Twenty years to go



Some thoughts on (almost) turning sixty (on March 1).

If you say to your friend when you’re 29, “I’m screwed-up because my parents were screwed-up,” your friend will look at you and say, “Well, I hope you’re able to get yourself together.” But if you say the same thing to your friend when you’re 59, your friend will just say, “You’re fucking pathetic. I don’t know why I hang out with you.” You can only ride that horse so far.

A life is like a history book in that, all else being equal, the more time it covers, the more stories it has to tell, and the better it can pull seemingly disparate themes into a congruent whole.

I in no way envy the young their youth (being so ignorant in so many ways wasn’t that great the first time around). I do envy them their health, their energy, their options, and the many years that they have left to live.

I have been a fundamentalist, and an atheist, and a lot of things in-between. I have also been a conservative, a liberal, and a moderate. As for a career, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Because I have been all over the map in so many areas of life, a part of me envies people who set out upon a road early on and never depart from it; but a bigger part suspects that they are more rigid than resolute.

The embarrassing part about getting old is that so many people my age are so foolish. I want respect for my experience, yet I don’t respect them for theirs. They might have learned a good bit in regard to practical matters (don’t touch a hot stove or drive fast on an icy road), but they remain appallingly deficient in depth and wisdom. Come to think of it, so do I. It’s just that they’re worse.

One might reasonably have hope for improvement in the young, but it’s harder to hope for the aged. Yet, I haven’t given up on myself. In fact, I’ve concluded that the day I turn sixty will be the day I am finally mature. I will still have odds and ends to work out, but the main themes of my life will be in order in just nine weeks. I can hardly wait.

I haven’t been carded in decades. No one has even looked like they were thinking about carding me in decades. In a way, I miss that, yet when I think back to when I was carded, I didn’t like it then, so maybe I wouldn’t like it now either. Maybe I would just think that there were entirely too many near-sighted store clerks.

I used to think that I was a very interesting person who had had a very interesting life. I still think this, but not too many people seem to agree. Maybe this is because they don’t know of anything I have excelled at.

I’m vague about what it means to excel. If you win an Olympic Gold Medal or a Nobel prize, I guess it means that you have excelled. But it would also mean that most people either haven’t excelled or else they have excelled somewhat obscurely. Does anyone regard himself as having hit that most excellent pinnacle above which nothing else lies? I wouldn’t know, but I have observed that, as a social species, it’s pretty hard for us to feel that we’ve done really well unless other people are out there applauding our efforts. Did Vincent Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson know that they had excelled?

Sitting here writing, I feel as though I should be doing something more important. Time is running out, so I must make the most of it. But what would be more important than this? I don’t know, but this doesn’t feel like enough. Maybe if I felt that I was expressing myself better. Maybe if I felt that more people cared about what I think. I so rarely feel that what I am doing is exactly the thing that I should be doing or that I am doing it in exactly the way it should be done.

I am always reaching for a feeling of rightness that I only rarely touch and never fully grasp, and even when I do grasp it, I might not recognize the fact until a lot later. Right now, I am thinking about a day Peggy and I spent in the Coast Range two years ago. Now, I see that that day was perfect, and I would be happy to relive it forever, but when that day was actually happening, I didn’t imagine that I would be sitting here now loving it completely. To love anything that much, I must have already lost it because, when it’s actually happening, I can always think of one or more teensy-tiny ways that it could be better. Later on, I don’t remember what those ways were.

No matter what your position, I can probably offer a reasonable argument in its favor even if I don’t believe it, simply because I used to believe it.

I used to expect some kind of unspecified quantum leap with every birthday, but it never came. This is what I got instead: I’m ten (double digits now!); I’m thirteen (a teenager!); I’m eighteen (old enough for the army to think I’m a man, but am I?); I’m twenty-one (old enough to vote, but why don’t I feel like a man yet?); I’m thirty (I guess I’m a man—if not now then when?); I’m forty (halfway to being dead—DEAD); I’m fifty (if I were a toaster, I would be halfway to being a genuine antique); I’m sixty (I’ll probably be dead in twenty years).

When I was young, I felt that my life had an ordained purpose that would be revealed to me someday. I wondered and wondered about this as the years went by without anything being revealed. I finally concluded that I was almost certainly wrong. After all, I had been wrong about a lot of other things that I used to think I knew for certain. For example, when I was six, I thought that nothing existed unless I was there to witness it—that people and places came into existence when I was present, and faded into nothingness when I went away. I also thought that I would be a boy forever because time was clearly passing far too slowly for me to ever grow up much less grow old.

