The Magazine

Kid Turns 70

And nobody cares.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Seventy. Odd thing to happen to a five-year-old boy who, only the other day, sang "Any Bonds Today," whose mother's friends said he would be a heartbreaker for sure (he wasn't), who was popular but otherwise undistinguished in high school, who went on to the University of Chicago but long ago forgot the dates of the rule of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens and the eight reasons for the Renaissance, who has married twice and written several books, who somewhere along the way became the grandfather of three, life is but a dream, sha-boom sha-boom, 70, me, go on, whaddya, kiddin' me?

A funny age to turn, 70, and despite misgivings I have gone ahead and done it, yet with more complex thoughts than any previous birthday has brought. Birthdays have never been particularly grand events for me; my own neither please nor alarm me. I note them chiefly with gratitude for having got through another year. I have never been in any way part of the cult of youth, delighted to be taken for younger than I am, or proud that I can do lots of physical things that men my age are no longer supposed to be able to do: 26 chin-ups with gila monsters biting both my ankles. I have always thought I looked--and, as mothers used to instruct, always tried to act--my age. But now, with 70 having arrived, I notice that for the first time I am beginning to fudge, to hedge, to fib slightly, about my age. In conversation, in public appearances, I described myself as "in my late 60s," hoping, I suppose, to be taken for 67. To admit to 70 is to put oneself into a different category: to seem uncomfortably close to, not to put too fine a point on it, Old Age.

At 70 middle age is definitely--and definitively--done. A wonderful per iod, middle age, so nondescript and im precise, extending perhaps from one's late 30s to one's late 60s, it allows a person to think him- or herself simultaneously still youthful, though no longer a kid. Forty-eight, 57, 61, those middle-aged numbers suggest miles to go before one sleeps, miles filled with potential accomplishments, happy turnabouts in one's destiny, midlife crises (if one's tastes run to such extravaganzas), surprises of all kinds.

Many ski lifts at Vail and Aspen, I have been told, no longer allow senior-citizen discounts at 60, now that so many people continue skiing well into their 60s. With increased longevity, it's now thought a touch disappointing if a person dies before 85. Sixty, the style sections of the newspapers inform us, is the new 40. Perhaps. But 70--70, to ring a change on the punchline of the joke about the difference between a virgin and a German Jew--70 remains 70. One can look young for 70, one can be fit for 70, but in the end there one is, 70.

W.H. Auden, who pegged out at 66, said that while praying we ought quickly to get over the begging part and get on to the gratitude part. "Let all your thinks," he wrote, "be thanks." One can either look upon life as a gift or as a burden, and I myself happen to be a gift man. I didn't ask to be born, true enough; but really, how disappointing not to have been. I had the additional good luck of arriving in 1937, in what was soon to become the most interesting country in the world and to have lived through a time of largely unrelieved prosperity in which my particular generation danced between the raindrops of wars: a child during World War II, too young for Korea, too old for Vietnam, but old enough for the draft, which sent me for 22 months (useful as they now in retrospect seem) off to Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. My thinks really are chiefly thanks.

As for my decay, what the French call my décomposition géneralé, it proceeds roughly on schedule, yet for the moment at a less than alarming rate. I have had a heart bypass operation. Five or so years ago, I was found to have auto-immune hepatitis, which caused me no pain, and which side-effectless drugs have long since put in remission. I am paunchless, have a respectable if not abundant amount of hair atop my head (most of it now gray, some of it turning white), retain most of my teeth (with the aid of expensive dentistry). I have so far steered clear of heart attack, dodged the altogether too various menacing cancers whirling about, and missed the wretched roll of the dice known as aneurysms. (Pause while I touch wood.) My memory for unimportant things has begun to fade, with results that thus far have been no more than mildly inconvenient. (I set aside 10 minutes or so a day to find my glasses and fountain pen.)