Beyond the fact that my hearing is going and my teeth are making a last stand, that my spine hurts for reasons no one can fathom, that I must now wear reading glasses for reading and distance glasses for driving, and that hangovers and sex and love and memory and skiing and peeing and the skin on the back of my hands are all different, turning 60 comes down to one fundamental change: What once looked infinite now looks finite.
That alters everything. After 60, the narrowing of the road ahead is there to see any time you care to look up. Don't get me wrong: I did my shallow best to ignore it. I wanted to believe what the self-help books say, that I can be younger next year and sexy at 60, but they were unconvincing. And so on my 60th birthday I began to keep a diary – a chronicle of my 61st year. I wanted to write down what time feels like as it slips by. What pleasures are gone forever? Which ones are left? How many plays can you run in the fourth quarter, knowing the game could be called at any moment? How many metaphors can you come up with for aging?
Oh, believe me, I had a million questions. But what I really wanted to know was: Is it the end? Or is it just the beginning of something else? Some suggestions turned up in the diary I kept.
It's February 16, 2014; I just typed February 16, 1914. I am naturally convinced it's early-onset dementia, brought on by a string of pre-pubertal concussions, but as an act of forgetfulness, mistyping the date is a mere ripple across the ever more watery surface of my brain. This morning, confronting my sagging dog of a face in the mirror, I reached for a tube of hair gel, in an effort to tame the few disobedient sprouts I have left. I squirted a blob of Alberto VO5 goop into my hands, listening as always for the satisfying poop of the gel ejecting, rubbed my palms together – and proceeded to apply it to my face and neck, suddenly convinced it was sunblock.
Two weeks ago I walked into the bathroom at work, entered a stall, secured the door, and proceeded to unbutton my shirt.
No one wants to admit that one day we, too, will be like those two snowcones over there, the ones with the white nurse shoes the size of luxury cruise ships, hanging on to each other for dear life as they try, while whole eons pass, to find their parking stub. Death is terrifying, but death is only nothingness; it's getting to death that looks really painful. And that trip starts early. Around the time we reach 28, the brain stops expanding and begins its slow progress backward.
While I was keeping my diary I met a young woman named Amelia DeFalco, one of a small but growing crowd of scholars – most of them women (perhaps because they already know something about marginalization) – studying the aged from new angles. Ms. DeFalco wrote an excellent book called Uncanny Subjects, about how we all ignore our "internal pre-existing otherness." She got the idea from Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote a gigantic and exasperating book called Old Age. Let me do you an enormous favour and give you a précis: A 20-year-old thinking of him- or herself as an old person is imagining another being entirely, someone they are not. But they are also that person. That doubleness is how age manages to grab us by surprise. As I get older, my body, this old pal I have relied on for so long, is less capable of acting in the outside world. And so the real world, the truer world, becomes the world inside me. It's a pretty profound change. It's coming for me, and it's coming for you.
Yesterday, walking the dog, I suddenly become afraid. I am standing at the corner of Spadina and Bloor, with Ginny, waiting for the light to change, when I notice how fast the cars come up Spadina. And then I have a thought I have never had before, in 60 years of living: "Maybe I had better step back behind the telephone pole, behind it and then back three more feet, in case one of these cars careens out of control and hits me and the dog." The random apprehension of danger has become a new feature of my life. When I am making my way along King Street these days to buy a takeout lunch at Fresh and Wild (something with kale in it, something green and nutty for never less than $17 because that might stave off a premature death) I notice how deliberate my pace has become, how measured, as if I am trying to pace out the time left. When did I turn into a metronome?
That guy, over there, walking down the street, the fellow with grey hair and the pot-belly? I feel a tiny pang of pity for him, because he's five years older than me. Except that when I look again, he's not: He's 10 years younger than I am.
And I'm not just delusional; I'm competitively delusional. I was shocked during my year of living diaristically when a friend blacked out and had an accident on his bike, when another pal discovered she had an embolism – that was the terrible news.
The good news was that it didn't happen to me. It's a disgraceful but involuntary reaction. I always wondered how my father, who died at 98, withstood the loss of his peers. Now I know. His was the grim triumph of the last man standing.
Here is something you should do: Google who else is turning 60 as you are turning 60. Admittedly, it stings a little that Oprah is richer and more influential than God Herself. … But then you will think, as I thought, "Okay, she may have all the money and power and glory in the world, she may be a magnificent person – but she's as old as I am anyway! Oprah is as close to the end as I am! Yeah, baby!" And that will be a solace, mark my craven words.
