The Best of Andy Rooney

(This classic Andy Rooney column was originally published Jan. 23, 1991.)

Someone said to me this morning, "I see you celebrated your birthday yesterday." Wrong.

I HAD a birthday yesterday. There was nothing even vaguely celebratory about any part of the day. I hated it from beginning to end. The only thing worse would have been not having another birthday.

It's hard to say at what age you reach the top of the hill and start down the back side. You reach the top physically and start downhill much sooner than you reach your intellectual peak. Or, at least that's what people my age like to believe, because evidence of our physical deterioration is evident to everyone, while any mental decline is not so apparent.

I often try to assess my intellectual powers, now that I've passed 70, and compare them with what I had when I was 20, 50 and 60. I don't notice any diminution in them, although I realize I probably would be the last to notice. There are some small indications from the people I work most closely with that they think I might be losing it a little bit, but I dismiss those. They are based on minor memory lapses on my part, and I don't deny those. I don't worry myself with petty details like that. Forgetting a few things doesn't bother me. I've filled my life very full and have much to remember. It's no wonder I forget a few things.

Life, it turns out, doesn't slowly wind down at all. That's what I can't get over. I hope that, before I die, my memory goes, my ambition to get up in the morning and go to work diminishes, my appetite for life becomes less voracious than it is today. I'd like to care just a little bit less about what people think of my work. I'd prefer to be not quite so sad at the death of a friend. Why do I still dream of becoming a better tennis player? It would make getting old less painful if my memory of the good times I've had were not so vivid, too. Why doesn't my memory fade just a little?

The clearest evidence of age is how eagerly I look for evidence that I haven't slipped. I relish the newspaper story reporting the success of the 84-year-old scientist, the 90-year-old novelist, or the aged marathon runner. At football games, I cheer for the oldest players.

There has always been some propaganda in favor of the idea that wisdom comes with age, but you can bet no one young ever says or thinks it.

The truth is that a person of 70 is a totally different person than a person of 20. A comparison of their intellect is impractical. If the young person makes the mathematical calculations quicker, the old one may understand what the numbers mean better.

I look back, with some satisfaction, on what an idiot I was when I was 25, but when I do that, I'm assuming I'm no longer an idiot. That's the part that satisfies me although it almost certainly isn't true. Were I to live another 70 years, I'm sure I'd look back at 1991 and wonder how I could have been so stupid when I was the age I am now.

If there's one sign of my age that bothers me more than others, it's my tendency to become more conservative in political and social opinions. I admire liberals more than conservatives and am somewhat concerned to see myself, more and more often, in agreement with the conservatives I've always disagreed with.

There's nothing good about birthdays, and true friends would ignore them. I think I detect a certain gloating in the voices of the people who say, "Happy Birthday" to me now.

There are quite a few surprises about being old, or at least getting old. The surprise to me is that I don't feel a lot different from when I was young. I'm absolutely as interested in living now as I was when I was 20. I am not tired of life. I have not had enough. I don't feel physically or mentally infirm, and the only thing I reluctantly concede about my age is that I am, statistically speaking, closer to death than someone younger.

When I was in high school, I could get all choked up reading the lines of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: "I only know that summer sang in me, a little while, that in me sings no more." Pardon me for saying so, Edna, but now that strikes me as pretentious hot air. Life -- summer, winter, fall or spring -- sings to me as it always did, and I hate birthdays because I don't want the music to stop.

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