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Downhill from Here

Philip Terzian, knockin' on heaven's door.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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The British author-diplomat Duff Cooper once divided the ages of man into arbitrary three-decade increments: From birth to 30 is youth, and from 30 to 60 years is middle age. Early last month I descended, irrevocably, into old age.

Downhill from Here

Photo Credit: Matt Collins

Now, I know that 60 is the new 50, and for good or ill, I seem to be in reasonable health. I also know that reaching the age of 60 is not necessarily a perch on the sliding board to death, and that people are living longer now than they did in Duff Cooper’s (1890-1954) time. But the milestone is still a shock—and a paradox as well. Of course, I am not the first person in history to see mortality coming into sudden (and unexpected) focus, or to wonder where the years have gone. The past is another country, as L.P. Hartley said; but the past is equally omnipresent. My youth seems very far away, but the intervening years have raced by unnoticed. I suppose this is the consequence of leading a busy life. 

For which I am grateful. To be sure, if life were to be lived again, I would do one or two, maybe three, things differently. But on the whole I cannot complain: I’ve done things I wanted to do, visited places I yearned to see, achieved a station in life that would have pleased, perhaps surprised, my younger self. To the standard accoutrements of a happy life—alluring spouse, inquiring mind, accomplished children, contented beagles, even a SmartCar—may be added the ability to play jazz piano by ear, a decent clothes sense, the experience of witnessing some historical events, a first edition of The Great Gatsby.

So why am I in an elegiac mood? Part of the reason is that reaching the age of 60 does concentrate the mind as the body hurtles toward oblivion. As a lifelong reader of the obituary pages I have long since noticed that I could easily blend into the mortuary crowd. More than a few of my childhood acquaintances, classmates, and contemporaries are gone. I am not unmindful of the fact that my own father died in his middle 60s and that Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy all were younger than I am now when they perished. 

The other reason is that, morbidity aside, I have not properly adjusted to the reality of my age. Like many people of relatively advanced years I feel nowhere near the vicinity of the actual number: I seem to have the same nervous energy, the same habits and tastes, even the same general outlook, I had in my 30s and 40s. I have the household clumsiness of the adolescent boy, and my sense of humor seems unchanged since childhood. I still feel slightly abashed among people who are visibly older than I, and am surprised when younger people accord me deference. 

I skipped a grade in elementary school and so was always the youngest person in school classes; for years I was often the youngest person where I worked. Needless to say, it has been mildly startling to realize, sitting at the conference table in our offices, that I am now one of the older people around. Whenever I begin to reminisce about the Nixon administration, or seeing Duke Ellington or Eleanor Roosevelt, a respectful hush descends. 

This disconnection between perception and reality has its comical moments as well. Living as I do in the city where I grew up, I occasionally see somebody on the street who, for a moment, looks like someone I once knew. At such times I have to remind myself that the girl I took to see Georgy Girl in 1966, or the young man I worked with at Reuters in the 1970s, is probably gray-haired like me. When my father was my present age he seemed to me considerably more “elderly,” even decrepit, than I am today—or so I think. Am I sadly deluded? Sitting beside a pretty young woman at a dinner party, I must make some effort to bear in mind that she probably thinks I’m an amusing older gentleman, or that I remind her of her father.

Anyway, here we are at the port of embarkation into a seventh decade. The biblical allotment of three score and ten gives me another decade; actuarial statistics push it along a little further. Like any good reactionary, I would rather survey the past than speculate about the future, and there is considerably more past than future to contemplate. The nice thing about entering the springtime of one’s senility is that I am blissfully exempt from unrealized dreams, shamelessly pleased with present circumstances, sufficiently content to be relaxed about tomorrow, much too preoccupied to care about eternity. Which sounds, I confess, like the calm before the storm, or a prelude to catastrophe in some form or other. 

Philip Terzian

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