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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

Have One Friend Twice Your Age and One Half Your Age

She Gets It, medical vials, colored watered, shredded pay stubs, monofilament, my blood, 2011, Stuart Sheldon

There’s an old adage that you should have one friend twice your age and one friend half your age.

Actually, I just made that up. But it’s true. Because wisdom comes in two flavors, youthful purity and seasoned equanimity.

We are born as perfect bowls, full of the water of life. Then, as awareness punctures our skins, we become colanders. But hey … try to make a good bowl of pasta without either. 

One magical factor living five years on a houseboat was the age range of our neighbors. One of my best buddies remains Ralph, 80. Handsome, with a well-trimmed Van Dyke the color of sea foam, Ralph embodies the American dream. Raised in a Lower East Side Manhattan tenement, the son of an illiterate Sicilian immigrant, he put himself through medical school and joined NASA in 1963, the year I was born. Now, this unassuming, ever-smiling gent is NASA’s Medical Director in Palo Alto, one of the world’s thought leaders in aerospace medicine.

Ralph drives the beat as the houseboat dock rocks to the beat

Ralph drives the multi-generational beat as the dock finds a groove

Ralph stands no taller than the cleft in my chin yet towers in his thirst for knowledge, justice, humor and compassion. He reminds me to be ever curious, always leaving newspaper articles on my doorstep, about Burning Man or the latest Woody Allen movie or any other of the countless topics we discussed over beers around the Weber. He exemplifies tireless work, sitting before the Daily Show with reams of cutting-edge research spread before him. He proves there is always more to learn, his New England Journal of Medicine tucked under his arm en route to his dance class. Ralph is a humble rockstar who has seen it all and chose to be amazed. He loves his wife. He loves his life. He’s one of the youngest guys I know.

Two doors down from Ralph lived Sofia, my six-year-old buddy. Sofia would often knock on our door to visit our puppy and play with our new baby, Kai. Her flowing mermaid hair and doe eyes could melt glaciers, and her mere presence was medicine against the viruses of daily life. No matter when or where I encountered her, on her houseboat, in the parking lot, on her bike, her unedited/eager/silly/gentle/kindness and tomboy enthusiam brightened my day. Her physical beauty was enhanced by her unawareness of it. She could scamper up a ladder to the top of her floating home. Row a kayak. Weed a garden. A true lady of the world before she could read. The quintessential good kid.

Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” In other words, we need both the brain and the heart to optimize our being.

Adults live in their brains and kids in their hearts. Thus, we must constantly rub against each to keep us true.

My father and son, the wisdom of the ages and the goal posts of my life

My father and son, the wisdom of the ages and the goal posts of my life

Go out of your way to engage your elders. At the grocery, the doctor, the carpool lane. Not in the pathetic, condescending, obligatory manner so often defaulted to in our throw-away, youth-crazy culture. Anything but THAT. Remember, you’re not doing anyone but yourself a favor here. Ask questions on any topic. They’ve seen it all. And made the mistakes you are trying to avoid. If you can’t think of what to say, ask where they were when JFK died. There, now you have a full-blown conversation on your hands.

You’ll be that older person sooner than you think, so ask the questions you hope a younger person will ask you earnestly one day.

As to your young friends, do as Bob Marley suggests, “bend down low.” Again … ASK DON’T TELL. And listen. THEY are your teachers. Not the other way round. Let them riff on any topic you offer: favorite fruit, animal, if they like to be tickled or dance or eat spaghetti. Doesn’t matter how ridiculous … THAT’s the beauty of talking to children. Just ENGAGE! And let that full-frontal life force wash over you like warm jacuzzi water.

As Frederic Chopin said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

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