Friday, May 05, 2006

On turning 60

I'm still not sure I want to write this. I'm not sure what I want to say; or even what I think.

I recently had my 60th birthday - the "Big Six-Oh". When I turned 40, I told myself that I was aging as a good brandy does: mellowing, improving with age. It helped that I got married again that same year; nothing like a good love affair to give one confidence! I suppose I can still say that, but there's less confidence behind it. And yet: I don't look 60. My hair isn't gray (just the occasional silver thread; I get that from Dad's side of the family). My face isn't especially wrinkled (lots of expensive moisturizer, religiously used!). Since my first knee replacement, I've exercised regularly; I haven't been in
shape this good for years (still overweight, though). I don't think I act 60, whatever that means. Why am I so unsettled?

I look at people and wonder how old they are - and I suddenly realize they may be younger than me. This is very unsettling. I was the oldest child of the youngest son of a large family, so I was usually the youngest person in the room (except my sister); I skipped the first grade because I could read, so I was always the youngest person in the class. I'm used to thinking of myself as the youngest person - although the last few years working with 20 and 30 something computer kids has gone some way toward curing me of that! How did I get to be older than so many people?

What have I done with the time? I didn't have children; too late for that now. Not for me the thousands of dollars and months of discomfort, trying desperately to beat the biological clock. It was already too late with my second marriage, I didn't want to have a teenager in my fifties. That means, whatever happens at the end, it's up to me to cope. Not having children seemed like the right decision at the time; these decisions always seem right at the time. One doesn't always see through to the end; maybe one gets through by deliberately not seeing through to the end. I
took care of my mother in her last years; who will take care of me? My husband is eight years younger than I am; does that mean he'll be around to do it? Is that fair to him? And anyway, just having kids doesn't mean they'll take care of you when you're old.

I've had two careers; I've done the best I could at them, still working on the second one. People tell me they think I'm good at what I do. I've recently gone back to singing, and I know I'm good at that - not solo quality because of the asthma, but a good solid choral singer, able to hold the part and keep the beat, and anchor weaker singers. I'm beginning to think perhaps I can write. I don't feel I've made a difference; the world isn't necessarily a better place because of what I've done. On the other hand, I don't think it's a worse place. Maybe that's enough. But what do I do next? When I retire (and when
do I retire?), then what? I don't have an answer yet.

The time - where does it go? The older you get, the faster it goes by; I don't think anyone under 50 really understands the lyrics to Harry Belafonte's "Turn Around", or to "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. I just turned around and it's May; wasn't it January yesterday? Where did it go? And the
the less you have left, the faster it goes. We only get so much. No matter how you measure it, more than half of mine is gone. Now what?

"But, Mother of God, where are they then? And where are the snows of yesteryear?" Francois Villon, 15th century.


  1. Anonymous1:53 AM

    I don't think anyone under 50 really understands the lyrics to Harry Belafonte's "Turn Around", or to "Sunrise, Sunset"

    At 64, I'm still trying to understand. I doubt that we ever really understand, because we don't know what the fact that we die means, if it actually means anything, except emotionally to those who know that we existed. If my experience at four years ahead of you is any guide, you'll continue to think more about it.
    I just found out that my biological father died in 1957 in Orange County, California. I have no idea the circumstances. Talk about wondering what someone's death means.

    When you don't think about your chronological age, how old are you? My consciousness seems to be mid-twenties, although I am simultaneously aware that there's another forty years of experience and thinking.

    Anonymous David

  2. Wow, what a question. How old are you when you don't think about how old you are? That's very Fire Sign Theater, sort of like, "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?"

    My initial guess is that I'm still mentally around forty, maybe a little younger, but I may change that as I think about it. I don't especially want to be in my mid-twenties again, you have no idea how dumb I was then.

    I find I'm thinking about death more than I used to, also. All I'm sure of is that I don't believe any of the people who say they know what happens after you die.

