Thursday, July 06, 2006

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Turning 60


As I begin writing this, I am 59. When I finish it, I will be 60.

How do I think about turning 60 years old? Some look at how vital we are at this age in comparison to our parents’ generation, and say we’re still young. Or at least in middle-age. You might make a case that these days our youth lasts until 40, and middle age extends to what used to be the retirement age of 65. But as Michael Ventura points out, we’re not living to 120. Sixty isn’t the middle. We aren’t young, in Act I of our lives. We mostly aren’t in Act II anymore.

This is the start of something different. It is early old age---maybe even “young old age” if that feels better. In the theatre of our lives, it’s the curtain coming up on Act III.

This is going to be happening to a lot of people starting about now. When the battleship Missouri was steaming into Tokyo Bay to accept the surrender of Japan, my parents were marching up the aisle of the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg, PA. I was born the following June, making me one of the first of the postwar Baby Boomers, and so one of the first Boomers to turn 60. There will be millions more over the next decade.

Turning 60 is a hard thing to admit, even to ourselves. There is a shame attached to it in today’s world. Younger people and even our contemporaries look at us in a different way, and treat us differently. Of course, this happens anyway, whether we admit it or not, and whether or not we announce our identity in this way. Do we say we are 60? Claim the senior discount? It’s scary, maybe even depressing and demeaning.

Part of the scariness is obviously that getting older inevitably places us closer to death. More people we know or know of, people we grew up knowing or knowing about, are suddenly dead. We shudder when this includes our contemporaries, or even those slightly younger. It is hard to accept that we have fewer days ahead than behind. Maybe it’s even harmful to accept it?

Like anything important, both sides of the contradiction are true in some way, and must be embraced, reconciled. There is pain in coming to terms with Act III. But there is also freedom, and purpose.

Emphasis is a way of considering one side, before considering the other. Two texts have been important to me in the past few years in this intermittent but intense effort to figure out how to proceed. The first is an essay published in a fairly obscure journal by Michael Ventura, a columnist, essayist and novelist who was approaching 60 when he wrote it in late 2004. The second is James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character, first published in 1999. It so happens that Hillman and Ventura collaborated on an earlier book (We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychoanalysis and the World is Still a Mess.) So though they differ on some points, it seems to me they agree on most basic ideas. It’s mostly a difference of emphasis.

In his essay, Ventura emphasizes loss. This is natural for one approaching 60, and a necessary initiation. When I stumbled onto this essay (in a magazine I’d never seen before, called Psychotherapy Networker) I was jolted. It took me awhile to accept its premises. But in my own 59th year, I came to embrace it, guided by my own life to the truth of Ventura’s words.

The article is called “Across the Great Divide: Middle Age in the Rear-View Mirror.” It begins when Ventura realizes he must make a major change in his life. He can no longer afford to live as he had been in Los Angeles. He must find a new place to live. At the same time, he’s thinking about turning 60, and arranges to meet an old friend in Las Vegas. He drives there, taking a long and thoughtful route.

The statement that rocked me was simple: “When you’re pushing 60, the rest of your life is about saying goodbye.

“Your greatest work may yet be demanded of you (though odds are against that). You may find more true love, meet new good friends, and there’s always beauty (if you have an eye for it) and fun (if you haven the spirit)---still, no matter what, slowly, you must say goodbye, a little bit every day, to everything.”

Ventura’s examples are painfully familiar: you’re saying goodbye to your own face as it was in your youth; to how you drove a car (he mentions reflexes; I’ve noticed night-vision—my eyes don’t readjust from glare as fast as they did), to life without aches and pains, perhaps to certain strengths, and to access to your memory. “Alzheimer’s? ‘A senior moment’? You get used to it and hope for the best. Ain’t nobody can do a thing about it anyway. Goodbye.”

Yes, I know there’s advice out there on strengthening mental agility, and we can all be heartened by the research showing that brain cells continue to be born as well as die all our lives. But the basic point is sound.

Ventura is also saying goodbye to where he’d lived in the prime of his life. Though he isn’t saying goodbye to his career exactly—he writes a column these days for the Austin Chronicle--there is a sense that in some ways he’s doing that, too. Many of us at 60 are facing such a change. For those of us in a position to “retire” (leave our jobs and collect retirement benefits) it is also a time of taking stock of accomplishments, and saying goodbye to having any more, at least in that job. Financial retrenchment has its own set of goodbyes. In many ways, these all imply saying goodbye to possibilities, and perhaps to dreams unfulfilled.

