On Turning 60

The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?

| Winter 2016

  • Modern Western society still treats the aging and the aged the same way it has treated the disabled, women, and other thus—designated outliers: by pretending they don’t exist.
    Photo by JCapaldi/Flickr

In 2004, when I turned 50, I mentioned to a friend that I thought there was a book in the subject; that reaching what another pal optimistically called “the halfway point” entailed not just changes in the way I lived but changes in the way I looked at my life. I had spent 50 years looking forward, up the oncoming road, and suddenly I was just as interested in where I’d been. This did not feel like a victory. Then the busy details of family and professional life closed around me, and I put the notion—not just the book, but the very idea that I was in fact getting older—aside.

A few years later, in my late 50s, when I could no longer pretend I wasn’t heading into the last turn, or for the back nine, or toward the clubhouse (someone should make a list of all the euphemisms we employ to denote the onset of aging)—after another cough that wouldn’t go away, after the onset of the existential angst that seemed to set in after 55, and especially after my parents died—I realized that I had forgotten the instances that made turning 50 feel unique. I resolved that I would not let the details slip away again, and decided to keep a diary of the year I turned 60, from that birthday to the next. After all, as Kafka observed, “one advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer.”

Alas, you also become aware of how hard it is to keep an honest, interesting, readable (to say nothing of publishable) diary. It’s quite a lot of work, and it’s hard to keep up, especially if you have a job, a life, and the discipline of a mayfly. The task also poses a recurring question, one I asked myself every day: What on earth would make someone think the life of a 60-year-old middle-class journalist and husband and father in Toronto (of all places) was worth writing, much less reading, about? The answer was always the same: because I could find no satisfying record of anyone having done it before. I’m not referring to the countless newspaper columns and ranks of self-help books (some of them huge commercial successes) that celebrate seniorhood and try to reinvent aging as a new and ever- younger future. That kind of writing mostly made me want to run shrieking from the room. But original, truthful, sad but amused, authentic writing on the subject of getting older, is in quite short supply; it’s a subject we don’t care to think about when we’re younger and can’t bear to face when we’re older. Gerontology (the sociology, psychology, and biology of aging) and geriatrics (the medical care of the aging) are booming fields of study, and there is a small but growing cadre of writers and scholars—mostly women, many of whom have spent their lives studying literature— now exploring the culture of aging and growing older. But those are still nascent movements. Up in the stacks of the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, where entire floors are devoted to books about a single subject, I found but half an aisle of shelves (about 20 feet, and on only one side of the aisle at that) devoted to books about aging. The process of getting older, after all, as a young writer and academic named Amelia DeFalco first pointed out to me, is the process of becoming the Other—the unknown entity that we all fear, the ever-dying double that lives inside us, that we ignore for as long as we can, until we finally can’t. Modern Western society still treats the aging and the aged the same way it has treated the disabled, women, and other thus-designated outliers: by pretending they don’t exist. The irony of our insensitivity toward the elderly is that aging happens to every one of us; we’re all getting older every single moment of our lives, from the moment we are born, though we spend most of our energy (commercial and otherwise) devising ways to pretend that it’s not happening.

I admit that so far, I am the luckiest of 60-year-olds. My health is steady, my mind is more or less intact, I can see and mostly hear, I am not in pain. I am not alone. I have hardly anything to complain about. And yet I, we, all of us, grow older anyway, and we feel it, even as we deny it. I thought it might be an interesting experiment to stare in the face of that denial, and keep track, at even the most mundane daily level, of the train coming straight at us.

February 4, 2014

I’m 60 today. My Facebook page (Facebook is celebrating its tenth anniversary) is full of kind wishes from Facebook friends, that is, from people I know, sometimes well, but also from people I don’t know at all. I’m not sure how I feel about Facebook friends, but thank you all for the birthday wishes. I begin my 61st year underslept, with a brewing chest infection, and to be frank I am not looking forward to the day—standing as I am on the threshold of the no man’s land beyond 60. Sixty! I mean—if you’ll pardon the expression—fuck me dead! How did I get to be this old? The answer is by not paying attention.

Downstairs, I discover that Johanna, my wife, has left a card on the kitchen table. It contains two photographs of me walking my daughter, Hayley, in her stroller in Los Angeles, when Hayley was an infant and I was … 39? Forty? And of course, we all know what that looks like: it looks thinner. Your hair is ill-advised, but you have so much more of it you don’t really care. At 40, I looked like someone who thought he was 21.

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