Everything takes forever these days, if it gets done at all, and this story, about what it’s like to turn 70, is no exception.
I’ve long marveled at the paradox of young people rushing madly around when, relatively speaking, they’ve got all the time in the world. The elderly, on the other hand, who you’d think would want to make the most of their few remaining years, move with glacial slowness, if they can be bothered to move at all.
A stereotype, I know, but though there are exceptions, I’m not one of them. Despite a mile-long list of what seem like v. important things to accomplish while I’m still of sound mind and body, whole days – and weeks, and months – go by where I just can’t be bothered.
As a youngster, and well into midlife, I was known – not always fondly – for traveling everywhere at breakneck speed. When my friends Patrick and Erika returned to California after visiting me in London, Erika told anyone who asked what London was like, “I’m not sure, we spent the whole time running around trying to keep up with Larry.”
I must still be a little like that, because where I once found New York City terrifying (and enthralling) because of how fast everything and everybody moved, I often find myself having to bite my tongue to avoid telling 30-year-olds to “Get a move on, Grandma” when I’m stuck behind them on the subway stairs.
But when I’m not on the subway or traversing similarly cramped spaces, I do more meandering than hustling. How much of it is physical – I’m still in good health, but definitely don’t have as much energy as I once had – and how much mental – same, really – I don’t know. A similar inertia affects my non-physical activities: where it was once rare to go more than a day or two without writing something, now months go by without my ever mustering more than an occasional irate tweet.
So yeah, I turned 70 last October. No earth-shaking revelations or insights ensued, though I did start collecting Social Security, which was a welcome and life-enhancing development. There was a time when I would have hesitated to broadcast my exact age for fear that people who read my writing or listen to my music, many of whom are from a younger generation, would consign me to the memory hole of irrelevance.
But people have been dismissing my opinions with a “Yeah, whatever, you’re old” since I started writing for Maximum Rocknroll over 30 years ago, and anyone who really cares how old I am can just look it up on the internet anyway.
Besides, I’ve been guilty of the same thing. I didn’t totally buy into that “Don’t trust anybody over 30” thing in the 1960s, but neither did I see why I should bother paying attention to anyone of a more advanced age than my own. It took a while to get past that myopic view, but when I got involved with Gilman Street (which in turn led to Lookout Records and other life-changing stuff), one thing I appreciated was the way people of different ages and backgrounds could interact and work together.
At the same time, I’ve had problems with my own generation ever since the hippie dream collapsed into the squalid self-indulgent 1970s. Much of my early writing was devoted to skewering the hypocrisy of my fellow baby boomers, and when punk came along with pissing off the hippies as one of its prime directives, it felt like a movement tailor-made for me.
All things must pass, and punk is now nearly as ripe for caricature and lampooning as the hippies ever were, but it had a good run. I’d like to think I have, too, I don’t say that with an air of finality, even now that I’ve used up my Biblically allotted three score and ten. “If you want to hear God laugh,” my friend Paul always said, “tell him your plans.” With that in mind, it’s no time to start singing “It’s All Over Now,” but it would be equally foolish to take for granted that several productive decades still lie ahead for me.
One can drop dead at any age; I’ve had friends in their teens and 20s whose lives were cut short by disease, drugs, or violence. But the odds increase enormously when you hit your 60s and 70s, to the point where few people even attempt to be shocked to hear of your passing. I remember my mom telling me that she had about 20 years of friends and relatives constantly, almost routinely dying. Even once she’d outlived nearly all of them, there was still a daily drumbeat of obituaries for people her age or younger that confronted her every time she opened a newspaper.
That’s the stage of life I find myself entering now. The musicians, the movie stars, the authors and media personalities of my generation die so regularly now that it barely fazes me. My younger friends take it much harder, and don’t appreciate it when I say, “Does it really make that much difference? How likely is it that at 70 or 80 they were going to make another great record or write another great book? Treasure the work they left us and turn your attention to the living.”
“What would you do if you found out you were going to die tomorrow?” people sometimes ask themselves or others. “How would you spend the last day of your life?”
I’ve heard many answers to this question, mostly involving the whirlwind of consumption of food, travel, sex, or all of the above. And who knows how I would respond should I actually find myself in that position, but my first reaction would probably be to do the dishes and clean up the apartment, then maybe go for a walk.