[continued after photo]

my 50th birthday gift Posted by Picasa
To accept this element of turning 60, I had to come to terms with my 50s. In some ways, my 50th birthday was the best of my life. I’d been living in Pittsburgh but was preparing to leave for California with my partner, Margaret. After years of cobbling together part-time teaching and writing jobs, she’d landed a good full-time position teaching dramatic writing at Humboldt State University. I was attracted to what I learned about the place—an academic environment, in the redwoods, near the ocean, with a temperate climate year round (the increasingly hot Pittsburgh summers were making me edgy), close to indigenous Native American tribal areas, and not far from real wilderness. Yet not terribly far from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, three of my favorite cities in North America.

I would be giving up my Pittsburgh life—the infrastructure that worked for me, the city and neighborhood I was fond of, and especially my apartment, the best place I had ever lived. It was a commitment to our relationship, but of course I had to think about my own life and livelihood. My local career in Pittsburgh had stalled, and I felt I could grow into a new one in California, but mostly I felt poised to come into my own on a larger stage. I felt strong and at the top of my writing game, yet with knowledge and experience I hadn’t had when my first book was published in my 30s---especially the hard-won experience of my 40s. My fifties, I felt, would be the fulfillment, the justification of everything in the past. They would also set the pattern for my future, for my culminating accomplishments and at last my proper place in the world, with access to the means to be creative and productive. My fifties would be my redemption. It seemed worth the risk.

For my family birthday, my sisters surprised me with a more personal and elaborate celebration than I expected. They assembled photographs from my childhood. And their gift was unique: an assemblage of objects under a glass dome that represented my life, in the form of a room. There was a desk and bookshelves, a computer, a guitar case on the floor, running shoes and a baseball glove, etc. But the detail was amazing and personal: for example, the tiny books included facsimiles of my book and a few others I treasured.

There was a sense of elegy to this, and of honoring, which was moving. Yet I was looking towards the future. I didn’t see anything ending, really. If I were successful, I could come back anytime.

The move to California was much more wrenching than I had ever imagined. Though I reveled in the soft air, cool until heated by sunlight, I mourned the loss of my apartment and what I had to leave behind. I also quickly discovered that while Margaret had a place in this world because of her job, I had none. The downside of the isolation became apparent. Nobody was much interested in me, as a writer or as anything else.

In some ways I was lucky in early encounters. I worked on writing a video concerning local forest issues, and worked for awhile with a Native American organization. I learned a lot from both, but neither led to anything lasting. And that became one of the characteristics of my 50s: a lot of beginnings that led nowhere.

By some measures, I was enormously productive. I researched, wrote proposals and wrote drafts of chapters on several nonfiction projects, often returning to some aspect of the one I’d been working on when I left Pittsburgh. I wrote fiction. I wrote plays, including a musical for junior high students about smoking, which included the songs: music and lyrics. I wrote and rewrote a screenplay, I wrote and rewrote a young adult novel. I used a new electronic keyboard, a 4-track tape recorder and a computer program to arrange and record songs I’d written.

I sent things out to agents, publishers, theatres, etc. I had conversations and correspondences with several agents and editors on various projects. Nothing came of any of it. The projects closest to my heart got the least response.

I got into grantwriting and picked up freelance jobs writing and editing reports, to generate income. I was already saying goodbye to writing on certain subjects (like popular music) and for some publications (I was no longer in, or in touch with, their younger demographic). But I continued to be published—in one year, my work appeared in five separate sections of the San Francisco Chronicle: the book review, Insight section, the daily and Sunday arts section and the Sunday magazine. Several of these pieces could well have led to books. None of them did. None of them led anywhere.

Thanks to digital technology, I did finally get my one book into paperback—when I did it myself. As that book’s author, I was filmed for three separate television documentaries, any one of which might have led to enough interest that I could get a contract for a new book (or so I thought.) But I never found out. Though I’d been interviewed in films before, and was very successful as a public speaker, none of my footage was used in any of these new projects.

