Get Your Kicks At Age Sixty-six
A Year Spent Paying Attention
This morning I noticed that once again, I’m 66. Strangely, this year on earth is not rushing by. And not just because each day contains one more impossible outrage by the Current Administration, nor because each week reveals more evidence that Mother Earth will soon dispatch our kind, having had quite enough of human behavior. That there’s a month’s worth of you’re-shitting-me every two or three days can’t explain this pleasant slowdown in life’s velocity. In recent years I’ve daily rechecked my age, and in seasons past I’ve been surprised — how did I get here so fast? Already I’m 59? Now 62? Hold on — isn’t 65 considered a Big Birthday? But Father Time has lately eased his foot off the gas a bit, and whether a gift, a warning, or an aberration, I can’t say. The passage from month to month seems as swift as ever; even as the pandemic has blurred what day we’re in. And I keep noticing: I’m 66. Still.
I was 62 when my boss told me my job was being eliminated. I went into a quiet year-long panic. Sure, I’d fantasized about the joy of joblessness the same way I’d imagine winning the lottery and buying a beach house which I knew was never going to happen. In years past whenever I lost or changed jobs, I grimly accepted that moment’s life-or-death mission: get another job. This time was different. Intellectually I grasped not only that I was okay, but in fact nothing bad was happening, other than a gigantic once-in-a-lifetime gear change that drove many adults, my dead dad for example, into a steep depression.
After one solid, anxiety-flavored year of outplacement coaching, seminar attending, consultancy-launching and bank account obsessing, I calmed down. I let the get-another-job locomotive roll to a stop. I’d been wanting to return to writing, and now there was no obstacle. What would it be like to just write about trying to be happy with this new state of affairs?
So I did. I spent my 63rd year writing most every day, all the while imagining a helpful, slim tome about getting oldish while doing as I pleased and paying attention. That year galloped to its end, leaving me with a written record I’ve been editing ever since to make more readable. In doing so I’ve relived that particular 12-month stretch more than any other, which like any sentient year includes a hodgepodge of memories from the previous (in my case) sixty-two. This was no memoir, only a record of one brief stretch of my existence, not exhaustive, nothing about Piney Acres Day Camp or my first girlfriend (Pam), or being chewed out by my boss at ABC TV for not caring sufficiently about Monday Night Football. Of course whatever memories were haunting me in my 63rd year were fair game (lost friendships, hapless choices, selling off my vinyl collection), as were my inner gremlin’s disorienting taunts (love’s a joke, you’re deluded, look at your hair for god’s sake, etc). I typed away, always keeping you, dear reader, in mind. Then reviewing what I’d written, I left in the embarrassing parts while culling the tiresome whining and self-doubt — a little of that goes a long way. I was on my new mission! To engage and enlighten, and keep you entertained! And just maybe discover a process that led to being frequently happy! So what happened? Did I figure it all out? In short: I did and I didn’t.
I know men and women, writing professionals who’ve devoted long years to honing and editing, while reading and analyzing the work of the masters and the latest hotshots. At 25 I wanted to be one, too, and moved to New York to pursue it, until I got distracted by a different career. At age 50, I accidently and briefly launched my writing career anew, when a rewrite project with two funny friends, Richard and Harry, turned into a series of successful humor books. Ever seen “Bad Cat,” or “Bad Dog,” or the lesser known but no less hysterical “Bad Baby?” I find battered copies of them in rented vacation houses. Richard is a Real Writer. I have an armload of his books on my shelves. He’s almost certainly spending a few hours today doing his job, writing his next book.
I’ve embarked on a few larks in my sixties, projects unserious but engrossing, such as attempting to learn jazz guitar. Wynton Marsalis won’t be calling. Some months prior to one or another vacation trip I’ve applied magical thinking to learning Spanish, then French, and now Italian, but my skills stop around, “a coffee please, thank you, my sweater is blue, where is the bathroom?”
But the writing project, whose first goal was to distract myself from the weirdness of not going to work anymore, has been like a slow-acting psychedelic drug. It has ever so slowly clarified my life to myself. It became an earnest, on-going conversation with myself as I did what I wanted. I took myself to movies and plays, jazz clubs and museums. I hung around with friends and talked about being a father, and divorced, and in love, and in long-term recovery from alcoholism. I cleverly used the project to justify spending a solid month in New Orleans. I experienced stuff — no moon landings or murders, but events bad and sad, along with lots of lovely things.
What it’s shaping up to be, this book of mine, is something everyone who has the time and the patience might do, and be glad to have done it. First you have to be quite lucky, which I surely am, thanks to a vast amount of unearned privilege. One should live into one’s sixties, not terribly hard, and retire or lose one’s job, easy enough, but with enough resources to pay the bills, and enough health to sit upright and type or scribble, and notice what’s going on in your life and your head. And that’s largely it. You can even do it while holding down a job, I’m told, if you have the energy. It’s been helpful to have two grow-up kids, and a nice ex-wife, and a number of friends, and my second and final wife, who agrees to laugh at some of what I say, and urges me to go to yoga, even if lately that means peering into a computer. In short, to try this you’ll want a support system and the trappings of a life. I don’t take any of this for granted (actually I do, but I’m trying not to). What I’m describing is not the least bit unusual. My life is not in the Keith Richards zone.
If young adults are skeptical or uninterested in what old people have to say, perhaps it’s because old people think they have rare and precious experience and wisdom. So yes, old people are tedious. But old people know things young people can’t, and likely won’t, until they too are old and tedious. I can say this with authority, because I’m an old people. We remember, inaccurately but still, moving through all kinds of fears — how will I be as a spouse? Am I going to accidentally kill this baby? Intentionally kill this teenager? Nearly half of us have been through the end of a marriage. The luckiest of us outlive our parents, and mostly survive the grief. We don’t like everybody in our family, and feel guilty about it. We get sick, get cancer, and our sight and hearing decline or fail altogether, and we forge ahead. We know people who’ve had absolutely terrible things befall them, but we’ve dodged most of that, or made our way through it. And none of this makes us special — it makes us typical, typically human.
I feel pretty good about it. I’m not old old, just old. Stuff hurts, but not bad. Peers haven’t started dropping like flies. It’s good enough. A theory I’ve been testing for more than fifteen years is that everyone is getting crazier, but at different rates, and everybody believes one of three things:
- They have it together;
- They look like they have it together, and that will have to do; or
- They’re a wreck, and they want to tell you all about it.
I think I have it together. On bad days, I figure I look like I do. On the worst days, I think I’m going crazy, but today I’m still 66.