After all, it’s not really enough time to write a great novel, maybe not even a decent blog post, and when the end is really staring you in the face, it might make more sense simply to accept that you did the best you could, put the most into and got the most out of life that you could reasonably manage, and get ready to lie down and take a long or – depending on your religious or philosophical views – perhaps eternal nap.
Watch the manic exhilaration of children when they’re allowed to stay up past their bedtime. Even when they can barely keep their eyes open, they’ll struggle desperately to do so because they don’t want to miss out on anything. But no matter how hard they try, they’ll eventually succumb to sleep, sometimes almost literally on their feet. That’s how I picture the final years of life.
When my mom got into her mid to late 90s, I used to tease her about the prospect of turning 100. “Are you planning on sticking around that long?” I’d ask her. “Should we start planning a party?”
“I might,” she’d say. “I’d kind of like to see what happens next.”
When she passed away, just three days short of her 97th birthday, it wasn’t any particular illness that felled her; she was just too tired to go on any longer. “In my country, we call that a blessed death,” my doctor told me, and given my druthers, it’s the sort of death I’d prefer for myself as well.
But what to do in the meantime? My paternal grandparents died in their 70s, my maternal grandparents in their 80s, and my parents in their 90s. Does that mean I can count on hitting triple digits? Maybe, but considering the rather torturous trials I put my mind and body through during the first two thirds of my life, I don’t think I should count on it.
I could just kick back and catch up on all the Netflix and HBO movies I never found time to watch; hell, there are a couple dozen Seinfeld and Law and Order episodes I haven’t seen yet. There are at least 150 countries I’d still like to visit, and though I’ve been to China five times, I’d need many years to do more than scratch the surface of that amazing land and culture.
I could read a book or two every day for the rest of my life and never come close to taking in the full richness and depth offered by the world’s literature, practice piano or t’ai chi all day long and never rise beyond the level of advanced beginner.
Which is about where I’m at in my foreign language studies, one of the few disciplines I’ve managed to maintain these past couple years. People look at me as though I’ve lost my mind – and perhaps I have – when I tell them that in addition to Chinese, I’m currently trying to master French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
“Why?” they ask, and I myself wonder some days. Unless there’s an afterlife and one or more of those languages is required to thrive there, it seems crazy to spend so many hours studying them. Yet here I am doing just that, even if it means neglecting other things I should be or want to be doing.
Unless a future president nominates me to be Secretary of State, I have no idea what use I’ll put that knowledge to (admittedly travel becomes more rewarding, but between Google Translate and people speaking English everywhere these days, it doesn’t make as much difference as it once did).
But it wouldn’t be the first time I buried myself in learning something for no apparent reason, only to find out later that I had been unknowingly preparing myself for the next stage of my life. An example: all those years I spent hanging around bands and concerts long before I had the slightest idea that one day I’d be running a record label.
If nothing else, studying languages keeps my brain from ossifying, which should come in handy if I ever get around to writing the next couple of books that have been in the works for what seems like forever. The plan was to have them done by the time I turned 70, after which I’d decide whether I wanted to continue writing, or find something else to do.
That didn’t go as planned, and as pleased as I was with my first two books, I sometimes (often) wonder if I’ll have the energy to write the second two. think they’ll be pretty good if I get around to it, but if I don’t? Will the world really notice or care that much?
Maybe it’s the Catholic in me, maybe the Great Depression-era parents, but I’ve always felt guilty about doing nothing (belied by the fact that I spent large parts of my life doing just that). Whether there’s money involved or not, I’d like to believe I’m doing something of value, creating something that will enhance, if ever so slightly, the quality of life for some of my fellow creatures, myself, in the best of all possible worlds, among them.
It gets tricky, though, when we try to decide whether what we have to offer is anything useful or necessary, or simply so much cultural detritus piled higher onto an already astronomical heap. In the end, it’s probably not worth worrying about. Others far more qualified will decide whether anything I did truly matters, and chances are I won’t be here to listen to the verdict.
In the meantime, though, I think I’d like to stick around at least a little longer. If nothing else, to see what happens next.