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From the Publisher: Aging Out?

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Published July 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


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I feel for Joe Biden. That is to say: Though I'm 17 years younger than he is, and exponentially less important, I can relate to the man and his dilemma. Has he aged out of the presidency, a job that requires boundless energy and nerves of steel? Is it time to step down?

Unfortunately for us humans, the accumulation of life experience and its happy by-product, wisdom, generally coincides with the decline of physical ability and mental sharpness. If you're lucky, there might be a decade or so when you're firing on all cylinders. But even in one's prime, to be effective requires self-awareness and adjustment. Every aging tennis player learns to spend less time running after the ball and more thinking about where to put it.

Even that strategy is limited. America's most famous 81-year-old may be up for a five-set match, but in the hot glare of the spotlight, he doesn't look it. All the positive qualities that brought Biden to the center court prevent him from seeing himself as others do. Responding to scrutiny with chest-thumping just makes it worse.

I'm starting to wonder how people see me. A few weeks ago, I was at the YMCA, in the middle of my twice-weekly upper body workout. While doing reps on the lateral pull-down machine, I noticed a young man watching me. Ten minutes later, he was staring again, so I walked over and said hi. He was with a young woman who, like many teens at the gym, had dressed for the occasion in fashionable athletic wear and false eyelashes. Surprisingly, both were earbud-free and ready to talk.

The young man greeted me with a question: "How old do you think we are?" he asked.

"Eighteen?" I offered.

"On the money," he said with an air of self-satisfaction.

I wasn't sure what to say next or, more to the point, why they were interested in me of all the sweaty people in the gym. But I was cheered by their sociability. "Well, it's great that you guys are both developing healthy habits so young," I enthused.

"We just wanted you to know: You're an inspiration," the boy said, while the girl nodded in agreement.

In a soul-crushing flash, I realized why I had been selected: my age. At 64, I was old enough to be their grandmother. I went from feeling strong and confident to self-conscious, freakish and out of place. My voice has joined the chorus of seniors saying, "But I don't feel old," because, obviously, in the eyes of these two uninhibited teens, I am.

Honestly, though, I worry more about the mental side of the aging equation. I stay in shape in part so I can handle the stress of my job, which has become objectively more difficult: Running a local news organization in the 21st century is a lot harder than it used to be. I wake up every morning to 100 unread emails, and they keep coming, all day, faster than I can respond. Every workday requires constant problem solving and dozens of decisions — often on deadline — which interrupt editing, writing, meetings, outreach, fundraising and succession planning. No sooner do I check one off than another two emerge. Nights and weekends are for catching up on email and getting my own work done.

After 29 years, I have so much information in my head — stories we've published, stories yet to write, people I know, people I should know — it's hard to keep it all straight. My brain is just full.

I wonder: Are the serves coming faster and harder now, or am I weaker and less dexterous?

The wisest athletes walk away in advance of this moment, dodging potential documentation of the inevitable decline.

My former boss, Andrea Rogers, set an example when she announced her retirement from the Flynn in 2009. She had spent the same number of years growing Vermont's premier performing arts center as I have now helmed Seven Days. "I don't even really want to leave," she told me for a story at the time, but "organizations need new blood" and "I'm not at my best anymore," offering a single missed grant deadline as evidence.

Scarier for her, at 69: "I'll have a really great conversation with somebody and, three days later, I've totally forgotten it. What makes you good at this job is that you build on every connection you make ... I'm just not at the top of my game."

Fifteen years later, I see how hard it is to know when to step off the court.

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