If I don’t have a given purpose, then no one else is likely to either. This means that we do whatever we do while we’re alive, and then we’re dead, and that’s the end of the universe as far as we’re concerned. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke. Like a circle in the water where a child has thrown a rock. Later on, the universe too will die. Kaput. Finé. Like a puff of smoke…

Sometimes, something will happen that seems so timely, so apropos, that I think that, well, maybe there is some higher purpose going on here after all. But then I will say to myself that I’m grasping at straws, and I’ll be mad at myself for being unable to simply get on with living with what appears to be the case rather than forever longing for that which doesn’t appear to be the case.

I think of life as like a book or a movie that isn’t terribly good, but you stay with it because you expect it to come to a climax (otherwise, why would anyone have gone to the trouble of creating it?), and you want to see what that climax looks like. You wait, and you wait, and then the book (or the movie) ends with no climax ever being reached, and you feel cheated and even angry. You wish you had gone out and done something constructive instead of wasting your time. Only with life, there isn’t anything else you can go out and do.

Again, life is like boarding an airplane that moves away from the terminal but isn’t allowed to take off. Hours pass, and everyone says, “Screw this. We want out of here.” Only they won’t let you off. You don’t like it where you are, but you can’t go anyplace else, so you make the best of the situation. Some of us have the ability to do this better than others.

We are not equal. Some of us might try really hard to do well yet not accomplish much, while others of us might not try that hard yet accomplish a great deal. This makes it impossible to judge people because how can you judge them accurately if you can’t accurately identify and quantify what they had to struggle against? You can judge what they do, but you can’t judge who they are. They can’t even judge who they are. No one owns a calculator that can tally the inherent worth of anyone. Worth is always situational. We have all both failed and succeeded.

When he was really old, my father got religion. He was forever telling me about his latest conversations with God. Oftentimes, God would tell him that he had won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I thought that, okay, when he doesn’t get the money, he’ll give up all this nonsense about God. Wrong. Dad interpreted the fact that Ed Mahon hadn’t called him to appear on The Tonight Show as a test of his faith, and believed he would get the money later. Other times, God would tell him that the people at whatever church Dad was going to at the time were “hypocrites who didn’t know God,” and that Dad was to give them hell about it. So, Dad would stand up during the service and give them hell about it. Whenever Dad stopped going to a particular church, it was a sure thing that no one was going to call and ask what had become of him.

Dad’s weirdness about religion didn’t come as much of a surprise, because I had never known him when he was sane. But, sometimes, I worry that I too might become crazy when I am really old. I try to console myself with the thought that, since I never was as crazy as he was, I probably won’t become as crazy as he became. The problem with this is that I don’t regard myself as an exemplar of sanity either. In some ways, my father was tougher than I, and in other ways he was weaker; so where does this leave me? And who will take care of me the way I took care of him?

The time will come when either I die and leave Peggy alone, or she dies and leaves me alone. Odds are that I will leave her. Either way, it’s a piss-poor way to go.

18 comments:

All Consuming said...

Having read this pos tI can only be happy that I already feel the way you do, and I indeed hope to feel at your age all the rest. I don't know what.... 'I haven’t been carded in decades...means', no idea what 'carded' means basically so a bit lost there...however, when you say "Right now, I am thinking about a day Peggy and I spent in the Coast Range two years ago. Now, I see that that day was perfect, and I would be happy to relive it forever, but when that day was actually happening, I didn’t imagine that I would be sitting here now loving it completely. To love anything that much, I must have already lost it because, when it’s actually happening, I can always think of one or more teensy-tiny ways that it could be better. Later on, I don’t remember what those ways were." Those are the very best of times, and we only ever know them in retrospect, but....how wonderful are, and were they...

."I think of life as like a book or a movie that isn’t terribly good, but you stay with it because you expect it to come to a climax (otherwise, why would anyone have gone to the trouble of creating it?), and you want to see what that climax looks like. You wait, and you wait, and then the book (or the movie) ends with no climax ever being reached, and you feel cheated and even angry. You wish you had gone out and done something constructive instead of wasting your time. Only with life, there isn’t anything else you can go out and do."............... I understand this so very much, but up to now, and through different circumstance, the movie/book of my life, although appaling in parts, is just as I would ultimately, maybe have not planned...good lord,....but then, as a writer, a philosoher, a smart arse, and a fool...enjoy....maybe I be lucky in that sense...I wish for no other ending, no re-write, nothing other than the facinating plot as it is....and I cannot wait to see what the ending will be...because, I am very sure it will make me laugh, one way or another. Absolutely. Having said that, you have to remember I have a very black sense of humour.

