As many of you know, Valentine's Day was my birthday; I turned 74. Given my family history, with so many of the women on my mother's side dying of cancer, I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm still here, and able to enjoy some birthday cake for yet another year.
I don't know what to say about being 74. I mean, to my students, I probably seem "old," and compared to the average person who is 18, I probably am. But I don't think of myself as a "senior citizen," whatever that means. I just think of myself as Donna, living in a world where the concept of aging is being redefined.
When I was growing up, people retired at 65, and the idea of continuing to work into your 70s (not because you had to, but because you wanted to) was still not common. At a certain point, older people were expected to be content with golfing or playing cards or watching TV-- not that there's anything wrong with any of those things. But American culture seemed to have the idea that older people didn't have much to offer after a certain point, so they might as well leave the stage and spend their time taking up a hobby.
And while we were all taught to respect our elders, the "elderly" were not revered-- I recall how comedians made jokes about folks of a certain age who were all supposed to be senile. (Not sure you could make those kinds of jokes today.) It was youth that was worshiped, leading even some people in their 40s (especially women) to lie about their age or undergo cosmetic surgery to keep looking young. Society back then was especially hard on women who didn't "age gracefully." And to be honest, I'm not sure we're more accepting now, although these days, even men feel pressured to look youthful.
So, here I am trying to negotiate a world that says I'm too old, while acknowledging my need to continue being relevant. That's why I got my PhD when I was 64. That's why I reinvented myself as a professor. That's why I keep doing research, and why I even turned down a sabbatical: as long as I have the energy and the ability, I want to keep trying to make a difference. I can't imagine retiring. I can't imagine not being out there.
Maybe I shouldn't think that way. Maybe at my age, it's time to do a little less. But doing less has never made me happy. There are people I want to mentor, and more research I want to do; more new information I want to discover, and more new subjects I want to teach. I hope I'm still doing a good job as a professor-- you'll have to ask my students about that. And while I can't pretend I'm in my 30s, I hope I can continue to prove that someone in their 70s isn't quite over the hill yet.
For those who reached out to wish me a happy birthday, I'm grateful. I hope to make the most of my 74th year, and perhaps a year from now, I'll be able to write a blog post to celebrate my 75th. I've had an interesting life-- a lot more so than was ever predicted for me. Many of the folks I knew growing up didn't have high hopes for me; perhaps I've exceeded some people's expectations. But I haven't exceeded my own yet, and there's still so much that needs to be done. I look forward to doing my part, this year, and for however many more years I have.