Suddenly my fifties were three-fourths gone. I was applying for full time positions here and in the Bay Area and elsewhere for which I thought I was well-qualified. I got a few interviews, nothing more, and usually a lot less. Still, I kept trying and some cause for hope would turn up. In 2004 I got an assignment from the New York Times to write on a subject I wanted very much to write on, that was central to the book project I’d been vainly trying to put together since before I left Pittsburgh. It was a dream, and worked out very well. Everyone loved the resulting article—my editors and the people I wrote about.

But it led pretty much nowhere, not even to another assignment. I was told that the Times wasn’t taking freelance work for the arts section for awhile, and neither was the San Francisco Chronicle. My financial situation was getting desperate. There were no resources for reasonably frequent travel home, or to the wilderness, or anywhere.

For all this time I had gambled on the next step---the book contract, the book or movie sale, even a play production. Then on the good job that would set things right. Redemption.

But then, as I approached 60, I began to say goodbye to all that. In part it was now simply a matter of looking at time. I sacrificed a great deal to remain true to my dreams, even if that sacrifice wasn’t always intentional. I had already said goodbye to the possibility of having a family. That time had passed me by. Now I was saying goodbye to aspects of my dreams that would never come true, not in the time left to me. I’m not going to have a career as a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, an author with a flow of books. It could happen that I’ll have again what I’ve tasted before, like the speaking engagements I had as a book author, or the buzz of seeing my play performed even on an obscure stage. But it won’t be a career.

the paperback edition now available, with
photo from when the book was written. Posted by Picasa
A career is about movement; movement with its oscillations but generally up and outward. It is about an identity and a livelihood created and recreated in the process. Over time. But much of that time is over.

This is sad of course, because it’s a kind of failure. But at this point, like a lot of failures or changes that come with age, it is also a relief. It is also liberating. I no longer have to look at anything I do as leading to anything else. Everything is what it is.

I don’t discount the possibility of more accomplishment, even of some kind of redemption in the eyes of others. But I’m saying goodbye to the need for it. Success and failure, what do they mean at this point? In comparison to other aspects of growing old, or to the vagaries of existence that take more control, not very much. They may cause me pain, but pain is now a regular part of life. There are famous people with great financial resources who wind up with incurable diseases. There are people with great health insurance who die as a result of bad medical practice. Having money increases your odds of having a comfortable and productive life, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

Like a lot of young writers, I used to sweat over the passing time, mapping out the years against the number of books I could write and publish, the necessary steps to the destiny I craved. Now those calculations show there isn’t enough time left. That anxiety is over. Nothing leads to anything else. But that also means that I can devote my full attention to whatever it is I manage to do in the present. That becomes its own reward. Nothing leads to nothing.

I know that few people get hired for good jobs at my age until they are already established in the higher ranks of that occupation. You either get a job as a CEO, a college president, or something much less. Maybe not only a greeter at Wal-Mart, but not a job that somebody considers part of a career. And there are occupations in fields of my interest where nobody over 50 is even seriously considered. So nothing I do is going to necessarily lead to anything like that.

Right now I have three small jobs that don’t add up to either the income or the demands of a full-time job. They require some diligence, creativity and applications of skills, but their challenges are modest, as are their results. Yet they all have their modest pleasures. So here I am. Say goodbye to redemption. Say goodbye to great expectations. Say goodbye to all that. The intense humiliation of my 50s has led to modesty. It has led back to the moment.

I think I did some good work in the past decade, including published work I can be proud of. I may remain puzzled and sad about the work that didn’t go anywhere, that was ignored or scorned, and I have to deal with the work that was never completed, that may never have a completed form, let alone a life outside the rooms of their making. But as long as I have memory, I’ll remember the excitement and experience of making them, or the struggle and yearning and the promise of their potential, however bittersweet those memories may be.

But this modesty, cooling in the release from the crucible of humiliation, is not the whole story. The dearth of time ahead, and the ashes and annihilation at the end of it, are only part of what Act III is about.

Ventura writes about more goodbyes: as older family members die, we say goodbye to family history we don’t know and now will never know, and neither will anyone else. We say goodbye to the last people who knew us as young children.

