This year my husband and I have been rowing singles many days, rather than only sculling in our double. We bought the singles to celebrate our 30th anniversary, which was in May. It was my husband’s idea and a surprise to me. I had suggested that he might want to look into buying a single because he had been taking a very old club boat to the regattas, and it was too big for him and poorly suited to his rowing style. I never thought about getting one for myself, though. The club boats did not fit me any better (worse, actually), but I was happy with the double, rarely rowed singles, and never had considered racing one.

Now that I’ve had a few months to get used to rowing a single that is the right size and is set up the way I like it, I’ve been starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of taking it to regattas. My husband suggested that I enter an October head race on our favorite course in Tennessee. (Head races are 5K races during the fall season, so-called because they often take place at the head of a river.)
 

One double and two single sculling boats. 

I was wondering how many women would be competing in my age group. When my husband looked up last year’s race, he told me that there was only one rower in the category of women over 50 racing a single. Other regattas that we like to attend are much the same, with very few older women rowing singles; and my practice times are competitive with their race times, despite my lack of experience.

Although that should mean I can expect to win medals, it is also a bit disconcerting. I understand that much of it is generational, in that most women my age were not encouraged to be athletic when we were growing up. A woman of my generation might enjoy racing in a mixed crew with her husband, but she is not as likely to think about signing up for individual events. Younger women often are more adventurous and competitive because the times have changed.

So, it doesn’t mean that I am now so old that my competition has started dying off. Nor does it have any logical bearing on how many years I might be healthy enough to row. The fact that such thoughts even briefly came to mind bugs me anyway, though.

Last year I began writing occasional stories about my fantastically adventurous future self, aka Fannie, mainly to remind myself that there are many other possible futures besides the usual culturally-conditioned aging scenarios. I decided that Fannie should be 119 years old, not because I expect to live to that age or any other particular age, but simply to kick all such expectations much farther down the road.

Some folks really do live that long in the present day, and it seems likely that longevity will increase as a result of scientific advances. That puts Fannie within the bounds of reasonable possibility, although I never intended my stories about her to be realistic, or close to it; they’re aimed more at liberating my thoughts from other people’s overly narrow ideas of what is or should be realistic.

In that spirit, and without making any assumptions beyond observing that the future surely holds more possibilities than we know, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ideas I had about aging when I was a teenager. Back then, to the (very minimal) extent I thought about it at all, I didn’t see myself living past 80, which seemed ancient and very far away. This morning I put a birthday card in the mail for my mom, who turns 80 next week and is generally healthy. My dad and my husband’s parents already are over 80, and whatever notions I might have had about when a person becomes “ancient” have changed accordingly.

So I’m wondering—now that becoming “ancient” seems much farther away than I once imagined it, and there is at least some possibility I could have another half-century or more of healthy life remaining—why should I feel any closer to old age (whatever that may mean) than I felt when I was a teenager?

Over the weekend I sat down and began writing a few times, but never finished any of it. The weather was sunny, warm, and beautiful, and getting outdoors seemed much more appealing.

The rowing club had a canoe race on Saturday against some members of the canoe club across the river. My husband got in the canoe, but I opted to watch from the shore, which turned out to be a wise decision when the canoe overturned in the middle of the river. No harm done to anything but the rowers’ pride, but I was glad to have stayed dry.

Then I got “Margaritaville” stuck in my head for most of Sunday, which was apparently my subconscious mind’s snarky answer to whatever thoughts I had about being more diligent with my writing.
 

 

When I went to bed, I tried to reboot my brain and get ready for a more creative week by listening to ocean sounds on my clock radio and trying to visualize an insightful younger self with a helpful life lesson to ponder. But instead, all that came to mind was an image of Fannie, my 119-year-old future self, sitting in a lively beachfront bar that looked like something out of Star Wars and smiling at me while holding up—yeah, you guessed it—a margarita.

At least there was no Jabba the Hutt anywhere to be seen, so I suppose I ought to be grateful for small mercies. I don’t know the reason I’ve been goofy all season, but I know it’s nobody’s fault. Or maybe, well, it could be my fault…

I opened a few windows in the house on Monday to enjoy the sunshine and a pleasant breeze blowing over the spring grass (which was buried under snow by Tuesday evening). That got me thinking about how my blog entries in which I gave advice to my younger selves had let “fresh air” into my memories. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if instead of always being focused on the past, I could invite an older self for an occasional visit to share her wisdom and encouragement with me in the present.

What I had in mind wasn’t the same as my recent post about having coffee with the Crone. Although I envisioned the Crone as kind and helpful, she was a cultural archetype and not a potential future self. I’ve never had a clear mental picture of what I might be like many years from now because, well, nobody really has much of a clue about the future.

The closest I ever came to imagining a future self was a post last summer about my adventures in 2083, which was intended chiefly as an antidote to stereotyped views of aging and wasn’t meant to be realistic. But then, given the fact that nobody knows what the future holds, who’s to say that my goofy sci-fi take on Future Me was necessarily any less realistic than anything else?

So I decided to invite my Fantastically Adventurous Imaginary Future Self—or Fannie, for short—to stop by for a visit. Fannie was healthy and active at age 119, due in part to taking good care of herself and in part to advances in medical science. She arrived in a small flying car, which landed on the street and tucked in its wings neatly before parking itself in my driveway.
 

