After all, 65 is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional back room dealing and insurance-company probability charts. Sixty-five is when you're supposed to retire, put your feet up, smell the roses, to bask in the glow of a well-spent life in the land of the fee. This lovely neo-utopian vision has largely been replaced by the ethic of work-work-work until you drop, but 65 still remains the top of the stretch, where, like a creaky claiming horse in the sixth race at Aqueduct, you're supposed to be turning for home.
For me, 65 was an onset of pure panic, an ingress of cold claustrophobia. My father died when he was 75, but he was sick. Years of kidney dialysis and he keels over from a heart attack. My mother made it to 84, full speed ahead to the last breath. If the DNA holds up, that gives me another 19 years, but what's 19 years? Only yesterday I was 26, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity. Or was that last week?
"Beats the alternative"; that's what you're supposed to say about getting old. Yet a strange thing was happening. As I trod ever deeper into the outer ring of oldness, my fears, nightmares I've nurtured the bulk of my life, began to lighten. I began to look upon my venerability not as a state preferable only to death, but rather as the opportunity of a lifetime.
This new paradigm took hold as a scattershot succession of time-specific mini-epiphanies. One of these realizations came while thumbing through a book titled A History of Old Age. In addition to detailing Aristotle's distaste for the aged, whom he thought to be excessively pessimistic, malicious and small-minded owing to their extended interface with life's grinding "disappointments," A History of Old Age featured a number of Enlightenment-era drawings titled "The Stages of Man's Life From the Cradle to the Grave."
In this scheme, life is depicted as an eternal staircase; the steps ascend, reach a topmost platform, then go down. The traveler begins on the ground floor as "a lamb-like innocent," then climbs upward, each step signifying a ten-year interval. The "eagle-like" 20s lead to the "bull-like" 30s, nearing the apex in the 40s, when "nought his courage quails but lion-like, by force prevails." (A companion chart notes a woman's peak to be 30, when she is said to be a "crown to her husband.") From this upper perch, it is all downhill, through the grasping, Scroogelike 60s; the languorous, ineffectual 70s; and ending in the largely symbolic "one-hundredth year," when, "tho' sick of life, the grave we fear." In a French version of "The Stages," called "Le Jugement Universel," the final downward phases are known as l'âge de décadence and l'âge décrépit.
Probably even Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie couldn't make l'âge décrépit sound sexy, but it was no great task to create a personalized, modern-age version of "The Stages." A pattern of whiplash upheaval emerged. I was born in 1948; my "lamb-like innocence" was spent learning how to be a Cold War kid, schooled in the nuances of 1950s preteen reality, "Have Gun -- Will Travel" and "Gunsmoke" on the tube every Saturday night. Then, just as I mastered my kidlike state, becoming a King of Kids, the rug was pulled out. Without warning, I was thrust into a hormone-laced universe of spouting pubic hair and the Rolling Stones. It was back to square one, a whole new playing field to navigate. The ensuing "eagle-like" adolescent-cum-teen quake lasted through the lionization-canonization-commodification of youth culture during the 1960s and early '70s, during which time I would grow to become an exemplar, warts-and-all specimen of my burgeoning bunch, who were on the cover of Time magazine every other week. This period also ended with unprecognitioned abruptness when I became a husband, a father and a simulacrum of a grown-up. It was one more Sisyphean moment, a brand-new rock of unknown size and density to roll up the hill. This was the structure, a repeating push-pull of stasis and change requiring periodic recalibration of self.
This essay appears in the April 7-20, 2014 issue of New York magazine.
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