I received an alarming two-sentence email from my father last week. ""She is ok but beaten up," it read. "I will call in animist." Attached to the email was a picture of my mother lying in a hospital gurney, bleeding out of her mouth.
Let me step back for a second and set the stage: My parents were in Hawaii, where my father had business meetings and my mother was spending a week doing her best impression of a woman on vacation. The important thing to know is that my mother is high strung, admirably adventurous and 60 years old.
Turns out she'd decided to take a surfing lesson while my father discussed whatever it is my father discusses when he's wearing a suit. My mother is a small woman -- somewhere between Joan Didion and Blythe Danner on the petite blonde scale -- but she does yoga, lifts weights and spends a lot of time around printing presses and obstinate spaniels. She was apparently riding waves in no time.
I assume she was making the wide-eyed "This Is Cool" face that I found so mortifying as a child when her instructor tried to give her a helpful push. She hit the water hard and couldn't get down in time to avoid the board, which knocked her five front teeth into the top of her mouth, fractured her jaw and nearly cut her lower lip off.
My mother didn't have to dress up for Halloween and still can't eat solid foods, but she'll be fine. Still, I worry about next time.
It sounds patronizing when I say that admire my parents for continuing to be open to new things, but it is true. Over the last few years, Mom biked Angkor Wat, trekked through Ugandan jungles to find Gorillas and smoked opium with tribespeople outside Jodhpur.
Yes, being my mom is cool. My concern is that it is also dangerous.
When I go home I find unopened copies of AARP Magazine lying underneath earmarked copies of National Geographic. AARP's headlines tend toward the motivational. "Get Going!" demands the magazine, "Get Out There." But my parents, like so many people their age, don't really need this kick in the cargo pants.
There needs to be another type of magazine for older people -- let's call it Sedentary Monthly or Better Homes and Gardens -- that espouses moderation. The headlines write themselves: "Plantar Fasciitis For Beginners," "Reexamining the Recliner," or "Behind The Scenes At NCIS." The point would be clear: Slow Down.
My mother is capable of surfing, but that doesn't mean she ought to be catching waves. Even she admits that her better angels told her it might be a bad idea. She likely did it -- and I think she'd grudgingly admit this -- because she's still trying to achieve the Boomer Dream, which involves having 2.5 kids, a house and a photo album within that house proving you've lived to the fullest.
I believe that my mother wonders if she has made full use of her visit to life's experiential buffet. I think this is an important thing to think about -- largely because she raised me, no doubt -- but I also think this sort of reflection leads to poor decisions when coupled with access to such a wide variety of adventures. In many ways the issue is more about time and money than it is about age. If I had more time or more money, I'd probably head to Africa and hurt myself.
The travel industry is increasingly oriented toward older people who want to get off the beaten path. The problem is that no one is on the path anymore and the wilderness around it is full of people with bad knees. It turns out the no limits approach to travel is not actually feasible. We all bring our limits with us and, yes, aging people have more limitations than whippersnappers.
Here is my plea to my parents and to the generation of aging travelers who opened up the world to people my age: Please be careful.
I'm not telling anyone to sit out their retirement. I'm just saying: maybe go boogie boarding instead of surfing; maybe go bouldering instead of rock climbing; maybe take it easy with the heli-skiing.
As boomers begin to enjoy their retirement, there will be a glut of global travelers. It would a pity and a lost opportunity if these travelers were too busy getting bandaged after cliff diving to enjoy some white water rafting.
Wrinkles make you look wise. Stitches don't.
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