Old Age Isn't for Sissies

New Zealand is appropriately named. Everywhere the emphasis is on new. The Southern Alps are less than five million years old. Ditto Fiordland's mountains. Geologically speaking, they all sprouted overnight.

The same is true of New Zealand’s human settlement. The best general history currently available, Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, points to the  “inescapable fact” that there is no evidence of human settlement in New Zealand before the 13th century.

Consequently, whatever one sees in New Zealand that has been touched by the hand of man, whether it be the ravaging of the flying bird population, the extinction of the flightless moa or the deforestation of the countryside, all these have happened within the last 800 years, roughly at the time Angkhor Wat was being built, 300 years after Beowulf was written, 3700 years after the Great Pyramids of Cheops.

Perhaps this is why New Zealanders are concerned about their place in the world. Having had a late start, they need to re-assure the world that they are catching up. They do this by reciting a litany of benchmarks. New Zealand is the first country to see the light of day. Auckland is the fifth largest city in the world in area. The Sky Needle is the sixth highest structure of its kind. Pace Wyoming, New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote. Richard Pierce actually flew an airplane before the Wright brothers. Scott of the Antarctic came from New Zealand as did Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mt. Everest.

Infatuation with one's youth is not permanently debilitating. The French have a saying, La jeunesse c'est une maladie que se cure chaque jour. “Youth is a malady that cures itself every day.” New Zealand won't be new forever.

But they are certainly giving it a go. Yesterday, Nancy and I walked into the Sky City Metro in downtown Auckland. It was like walking onto the boardscape of a pinball machine. A seven-story atrium of a building, one went from floor to floor either in a rocket shaped outdoor tube of an elevator or on a neon-blue lit escalator that crisscrossed the open space like a giant X. The place was filled with young people. I felt like a vegetarian in a slaughterhouse. Here was the culture of youth in spades. Not only was New Zealand young geologically. She was young demographically. Queen Street was jammed with young women in short skirts and bare-midriffs and beefy young men who didn't walk. They strutted.

No wonder bungee jumping looms so large in the local psyche. Wrapping outsize rubber bands around your ankles and diving off the Sky Needle in downtown Auckland is not something you will find a senior citizen doing. Anyone who has managed to live beyond the age of, say 50, normally has enough sense to know that life contains enough hazards on its own without looking for more.

A bus driver says to me, “Welcome to Paradise.” Paradise is a place where one never ages. Of course, sooner or later New Zealand will have to face up to the fact that in this world the hardest thing to do is to grow old gracefully. As Bette Davis said, "Old age is not for sissies."

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