Today is my fiftieth birthday. So far I’m dealing with it surprisingly well, considering that I nearly died two months ago. It helps that an attractive woman d’un âge certain told me the other day that she thought my silver hair was sexy, though her choice of words struck me as something of a mixed blessing (she’s the first person ever to have used the word silver to describe the color of what used to be a mousy-brown mop once upon a time).
Here’s how old I am:
• My maternal grandmother canned fruit and stored it in her root cellar.
• My mother was baptized in a river.
• My father witnessed a lynching.
• Milk used to be delivered to my family’s back door.
• We used to leave that door unlocked.
• When I was a boy, I read “Li’l Abner” and “Pogo” in the paper every Sunday.
• The depot from which I caught my first train in 1961 is now a museum. I gave a lecture there last summer.)
• I know who Clem Kadiddlehopper was.
• I know what CONELRAD was.
• I used to send telegrams.
• I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
• I learned how to type on a manual typewriter.
• I watched the first moon landing on TV.
• I cast my first presidential ballot in 1976. (Don’t ask.)
• I saw Star Wars and Animal House when they were new.
• I saw José Iturbi play the Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto with the Kansas City Philharmonic.
• I reviewed a concert by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians for the Kansas City Star.
• My last surviving grandparent died two decades ago.
• I bought my first VCR in 1984 and my first PC three years after that.
I wish I were ten years younger, but I wouldn’t want to give up what the past decade taught me, though I’m not quite ready to endorse the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Yes, I had a midlife crisis, and no, I didn’t buy a red sports car or have a fling with a woman half my age. I got out in one piece, more or less, greatly changed but still myself.
And now…what? The fourth decade of my life, after all, wasn’t exactly an unbroken string of disasters. In between driving into personal potholes, I published three books, in which I am (mostly) well pleased, and started work on a fourth, for which I have even higher hopes. I was appointed by the President to the National Council on the Arts, fingerprinted by the New York Police Department, investigated by the FBI, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate, all of which was occasionally irritating but basically pretty cool. I’ve spent the past three years as drama critic of The Wall Street Journal a job I never sought that has proved to be more fulfilling than I could possibly have imagined. More recently I began writing a new column for the Saturday Journal, and that, too, is giving me great pleasure. In addition, I taught a college course in criticism, gave a couple of dozen public lectures, and made a like number of radio broadcasts, discovering in the process that talking for money is fun. And—needless to say—I started this blog.
So what do I do next? Like many people, my life has been a series of goals, a things-to-do list, and at fifty I now find myself in the position, at once pleasing and disconcerting, of having accomplished most of them. As for the things I haven’t yet done, nearly all of them are things I’m no longer likely to do, assuming I ever was: I doubt, for instance, that I’ll learn a second language or write a novel or become a father. I could spend the rest of my life running in place, and I suppose that would be perfectly fine. Except that I know it wouldn’t. The time will come, if it hasn’t already, when I’ll want to try my hand at something new—and I haven’t the slightest idea what it might be.
Perhaps the goals of my fifth decade will be purely interior and personal. To be sure, I can’t exactly see myself withdrawing from the world, like the politician-turned-mendicant of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Miracle of Purun Bhagat”:
Next month, when the city had returned to its sun-baked quiet, he did a thing no Englishman would have dreamed of doing; for, so far as the world’s affairs went, he died. The jewelled order of his knighthood went back to the Indian Government, and a new Prime Minister was appointed to the charge of affairs, and a great game of General Post began in all the subordinate appointments. The priests knew what had happened, and the people guessed; but India is the one place in the world where a man can do as he pleases and nobody asks why; and the fact that Dewan Sir Purun Dass, K.C.I.E., had resigned position, palace, and power, and taken up the begging-bowl and ochre-coloured dress of a Sunnyasi, or holy man, was considered nothing extraordinary. He had been, as the Old Law recommends, twenty years a youth, twenty years a fighter,—though he had never carried a weapon in his life,—and twenty years head of a household. He had used his wealth and his power for what he knew both to be worth; he had taken honour when it came his way; he had seen men and cities far and near, and men and cities had stood up and honoured him. Now he would let those things go, as a man drops the cloak he no longer needs.
Still, it could be that I’ve done all that I’m supposed to do out in the land of renown, the place where (as Philip Larkin put it) people pretend to be themselves. Or not: I’ve lived long enough to know that life is pandemonium and not to be second-guessed. If I hadn’t known that already, the events of the last few months would have taught it to me with a vengeance. The wise man is surprised by nothing—and everything.
This is something I wrote last April:
As for me, all I know is that nothing I imagined for myself when young has come to pass: everything is different, utterly so. I’m not a schoolteacher, not a jazz musician, not the chief music critic of a major metropolitan newspaper, not a syndicated columnist, not settled and secure. Nor am I the person I expected to be, calm and detached and philosophical: I still cry without warning, laugh too loud, lose my head and heart too easily, the same way I did a quarter-century ago. The person I was is the person I am, only older. Might that be wisdom of a sort?
I know one more thing now that I didn’t know then: I am blissfully, madly happy to be alive.