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. FinΓ©. 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. FinΓ©. 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.