Zero to Sixty
I've lived hard and loved hard, and I was supposed to die young. Instead, a dreaded milestone birthday is fast approaching—and I'm wearing an oversized straw hat.
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ON NOVEMBER 1 I’ll be sixty years old. Impossible, you say? How the hell do you think I feel? I don’t know whether to have a birthday party or a suicide watch. I have received many misguided cards and a few inquiries from paleontologists, but basically all being sixty really means is that you’re old enough to sleep alone. In my case, having breezed through my entire adult life in a state of total arrested development, it’s especially hard to accept that Annette Funicello has been eclipsed as the most famous former Mouseketeer by Britney Spears. The older and wiser I get, indeed, the less I seem to know. Soon I may become such a font of wisdom and experience that I will know absolutely nothing at all. Some of you, no doubt, believe this stage of evolution has already occurred.
This is where seniority comes to the rescue, for the older you get, the less you care what others think of you. You may find yourself peeing in Morse code, but you’re still happy to water the garden of wisdom once in a while. When hotel magnate Conrad Hilton was a very old man, someone asked him to share the most important thing he’d learned in life. “Always keep the shower curtain inside the tub,” he answered. These may not sound like words to live by, but you’ll have to admit, it’s good practical advice.
What does being sixty amount to? Yesterday I was cooking chicken gizzards for the dogs while watching Wuthering Heights. I forgot about the gizzards until I saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen like the fog on the moors. This is what it amounts to, I told myself, asking in the same breath, “Where are all our Heathcliffs?” and “Now what did I do with that damn coffee cup?” We find the coffee cup eventually. Everything else we’ve lost, however, winds up as a wistful reflection in a carnival mirror.
According to my friend Dylan Ferrero, guys our age are in the seventh-inning stretch. This sports analogy may be lost on Iranian mullahs and other non-baseball fans. Or perhaps everybody knows what the seventh-inning stretch implies, but most of the world is too young or too busy to think about what it means to baseball or to life. A lot of wonderful things can happen after the seventh-inning stretch, but statistically speaking, it’s pretty damn late in the game. None of us are getting younger or smarter. About all we can hope for is lucky. But at least we’re old enough to realize and young enough to know that when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window. Old age is definitely not for sissies, but those of us who are chronologically challenged can take comfort in the words of my favorite Irish toast: “May the best of the past be the worst of the future.”
Sometimes I wonder why, God willing, I’ll make it to sixty when almost all the people I’ve loved are either dead or, at the very least, wishing they were (as you may be, reading this). My fate, apparently, in the words of Winston Churchill, is to “keep buggering on.” It’s too late for me now to drive a car into a tree in high school. Yet I remain a man who at times feels like he is eighty, at times forty, and at times a rather precocious twelve. What I do not feel is sixty. Sixty is ridiculous. Sixty is unthinkable. What God would send you to a Pat Green concert and send you home feeling like the Ancient Mariner? I’ve lived hard and loved hard, and I was supposed to die young—though if that had happened, I never would have gotten the chance to order the Lu Ann platter at Luby’s.
All that notwithstanding, when you get to be a geezer, you can gleefully gird yourself in garish geriatric garb. I’ve lately taken to wearing an oversized straw hat like the one van Gogh wore when he painted The Night Café. Unfortunately, van Gogh wore lighted candles on his hat, which was one reason they put him in the mental hospital. Other heroes of mine who wore large straw hats are Father Damien, Billy the Kid, and Don Quixote (none of whom saw sixty except for Quixote, who lives forever in the casino of fiction). And, of course, there’s always Juan Valdez.
My life, it seems, is a work of fiction as well. As a reader, it’s getting more and more difficult to find books that are older than I am. For instance, I’m currently reading J. Frank Dobie’s A Texan in England, which was written one year before I was born. When you read books created before you were, the pages are green fuses—leaves of grass through which, as if by some arcane form of spiritual osmosis, you receive the wisdom of the past. Writing at the ripe young age of sixty, however, is quite another matter. Larry McMurtry remarked that nobody writes great fiction after sixty. Hell, I was just getting started.
My father, in his later years, would wake up in the morning and say, “It almost feels good to be alive.” The older I get, the more I understand how he felt. I have emulated Tom Friedman in surrounding myself with people still older than I, but needless to say, this task gets harder all the time. In the shallow, sallow world of material wealth, I’ve tried to follow in my father’s footsteps as well. When our accountant, Danny Powell, once asked my father what his financial goals were, Tom responded, “My financial goals are for my last check to bounce.” This witty outlook is very much in keeping with the gypsies’ definition of a millionaire: not a man with a million dollars, but a man who’s spent a million dollars. (The gypsies have been reading my mail.) At sixty, I find that I am rich in the coin of the spirit. That may not buy you a cup of coffee these days, but it might just buy you a big, satisfying slice of peace of mind.