On Turning 60

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Photo by JCapaldi/Flickr
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.

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.

And just like that, standing there in the darkened kitchen at 60, having been that sort of person—the kind who thought he was 21 when he was 40— strikes me as a terrible error. O you fool, I think, you did not realize upon what quiet foot The End approacheth. (My mental cadence takes on the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer when I get anxious.) I mean, it’s easy to forget, amid the pleasures and terrors and gentle draining sounds of everyday life, how it all goes by much too fast. Even if you pay attention all the time—and who, really, manages to do that?

And then, inevitably, the litany of my failures rushes into the vacuum left by all that speeding time—except that now, at 60, those failures seem especially irreversible: not enough money, no retirement possibilities, no lush vacation home, no fast cars, no novels or plays or Broadway musicals or HBO series written, the rest of the usual roster of regrets. As well as all the moments I could have been more human, and less afraid. And in the place of those lost accomplishments, there’s just the clock ticking on the wall, making its sound, which, as Tennessee Williams said, is loss, loss, loss.

This is the problem with turning 60: it’s so goddamn melodramatic.

In any event, that was my general frame of reference when I thumped downstairs at half past six on the morning of my birthday, the 60th anniversary of my squalling entry into this world to the very hour. I had one thought on my mind, beyond the aforementioned general despair, and that thought was: coffee. Where is the damn coffee? I can’t believe I am out of coffee on the morning of my 60th birthday, when if ever a man needed a strong cup of coffee, it’s now.

But I had no coffee. So I thought: “I’ll have some maté.” I did, somewhat eccentrically, have some maté in the house. I filled the kettle, stumbled over to the pantry cupboard—I don’t know why, because that’s not where I keep the coffee or the maté, but you know how it is after 60, you start to remember things not specifically but by category (coffee= shelf=cupboard)—and furiously flung it open.

Then the thing happened. I had been planning to make a warm steak salad for dinner one day this week. Over the weekend, I had tried to buy some fregula at Fiesta Farms, the brilliant grocery store in our neighborhood. But Fiesta Farms was all out of fregula, so I purchased instead a 454-gram cellophane bag of acini di pepe, which is pasta that looks like tiny dried beads—even smaller than fregula or couscous. A pound of acini di pepe is a lot of pepes, brother.

And of course—because it goes without saying that this would happen to a man slumping on the threshold of 60—in opening the wrong cupboard I inadvertently nudged the acini di pepe off the shelf. The packet hit the parquet, and burst, and 17 bezillion acinis, or pepes, or whatever the fuck those little bastards are called, shot across the ground floor of my house. I then spent 20 minutes trying to sweep them up out of the charming cracks and wrinkles and fascia of my slanted old floors, to not entirely successful avail. I now realize why acini di pepe is one of the less common pastas: it’s a clean-up disaster waiting to happen. I spent the rest of the morning hobbling around the house, stepping on overlooked acini di pepe, which I now call ouchie di papa, because they hurt like hell. Not a great portent of the future, you have to admit.

But then my brother called, which always makes me feel lucky; and my wife gave me, as a present, some groovy (but wearable!) clothes, which produced a small surge of (mysterious) hope; and then I actually remembered to bring my cup of hard-won maté with me to the car, which is an absolute miracle. And then at work I ran into even more Facebook birthday greetings in my mailbox, from more people I knew well and people I didn’t know at all. And it turned out that my shyness or snottiness about the nature of Facebook friends had become less resolute. At 60, after all, you are suddenly looking into the beginning of the end, the final frontier where you will either find the thing your heart has always sought, which you have never been able to name, or you won’t. And whether you find it or not—I suspect, or at least hope, that it doesn’t really matter, as long as you look hard—that will be your life. I keep trying to peer into the distance, to see how the story ends, how it stacks up, how I did as a human being, but of course you can’t know, no matter what the priests and professional soothers say. I suppose the only thing you can hope for is that it doesn’t get too lonely too fast. And however well I knew or did not know my Facebook birthday- wishers, they kindly, if optimistically, reminded me that I was not yet all the way to the end. Not yet … not yet … not yet. Which is the other sound the clock makes. So thanks, even unto the depth of strangers.

Ian Brown is a highly acclaimed journalist and author. His recent book, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son, was named one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of the year and won three of Canada’s most prestigious awards. Excerpted from his latest book, Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year © Ian Brown 2015, 2016. Reprinted by permission of The Experiment.

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