Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there.
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The clicks on life’s odometer resound with more of an echo on certain days—one’s birthday, usually. The clicks are no louder any other day, of course, but on one’s birthday, other people hear them for you, too.
Perhaps because I have spent more time on camera these last two years—meetings of various sorts on webcam via Zoom, the Mark Aldrich & Panda comedy show that the writer/performer Meghan Jenkins and I created, and even an interview with SpineUniverse.com—the face that you see above no longer surprises me with its sheer face-iness.
As of today, fifty-three years have etched their initials in my face like lovers at favorite tree or picnic table. Some of those years are fondly remembered, like some past loves, and some of those years are not fondly remembered.
In Paul Auster’s diary of his sixty-fourth year, Winter Journal, Auster recounts a moment in which the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant tells him solemnly, “Paul, at fifty-seven I felt old. Now, at seventy-four, I feel much younger than I did then.” Auster writes that he was confused by the remark but that because it seemed important to Trintignant to tell him this, he did not ask the actor to clarify. Auster writes that as he has entered his sixties, the comment has come to appear true in its own way, for him.
Today, November 18, I am fifty-three. In Trintignant’s schema, I have at least four more years of aging until I feel old in my future, to be followed by the youth of old age. (The great actor himself is still with us, ninety-one years young and with a birthday in December.) It is probably true that I feel younger at fifty-three than I felt in my thirties, and this is not from a sense of renewed vigor or newly discovered stamina. (Anyone who knows me knows that “vigor” and “stamina” are not words one ought to associate with me!) No, it is more that life as I have experienced it has shifted my priorities away from the obsessions of my twenties and thirties: dollar bills and public esteem.
I tell myself that I should feel relief at what I just wrote, but I do not, not all the time certainly, but more now than a decade ago.
That word, “should,” has haunted my existence, for most of my life “should” has reduced every achievement to a smaller one and increased every challenge to one I ought not attempt. If I am somewhere, either physically or emotionally, I have either arrived later than I should have or I have arrived at the wrong spot altogether. Thus, I should feel relief that I think I know so much less than I thought I knew when I was twenty-one, ah, but, I do not always feel that as relief, so I am in the wrong somehow. In the imagination of shoulds, there is a someplace or a someday in which I will be better, in which I will finally arrive (too late or too soon, or both simultaneously somehow), if only I could do more or have more or be someone else entirely or possess a less face-y face …
“Should” tells me that I am not enough unto myself. It is a belief in my own myth of scarcity, in which I do not possess enough money, have enough love, perform a sufficient number of good deeds, live a full enough life, sing well enough for my supper.
Someone wise explained to me some years ago that the desire to be anyplace other than where one is is the tightest definition of the concept of Hell. She was correct. I spend fewer days in that Hell.
Nostalgia is the emotional world’s expression of the belief in the scarcity of now. It is rarely, for me, a healthy feeling. (Does nostalgia qualify as an emotion itself? Is it a large enough feeling? So much of our entertainment economy depends on cultural nostalgia—we’ve been reliving the Nineties for quite a while now, which has been too bad, as I was there for the first go-round and I was not impressed. And so much of our culture in the Nineties was spent in nostalgia for the Seventies. We never catch up to ourselves, like Tristram Shandy.)
No doubt, I can be a nostalgia junkie about my personal life experiences, sometimes to the detriment of current, still-building-new-memories friendships. Here is a thought that I can visit and re-visit: I see an old photo of myself and I think I can return there. A previous year, another existence, is merely another place I have experienced, lived in, breathed the air of. The Nineties are only as far away as a bus ticket whose price is a bit out of my reach; I think I can visit 1979 as easily as I can visit Phoenix if I would just save up money for a couple of months. I am going to see Vermont again, I am going to visit Iowa again; I have not seen the Pacific Ocean yet, but I know I will. Next year, maybe. I’m not there now, but next year or in memory I can be there again. I know what the Eighties sounded like, what food tasted like then/there, just as I know what Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Poughkeepsie, New York, sounds like. The ability to visit one (Poughkeepsie) but not the other (1983) offends some part of me.
If anyone told me in 1983 that I would enjoy my life, I certainly would have assumed that this meant I was famous and wealthy (“dollar bills and public esteem”). Neither fame nor wealth fell on me so far, yet I enjoy my life.
Perhaps at fifty-three, the shoulds resound with less of an echo on most days. That is most of what I enjoy. I am not calm, but I am calmer.
There are not many analogies to describe fifty-three as an age. There can be an emotional shock to reaching the round-number age of fifty, and I have found that three years into this decade, I have taken on the tone of a preschooler whenever I answer the question, “How old are you?” I reply with an audible exclamation point (“Fifty-three!”) and an expression on my face (see above) that communicates that I expect to be handed a cookie for my ability to count that high. This will not change any time soon, I do not think. Who doesn’t like cookies, after all?
I am pleasantly surprised, after all. My mom is, too. My grandmother on my father’s side lived to ninety-eight and one day she joked to me that she had not felt old (that phrase again) until she noticed that each of her sons was past the retirement age of sixty-five.
I relate to certain lines in some songs a bit more closely than I may want to admit (Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” has the pithy, “I ache in the places I used to play,” for instance), but what is fifty-three? There is no answer to that any more than there is to the same question about the round-number ages, about which society deems it okay to be dramatic and sing songs about the significance of one’s body and the number of revolutions around our star it has made.
There are not many analogies specific to age fifty-three. For years, I have found a metaphor or two in the periodic table of elementsbetween my age and the corresponding element number. Element 53 is Iodine, which is an essential chemical in every human body yet takes some effort to extract and was not identified as an element until 1811—and even that came with some difficulty: the discovery was attributed to the great chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who had isolated and identified so many elements in his career (potassium, sodium, calcium, etc.) that his letter to the Royal Institution about the discovery of iodine by Bernard Courtois of France led to the Davy’s name being attached to the discovery for decades after both Davy’s and Courtois’ deaths.
Essential to human life, unmissable and considered beautiful by many with its violet color when it is heated, discovered with difficulty, and not thought about every day except when one does not consume enough of it. Is that life at fifty-three? The violet, iodine, year?
I hope so.
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Thank you for your indulgence.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-first season:
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