Neil Heinen

Heinen: Age-old questions

For the most part, I have no idea how old I am.

I was headed to Barnes & Noble on the west side recently when a parking spot in front of Metcalfe’s Market caught my eye. Then I noticed a sign that read “Senior Citizen Parking Only.” 

“Oops. Can’t park there,” I told myself as I drove by. I appreciate places that consciously make it easier for older folks to do business there. It’s respectful and I’m on board. It wasn’t until about a half an hour later that it dawned on me: I’m 67, soon to be 68. I’m a senior citizen. I could have parked there. 

I wouldn’t and I won’t. But it happens all the time. For the most part, I have no idea how old I am. I approach the ticket office at the theater and think to myself, “Some day I’ll get the 62-and-older discount.” Yeah, “some day” like five years ago. I never ask for it.

Maggie Ginsberg’s story in this month’s magazine is a wonderful tribute to Madison as a city in  which to be an older person. The people she interviewed are inspirations and I respect their outlooks on life. And while I am unlikely to do a triathlon (just slightly more unlikely than, say, building a new house with my bare hands) or jump from an airplane, I do share the enthusiasm Maggie’s sources have for Madison’s abundant resources for older folks. But living a full and rich last quarter or so of life probably requires some kind of acknowledgement that one is in fact aging. I seem to be having some trouble with that.

I’ve never been good at guessing someone’s age. Currently doctors, dentists, police officers and professional baseball players all look about the same age: 18. For most of my professional life the people I worked with and the people I covered all seemed approximately the same age: my age, whatever my age was at the time. My wife is a different conundrum altogether. Nancy is actually two years older than I am but she looks somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 years younger than that. It’s endlessly entertaining to watch the reactions on peoples’ faces when Nancy tells them she’s 70. They inevitably tell her they don’t believe her. The problem is I don’t believe her either. And yet there it was in last month’s Relish column in this magazine: Nancy is a Madison food legend, a distinction that typically connotes a certain longevity. 

Neither one of us act as if we know what it’s like to be the ages we are. I gave up playing softball and riding motorcycles at about the same time six or seven years ago. But every once in a while I think I could still play and still ride despite both notions dangerously lacking self-awareness. We’re both still working full-time and feel lucky to be doing so, while regularly asking each other, and ourselves, if we know what the heck we’re doing.

I’ve long suspected there is an art to this aging stuff, an art that many of us simply lack the skill to pull off. Not that that stops us from trying, or should. I’ve been looking to musicians and poets and writers I’ve admired for some wisdom on the topic with mixed results. For every bit of advice from Jim Harrison to “treasure what you find already in your pocket, friend,” I am confronted with my failure to make sufficient progress toward answering the big questions: Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? And why can’t everybody, in the words of Jesse Colin Young, “get together, try to love one another right now”? He wrote those words 50 years ago, by the way.

I can’t think of a better place than Madison to continue seeking the answers to those questions. We’re surrounded by so many people “of a certain age” doing the same thing.

Milton McPike Field House

The Madison East High School Community Capital Campaign to renovate its field house is nearing the finish line. Some of you may be interested in pushing it over the top. The upgraded Milton McPike Field House will be a community hub for the entire east side — and able to host WIAA events and gatherings for the entire student body at East. The school deserves and needs a space like this. Dedicated volunteers and alumni have already raised $2.9 million of a $3.2 million goal. Donations can be made on the project website of the Foundation for Madison Public Schools.

Honoring Carmen Porco

For all of our affordable housing challenges, Madison has often been a leader in building effective housing communities. Much of that has been due to the innovations, strategies and commitment of Rev. Dr. Carmen Porco. His work here in Madison and in Milwaukee was recognized recently with a significant honor: creation of the Carmen Porco Chair in Sustainable Business at the Center for Business and Poverty at the University of Oxford, UK. The honor recognizes Porco’s vision in combining elements of business, nonprofit and government sectors into a successful model for use in communities of poverty. 

Well done, Rev. Dr. Porco.


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