If you become crazy, you won't know it, and I understand that ye may be worried about your loved ones dealing with it, but for yourself...you just will not recognise it. And as Far as one of you leaving here first....that's the real crunch, the hardest of all...if you haven't seen the movie 'Meet Joe Black' yet, watch it, all the way through...the last line means alot to me, and has summed up my understanding on the subject I guess.

You often write things I think. :)

All Consuming said...

Loving the pics by the way.

Snowbrush said...

"You often write things I think. :)"

We are in sympathy yet very different, which is actually a good way to be in sympathy.

"no idea what 'carded' means basically so a bit lost there"

It is when you have your ID checked to verify how old you are when you buy booze or go into a bar. The minimum can be either 18 or 21.

"I understand that ye may be worried about your loved ones dealing with it"

I have no loved ones who will be young enough to deal with it.

"...you have to remember I have a very black sense of humour."

And what an utterly endearing characteristic that is. I simply don't know how people survive without it, although most seem to get by well enough. Maybe being British helps. I wonder.

I'll see "Meet Joe Black."

Bill said...

"I want respect for my experience, yet I don’t respect them for theirs."

Same here, but you could replace "experience" with a number of things. I guess that is what you would call the ignorance of youth on my part, or maybe I will always be like that.

"I used to think that I was a very interesting person who had had a very interesting life. I still think this, but not too many people seem to agree."

I have observed that people are far too caught up in their own narcissism to see past themselves. Maybe that is something more prevalent in the younger generation.

"I’m vague about what it means to excel."

I think that has taken on a more subjective meaning in our society today. Although, a portion of society bases this off of material wealth, I would say. What do you think?

"If I don’t have a given purpose, then no one else is likely to either."

If you believe in nothing else, then would not death become one's sole purpose in life?

Snowbrush said...

"...people are far too caught up in their own narcissism to see past themselves. Maybe that is something more prevalent in the younger generation."

If I may be so bold as to speak of a period in life from which I am so removed...Younger people just tend to be aware of themselves in different ways. Older people are more focused on their aches and pains, providing for retirement, the doings of their children and grandchildren, etc. They give less thought to sex, schoolwork, careers, and what people think of them. For either group, oneself is a consuming proposition.

"...a portion of society bases this off of material wealth, I would say. What do you think?"

I suppose this has been true always and everywhere.

"If you believe in nothing else, then would not death become one's sole purpose in life?"

You lost me between point A and point B. I should think it more likely that death would become "the point" for people who see it as a bridge to a better world. If you simply see it as the end of existence, it would only become the point in your life if you were eager to reach that end.

Bill said...

"You lost me between point A and point B."

Well, you speak of life not having a purpose for you or anyone else. Life always has a purpose in that it always has an end. For example, in my faith and spirituality, I perceive my ultimate purpose to be the building of myself into a more complete human being. In the absence of all other perceived purposes, death becomes one's sole purpose for living. If nothing else, one lives merely to die and be recycled back into the earth, whether one is eager to reach that end or not.

Snowbrush said...

End and purpose are not necessarily synonymous or even related. End can simply mean outcome. If my purpose, for example, is to go on a daylong picnic, the end of that purpose (the setting of the sun) is un-related to the purpose itself. The activity would have been its own purpose.

It also seems true to me that the absence of an ordained purpose need not imply the absence of an improvised purpose. While it is true that the existence of an ordained purpose with its implication of eternal benefit would be comforting to me, my time on earth must be spent doing something, so there is the possibility to spend it in activities that I consider purposeful. Please see my blog entry of 9/29/06

Pantheist Mom said...

You are very honest and open and curious in your writing - what a pleasure to read your posts!

A couple of things here really resonated with me. For instance:
"Right now, I am thinking about a day Peggy and I spent in the Coast Range two years ago. Now, I see that that day was perfect, and I would be happy to relive it forever, but when that day was actually happening, I didn’t imagine that I would be sitting here now loving it completely."

I often wonder how accurate my memories really are. e.g., I loved my years in grad school, and have very fond memories of them - but I know I must be being very selective about what I remember. The worries about money and the sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized I didn't understand squat in the middle of an exam and the constant fatigue really aren't that clear in my memories. I think it's quite a self-fulfilling thing...The more of these somewhat fictitious (or at least "enhanced") memories I have, the harder it is for the present to live up to them. It's hard work, this living and enjoying the present...

