BALTIMORE — My attention was seized by a bold, rhetorical headline recently while browsing the magazine rack in the library. "Tired of being a beach potato?" it asked, then urged: "Turn your life into an adventure story."
Below was a picture of somebody who did just that: An exultant senior, his arms triumphantly aloft, standing on a craggy rise against a cold, gray sky. His name was Sal Pomponi, according to the magazine; he was 62 years old, and had just climbed Antarctica's highest peak.
In pages following there were other aging adventurers: Kelly and Antje Gunnar, scuba diving off the Netherlands Antilles; or Betty Platero, among the penguins, on the South Georgia Islands.
Once again, I asked myself why those of us living through the years of human maturity today are so frequently depicted in magazines and in televised advertisements as engaged in strenuous sport, frequently in romantic or exotic locales?
I am aware that people live longer these days, and that many are more physically active than their predecessors were. Maybe it's true, as some say, that middle age now ends at 70. For some, I suppose it does. But really, how many climb mountains, really big mountains, or surf or sky dive? And how many over 60 ride dirt bikes across the San Blas Islands or snorkel in the Galapagos? Enough, it seems, so that the editors of magazines and books directed at seniors feel free to bring them forth as models for the rest of us.
Seniors certainly get a lot of attention in this youth- obsessed society. This would seem paradoxical, until you consider how many there are: more than 56 million over 55 years old, and that largest generation ever, the "baby boomers," are coming up behind. We constitute a sizable market by any measure.
And the obsession mentioned here is not of youth with itself, which is eternal and natural. The obsession is that which grips so many in the generation now poised on the edge of the so-called third age of life, the "boomers." They seem determined to keep alive their idea of what youth means to them. But their conception of a graceful old age is simply a continuation of the way things were when they were young: touch football; the laughing, slow-motion collapse in the grass; or driveway basketball in the suburbs, mano a mano, life as lived in television commercials.
But this is not entirely their fault. Something else is at play here. It is the failure on all sides to find an objective description of how life is lived by older Americans, something more in tune with our actual circumstances: positive, of course; alert to the falsity of fashion, but not despairing or withdrawn; active, but not breakneck. Is that so difficult?
Yes, I'm afraid it is. I have been trying for years to muster the language to do so, with little success. And we all know that words, because they are abstract, are more flexible, subtle, and useful as a descriptive medium than the one preferred today - the image, still or in motion.
This is the way we have come to understand things - through the image. We are a visual culture, and even when we use words, we use them to stimulate pictures in the minds of those we are speaking to. The ascendency of the image as our way of perceiving reality is of long standing, and is constantly being reinforced, taking new forms. It began with the invention of photography and the movies, later to be boosted by the ubiquity of television, and more recently supercharged by computers and video games. And who knows what's next? Holograms, perhaps?
This is not to say that images, or pictures made by cameras or by hand, are incapable of portraying what is essentially a state of mind rather than a state of physical growth or activity. They can, but - in mass-market journals, at least - they don't. There the obvious reigns, and the obvious does not always show the way things really are. Advertisers and marketeers are probably quite happy with this state of affairs, and most of the rest of us don't think about it much. Maybe we should.
It may be that the essence of maturity is not "image-able" - cannot be accurately portrayed by pictures, moving or still - at least not in a way that would dignify it, yet be true. The apparent (if not the actual) essence of youth is physical: Blurring speed, risk, vigorous sport, and adventure are appropriate to it. So what is the essence of maturity, or how does one show, by camera, pencil, or paintbrush, how a mature life creatively lived should look? How does one create a composite of a generation in a single person? And what should this person be doing?
I don't know. I don't know who would know. But it is necessary that a way be found and shown, if only to break free from this frustrating fantasy we are being sold on every side. I do know that we seniors are different as a cohort from the way we are depicted. Whatever our image is, or should be, it differs mightily from that so widely propagated.
I live expectantly that someone, some artist, or author or maybe a brilliant publicist, or even a filmmaker, will fulfill my amorphous dream for a true and clear identity for my generation. (John Updike succeeds at times, and a portrait I once saw in London's National Portrait Gallery of the English writer John Mortimer got close to it.) For I believe that the truth of what we are still lies, as the historian Daniel Boorstin put it, behind the "thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life."
Richard O'Mara is a former editor at The Baltimore Sun.