The common denominator of many goodbyes is death. He even says that the changes in our faces as we age marks the approach of death. “Call it whatever you like, but that’s what it is, that’s what we politely call “aging.” As we lose capabilities forever, we are moving towards the final loss of everything, which is death.

Some of these goodbyes aren’t too difficult to deal with gracefully, once they finally come. The anxiety over the years about losing my hair (which given my maternal grandfather, was all but inevitable) was far more intense and difficult than the acceptance of its reality (at least so far.)

But Ventura points out that the bigger losses are harder to deal with, and require a quality he calls fierceness. “It takes fierceness to grow old well. It takes a fierce devotion to the word goodbye—learning how to say it in many ways—fiercely, yes, but also gently; with laughter, with tears, but, no matter how, to say it every time so that there’s no doubt you mean it.”

This is a kind of tonic to the anxiety we’re bred with in this society to keep up, stay young, and fight off any sign or recognition of death, to the point that people never say their goodbyes at all. The denial of death—the rage against the dying of the light-- may be in some sense noble and courageous, but it can also be just plain denial.

James Hillman Posted by Picasa
But death is not necessarily the only or even the primary fact of aging, according to James Hillman. He quotes Spinoza: “A free man thinks of death least of all things.” Instead he writes that a purpose of his book, The Force of Character, is to “decouple death from aging, and instead restore the ancient link between older age and the uniqueness of character.”

“To the question ‘Why am I old?’ the usual answer is ‘Because I am becoming dead.’ But the facts show that I reveal more character as I age, not more death…Far more important to look at older years as a state of being, and ‘old’ as an archetypal phenomenon with its own myths and meanings. That’s the bolder challenge: to find the value in aging without borrowing that value from the metaphysics and theologies of death. Aging itself, a thing of its own, freed from the corpse.”

Hillman was 73 when he published this book--well into his own Act III. He’s 80 now, and has published what he said was his last book in 2005. As the virtual inventor of archetypal psychology, and former director of the Jung Institute, Hillman has written about the particular characteristics of youth and age for some 35 years.

In some ways, Hillman reclaims what others deny for Act III. He quotes T.S. Eliot, that “old men ought to be explorers.” “I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression.” He writes of old age as adventure—an adventure of the mind, of the soul.

Hillman writes approvingly of the other recently published book I consider a guide to Act III for the Boomer generation: Theodore Roszak’s America the Wise (also published in paperback under the title “Longevity Revolution”), which Hillman calls “superb.” Describing the book’s thesis of the power of the Boomer generation to transform aging and the world: “Their sheer numbers could revolutionize society, moving it from predatory capitalism and environmental exploitation to what Roszak calls “the survival of the gentlest.’ The increasing proportion of seniors in the population tips the balance in favor of values that, he believes, seniors hold dearest: alleviation of suffering, nonviolence, justice, nurturing, and maintaining ‘the health and beauty of the planet.’”

But to embark on this adventure, Hillman believes we must begin by “exorcising the morbid idea of aging that keeps older citizens immobilized by depression, narrowed by anger, and alienated from their calling as elders; second, by restoring the idea of character, which strengthens faith in individual uniqueness as an instrumental force affecting what we bring to the planet.”

Hillman is not trying to reclaim youth, but to claim the unique capacities and energies of aging. There is a fierceness to the expressions of aging, he notes. “Why do older people become moralists, sentimentalists and radicals? They chain themselves to threatened trees; they march, they shout. They lecture Walkmaned ears about the moral decline of the West. We old ones are outraged, indignant, ashamed.”

It is partly the positive energies of the cantankerous, and the persistent return to recollections of the past. It is also the ability to find patterns over time, through having lived those times. We are the embodied memory the young don’t have.

In a three act play, Act III is the resolution as well as the ending. Character is what we’ve been making with our lives. “Character traits include vices and virtues,” Hillman writes. “They do not define character. Character defines them.” Character is our uniqueness, as we express it and as it is seen in the world. “Character is presentational.”

Character is what we are (the “acorn” of our destiny he wrote about in his previous book, The Soul’s Code) plus what our lives have made. The vicissitudes of aging reveal our essential nature. But it is not completely finished—we finish it with aging, and for Hillman aging is also an activity, a kind of art.

