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ATTITUDES

One of Those Nasty Jolts as You Get Older

August 12, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | Aurora Mackey is a Times staff writer

There are these small things, these flashing yellow lights along the potholed road of life, that tell you that maybe--just maybe--you're not as young as you used to be:

You're in the middle of a conversation with a co-worker you've only known for the last five years, when suddenly it occurs to you that you can't for the life of you remember his name. Bob? Joe? You mentally scroll through the alphabet, hoping one letter will jog your memory. At the end you give up: "Hey, buddy, have a nice weekend."

You flip through the newspaper, scanning the major news stories, and then, for some reason unknown to you, carefully read the obituaries. When you reach the end, you give a reflexive sigh of relief: Your name wasn't there.

But these hints of the aging process paled compared to the rather nasty jolt I got after returning recently from my vacation--a time, I should add, in which my children repeatedly accused me of being no fun at all, and each day unsuccessfully attempted to lure me away from "The Firm" and into the river.

They failed completely to comprehend my position: I had paid dearly to grow moss sitting in one spot and indulge in a little brain popcorn. And besides, I did not want to have fun.

*

But back to the jolt. It occurred at the Hollywood Bowl, where Bobby McFerrin, the human synthesizer, recently conducted and sang with the L.A. Philharmonic. As a blues piece was being played on stage, McFerrin jumped down into the front row of the audience and began inviting people to sing a few bars into a cordless mike.

Amazingly--at least to me--three people actually took him up on it. One man stood, turned to the audience and belted out a line or two. A woman who didn't know the song allowed herself to be fed the words.

Neither was particularly talented. But they both were clearly enjoying themselves. The audience roared its approval in applause.

It was then, as I sat safely away from the roving microphone, in the cheap seats in the distance, that I realized the significance of my response: The idea of having a bit of spontaneous fun--of being willing to look silly--was about as appealing to me as head lice.

On the other hand, my kids would have stood up with McFerrin in a second.

*

The great thing about getting old, of course, is that you're in good company. And if what Ventura marriage, family and child counselor Lynn Weeks says is true, there are plenty of people out there suffering from the same symptoms that I am.

"There is a part of us that wants to be as crazy as we were when we were 5 or 6, to be that spontaneous and creative," he says. "But we lose that as we get older."

Weeks' theory is simple: As we age, we subconsciously take fewer emotional chances. "Psychologically, the reason people do this is they don't want to look foolish, to be judged," Weeks says. "They want to play it safe. But safe, a lot of times, is real boring."

Unlike the genuine aging process--which at best can only be disguised with the help of such friends as Miss Clairol--being boring, Weeks says, is reversible. And to help people learn how to do that, the therapist last year designed a six-week course to counteract the "defensive" part of a person that fears spontaneity.

For most of each session, improvisational acting techniques are used to loosen people up.

One exercise, called "Sound Toss," involves asking a participant to make a silly sound, which then is repeated by the next person in line. Another has participants talking only in gibberish, with one person "translating" what is said.

"The idea is to give up the goal of being clever and sophisticated, and to just go with the flow," Weeks says. "Most people, outside of the workshop, have to get drunk to do this."

*

So do the workshops bring about any youthful effects? One recent workshop participant says yes.

"What I wanted to do, by tapping into that sense of play, was take it into the world," says Corrine Sharkey, a greeting cards company owner in Port Hueneme. "When you learn how to become playful, you don't analyze things or predict so much. It means being in the now."

Sharkey says she's "recovered from that fear of other people judging me" and now is more willing to take emotional chances.

"I was in an elevator, and instead of just looking at the ground the way people usually do, I could look at people and not worry," she says.

A good start, to be sure. But in my book, it's still a far cry from achieving a true child-like state.

For that, Sharkey would have to do what my kids do in elevators: Push every button, and then jump up and down as it leaves each floor.

Ah, youth.

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