Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Miracle of Youth

Don't it always seem to go

that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? — Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

It's not possible to appreciate youth while you're still young. Eighteen-year-olds don't look in the mirror and say, "Wonderful! No gray hair!" But now, when my face is starting to look like the lunar surface, I delight in seeing flawless young faces like that of Max's classmate, Coral. It's a special gift of age, a heightened pleasure, watching the young. Many beauties are amplified by distance, and so it is with the distance of age. Young people appear to us elders like snow-capped mountain peaks, touching the sky.

One morning in 1993, I walked across a bridge near Embarcadero Center, where I worked. I had a lot on my mind, and all of it was bad. I was stuck in a simple, low-paying job. It was the kind of job college kids got for a few months before their first real job, but I was thirty-three and I couldn't get out of it. On the home front, I was about to lose my wife and my apartment.

Paralyzing panic attacks struck me at least once a day, and every minute I wondered when the next one would strike. I read some people's panic attacks were behavioral accidents, like allergic reactions. I knew mine were not accidents, but alarm bells, warning of real danger. Big changes were coming, and I did not want them. I couldn't control my future, nor could I run away from it.

A voice woke me from these depressing thoughts, just as I hopped up a stairway. I turned and saw an old gentleman, thin and dignified, looking up at me sadly. "What you just did," he said, pointing to the stairs, "I just wish I could still do that!" We stood in silence for a minute. I felt guilty and ungrateful. I smiled, put my hand on his shoulder and wished him a good day.

Since then, during hard times, I've often remembered the old man. Even on bad days, someone watches you from a distance. They wish they could take your place, problems and all.

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