We’ve all heard it, but I stopped believing it long before I turned 60. Even then, back in what might have still counted as late middle-age, it made me pity those who turned 40 in generations past. I turned 40 in 1992. I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, probably drank too much, enthusiastically worked two or three jobs, and other than long slow walks, I seldom exercised. But I was comfortable with myself, easy with my bones and tendons, easy in my skin. The only pills I took were vitamins.
Twenty years later I took pills for blood pressure, an arrhythmic heart, for cholesterol, and to control the onset of Type II Diabetes. I still took the vitamins. Although I regularly walked the two miles into work, I had aches in my knees and hips. No matter what the temperature or what my pace, I was bathed in sweat long before I reached my office. I had quit smoking 15 years earlier. Never a thin and craggy smoker, I put on sixty pounds when I quit, and it looks as if I’ll carry that to what I hope won’t be a too-early grave. Perhaps I should have started exercising earlier. Now I drink one gin-and-tonic a week, although no one has ever warned me off alcohol. I simply can’t seem to stomach more than that.
I don’t yet have a prescription for Viagra, but I should probably talk to my doctor about it. I have a doctor now.
By 60 I found that I could easily doze off while reading in my easy chair, and I could do it at any time of day. One of the great pleasures of my life had been reading far into the night until the words blurred and I collapsed into whatever book I was obsessed with at the time. Now I have that pleasure several times a day, although I seldom seem to be quite as overwhelmed by any particular book.
After 60 I too became one of the millions of men who rise two or even three times a night to stumble downstairs to take a leak, probably never quite getting back to a deep and dream-filled sleep. Of all the indignities of aging, this may be the worst.
A wildlife biologist I know, a man who’s still tough, wiry and active in his 70s, has told me his story of the nightly peregrinations. Another sign of aging is that we all know this happens to us, and we discuss it freely, openly and often, with anyone who cares to have the conversation, usually men who share our demographic. My friend has spent his life studying Asian tigers and still regularly does field work in difficult places. When he’s back home, he settles into his comfortable urban anonymity and none of his neighbors have any idea he spent the previous week radio-collaring tigers in southern Nepal.
Once he’s back, he discovers he has the same problem all of us aging men have. No more just barely waking to step outside the tent for the middle-of-the-night ritual. Now he has to resume wandering his own house to get to the toilet. He has lived in this place for decades, and was once certain he could navigate it in blackness. Every chair and doorjamb was fixed in his memory. Now, rather suddenly and unexpectedly, my friend finds himself stubbing his toes, colliding with furniture and doors. He has no explanation other than that this is the next frailty of aging. The next indignity. It hasn’t kept him out of the jungle, away from his research or advocacy, but it changes something he prefers not to dwell on.
This seems to happen to everyone, even to those who try to convince us that 60 is the new 40! They must be either delusional or are lying through their dentures.
Montaigne, in the late sixteenth century, an age of much earlier decline and death, thought 40 was the age when we should end it all:
when once forty years old we should consider our time of life as an age to which very few arrive; for seeing that men do not usually last so long, it is a sign that we are pretty well advanced; and since we have exceeded the bounds which make the true measure of life, we ought not to expect to go much further. Having escaped so many pits of death whereinto we have seen so many other men to fall, we should acknowledge that so extraordinary a fortune as that which has hitherto kept us above ground beyond the ordinary term of life is not likely to continue long.
If we go back 400 years to Montaigne, maybe we can find a 40 that seems like the end of life. The philosopher himself lived another twenty years and almost achieved the extraordinary old age of 60. I shudder to think of the aches and pains he must have suffered in his quotation-lined study in the south of France. I am thankful we’ve gone on a bit since then, even to the point where someone could say “60 is the new 40,” although there is something that resonates in Montaigne’s wise boundaries.
Maybe I just want to ascribe wisdom to Montaigne because that’s what we want from our old men. Whether we listen to them or not, we want our elders to understand things we don’t. Now that I’m old enough to find myself the occasional object of that expectation, I realize what a burden it can be.
More than once young people have said to me something along the lines of “how have you read so much?” or “you know so much more than I ever will.” As much as I am gratified by that, I usually feel the need to tell them the simple mathematical truth.
“I’ve had 40 extra years to read books. Even to watch history and nature shows on television. To talk to people. Just survive and you too will know things, whether or not you know them in any depth.” And I don’t add, but sometimes think I should – Don’t expect any of that will make you wise.