Tess Posted by Picasa
I was present for the last months of my mother’s final illness; I was there at the moment of her death. I helped take care of my father during his last weeks. But I learned most about dying from Tess, our cat, two summers ago. There were no layers of social complication, of her dealing with the emotions of others, with nurses etc. There was just her instinctual confrontation with growing weakness and onrushing death. Some of her behavior was not according to the book. She didn’t hide herself away as cats do, she stayed near us, perhaps responding to our involvement. In the end our companionship was strong.

But some of what the cat books describe was there: the helpless insistent purring, the hovering over the water dish without drinking, and the faraway look in her eyes. Without hesitation, she did what she could of what she used to do. She went outside and surveyed her garden, taking rests. She was in the world as fully as she could be, and yet she was looking far beyond it.

Being aware of the relative nearness of death as well as new aches and pains, failing vision and so on, does focus the goodbyes. Goodbyes are present experiences, though. They include being as fully as possible in the world of now. This moment that will never come again.

Yet in early old age, at the beginning of Act III, and perhaps through it all until the final scene, there is living, and contributing from one’s unique perspective, experiences, talents and character. When we were trying to be successes, we had to emphasize one or two differences, and otherwise be (or pretend to be) the same as everyone else. Now we have no choice. All our differences are on display. They are our character.

Character is the shape of soul. Without the inflation of early ages, we are forced to accept ourselves, good and bad, with consequences pleasant and painful. We are no one’s ideal. “I walk through life oddly,” Hillman writes. “No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

There are characteristics that come with becoming an elder. We must take responsibility for the past and we feel the responsibility of the future. In the role of grandparents (actual or metaphorical), we set our sights on the future we will not see.

“Before we leave,” Hillman writes, “we need to uphold our side of the compact of mutal support between human being and the being of the planet, giving back what we have taken, securing its lasting beyond our own.”

In living past the age of procreation, when physical growth is long past and physical pain is a closer companion, we feel differently about our relationship to the world. We no longer feel only one purpose in life—our own preservation, and that of our offspring. And we want to know what it’s all been about. “In later years feelings of altruism and kindness to strangers plays a larger role,” Hillman writes. “Values come under more scrutiny, and qualities such as decency and gratitude become more precious than accuracy and efficiency.”

What we say goodbye to as we age reveals some hellos: hello perhaps to some sharper memories from the distant past. Hello to insights as well as embarrassments. Hello to other worlds. "Discovery and promise do not belong solely to youth;" Hillman insists, "age is not excluded from revelation." Indeed, if the theatre is any guide, Act III is when it's more likely to happen.

My favorite Magritte--as in many of his paintings,
it appears to be dusk, or dawn. Posted by Picasa
Hillman was one of the first since Jung to introduce concepts of soul in psychology. (For Jung, “psyche” and “soul” were virtually identical.) I find the relationship of character, aging and soul most comprehensible, at least intuitively, when I think of soul as not something in the body (as we were taught in Catholic school) but the body as being enclosed in soul.

We do things to do them, we live in the moment and work for the future of what we will leave behind. Character and contribution to the future are the final adventures. "A certain kind of reasonableness is its advocate, and a certain kind of morality adds its blessings," writes Carl Jung. "But to have soul is the whole venture of life..."

Part of what this has meant for me is represented by this site and its companion, the Boomer Hall of Fame, as well as my other ongoing projects (Captain Future’s Dreaming Up Daily, Soul of Star Trek, Blue Voice etc.) Here at 60’s Now I hope to explore issues pertinent to my generation, our present, past and the future we won’t see.

That’s something else important about Act III-- the character has lived through Acts I and II. We carry our history and the history we’ve experienced, not only in the weight and reference of our words, but in ourselves. I am all that I am, including the heroes of my youth, and those that gave me the imagery of my middle years, and those that inform me now. So that is also why I hope to build a kind of database of those influences from the past in the Boomer Hall of Fame.

I expect all this to happen slowly, fitfully, cumulatively. These aren’t the text-messaging kind of blogs, lots of short items off the cuff and often. Sometimes they will be. And while they won’t often be as long as this, I will take some care with them. I hope you’ll come back. Don’t be too disappointed if there’s nothing new. Your expectations should be modest, too. But our intentions don’t have to be. My name is Captain Future. I’m here to save the world.