REFLECTIONS ON TURNING 60
Yanofsky summons courage, friends
There’s a new dance craze sweeping the land First you get out of bed. Then you attempt to stand
You got brand new dance and it goes like this You wake up in the morning and look into the abyss Reminders, as if I need them, are everywhere. Like the government forms that arrived last spring informing me I would soon be eligible for my “retirement pension.” Or what used to be called — it gradually dawned on me — oldage pension.
Then a month ago, my GP called me in to discuss the glucose numbers on my latest blood test. He had that “at-your-age” look on his face.
“I should have studied,” I told my wife Cynthia when I got home. An old joke but somehow, at my age, not as funny as it once was.
The Internet is on to me, too. Every piece of junk email that lands in my inbox now seems designed to make me feel ancient. There are ads for diabetes, high blood pressure, overactive bladder, wrinkle remover, walk-in tubs, improving my golf game and, of course, Viagra.
“Everyone wants a piece of you,” Cynthia said, “while there are still pieces to be had.”
Finally, last week, there was a letter from our synagogue wishing me “mazel tov” on my impending “special birthday.” I was also invited to say a public prayer of gratitude at an upcoming service. I was touched by the offer. There’s only one problem. These days, I’m not feeling especially grateful. This is the month I turn 60. Before this “special birthday,” I never cared about numbers. Thirty and 40 passed without fuss. Cynthia insisted my 50th be marked so I agreed to an impromptu openhouse party. No presents, the e-vite insisted, no big deal. Still, I’m discovering, as I push 60, that the novelist Richard Price was right: “The older you get the more you hate arithmetic.”
In fact, if you’re reading this in the Saturday newspaper, on Sept. 26, it is my birthday and my plan is to spend it hiding under the covers, with only my iPad and Netflix for company. Here’s my private prayer: please God don’t let the Wi-Fi or my “overactive bladder” fail.
So the question remains: How do I feel? Really feel?
Not alone, for starters. Being a baby boomer means never having to go through any traumatic demographic shift on your own. My generational cohort — 1946-1964 — has either faced this milestone in the past decade or will be facing it in the coming one. According to Statistics Canada, if you were born in 1955 then you’ll be joining some 489,000 fellow Canadians in becoming, pardon the oxymoron, newly minted sexagenarians.
Which is why you’d think, given my generation’s predilection for hogging the spotlight, more of us would be going on about the Big Six-0. Maybe the reason we aren’t is as plain as those wrinkles on our faces, or that receding hairline: we’d rather not.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that 60, at least from the vantage point of 59, is as round as a round number gets. It’s solid, not negotiable the way my 40s and 50s seemed. It simply feels different.
“People say it’s just a number and that is, at the most unimaginative level, true,” Ian Brown told me by phone from Toronto. “But it’s also a symbolic number.”
So much so Brown, a veteran Globe and Mail journalist, spent 2014, the year he turned 60, keeping a diary of his physical and emotional ups and downs – all the aches and pains, complaints and regrets.
His memoir, called 60: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning? has a melancholic ambivalence built into its subtitle — note the question mark — as well as its narrative.
When it comes to aging, according to Brown, “we spend most of our energy … devising ways to pretend that it’s not happening.” He cites ubiquitous Huffpost blogs about turning 60 — with their “delusional keywords” like “Aging Gracefully, Feeling Fabulous, Older Middle Age” — as examples of how far we’re willing to go to try to stop the clock. Then there are those self-help books, like Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy Until You’re 80 and Beyond, which seem intent on defying the laws of physics and turning the clock back.
Brown focuses, instead, on making 60 his “year of living observationally.” In his preface, he writes, “I thought it might be an interesting experiment to stare into the face of that denial (about aging) and keep track, at even the most mundane daily level, of the train coming straight at us.”
Straight indeed: in the last decade, I’ve delivered four eulogies. That’s one reason I wasn’t surprised when my teenage son, Jonah, returning from three weeks at sleepaway camp last month, got off the bus and, even before he said hello, asked his mother and me, “Did anyone die?”
Jonah is famous in our family for his bluntness. It’s practically poetic. He says precisely and succinctly what he’s thinking; in other words, what you’re thinking, too, but would never dare say.
“Everyone’s OK,” I told him, though I crossed my fingers and added, “so far.” I share his anxiety, after all. Looking back at those eulogies, written for some of the most important people in my son’s life and mine, I can’t help feeling, as I’m sure he does, there’s been some kind of mix-up. As if a retraction is due.
When you’re pushing 60, loss goes with the territory. Even so, I doubt I’ll ever get used to it. Aging feels different, so far. It’s more like moving to a foreign country – a matter of acclimatizing, getting your bearings. Because there is, Brown explains, a dizzying quality, a doubleness, to turning 60: at the same time that you can’t see yourself as old you can hardly see yourself as anything else.