Who else hits 60 this year, in the middle of the baby-boom bulge? Christie Brinkley. Very pretty, but hey, she's getting on, just like me. Patty Hearst, the heiress and Stockholm-syndromed member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, turns 60 in this, my year of turning 60, and it's not hard to feel that perhaps I lived my life more fruitfully than she did hers, sympathies to her regardless. Ellen Barkin is now divorced from the Revlon billionaire, and she is my age. I find this bracing. Angela Merkel is my age and she is the chancellor of Germany. I have never wanted to be the chancellor of Germany.
There's so much physical change: the urge to pee and have sex, the inability to pee and have sex, the crisping of the veins and the brittling of the bones (less-educated people lose more height, according to a study in China, likely due to manual labour). I spent several sadistically pleasurable hours reading about glaucoma, which my father had, and the effect of synthetic prostaglandin analogues (eye drops) on uveoscleral outflow of liquid aqueous humour through my trabecular meshwork and Schlemm's canal. (The eyeball resembles a secret British club, full of rooms named for exotic and now-forgotten explorers.)
As your body weakens and becomes more wary, the tendency is to feel that your mind should follow suit. But that is precisely what you should not do: As your body retracts, your mind should go for broke, if it can. It won't get another chance.
On the upside, I had cause today to think about masturbation. The subject comes up less often now, though more often than I would have predicted when I was a young man. When I was a young man – before the age of 35, say – masturbation was a rich and encouraging activity, almost Roman in its glistening glory. Masturbation was to daily life then as Advil is to daily life now at 60: the cure for all ailments, a staple, almost a vitamin. Bored and anxious? How about a quick, refreshing cup of…masturbation! Full of fizz and unrequited longing? I have just the thing for you, sir or madam! Bank balance in the red again? Bring on the poor man's revenge! But now? At 60, masturbation is about as thrilling as … finding my car keys, though by no means as common. Oh … there they are. Where I left them. Now where are my glasses? Sometimes the effect is so desultory, I wonder why I bothered. It's like a family tradition everyone adheres to even though they can't remember where the tradition originated, like steamed Brussels sprouts at Christmas.
Time speeds up as you get older: 23 years (which I have left, based on the averages) is almost my daughter's entire life so far, but it's a fraction of mine. How should I spend the remainder? What should I read and not read? Where should I go? How do you make those decisions?
If you are like me, as you get older you try to keep up by skipping over details. Paradoxically, the way to stop the speeding of time – this seems obvious, but I found it hard to learn – is to slow down and pay more attention to a few specifics. It doesn't matter what the details are, only that you take note of what grabs you. The moment-by-moment progress, say, of a beautiful afternoon I spent on the beach that summer I was 60, watching children play in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean north of Boston:
That ancient scene by the edge of the sea, where we got our evolutionary start, where the human race first ate oysters and clams and grew a forebrain, the act of discovery enacted over and over again by the waves that threw us up onto the world. Those brown bodies against that pale sand and that blue water and that bluer sky, playing and trying to find again what brought us there, what keeps us there, what we leave there. I felt a bit better. The gulls dipping down into the sand, reeling up, screeching; parents on their cellphones, walking in circles; the small girl with the yellow sweater and her sandals in her hand, staring at the water; and the tongue of the sea reaching out to taste us; and the venturing ships so far out on the horizon, bringing us God knows what that we need and don't need. The squat military sandcastle fort, low and bombproof, built by a little boy; and two stout women with old swimmer legs, that quivering, massy, bewildering flesh, admiring it. "Made by Matthew," written in the sand with a twig beside it. The young woman with the blithe figure in the green bikini top and the pink bottom – separates, they fetchingly call them. And of course the waves on a continuous break, the sound of time leaking out steadily. The boy who built the fort is wearing a white golf shirt and red and blue board shorts, and is taking two steps and a skip along the beach, two steps and a skip. Don't we all? All that goes away. It breaks my heart. But at least I saw it: I knew it. I wonder if I will be able to remember it. I have to draw it, write it, describe it, somehow put it into my hand and my fingers and my brain and my body. Maybe that way I can keep it with me until I don't need it any more.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. Adapted from Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year by Ian Brown. Copyright © 2015 Ian Brown. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher.