remark brought down the house and both Carson and McMahon doubled over. I immediately memorized the phrase, intending to use it myself as the occasion demanded. However, it entered the lexicon of pat rejoinders by a myriad of entertainers who abused it to the extent where, in a short span, it became a cliché attributed to everyone from Henny Youngman to Mickey Mantle to Groucho Marx, despite the latter having passed away in 1977. Consequently, I avoided the phrase until today, its applicability notwithstanding.

Casual research would reveal the ensuing years did nothing to confirm better care was ever on my agenda. Since arthritis in my early 70s curtailed my rather mediocre and mundane tennis and golf games, enthusiasm for physical exercise all but disappeared.

I managed to stop smoking on New Year’s Eve 1984 so I could at least live to see my youngest daughter married. The debatable joys of alcohol have become a dim memory since the mid-90s. I’m happy to report my weight has fluctuated less than ten pounds over the past twenty-five years, and I still scrounge up coupons for a barber shop visit every six or seven weeks (usually on Wednesdays—senior citizen discount days.)

Either the arthritis or a pinched nerve have impeded the use of my right hand to the point where signing my name to checks or documents of incredible importance—not to mention buttoning my shirt or zipping up my fly—has become an exercise in futility, truly the closest activity I engage in that makes me break into a sweat. I long ago abandoned ever tying a tie again.

Not bad, when you consider my most annoying penalty for living this long is wrestling for five minutes daily with my terrycloth robe after a morning shower (four minutes getting it on, a minute or more shedding it—now I know why butterflies are happy.)

All in all, I have prevailed quite well during the accumulated decades, and as Gene Krupa once confided during an interview, “it sure ain’t due to clean living!” I think, in my own case, that is probably correct.

I cannot recall that I ever knowingly went out of my way to “behave admirably,” according to any acceptable tenet. As a youngster, I often dissed and talked back to my elders and deliberately drove my parents to distraction with actions and attitudes I would never tolerate in my own children. When I became an older teenager I not only put away childish accoutrements, I broke them in disgust, smashed them into unusable bits and pieces.

As a young adult, my professional career was my most important possession; it was not until middle age and beyond that I began to adjust to a normal existence—or at least to what the people around me considered somewhat “normal.”

My second marriage and the eventual arrival of my second daughter were the events of cataclysmic proportion that altered my behavior and afforded me the opportunity of a long and fruitful sojourn on this planet.

Prior to that I was something of a rudderless ship, floundering from one rocky cove to another with no hope of securing a safe berth in any calm harbor. Dry dock, a consummation devoutly desired, was entirely out of the question.

Now, a year short of the dreaded 80s, I find myself in remarkably good health, far superior physically and mentally to the overwhelming majority of my peers—or for that matter, most of my younger friends. I am long retired from the daily tribulations of money-grubbing gambits, and although I have no bulging bank account to speak of, I have, since walking away from the drudgery of diabolical pecuniary pursuits, written six novels and turned out reams of op-ed blogs (bilge?) that, if nothing else, titillate my personal muses.

To what more can any of us aspire?

My wife is still seventeen months from qualifying for Medicare; my youngest daughter may have married wealthily in Memphis—the potential is there, at least, when her young husband graduates as a full-fledged dentist next year. And I recently passed my annual physical with my ancient doctor shaking his head while sighing, “You must have lived this long because we have taken such marvelous care of you!”

Oh, you old Indian fakir, you! Had I a modicum of suspicion that all your remedies, pills, herbs, exercises, pricks and probes actually contributed to my longevity, the size of your bills might be justified. But what you fail to see is that the vagaries of health, in my particular case, have nothing whatever to do with my longevity.

Perhaps it is spiritual. Circumspect indications, according to the Rev. Patricia Roberts, are that this is thus and so. Perhaps. After all, Reverend Patty is my personal Episcopal priest and spiritual advisor, and I would be foolish not to listen to her. But . . . I can’t help thinking Pat’s pronouncements may be too—well—pat.

If God truly wanted me home, I’d have taken up residence with Him long before now. No. I think perhaps He is just not 100% sure I’m ready for Him yet—or vice versa. Better I stay put until we smooth out the crinkled edges and are truly more in sync with one another.

Besides, I have only three direct progeny, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. The youngest daughter, married now for .0253 of MY life, has given assurances they are “trying.”

Yes, of course—but tempus fugit. . . . Wish me a Happy Birthday while we still have time!


Copyright 2010 by Robert A. Mills


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