Wisdom, of course, implies a lot more than acquired experience. For most of us it means we have put information in some kind of order, gone in depth searching after a bit of knowledge and then returned to the ordinary world with our discoveries. Yet we have not been confined by those discoveries. Wisdom is only partially the result of specialization. Wisdom moves horizontally, not vertically. But I wonder if it’s a reasonable expectation, or even if most of us, any of us, could hope to measure up to its standard. Age might have nothing to do with the process of wisdom.
There’s a lovely scene two-thirds of the way through Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, where Frederic Henry plays pool with an old Italian Count in an almost empty luxury hotel. The Count reflects on his aging:
“It is the body that is old. Sometimes I am afraid I will break off a finger as one breaks a stick of chalk. And the spirit is no older and not much wiser.”
“You are wise.”
“No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.”
“Perhaps that is wisdom.”
“It is a very unattractive wisdom.”
Whatever else can be said about Hemingway, I think he is our great writer about the fear of aging and that fear’s identical twin, the fear of death. Most of us, I think, would rather age than die. Hemingway wasn’t so sure.
We admire old men who are brave enough to throw caution to the wind. I have a friend who finally retired from his exhausting work at the age of 75. I think he still wanted to work, but he wanted to do one other thing more. He wanted to build his own house in a beautiful place. By himself.
He looked for the perfect property all around the upper Great Lakes, but couldn’t find the amount of affordable land that had the right view. When he realized that he could get more land for more money out on the Downeast coast of Maine, he moved his search there. He looked for a couple of years. I was worried that he was getting older and that time might be running out for him. Now in his late 70s, I thought he’d better get to it if he wanted to finish his house.
Occasionally I would go on-line to check out Maine real estate and see if I could help him. One day I found a small island listed, just two or three acres but with a permanent dock and a supply of fresh water. I called him up to let him know about it.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “It was lovely, but at low tide the mud flats stretch out for half a mile. I don’t want to spend the next 50 years looking at mud flats.”
I paused for a while, trying to find a polite way to frame my reservation.
“I can see the headlines now,” I said. “Oldest Man Alive, Maine Hermit, 125, Carried Out Across Mud Flats.”
My friend was not nearly as amused by this as I was, although I certainly had to admire his resilience in the face of his own impermanence. It seemed impossible for him to concede anything to the hard fact of his own death, let alone to the messiness of aging.
My friend may have found a good place to grow old, though. His neighbors almost all look like him, or look significantly less healthy than he looks. They are old, too. Sometimes it seems that in a culture defined by the image of youth, we have already found a way to segregate ourselves by chronology. And maybe most of us prefer it that way.
I, however, seem to have made the mistake of living in a mid-sized college town. Everyone who lives here knows that we will always be surrounded by a population that never ages. Every year several thousand twenty-two-year-olds age-out and leave town. The are replaced by several thousand enthusiastic eighteen-year-olds. The few of us who remain age on and on, growing ever more irrelevant, ever further from the cultural matrix. We still get enthusiastic about Joni Mitchell and Dylan, Philip Roth and James Baldwin. We have trouble with our electronics.
My friend Alison, a good decade or more younger than I, recently moved back to town with her family. We went out to eat at a downtown restaurant where we sat near the back. She was still a little uncertain about her move back, so she asked me what I felt about living in the college town. I must have been having a reflective day.
“Sometimes,” I said, “I get a bit tired of being the oldest and fattest guy in the room.”
“Oh, Keith, you’re not!”
Alison was facing out into the restaurant and I faced the back wall. I didn’t even need to turn around.
“Just look. Is there anyone in this restaurant older or fatter than me?”
She looked and might have even blushed a bit. But Alison tells the truth.
“No, Keith, you’re right.”
Maybe it is the presence of all these forever-young people around me that keeps me going. I wonder if I would still feel the need to achieve certain things if I lived among the comfortably retired. For the most part I am amused with my own aging. I have been fortunate to have met many of my artistic ambitions – in a minor and regional way, to be sure, but that feels just fine. I have traveled widely, sustained a marriage, fathered a child, read a bunch of books and even written a few.
We admire old men who are brave enough to throw caution to the wind.
Still, when I turned 60 I felt the need to create a couple of small bucket-lists. I didn’t want to make anything too dramatically difficult, but I felt I had to set some goals or I would become satisfied simply sitting in my study, reading books and dozing off in my comfortable IKEA easy chair. Just typing that, I admit that it sounds very attractive. But I was worried that like Hemingway’s Italian Count I might become just too careful, that I would stew in my own complacency, satisfied with my unattractive wisdom. I now understand and appreciate the temptations of caution.
