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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Neither Young Nor Restless

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Revelations can strike anywhere, including Moscow's public transportation system. When I got into a taxi-van recently, the driver, a nondescript young man in a stocking cap, glanced over his shoulder and laconically warned, "Don't slam the door, gramps, it'll stick shut."


Since Russian demography and sociology both interest me, I asked the driver why he had chosen this particular form of address. His answer was disappointingly muffled and unclear -- until I relaxed my grip on his windpipe to allow better articulation.

Truth be told, I was more surprised than angered. No one had ever called me gramps before, and I clearly wasn't ready for it. I felt sucker-punched by Father Time, and part of me wanted to throttle his messenger in return.

This episode could have been dismissed -- maybe the driver was blind in one eye or something -- but a few days later, as I stood in the middle of a semi-crowded subway car, a young man sitting in front of me rose, pointed to his vacated place, and asked if I would like to sit down. He was obviously a decent, well-mannered young fellow and I regretted having to punch his lights out just to demonstrate that I was not among the subway's privileged "elderly, invalids and passengers with children."

Actually, I laughed -- at first. Having checked behind me to confirm there was no seat-coveting babushka toting a samovar, two cardboard suitcases and a chicken, I literally chuckled at the irony of somebody offering me, a subway seat hog who yields grudgingly to any geezer short of 90, his place. I politely declined the offer and stood for a couple more stations, wavering between amusement, irritation and panic. So this is what old feels like. Stop the train, I want to get off.

I should've seen this coming. My students don't remember Brezhnev. My salt-and-pepper beard is running out of pepper. In pick-up basketball I run a "slow break." Middle-aged women -- Channel One's Yekaterina Andreyeva and Ukrainian politico Yulia Tymoshenko, for example -- have mysteriously been getting more attractive, while Maria Sharapova now makes me feel protective. (Keep your hands where I can see them, Roddick!) And my parents, who are alive and well, thanks, have for some years now been other people's great-grandparents. You do the math.

The capper, however, was a statistical coincidence that disturbingly resembles handwriting on the wall. Last week, the longtime dean of U.S. demographers of Russia and the Soviet Union, Murray Feshbach, reported seeing two authoritative references to a new, lower median mortality age for males in this country: 57. This represents a decline of almost two years from the previous norm. Guess how old I am.

I picked a bad place to turn old, and a bad gender to do it in, too. As Pravda's English edition recently put it, "male mortality is caused by what [are] traditionally called vices, that is alcoholism, smoking, drug addiction, poor nutrition and absolute neglect of health problems. In other words, Russian men do not care of their future." Well, I care of mine. And I have no plans to leave the country soon. So being old here is more than a game plan; it's the only plan. I geeze, therefore I am.

The classic Russian writers have always been my chronological yardsticks. Having successively outlived Lermontov, Pushkin, Gogol and Chekhov, I am now bearing down on Dostoevsky, a fellow columnist who made it to 59. With luck -- a commodity you need a lot of to live long here -- perhaps I'll even make it into the territory of the grand old men of "Russ Lit 102," Tolstoy, 82, and Bunin, 83. I avoid Pravda's vices, and I'll be backed up, should something go amiss, by a Western health plan. If Soviet medical care was a hit-and-miss affair, where the classic conundrum was an emergency heart clinic in a third-floor walk-up, the post-Soviet version may be even spottier, so I am happy to be beyond its clutches in my drive toward Tolstoyan Buninism.

Meanwhile, I've calmed down a bit about aging. If I do, indeed, turn 58 this summer, I'll be darned glad about it. And I'll be rooting for more Russian peers to join me in oldness, too. Perhaps if we set our minds and bodies to it (and maybe ask Dr. Feshbach to fudge a couple charts or something), we'll all get a few more years to work with, and in Russia, 60 will be the new 60.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.