At age 50, seeing the writing on the wall

This past month heralded two timely events. One is the seventh anniversary of JBC, with 84 columns out and counting. The other was my 50th birthday on Jan. 13. To commemorate, please indulge me this musing on the passage of time. Just because.

I’ve lived more than half a century now. Fortunately last month, no sudden fear of mortality prompted me to have a mid-life crisis or buy a sports car. I’ve actually been aware of the aging process for decades.

I first noticed it in college, astounded that some supermodels were already younger than I was. It became impossible to ignore in my mid-20s, as my metabolism changed and I grew inexorably fatter despite all exercise. I later became alarmed when colleagues of a similar age and density were losing legs to diabetes and dropping dead of strokes. I dodged that bullet by shedding the weight a few years ago, but regardless, death amongst my peers became less anomalous and more normalized as I watched whole generations succumb.

Consider this: Anyone you see in a silent film is dead — and I mean long dead. So is almost everyone from any movie predating the 1950s. People from the “Greatest Generation” of World War II veterans are now in their 90s. Close behind are the Korean and Vietnam War vets (my growing up in a country that habitually wages war offers easy milestones). Even the people who protested their actions, the famed hippies of the 1960s, are wrinkly and retiring. Soon it’ll be the Desert Storm vets, who are already into paunchy middle age, as time marches on.

I was born at an odd time. Just 13 days shy of what the media calls the baby boomers, people my age aren’t part of Generation X either. I don’t really understand, for example, why people insist on getting tattoos or body piercings, or find public humiliation funny (e.g., “Borat”? “The Office”?), but I do understand why they keep stealing from their elders’ music (rock, psychedelic and progressive — all genres I grew up with and still listen to). But it eventually dawns on us fogies just how derivative popular culture is, and always has been. Straddling two media-manufactured generations meant I more easily saw an arc.

Now permit me to make you feel old too: We are now well into the 21st century, 15 years since Y2K, over 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. No children in developed countries know a time without the Internet; some can’t imagine submitting their homework offline, and some are no longer learning cursive. Google a recent photo of any media personality you grew up with and you’ll see their wrinkles either starting or becoming well-pronounced. Then look in the mirror yourself and trace.

Despite what music CDs at Tower Records say, nobody remains “forever young.” Even ageless Keanu Reeves, Nicholas Cage, Takuya Kimura, Madonna or Prince — they’ll get theirs too. Just as timelessly beautiful but still old Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve and Raquel Welch did.

I’m no vampire, but I’m lucky in terms of aging: I’m still mistaken for somebody at least 10 years younger. Part of it is because I avoid stress and let my hair grow, and I am in a place where I can wear age-vague clothes, but I believe another part is down to not having seen proximate others change over time. I didn’t watch parents, siblings, wife, children, classmates or neighbors grow older.

My vocation has always involved college-age students, and I’ve never quite distanced myself from them mentally. I’ve rebooted my career and lifestyle many times — even changed my name — and never lived under one roof for more than eight years. Never being rooted to one spot meant I didn’t stick around to watch the trees grow and the paint peel.

Nevertheless, history will always catch up and remind me how many years have passed. I look at beat-up old coins in my pocket and see they are usually newer than 1965. Things I remember very well as part of my normal world — the Cold War, Nixon and Watergate, Iran-Contra, two Germanys, a jumble of European currencies, even a smoggy Tokyo — are already increasingly forgotten. They are being tersely rendered as boring history-book timelines, as remote as the Suez Crisis, the Amritsar Massacre or the Spanish-American War.

Japan, on the other hand, constantly recycles yore as lore. For example, 70 years since WWII, it still defines itself in terms of a war with few eyewitnesses left, carefully filtering out the evil that inevitably happens in wartime and revarnishing the near-destruction of a nation-state as something glorious.

Japan’s media operate a powerful nostalgia mill for our growing population of conservative elderly. And they are receptive to it: Eldsters, I am discovering myself, find happiness by forgetting bad stuff that happened to them. What good is there in remembering things that make you unhappy?

Of course, that’s fine on an individual level. But for a whole society? The perpetual gerontocracy of Japan’s leadership has happily expanded that into a national narrative and redefined “history” as only “beauty.” Living in a meticulously sanitized past has its uses — even if that means you’re likely doomed to repeat its mistakes.

But back to the individual level. When I turned 40, I realized I had reached a new vantage point on life: I could look both backward to see where I had come from, and forward to envision where things would end. Now 50, I only look forward — to see how much time is left before my clock runs out.

For me, time is actually accordioning. I regularly skip a decade; 1990 feels like 15 years ago. The years are accelerating too, like a toilet paper roll that spins faster the closer you get to the end.

It’s understandable, really. In my 20s, I could not imagine living another 30 years because I hadn’t lived my first 30 yet. I had no sense of scale. Now I can imagine living another 50, because I already have. Sadly, I probably won’t, and I won’t be as genki even if I do. I have so much work to do and such limited time and energy left.

Let me leave you with an image: Watch Madonna and Justin Timberlake’s 2008 music video “Four Minutes” (hey, I’m hip!), where characters go about their lives oblivious to a black pixelated wall steadily encroaching and obliterating them.

That’s how I see time now. Read your college’s “class notes” about alumni (or for that matter, Facebook) and you’ll see that people who graduated in the 1960s and before mostly report on who’s died. In less than a decade, that will be the focus of the 1970s classes. Then it’ll be my decade’s turn. Then yours. That black pixelated wall is forever approaching.

I hope to keep writing for you until the end. Thanks for reading.

Debito’s books are available via Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Thursday of the month. Your comments and story ideas:

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