    How very odd to find that out about your biological father. Since I always knew where mine was, his death was no surprise; but his life gave me a jolt once. I came home from college on a break, and in conversation someone else in the family referred to Dad's "first wife." I'd never known he had a wife before Mom: well, I'd always known that he was divorced when they married - it was why Mom's family objected, they were Catholic - but somehow I'd never translated that into a previous wife, and I was really upset. The mind is very weird. I later discovered that my mother had actually served Dad's first wife as a customer, during the time she worked in a laundry. That was even weirder.

    Have you ever tried to find anything out about your biological father? Speaking as one who's done some genealogical research, you probably could. You may not want to.

  3. Anonymous5:22 AM

    hedera, life is strange in many ways. I had the same experience as you did with my father, only I really had no idea he had been married before. He had two children by his first wife and left under less than favorable circumstances. I was in my twenties when I found out about this and was somewhat estranged from him by that time. I didn't investigate further, though one of my brothers did and was rebuffed.

    The Firesign Theatre has always been my fount of knowledge, but "how can you be in two places at once" was not ever satisfactorily explained by them, so I await the publication of a book by a new guru which should explain that very hypothesis. Schrodinger's cat, in that famous thought experiment, was both dead and alive at the same time. Does that qualify? How about his Ball?

    David, I often use your technique of not thinking about my age (56). I go about the day responding to life as it happens and I'm always amazed at that old guy looking back at me from the mirror.

    I hope both you guys are taking care of yourselves. If not, you can always fall back on the theory that Mark Twain used late in life. He clung on to several bad habits - smoking, drinking, no exercise - late in life with the thought that an old man in failing health with no bad habits to give up, was like a sinking ship, with no freight to throw overboard. He lived to a respectable old age.

    hedera, your husband is 8 years younger than you? Wowsa! I know how the male mind works. You must be a looker - or rich. But on the other hand, by 32, he may have been nurturing the first fledgling, toddling steps towards maturity - I know, that's very early for males, but he may be a prodigy of some sort - and had been attracted by your winning personality. Or, if the stars had been properly aligned, all three. Lucky guy!

  4. Anonymous12:24 PM

    I remember being told by a doctor that age had more to do with outlook and physical wellness rather than personal chronology. There are folks whose thinking is rigid by age 20 or 30. There are those whose lives have worn them down by age 50. If you are fortunate to avoid a debilitating illness, no doubt to some extent insured against though exercise and decent nutrition, you are are as young as your mind allows.

    Remember as a kid how being a certain age was important? You felt 8 or 10. Then, around your twenties, there were just people you enjoyed, and their ages were immaterial. I think that stays true, but I do get a kick of it when folks in their fiftes are discussing something age related and tell me I'll understand when I get to their age. Why spoil their fun by explaining I've left their age behind? Plus, you can work as long as you feel up to it.

    We have an individual retiring who uses a walker. He's good at his job and well respected. He has worked here long enough to be clasified as "elderly" on his length of service alone, but in truth his age is immaterial. He just good at what he does. Talking to him on the phone, you'd have nary a clue as to his age.

  5. Anonymous6:49 AM

    Well, I’m probably the baby in the room. I will turn 36 at the end of the month. People are always asking me what it feels like to approach 40. I remember when I thought that 40 would mean I was, “Like, really old!” Now I notice I don’t feel any different than when I was 16. Don’t even think I look different, until I catch a mirror anyway. I guess you really are as young as you feel. Some days I am older than others.
    I do take comfort in the belief that this time we call mortality is just one phase of our existence. We’ve been around before; we will be around after, just a little different. Looking at it that way, that we are all millions of years old, what’s 60? :-)

  6. Stephen, what I've really noticed as I get older is how much younger everyone else is getting. I went back to Berkeley for beers in my early 30s after my divorce, and looking around the student bars I thought, "These people can't be old enough to drink!" I still have that feeling, except as I mentioned for the occasional jolt when I look at someone my mind labels as "old" and realize they're probably about my age. I look in the mirror and don't think I look 60, although I can't claim to look the way I did when I was 16...