So to keep myself going, keep forcing myself out of my old man’s comfort zone, I’ve told myself that I have to see 1000 species of birds before I leave this vale of speciation. That would probably be about one-tenth of the number of birds in the world, so it is not a difficult number, even if it does mean just a bit of travel. There are other old people who love birds, men and women much more wealthy, who try to see seven or even eight thousand birds. I could never do that. It is compulsive at the level that families start breaking under the weight of it; I prefer to keep my family on the happier side.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology introduced a lovely data site a few years ago: ebird.org. Now it is easy to enter your own bird lists, whether of your back yard or of a national park in India you may have been lucky enough to visit. A large group of people checks your lists and will question your observations if those experts aren’t certain you know what you’re talking about. You can convince yourself that your bird-watching is actually providing small points of data that might be useful to someone. Cornell keeps a running tally for you.
At the moment my list is at 621. It includes trips to New Zealand, India, Europe and Barbados, as well as a life spent looking at birds in North America. If I could find my notes for trips to Ireland and Hawaii, I could add more species, but I’ve told myself I can’t add birds to the list until I have my field notes in hand.
Why do I do this? In the cold clear light of this computer screen, it seems like the activity of a doddering old man. But it will force me out of my study a few more times. I’ll have to travel to the southwest, or to South America, or to Africa, even though the temptations of caution mean I should simply stay home.
My only other bucket list also demands I get away. During a writing conference in Boston a few years ago, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, at least partly to see the empty frames that were left after the famous art heist in 1990. When I looked at the frame where the exquisitely detailed but comparatively small Vermeer painting had been, and thought that I would never have the chance to see this painting, I was overwhelmed by the fragility of these things. The empty frame drove me to a study of Vermeer.
I knew and appreciated Vermeer-like most people who pay attention to the history of art. I had seen his paintings during my youthful hitchhiking years – in London and Paris, in New York and Washington, D.C. Of course, I was lost in that light coming in from the left, what I always called the Emily-Dickinson-light. But now I began to appreciate the quietness of these paintings, the sense that so much was taking place outside the room and that the people in the paintings knew about it. In each Vermeer painting, there seems to be a sense of conflict between the desire to stay in the calm, protected room and the effort to move outside, into the swirl of the world outside those windows.Even though Vermeer died at 43, I wondered if I wasn’t seeing these paintings as metaphors for my experience of aging. After I realized that there were only 35 or 36 Vermeer paintings in the world, I resolved that I would try to see or re-see all of them. We have quite a few here in the States, and some of the European paintings come on loan very occasionally. If I were careful, I could find the money to visit the Netherlands, Germany, Paris, London, and Vienna, with side stops in Dublin and Edinburg, so I could see the others. It would take several trips, but these are easy places to travel. I could do it, and it would force me out of my study, force me out of the caution of age.
Age might have nothing to do with the process of wisdom.
So far I’ve only seen fourteen of the Vermeers. I haven’t been able to afford any of the big trips yet, but I’ve also not tried very hard. I must get to it! I have the resolutions to meet the requirements of my bucket list, but I wonder if I have the resolve.
Hemingway’s Count also said “the spirit is no older and not much wiser.” The only wisdom age may have provided is that I’m comfortable with a lack of it. As for the spirit, I am clearly still caught up in almost adolescent games with myself. Other than that less than admirable caution, I still feel like I’m twenty years old about to embark on grand adventures. Before he died at the age of 85, I asked my father what it felt like to grow old, if it felt as if he had changed much, if he still felt like a young man.
“Young man! I still feel like I’m 12! Except I only climb into the barn in my dreams.” My father hadn’t been near the barn for 60 years.
Like my late father, I still wonder what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’m 63, but the answer still evades me. Despite the pressure on my bladder, the aches and pains in my ankles and knees, the forest of yellow prescription bottles in my kitchen cupboard, the desperate lists of things-to-get-done-before-I-die, I feel no wiser than I felt at twenty.
When he was 80, the poet Gary Snyder told an interviewer, “Old age, sickness, and death? Enjoy it while you can!” Some of Snyder’s readers may want to see that as a playful Buddhist joke about accepting impermanence. For the rest of us, “enjoy it while you can” might be the only mature response to our own inevitable aging.
Keith Taylor has authored or edited some fifteen books and chapbooks, including his most recent small collection, Fidelities (Alice Greene and Co., 2015). His last full-length collection was If the World Becomes So Bright (Wayne State University Press, 2009). He teaches at the University of Michigan where he also serves as Associate Editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review and director of the Bear River Writers Conference.
Previously published on STAND magazine