In I’m Too Old for This, a recent column in The New York Times, writer Dominique Browning talks about how liberating her 60th birthday was. She no longer bothers feeling insecure about her appearance, for instance. She’s learned to walk away from all manner of toxic relationships.
In fact, she envisions adapting her new mantra into a potentially bestselling app – “2 old 4 this.” It would serve as “a signature kissoff to all that was once vexatious,” she writes. “A goodbye to all that has done nothing but hold us back.”
My next-door neighbour, Maria Di Stavolo, also turns 60 this month — like I said, we’re everywhere — and has no plans to say goodbye to anything. “I see this birthday as opening up a whole new chapter in my life, a new beginning,” she told me when we met on the street the other day. “It’s a chance for adventures, challenges. I’m so excited. Isn’t it exciting?”
Her enthusiasm was almost contagious. I shrugged. Excited isn’t the word I’d use.
There’s a Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dentist, played by Bryan Cranston in pre-Breaking Bad days, converts to Judaism. He does it, Jerry suspects, for the jokes. He wants to make fun of Jews with impunity, the way only Jews are permitted to. I imagine turning 60 will be similar. I can make all the jokes about old people I want. Call it a licence to kibitz.
Kibitzing was mainly what my assembled Old Geezer Club — see, geezer, old fart, coot, I can use them all — was doing on our inaugural get-together a couple of weeks ago. They came to dinner at my house to serve as 60-something sages, my personal panel of experts. Their expertise consisted mainly of the fact they all turned 60 before me. Full disclosure: they’re also my friends.
“At 60, I began to feel like our 12-year-old Honda,” Bryan Demchinsky said. In August, Demchinsky turned 64, another symbolic number (“Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?”) thanks to The Beatles. “One thing starts breaking down after another.”
“Or you run out of gas,” added Mark Abley, 60 last May.
“Or you have too much gas,” said Mike Shenker, 60 last February.
OK, we did some kvetching too — another privilege of age. Still, if we weren’t exactly whistling past the graveyard — or at that oncoming train — we were humming in its vicinity. About mortality, for example, Shenker said, “The obituaries are our demographic’s newsletter.”
“I check them every day,” Demchinsky added. “You never know who’s going to turn up.”
More disclosure: my friends are all writers and editors, former full-time employees of this newspaper. All took buyouts over the last decade or so — though Abley still writes The Gazette’s Watchwords column — and, in one way and another, have had to reinvent themselves as they approached 60.
Demchinsky is contemplating writing a book about how to transition from one career, one stage of life, to another. “It would be about reconfiguring your identity,” he said. “About the experiences people our age have — worrying about money, health, kids, relationships. Working title: The Sweet Hereafter Life.”
Identity is an issue for Abley, who said he sometimes worries about how other people view him. “People who know you well don’t see you differently. But turning 60 seems to matter more for the way the outside world sees you. And for your self-identity. Was turning 60 a big deal for me? Oh God, yeah!”
Shenker, though, made the most of what might have been a difficult birthday. Recently separated, he took the trip he always dreamed of: he drove solo through the American Southwest.
“I was going to be 60 and I was in Death Valley. I mean Death Valley. I realized I needed to share the day with people, but I didn’t know anyone so I shared it with strangers. I drove to the nearest town, bought a sheet cake at the supermarket, made a sign saying, ‘Free cake. It’s my 60th birthday.’ I gave out 30 pieces. Everybody loved it. And I got a good deal on the cake.”
What did I learn from our evening? That somewhere between the clueless cheerleading of blogs and selfhelp books and the relentless introspection of self-absorbed baby boomers, there’s a middle ground. A place to be serious without taking yourself too seriously; where old dogs are not only capable of learning new tricks but where doing so is essential.
Take me for example. On my 59th birthday, I tried marijuana (medicinal, let’s say) for the first time. A born worrier, I always subscribed to the gateway-drug theory. But at my age, what could it possibly lead to? Lipitor? Viagra?
By the way, I got a dog, my first, for my 58th birthday. The present arrived about half a century later than I requested it. Still.
This year I’m also planning to work on a musical and a youngadult novel, both challenging, brand-new ventures. I also know I have a great deal to learn about being a better husband and father.
My expert panel and I laughed a lot the other night, discussing our hopes and anxieties, future plans as well as future ailments, but for some reason — we’re guys? — we never got around to talking about “the sex,” as Abley put it, “in sexagenarian.” That’s not to say I didn’t bring the subject up, but everyone agreed I’d never have enough space to do it justice in this article. Turns out the geezers were right.
Every piece of junk email that lands in my inbox seems designed to make me feel ancient.