    As the old saying goes, it's mind over matter - if you don't mind, it doesn't matter. What keeps amazing me about the woman in the mirror is how much she's coming to resemble my late mother.

    I know that Mark Twain story and love it, cooper. By the way, I'm neither rich nor a looker, so I guess my husband must be exceptional. I think Boggart is right, as usual, that if you can keep your body healthy and your mind active, your age will be largely irrelevant. I do water aerobics with a Hungarian lady of 78, and believe me, with both of us dressed up to go out, all the eyes would be on her!

  7. Anonymous11:07 PM

    On genealogy, my mother's take was that if you dig hard enough, you're gonna find a horse thief. But a friend from my youth with whom I recently re-connected pursues genealogy as a hobby. She's the one who found out where and when he died, as well as his WWI draft deferment for being his mother's primary source of support (I assume my biological paternal grandfather must already have been dead in 1917), which gave me both his birth date and a facsimile of his signature. My older sister has told me that Mother exaggerated his faults and gave short shrift to his good qualities (I do know she stayed permanently pissed at him). They were both strong personalities, I gather.

    At this point, I just find myself very curious about this man who did not marry until age 49 and fathered me at age 52.

    I think the reason I'm in my mid-20s (even though I was still doing some damned dumb things) is that is when I first felt like an adult mentally, although it was a starting point. In another sense, I'm about 40, because that is the point at which the various political, cultural, and occupational components sort of cohered (if, indeed, life ever does actually cohere), but it is that open-ended sense of life that I realized somewhere in my 20s that I think accounts for me seeing through those eyes even as I have 40 more years of experience tacked on.


    My grandmother used to say that men did not have a lick of sense before age 35 (and, as we know, after that it's still a crapshoot. Bush could live to be a hundred and still not have the sense God promised a billy goat.)

    Anonymous David

  8. Anonymous10:59 PM

    Satchel Paige is reported to have said, "If you didn't know how old you was, how old would you be?" and "Don't look back. Someone might be gaining on you."

    Anonymous David, who is trying his damnedest at the moment to channel Satchel. What a guy.

  9. Anonymous11:27 AM

    Googled Satchel. He was still playing professional baseball at age 59. Now I am really, really trying to channel whatever made the spirit of this "colored," as his white fellow Alabamians who wanted to avoid the n word would say, tick. hedera, you're just catching your second (or third) wind. Life might actually be better described in scores (generations) than in decades. You are starting the fourth generation of your life. No way to avoid contemplating your mortality in this round. All the more reason to go even harder at whatever really matters to you. I think I am more drawn to the intensification than the mellowing of the life of the mind. The body will just have to do whatever in hell it's going to do, which I will try to make be better, not worse, for the life of my consciousness.

    Anonymous David, who just listened to a spot for a local production of Samuel Beckett's "Krap's Last Tape."

  10. Satchel Paige - that's why that question about age sounded familiar! I must have read the age question and vaguely remembered it. I regularly look back to see if someone is gaining on me. (I actually thought it was something gaining on you...)

    As you say, David, wottaman. Not just Satchel - think of the guys in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, where only two members were born since 1960, and one doesn't show a birth year at all.

    You're right, though. I've thought myself that if I ever start to go downhill, it'll have to be because I've decided to quit climbing. Climbing is easier on the knees than going downhill, anyhow, and we all know about my knees.

    I haven't found much in my genealogy - there are some family rumors about my grandfather but no documentation - but my husband got curious about his family and has traced his mother's line back to the Mayflower. The only Mayflower passenger who was hanged in the new world. I don't know if he was a horse thief or what.

  11. Anonymous7:54 PM

    Oh, lord, Mother was right, at least about the category of crime -a hangin' offense.

    I just learned something through my friend's efforts that really got me going. My biological paternal grandfather was born before the Civil War, 1857 to be exact. He would be 150 years old if he were alive today.

    Intriguing to have only three
    generations reach back that far, especially since I'm only 64, but then my biological father was born 116 years ago, 9 years before the Spanish-American War. Maybe I can stretch it to 180 years before I die.

    Ancient Anonymous David