I turned 70 on March 6. The event passed painlessly. We were staying in a desert-side house near Santa Fe, and good friends arrived for dinner to offer their congratulations and commiserations.
Then reality set in. Seventy is a weird number. It doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t scan. It makes no sense. Seventy? I must have known Thomas Jefferson!
When you realize you’re no longer middle-aged, much less young, the tendency is to think your life is over. That’s ridiculous. “Seventy is the new 40,” Alasdair Watt, a teaching pro at Farm Neck Golf Club, told me during a lesson.
Soon afterward, I was walking down a gravel path near the 16th tee when my feet shot out from under me. Spread-eagled on the stones, I thought, “If this is a broken hip, I’m toast.” I thought further of Prufrock’s lament:
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out the butt-ends of my days and ways?
These are not thoughts I had at 69. Fortunately, there was no serious damage, at least not physical, from my fall.
There’s no getting around it: 70 has changed me. My memory is good — well, for ancient slights. One of the innumerable quotes you’ll find about aging on Google seems appropriate: “My memory is still perfect. I can even . . . now what was I saying?” I stop in mid-conversation struggling to find the right word or name. Bit by bit, I’m dolting out. I want to apologize if I’ve offended anyone in the dolt community.
Suddenly, I lead the curmudgeon brigade in discarding old pleasures. Downhill skiing? Takes too long to get up when you’ve fallen. Tennis? That involves running and sweating, a young person’s curse. Swimming in the ocean? Eww: too much cold water, too many slimy creatures. So I enjoy golf, bridge and deep-water aerobics in the Y’s heated pool. You know, sensible things. But I’m always prepared to do nothing.
Sometimes I wear a white, zip-up jacket. “You look like an old man in that thing,” my wife says. Yeah, well?
Here’s the inevitable ailment report. I handle glaucoma with drops and don’t feel a thing. I’m barely aware of the ringing in my left ear from tinnitus. I have arthritis in my hands. No big deal: I just take notes on my computer instead of writing them down. Not much of a list, but I’m working on it.
To be sure, there are some advantages to aging. The Vineyard is a great place for old-timey dudes like me. Senior centers buzz like beehives. There’s an 8 a.m. breakfast and men’s discussion group with an outside speaker on summer Wednesdays at Farm Neck. Fun, fun, fun. And I don’t obsess so much over weight. A man reaches a certain age, he’s entitled to a bit of a tummy.
Once we stop feeling sorry for ourselves, septuagenarians are in a position to give young people a sense of history. To that end I’m shamelessly promoting new boyhood memoirs written by two friends of mine. John S. Bowman, 83, self-published Back Then: One Family’s Way of Life in the 1930s and 1940s for his children and grandson, but it has universal appeal. John describes a Malden youth in rented homes with a single bathtub (no shower) for a weekly soak, socks and handkerchiefs for Christmas gifts, 78 rpm records, milk delivered by horse-drawn cart and ash cans filled with dust from the coal-fired furnace. It was the Depression, which people in Malden accepted as “the way things are.” But John’s father and his wife’s Francesca’s father, both Harvard-educated, took jobs they were overqualified for in order to land lifetime security.
Society offered few surgeries and no car seats. But there were also precious few chemicals in toiletries or food and little bullying. Of his grade-school instructors, Bowman writes, “These women may not have been especially sophisticated or educated but they were no-nonsense and dedicated teachers and they achieved what was expected: after six years at Glenwood Elementary School, its graduates were able to read, write and calculate at least at national grade level.” These women even taught students to diagram sentences!
John had a happy boyhood. If you’re interested in Back Then, send a check for $12 to John S. Bowman at 53 Massasoit St., Northampton, MA 01060.
Howard Nenner, 78, is the author of Another World, Another Time: A Grandfather’s Memoir ($23, Small Batch Books, Amherst; also available on Amazon.com). If John’s book is a sweet slice of American Pie, Howard’s is a bit more astringent. Meticulously tracing his Jewish roots, he not only touches on hardships in the old world, but how his relatives struggled here. New York’s celebrated Lower East Side was crowded, noisy and smelly. Howard’s father returned from 12-hour days at jobs like cab driver and grocery clerk to a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in the Bronx that was always freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. But there were precious few national media to tell anyone that life was better elsewhere. Howard did just fine playing numerous street games like stickball with friends and enjoying the neighborhood’s seven movie theatres that he and his grandmother walked to.
Howard is one of the funniest people I know, and I’m sure humor smoothed the rough edges in his youth. In the presence of a beautiful neighbor watching Milton Berle on TV in her bra and panties, Howard writes, “It was the show that made me laugh, but it was neither Uncle Miltie nor the summer heat that made me sweat profusely, breathe heavily, and palpitate to a new rhythm.”
For still more historical insight I recommend two books by Vineyarders: the superb novel Little Bighorn by John Hough Jr. and Martha’s Vineyard in World War II by Thomas Dresser, Herb Foster and Jay Schofield.
Beyond the history lessons we provide, septuagenarians should feel good about merely being alive. When Casey Stengel turned 70, he said, “Most people my age are dead, and you could look it up.” People live longer today, but the Old Perfesser made a point: too many friends die before that age for us to complain about hitting the big 7-0.
Of old age, Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who recently died at 89, said, “You might as well enjoy it, because there ain’t a goddamn thing you can do about it.” The New Yorker’s essayist and Hall of Fame-honored baseball writer Roger Angell once told me, “Chronological age isn’t that important.” He’s proven it this year by writing a celebrated story about his life at 93. The late literary agent Fifi Oscard, who spent summer breaks on Middle Road, kept working into her 80s, in part to distract her from thoughts about what lay ahead.
To be sure, the eternal footman is holding our coats and snickering. With that in mind, Ridge White of Medfield and Tashmoo says, “Make sure you don’t outlive people who will speak eloquently at your memorial service.”
It goes without saying that we oldsters should do what we’ve always longed to do, and without delay. For me that means scheduling visits to Oregon, Scotland and Norway, convincing people to support unions, and racewalking in slow motion. As Jay Schofield says, “Life is like toilet paper. It always spins fastest near the end.”
That seems like a good thought to stop on.
Jim Kaplan is the Gazette’s bridge columnist, author of The Greatest Game Ever Pitched: Juan Marichal, Warren Spahn and the Pitching Duel of the Century, and 18 other books, as well as a contract adviser/grievance officer for the National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.