Flying car with ocean in background.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Her shoulder-length hair sparkled in the sunlight as she got out of the vehicle. The base color of her hair was a deep ocean blue, and she had elaborate highlights in various metallic hues that shimmered and changed color when the sun fell on them.

“Nice hair,” I said.

“Thanks.” She took a step toward me, and the car door smoothly closed itself with a soft whir. “In 2083 they still haven’t figured out how to reverse gray hair, but nobody really cares because we have so many options for hair color. It’s very safe too—not toxic like the primitive stuff you’re using now.”

I must have frowned without realizing it, because she quickly added, “But there’s no need to worry—after all, you’re a past me, so it obviously didn’t kill you!”

She stretched like a cat enjoying the warmth of a sunny day and glanced around the yard, where crocuses were blooming in the front garden and the grass was brightening toward a nice spring green. Without asking my permission—which I supposed was fair enough, since she was another version of me—Fannie opened the gate and sauntered into the backyard, while I followed along.

“So,” she inquired in a cheerful tone, “what’s on your mind?”

“Well, lately I’ve been working on—that is, I’ve been considering how I can shift my mindset toward thinking of my everyday activities as play, rather than as work. It seems like that will take a lot of conscious effort because our language just isn’t structured to describe what we do as adults in terms of play. Just now, I caught myself saying that I was working! I suppose it can’t really be as hard as all that, but what’s making it feel like so much awkward effort?”

Rather than answering right away, Fannie took a few steps along the line of willows that I had spent so much time pruning over the past few years. She reached out to touch one of the branches that I had cut back close to the ground. Thin new growth extended from it, still leafless, with a few catkins dangling.

“It took a lot of effort to cut back these willows,” she observed, “and right now, I’d say they look a bit awkward—all bare and chopped off. But after the leaves open and the new growth fills in, they’ll look lovely, and you won’t need to do much with them. Change always seems awkward before enough time has passed to grow into it.”

A cloud passed over the sun. The highlights in Fannie’s hair went from sparkling green and gold to mostly silver and purple. The breeze started to feel a bit chilly.

“And everything is different from one moment to the next anyway,” I said, “so there’s no reason to overthink any of it. I can choose to look at it as playing with the words I use to describe what I’m doing, instead of always having to make an effort to be precise.”

Fannie grinned. “Yup, there you go. Words do matter, of course—but it’s not the end of the world if they could use a bit of editing.”

I started writing this post last weekend when my rowing club went to the US Rowing Masters National Championship regatta, which was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee this year. The club has only one member who rows fast enough to win medals in such a competitive event, but the rest of us had fun anyway. My husband volunteered to tow the boat trailer with his SUV. Going through the mountains with it was an adventure; but he is a good driver, and all went well.

We have rowed at Oak Ridge before in smaller events. It is a beautiful course and very well maintained. The only problem I have is that being outdoors for a long time in the hot, humid Southern air gets to me after a while. So, while my husband watched some races on Saturday in the heat, I sat in a lounge chair by the hotel pool and stayed comfortable in the air conditioning.
 

Hotel pool and my tanned legs on a lounge chair. 

Masters athletic events are interesting because they are such an attitude adjustment with regard to society’s views about aging. Little old ladies in rowing shorts and tank tops were walking around with 30-foot boats on their shoulders. The boats are made of carbon fiber, so they’re not all that heavy; but rowers do need to be reasonably fit.

While I sat by the pool daydreaming, I thought about what the world might be like in a future where older people could expect to stay fit and healthy. By that I don’t mean some amazing new scientific discovery to prevent aging, but just incremental advances on where we are now: better nutrition, exercise, and medical care, along with a shift in cultural expectations so that older people wouldn’t assume poor health was normal and would take better care of themselves accordingly.

Like all of us, I have my share of aging myths that grow like thorny weeds in the subconscious, whispering that every little ache or twinge is a symptom of decline. In today’s culture it may not be possible to root them all out entirely, given how pervasive they are. Still, as with any garden, a thriving mix of tall flowers and thick shrubs can overshadow the pesky weeds enough to keep them tiny and insignificant.

So—what healthy ideas could I plant in my subconscious to crowd out negative views of aging? After giving that question some thought, I decided to visualize what I’ll be doing in 2083. I picked that year because it will be a full century from when my husband and I met in college. Because some people really do live that long in the here and now, it wouldn’t require major advances in longevity science.

I wasn’t composing a bucket list or anything that I really planned to do; it was just a few random, stream-of-consciousness imaginary adventures. Because I already had rowing on my mind, I first pictured myself traveling to Australia with my husband to row a new boat with the latest 2080s technology at a regatta in Sydney. Then I thought, well, this is far enough in the future that maybe we’re booking a vacation at a hotel in a colony on Mars. Or traveling to California in a flying RV. Or working on interesting projects that involve very cool futuristic technology, getting paid lots of money to work part-time hours because of the future economy’s labor shortage.

As I see it, there’s no downside to imagining myself fit, healthy, and adventurous many decades from now. Maybe it won’t happen, and instead I will have been in the grave for a long time by then; but if it turns out that my imaginary adventures were too farfetched, I don’t suppose my ghost will care.