By the time you read this, I will have slipped past one of life's principle milestones, my 60th birthday. Ho hum to you, but a marker of considerable importance to me. The people around me are trying to talk me out of taking it seriously. "You're only as old as you feel," said one (wrong strategy!). "The best years of your life begin now," said another as she laid out her morning pill array in the precise chemical and color-code sequence. "Never been happier!" said still another, as he wiped down his sleep apnea mask and plugged the unit in for recharging. My daughter was characteristically sweet. "Dad, cheer up, 60 is the new 59."
Every birthday is an invitation for reflection, resolution, and renewal, but some are more important than others. My daughter will be 21 this summer. That's one of the principle milestones in life. We all tend to step back to look over the geography of our lives at 30, 40, and especially 50. My 50th was marked by a huge party in another state. I remember gulping that night to think that I was 50 years old, half a century old, but I knew very well then that I was in the prime of my life, and the number bothered me far more than the reality, if that makes any sense.
Sixty is important to me for a couple of reasons. I feel that it's the last time that one can attempt a serious "mid-course" correction. By any reasonable standards, I am at least two-thirds done. I'm still physically strong. My mind is still sharp (like the rusted and nicked hatchet I found the other day in the back of the garage). I have not yet reached the stage where I need an afternoon nap. I reckon I have about thirty years left in what Meriwether Lewis called "this sublunary world," about 15 of which, perhaps 20, I can make productive. The "software" I have been running in my soul for the past 10 or 15 years can still be made to "work" with some careful jiggering, but I'm heartily tired of the "graphics," the freeze-ups, and dull predictability of the results. It feels sometimes as if I'm trying to negotiate my 21st century life with 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. So, praying by a sacred river a few weeks ago I decided to use my 60th birthday to undertake some very serious changes. If not now, when?
Here's one I am willing to share. I have decided no more television, at least for a full year, unless some Pearl Harbor or 9-11 moment forces us all to the "agora of world crisis."
If not now, when?
Sixty is important to me because it is an unmistakable reminder that the clock is ticking. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Douglas, sent me a Shutterfly book the other day to commemorate our 60th birthdays. He was born just ten days after me in 1955 in another part of the Great Plains. We studied at Oxford University together. We went on a madcap backpacking trip in the Kamnik Alps in the former Yugoslavia in 1978, where we were arrested as American spies, and had many other pointless and harrowing adventures, before being propelled out of the country at Trieste and urged not to return. Two years later, we went backpacking in the Maroon Bells Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado, and Douglas nearly plunged to his death as we crossed a snow-capped scree pile. The book he compiled recently is of photographs of our youthful adventures, two lean and hungry knuckleheads at the prime of their vitality, taking chances that no rational being would take, but no one who truly loves life should avoid.
When I opened the book last night and started to gaze at the old grainy 35mm photographs, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry or first one and then the other. We were so young. The world was all before us. Time was not a factor. The clock was not ticking. Everything was still possible. There was something infinite and indeterminate about the road ahead.
Somehow I had let myself believe that those great adventures occurred only yesterday. Now, apparently overnight, that moment came, far far far too soon, when you hear Al Michaels in the Super Bowl or Marv Albert in the NBA finals, say, with a kind of melancholy, "Time begins to be a factor here."
I hate the term "bucket list," and refuse to start jotting down things like "float the Grand Canyon," or "skydive over the Powder River Valley." It's not about winding down gracefully and squeezing a few peak experiences out of the alluvial plain of decline. No! It's about getting serious about one's life dream, and realizing that you cannot postpone your run at happiness and achievement any longer, because the landscape of fulfillment must now be measured in years rather than decades or quarter centuries. In the great running conversation between Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) and his disciple James Boswell (1740-1795), Boswell once expressed surprise that preacher on death row (for theft) was writing some of the best sermons of his life. Johnson replied perfectly, as always: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
I've been asking myself, quietly, and without dramatic fanfare: What do I still want to achieve? Who are my friends and who do I want to be my friends? Where do I want to travel? Where do I want to live? What really satisfies me personally and professionally, and what is just "fill"? What (and who) have I let slip away in my life for no good reason that I would like to get back? What (and who) have I kept in my life for no good reason that I am willing to let drift away? If I can only read 500 (or 1,000) more books in the time that is left to me, which should they be? More to the point, which of the world's greatest classics have I somehow ducked until now (example: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky), and must now commit to reading if I truly intend to read them? What are the physical adventures I still want to undertake and am I willing to train for them, because at this point, not training means decline? What is my relationship with the sacred? What pilgrimages do I still wish to make?
My mother turned up last night with my favorite confetti angel food cake, same as every previous year we've been together. She told me that my father (dead 20 years) had fretted when he passed the age when his father had died (heart attack), and she wondered if I were brooding about turning 60. "No," I said truthfully, "I feel more alive and full of life than I have in many years. But I'd be a fool to reach a milestone this important and this useful, and laugh it off as a mere statistic. I plan to use this moment to rethink my life."
She rustled around the cupboards and then she said, "I guess we won't be ordering a pizza."
For the time that remains to me, I want to take my motto from the English clergyman and essayist Sydney Smith (1771-1845): "Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable."
The photograph appears public domain via New York Public Library Digital Collections. The famous public clock affectionately known as "Old Jeff." 1962.