Neal Milner: Eighty, Schmeighty. Spare Me The Story Of Your Perfect Life - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

I turned 80 on May 19. That whole day was pretty ordinary. I worked out as usual; ran an errand; read a little; FaceTimed with my family; drove all the way to Kaneohe to renew my driver’s license.

NOTE: pick the correct linkThen an early dinner with two good friends, “Happy Birthday to You” over dessert, and home by 8.

Could have done more but no reason to do it because 80 is a birthday, not a milestone. As soon as folks decide to gin up an 80th birthday into a milestone, bad stuff happens.

You fall victim to people who claim to be celebrating your 80th birthday but in fact are using the occasion to celebrate themselves and intimidating you in the process.

That’s exactly what Christmas letters, those awful cheery bragfests, do. Those holiday letters want to “keep you up with our family. Dana our 3-year-old is in AP Sanskrit … ”

And so do the recent I-turned-80 columns by Washington Post columnist George Will and the New York Times longtime health and nutrition writer Jane Brody. Each turned 80 about the same time I did. Those columns are as Christmas-lettery as any Christmas letter.

Like holiday letters, the columns come down to this: MY LIFE IS BETTER THAN YOURS, LOSER!

Show of hands: How many of you have felt inspired by these holiday letters? Now, how many of you become full of envy you are too polite to express?

Instead, you say, “Good for them!” while inside you would really like to say, “Your letter makes me feel like crap.”

Instead of getting what you feel out of your system, you have to celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music.

I coulda shoulda done more with my life, you think. Just what you need to power yourself into your ninth decade.

That’s how Brody and Will make you feel.

Will’s article about turning 80 basically celebrates being the kind of person George Will is, which is OK, but only if you are … George Will.

His idea is that 80-year-olds should try new stuff, or as he puts it since he can never say simple things simply, “expand their repertoire.”

Nothing wrong with that. But his examples read like someone sipping a single malt at the Princeton Club talking to another person sipping a more peat-like single malt in the ultra-comfy chair next to him.

Eighty-year-old martini drinkers, Will says, should add Manhattans. They should “acquire a new dog and name him Miles Davis, a trumpeter whose magic it is never too late to discover.” Also, you oldies-but-still-goodies should expand, he says, by making your smart phone ringtone a Sinatra tune.

Hey, auntie, is that “Strangers in the Night” coming from your cell phone?  You know, the one about exchanging glances and wondering about your chances?

And the Will World finale: “To live a long life braided with the life of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to an imperishable proposition is simply delightful.”

Simply delightful? No one says “simply delightful” unless they are wearing long white gloves in a 1930s film.

It’s all so off-putting. My life is better than yours, loser. Happy birthday.

Compare that to what your elderly uncle would likely say at his 80th birthday party: “Thanks for coming. You know, life’s been pretty good. I love you all. Oh yeah, and take a piece of the cake home with you. I gotta watch my sweets.”

The columnist with his granddaughter in 2019, enjoying his imperfect life. Courtesy of Neal Milner

Brody’s column is called “A Birthday Milestone: Turning 80!” The exclamation point gives it away. Like Will, Brody creates a little box with high walls that very few can climb.

Hers is more an advice column, not surprising since giving advice is a key part of her job. Most of the advice is good but unsurprising. Eighty-year-olds can and should continue to be active if they eat properly, exercise and challenge themselves mentally.

Good advice, but probably the umpteenth time we seniors have heard it. A good 80th birthday gift would be a one-day sabbatical from these relentless, do-gooder health inspectors. No such luck.

But the most offensively Christmas-letter part of the column is the way she talks about her life. Brody does not openly brag. It is just that there is so much description of how exemplary her life has been even from small-kid time, especially in regard to eating and exercising.

Again, it is not wrong. It is intimidating. It minimizes the tough choices so many people have to make and the real challenges that older people often face.

Just in case you don’t feel guilty enough already, here is Brody’s final message: “If and when I finally retire,” she says, “I’d like to work as a volunteer with young children” because “they lighten my step, warm my heart and enrich my soul. Their joie de vivre and innate curiosity foster hope that the world of the future will be a better one.”

Hey, Uncle Les and Aunt Em who babysit their grandchildren every weekday and shlep them home in rush hour traffic, are you interested in experiencing even more childlike joie de vivre and innate curiosity?

Bob Dylan turned 80 on May 24, five days after I did — two Jewish guys from the Midwest. That’s where the similarity ends. Dylan’s estimated net worth is over $300 million, while I expanded my repertoire by becoming a political science professor and playing the euphonium in the Honolulu Community Band.

Lots of people are making a big deal out of his birthday along the lines of “can you really believe that Dylan is 80?” As far as I can tell, Dylan has said nothing publicly about it.

But when I was writing this, the musician I was thinking about wasn’t Dylan. It was Merle Haggard, who I happened to be listening to as I wrote this piece.

Haggard was in and out of prison from the age of 13, married five times, had heart problems and lung cancer and overall lived pretty rough for most of his life even when he began to get famous.

Haggard never wrote a song about being 80. He died one year short, on his 79th birthday, a pretty good run for someone with his history.

But he wrote songs about looking back at life all the time. “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” resonates more about life than any earnest column about “Turning 80!”

Twinkle, twinkle, lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are?
Can you make a rainbow shine that far?
Twinkle, twinkle, lucky star
Can you really make a wish come true?
And do you shine on just a chosen few?
Is it over, have I gone too far?
Twinkle, twinkle, lucky star

Inspiring before 80.  Still inspiring at 80 and after. Keep it in your repertoire.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

  Sounds like you have terrible friends or family.  Most of the letters I get are just simple updates of what's changed in the past year (we moved, summer trips, new job, graduations, etc).Why not both? As in, "Happy birthday! Congrats on making it to 80."

CATipton · 11 months ago

Well said, Neal, it's important to the community at large to realize the value and importance of our experienced 'calendar veterans.'  We can't control the aging process but there are other meaningful pursuits to add to our lives as the years roll on and dispel the notion that aging equates with lack of relevance.  We in America would do well to take some pointers from other countries around the world that respects and honor their seniors and Japan is a good example.  The measure of a society in one sense is how they treat and view those who came before them and now are enjoying their sunset years and still have more to offer.  Rock on Neal.

incredibles2 · 11 months ago

The older I get the better Merle sounds .Happy Birthday Neal !

tokenhoale · 11 months ago

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