I also wanted to comment on a purpose to life (or a presumed lack of purpose?). I don't view my death (the end) as a default purpose to my life any more than I would view the period before I was born as my purpose. There is no "me" before and no "me" afterward, and to me, no real distinction in the two. The only period of substance (for me) is during. It's a cliche, but the journey is the thing. It's a hard one to remember, though, as you so eloquently described, in our world full of things with well-defined climaxes and endings like movies and books and airplane trips.

Snowbrush said...

Dear Mom (ha--I couldn't resist), thank you so much for your kind words and insights.

risa said...

This is one of the better essays on the 2nd law of thermodynamics that I have seen lately ... Billy Crystal had a good one in City Slickers, too.

I'll be 60, g-d willin' and th' crick don't rise, right after you, in May. We plan to climb South Sister in August as a belated birthday party. Maybe y'all should come along!

Snowbrush said...

I've been up every small peak in the area many times, but never did the big ones (unless you count Diamond and St Helens). Too much work. Now I have an arthritic knee, so I don't even do Pisgah anymore (I used to do it 3 times a week and could get to the top in 19 minutes).

My wife did the Obsdian's Big Ten, and threw a great many more in too. She loves the high mountains, but she's put on some weight and gotten herself a tad out of shape.

The Bike Friday (in my photo) is what I use in the woods now.

Strayer said...

If I may be so bold, to bust into the philosophers talking, I created my own purpose and meaning. It may be delusional but I cling to and love it and it serves me well. I get in the morning determined all over again, in the belief I can make some small difference. It makes me happy. I feel like a success, for myself at least. I bet other people think I'm a homeless pathetic ragamuffin, because my clothes are often slightly to moderately ragged. Nobody has to do anything in their lives to deserve to live here. We're born. We have some time. We die. That's about it. But it's fun in the middle, even the tough times, if they're survived. I've considered the Olympians, radical athletes, obsessive scientists, celebrities--freaks really. Privately of course.

mArtine petrA said...

How about the day we die is the day we suddenly achieve that state of nirvana which makes us whole`/done/complete and ready to go? Just those last seconds before we realize we're going somewhere else.
It strikes me every day how surreal life really is, so in certain moments when I remember to, I force myself to enjoy myself in whatever setting I'm in, and the people I'm with. To try and rediscover everything around me like it was new and unknown.

There's a melancholy to life, it might all be a test to see how we all cope. Lab rats?

Let's try to enjoy ourselves!

Snowbrush said...

"It strikes me every day how surreal life really is..."

Yes, which is why I used to do drugs. How ironic though that I can rise to the heights of seeing the strangeness of life (which is actually better done without drugs) only to return to the mundane a few hours later. As I see it, life is neither this nor that; it is what we take it to be. I believe that there is an objective existence to it all, but that's not where we live.

If we are lab rats, then God must be a mad scientist.

Strayer said...

I sometimes think god is in another dimension, and humans were his cherished pets with him. However, his friends, neighbors and peers, of that world, became concerned (freaked out), like neighbors will, that he may have had too many humans as pets and complained loudly about how destructive the humans were and how we bred like, well, reproduced rapidly.

The dispute went to court. So, that world being far advanced of ours, the verdict came with the creation of Earth, as human species test tube.

It was decreed the humans would be banished to earth, where, if humans proved, as god claimed, to be worthy, progressive souls, and not creatures who merely destroyed things, fought and bred, then god and his beloved human pets could be re-united.

God tried to invoke the lethal importance of us improving ourselves, sneakily, through religions, hoping we'd take note, so that one day, when the probation period ends, we'll pass muster and he'll get us back and we won't be destroyed.

I think we're messing up on it, however. We're still breeding, fighting and destroying things. I wonder if god in his other world and his cohorts, will one day consider a TNR (trap, neuter, return) program to control our numbers and aggression.

So that's how I sometimes think of god. Test tube.....hohohohohoho.

Snowbrush said...

Now, that's a myth I could get behind. Imagine how much better people would behave if they really thought they might get neutered if they screwed up.

Strayer said...

Hahahaha. Give Peace a Chance; Neuter Everybody! War: a hormonal experience. Cold War: Two Cats facing off, yowling to beat the band, atop a fence. Also, spray marking tires.

Strayer said...

P.S.: am myself spayed and fine with it.