Sooner Than You Think

Turning 60 may not make you old, but it certainly makes you ponder.

I thought I had more time.

Turning 60 seemed like a big deal, for me, at least. Not in a bad way, mind you. I believe we need to celebrate as many milestones as possible during our pathetically short lives, so, in characteristic fashion, I started to obsess early about which bottle of vintage champagne ought to mark the big day.

I wasn’t in any particular hurry until a friend reminded me that, in most Asian cultures, kids are considered to be age one at birth. By the time they reach 60, the count is actually 61, which means that, according to the reckoning of about half the world, I hit 60 last year.

Talk about being blindsided. I was overdue for an assessment.

We need to acknowledge the ground rules for any reflection on aging: Thoughts of death lurk in the recesses, even if we’re still having a little fun. I have been informed by reliable sources that all humans are mortal and, through the rigorous application of syllogistic logic, I can deduce that I, too, might one day die. Unlikely as this seems to me at the moment, I have to accept the proposition—at least in theory.

Illustration: Andrew Vanderdarr

I’m not officially a baby boomer, even if I’ve always felt like one. My folks got married before Dad shipped out for some nasty Pacific combat. I showed up in 1944, when he was slogging through the jungles of New Guinea, while the boomers’ folks waited until the war’s end to start their families. I’m in the advance guard, the cutting edge of the postwar generation, about to assault the ramparts of geezerhood, so if I start falling apart, the boomers can’t be far behind. Sort of like a canary in a coal mine.

When you start your seventh decade, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the inevitable decline and fall. Even if you’re not especially introspective or, perish the thought, self-absorbed, the small changes in your environment—the friends and relatives dropping off, the ever-increasing offers of “senior” status, not to mention the changes in hair patterns—become more obvious. Or at least they become more difficult to ignore.

Little things, like deciding what hair color to specify for my driver’s license, become problematic. Brown? Gray? Depends on my mood as I look into the mirror in the morning. A check of the meager clippings on my barber’s floor suggests that soon it will be the latter.

Then there are the little aches and pains that punctuate my days.

This doesn’t mean I have to accept that geezerhood is already here, of course, and chief among the palliatives in my bag is that old standby: denial.

Never underestimate the ameliorative effect of denial. It’s a real balm for a soul troubled by closer looks into the void. I, for one, derive great comfort from the fact that my grandfather lived to be 101—two years fewer than his grandfather, by the way—and was able to whip my then-35-year-old okole at squash when he was 85. I’m still a quarter-century short of that deadline, so why worry?

Truth be told, I don’t really feel old or otherwise any more impaired than usual. Perhaps you’ll get an argument from my softball teammates, but I’m still up for physical challenges, at least in moderation. Last summer, for example, I hiked 25 miles across the Grand Canyon in summer heat. (Didn’t say I had gotten any smarter.)

Never an adherent of the use-it-or-lose-it school of fitness, I instead nurture the convenient delusion that, while physical activity is generally beneficial, the body has a definable reserve of energy to be depleted over a lifetime. Too much jogging and your joints are sure to go.

By all means exercise, but understand also that the couch is a useful energy conservation tool; I make good use of mine. And what about those aches and pains? I’m certain that I had them when I was 25, if my ever-more-quirky memory serves me.


Of course there are the little scares life sends your way. A few years ago, a doctor mistook a mild episode of Bell’s Palsy for a stroke, sending me into a brief paroxysm of morbid thoughts and self-pity before the diagnosis got straightened out. Then there was a bout with basal cell carcinoma to make me contemplate my mortality, but that was excised by a little laser zapping, leaving me once again secure in the belief that I was immortal.

Now if only my skin would clear up. For that I’ve been waiting since I was a teenager.

But isn’t it undeniable that we change—mature—as we get older?

Emotionally I still feel like a high school dork masquerading in a graying body, but, if age has given me any insights into our species’ social rituals, it’s that this feeling is universal across all ages. Older folks just get better at disguising these feelings of insecurity. Thank God, I don’t have to chase girls anymore.

So what does change?

An old friend, now sadly gone, once suggested that the easiest way to determine a person’s age was to ask him to fill in the blank in the following declaration:

“I just had a great _____!”

Youngsters will most likely fill in the blank with a reference to a reproductive activity. Older folks more often think about ingestion or elimination. Your answer is safe with me.

That may be the heart of it. Clint Eastwood’s example aside, I’m just not in competition for alpha male anymore. My career ambitions are greatly diminished now that I’m certain I won’t win a Nobel Prize, and that doesn’t bother me at all. Content to go to bed early and get up before the sun, to do good work on an abbreviated basis, to photograph the sunrise or write an occasional essay, I’m not as consumed by the fires of professionalism as are some of my friends. They make more money, but most of them—in private, at least—admit they would love to find a way to throttle back.

No party animal, I suppose my social excitement quotient has diminished over the years, but I can’t say I miss anything. Even my tolerance for alcohol, not great even during my youth, has decreased. Now I find that it takes less and less to give me a headache the next day. Even a glass of wine at dinner can do me in.


“Never underestimate the ameliorative effect of denial.”


It seems I’ve also lost my ability to hold a grudge for more than a few days. My sense of petty outrage was highly developed as a kid, but no more.

Perhaps these seemingly minor changes are the nod that age gives to wisdom, but I certainly don’t feel any smarter these days. Indeed, the phrase, “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll know,” holds greater ironic meaning for me than I would ever have imagined.

As I said, 60 seems like a big deal, but, to be absolutely honest, I don’t yet see it as a watershed event in my life, unless you count the senior discount I now can get on movie tickets. The decline to this point seems undramatic and gradual, even as I occasionally wonder whether every ache and pain—or forgotten name—marks the beginning of the end, whether my mind and body have begun their inevitable betrayal.

Maybe it’s as Churchill characterized the tide of World War II after the battle of El Alamein: “It is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”

That, my friends, is worth celebrating. As for regrets, ask me when I’m 70.

Oh, I chose a bottle of Krug Vintage 1988 and enjoyed it immensely, headache and all.