This month something happened to me that had never happened before. Absolutely unprecedented. "Infinitely" is one of our most abused adverbs, almost infinitely overused. But in this case it may be accurate to say that what happened to me is infinitely preferable to the alternative. I turned 75.
This happened to two friends of mine born the same day I was, a South African novelist and a master builder in New York, but I'm not polling the delegation. I'm wary of fishing for comments because I might hear about fresh assaults on the body impolitic. A pacemaker, a defective hearing aid, a middle aged child getting divorced. Contradictions of how we've always seen ourselves. We make observations from the front lines and send them back to the home front.
"Only as old as you feel?" I love that one. Bones old is how I feel sometimes, how's that for an answer? Days or nights when I feel like 30, okay 40, are the most perilous. Watch out on that ski slope where the sign says, "Experts Only," because if you start negotiating the moguls on that decline you're toast. I'll tell you this: there are all kinds of ways how we feel. Dental floss is an essential part of my life now. If you're a man, "prostate" is a piece of profanity you'd love never to hear again. If you're a woman, "osteoporosis" is a synonym for the Devil.
We note and deny changes, fighting them, giving in, fighting a little more. A friend who beat me to this plateau by a few years was told by his beloveds how great he looked, not a day over, uh, you know. Didn't he realize that 75 was the new, uh, whatever? At length he said, "Seventy-five is the new 74," which ended the conversation.
In the 70s my mother-in-law hit 75, and we sang her a ditty to the tune of "My Country 'Tis Of Thee." The only line any of us can remember is "Three quarters of a century, still has her dentury..." I didn't quite make it myself because as I approached my own date with 75, I had to have a tooth pulled. My granddaughter called up, excited, to announce she'd just lost a tooth. "Me too," I said as I congratulated her. Tenderly, with all the sweetness that can inhabit a little girl's voice, she asked, "Should I congratulate you too, Grandfather?" Not exactly. Well, if you want to. I was not ready for 75; I hope to be readier for 80.
In the office where my tooth was pulled they do both oral and facial surgery. A computer screen advises patients to "Invest In Yourself," then asks if you want to "minimize frown lines" and get rid of "bothersome forehead creases." You can go right in for a "forehead lift" which will "smooth the brow and minimize frown lines." No way. The last thing I want to do is minimize frown lines because they're all I have that indicate any authority at all, which isn't much. Imagine Philip Roth without the forehead creases that define his face; he'd look like he didn't have a thought in his head.
I used to muse periodically about where and how I'd spend the golden years when I'd grown too frail to pick up the phone and order sweet and sour pork with broccoli if I couldn't cook. My creative, even vehement solution: I'd spend three months apiece with each of my four children. This was announced to them when they were in their early teens. A Princeton professor who studies old age writes in The New York Times that "overstretched and insufficient public services are driving adult children 'back' toward caring for dependent parents." Yes!
Yet craftily, my now-grown children have dodged that fate with a blistering array of ploys. One has a place so small she can barely accommodate her placid dog much less a noisy, needy human being. Another alertly just had a new baby in a house that has only two bedrooms. A third has equipped himself with a household presided over by two pre-teens whose prodigies of elemental energy would drive a tenant to heavy drink and an early grave. A fourth already lives with a much older housemate who vigilantly protects him from any incursions by me. Luckily, my loving partner's single discernible failing is her dread of the day when I will no longer be able to squeeze my morning orange juice and she'll have to take on the messy task herself.
Years pile differently on different shoulders. Of my numerous admirable brothers-in-law, I especially note the way two of them are handling the decades. They don't know each other (your typical modern family), but they progress in a stately manner I envy. One is only in his late 50s (lucky man) and in a couple of weeks will welcome his sister and me to his home in Paris (even luckier). The other celebrated his 90th birthday this month (standing O for him), still playing with a full deck and blessed with more marbles than anyone else in the game.
Two friends just had a golden anniversary, so they're about where I am. Invitations to the party sent by their children featured the beaming bride and groom all dressed up on their wedding day. The flip side showed them peering out mischievously, cavorting in their 20s, from behind a door they were about to close. They were already saying keep out; we want privacy. They knew what it took, and they took it.
Shadows lengthen; so does memory. What to do? Speed up because there's less time? Slow down because there's less energy? In "The Bridge On The River Kwai," shortly before he blows up the bridge he has had his fellow POW's construct, Alec Guinness reflects that he's closer to the end than the beginning. Yes indeed, though you might not feel it necessary to mark the occasion by detonating a bridge.
Ask poets to help. They see and say wonders. "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be," said Mr. Browning to the Missus while she was still counting the ways she loved him. But what to make of diminishment? Yeats had his own solution: "An aged man is but a paltry thing, /A tattered coat upon a stick, unless /Soul clap hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress." Poor man didn't quite make it to 75 himself, but he knew the drill, he knew how to defy time's gravity.
Perhaps, unlike Prospero, our revels are not yet ended, our charms not wholly overthrown. Shakespeare himself never came anywhere near looking three quarters of a century in the eye, but you can hardly claim that someone who could write King Lear had an insufficient understanding of the geriatric process. As for men's feelings about women who might not be eligible for ingénue roles anymore but might still cut it as Mrs. Robinson, the Bard instructed that "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety."
To every thing there is a season; sure, but we want to go deep into post-season.
The best advice comes from Tennyson, who actually did reach the three quarters mark with eight years to spare. He tells us to be like his aging Ulysses. "I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed / Greatly, both with those / That loved me, and alone." That's pretty crucial, to be with loved ones, but also to be at home in solitude. Ulysses cannot abide the idleness of age and continues to reflect: "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!" He plans to leave Penelope, who waited two decades for him yet can't hold him; let's hope she kept one of the suitors at a local inn. As he prepares to leave home, to head off once again, Ulysses vows that "Old age hath yet his honour and his toil; / Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done."
Ulysses wants, he wants, he still wants: "My purpose is to sail beyond the sunset." He might be saying, okay I'm no longer driving in a hundred runs a season, but I can still DH against left-handed pitchers: "Though much is taken, much abides...though / We are not now that great strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are." Tennyson winds up with the promiscuously overquoted but perennially encouraging "...strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Yes, so much better to shine in use. It's not really true that youth is wasted on the young if youth becomes the staging platform for the industry and delight of age. Remembrance of things past renews the heart's awakening to each dawn's possibility. As Old Blue Eyes used to warble, "If you should survive to a hundred and five, look at all you'll derive out of being alive." But do show up with your dental floss.
Peter Davis is a writer and Academy Award winning filmmaker. An excerpt from his new novel, Girl of My Dreams, appears in the online magazine The Straddler.