Like most of us, I have never been entirely comfortable with the notion of Facebook “friends.” You don’t know a lot of these people, so how can you call them even acquaintances? But then last week, on the day Facebook celebrated its 10th anniversary, I turned 60. It turns out the standards of a 60-year-old are less resolute than I thought.
I began my 60th birthday underslept, with a brewing chest infection, and, unlike Facebook, not at all pleased to have reached the milestone – standing as I was on the threshold of the no man’s land beyond 60. Sixty! I mean, Jesus wept: How did I get to be this old?
The answer, of course, is by not paying attention.
Downstairs, I discovered my wife, Johanna, had left a card on the kitchen table. It contained two photographs of me walking my daughter Hayley in her stroller in Los Angeles, when she was an infant and I was 40. We all know what that looks like: It looks thinner. Your hair is ill-advised, but you have so much more of it you don’t really care.
At 40, I looked like someone who thought he was 21.
Standing in the darkened kitchen at 60, having been that sort of person – the kind who thought he was 21 when he was 40 – suddenly struck me as a terrible, terrible error. Oh, you fool, I thought, you did not realize upon what quiet foot The End approacheth. (My mental cadence takes on the rhythms of The Book of Common Prayer when I get nervous.) I mean, it’s easy to forget, amid the pleasures and terrors and gentle draining sounds of everyday life, how it all goes by much too fast, even if you pay attention all the time, and who, really, manages to do that? Hardly anyone.
And then, because this always happens, the litany of my failures rushed into the vacuum left by all that speeding time, except that now, at 60, those faults seemed especially irreversible: not enough money, no visible retirement possibilities, no lush vacation home, no novels or plays or Broadway musicals or HBO series written, no fast cars – the usual roster of regrets. Plus, all the moments I could have been more human, and less afraid. And in the place of those lost accomplishments, just the clock ticking on the wall, making its sound, which as Tennessee Williams said, is loss, loss, loss.
This is the problem with turning 60: It’s so goddamn melodramatic.
In any event, that was my general frame of reference when I thumped downstairs at half past 6 on the morning of my birthday, the 60th anniversary of my squalling entry into this world, to the very hour. I had one thought on my mind, beyond the aforementioned general despair, and that thought was: coffee, where is the damn coffee, I can’t believe I am out of coffee on the morning of my 60th birthday, when if ever a man needed a strong cup of coffee, it’s now!
But I had no coffee. So I thought: I’ll have some maté. I did, somewhat eccentrically, have some maté in the house. I filled the kettle, stumbled over to the pantry cupboard – I don’t know why, because that’s not where I keep the coffee or the maté, but you know how it is after 60 or even before, you start to remember things not specifically, but by category (coffee = shelf = cupboard) – and furiously flung it open.
And because it goes without saying that this would happen to a man slumping on the threshold of 60, in opening the wrong freaking cupboard I inadvertently nudged a 454-gram bag of acini di pepe off the top shelf. Acini di pepe is dried pasta that looks like tiny beads, smaller than couscous. Whereupon the packet hit the parquet, the cellophane burst, and 17 bezillion acinis, or pepes, or whatever those little bastards are called, shot across the entire ground floor of my house (which is tiny, and waning, or so I told myself as I faced the hopelessness of my oncoming seventh decade). Then I spent 20 minutes trying to sweep them out of the charming cracks and wrinkles and fascia of my old house, and the rest of the morning hobbling around stepping on overlooked acini di pepe, which I have begun calling ouchie di papa, because they hurt like hell.
That was the opening act of the 60th anniversary of my birth. Which you have to admit is not a great portent.
But then my brother called, which always makes me feel lucky; and my wife gave me, as a present, some groovy (but wearable!) clothes, which produced a small surge of (mysterious) hope; and I actually remembered to bring my cup of hard-won maté with me to the car, which is an absolute miracle. And then at work, on my 60th birthday and Facebook’s 10th, I ran into a raft of Facebook birthday greetings in my e-mail inbox, from people I know well and people I don’t know at all. And to my surprise I didn’t mind them being there, didn’t feel awkward at the presumption of our intimacy, didn’t mind even Facebook’s algorithmic pandering.
At 60, you are suddenly looking at least toward the beginning of the end, gazing upon the final frontier where you will either find the thing your heart has always sought that you have never been able to name, or you will not.
And whether you find it or not – I suspect, or at least hope, that it doesn’t really matter, as long as you look hard – that will then be your life. The thing will be written.
I keep trying to peer into the future, to see how the story ends, how it stacks up, how I end up doing as a human being, but, of course, you can’t know, no matter what the Freedom 105 people say. I suppose the only thing you can realistically hope for is that it doesn’t get too lonely too fast.
And so I was unexpectedly grateful to find these good, hale electronic wishes before me on the morning of my birthday, however well I knew or did not know the wisher, because they kindly (if optimistically) reminded me that I am not yet all the way to the end.
Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Which is the other sound the clock makes.
So thanks, even unto the depth of strangers.
Ian Brown’s essay is adapted from a recent post to his Facebook page.