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Sixty is only 15 in Scrabble l Chuck's World


March 21, 2018

While interviewing the late William F. Buckley, who was not late at the time, David Letterman was amused by a particularly flowery sentence from his guest. This wasn’t unusual for Buckley, who seemed to never meet a syllable he didn’t like, and when Letterman teased him, asking him if he spoke that way when he wasn’t on television, Buckley stood his ground.

“I speak this way to my DOG,” he replied, and there really wasn’t any doubt.

I couldn’t help constant exposure to Buckley, as he was a presence on television and in newspaper columns as I was growing up and becoming aware. I continued to read and watch him until his death, sometimes annoyed, often fascinated.

The man knew a lot of words, and he wasn’t afraid to use them.

At least two of them stuck. At some point, he used “solipsism” in a sentence and I was intrigued. I looked it up and occasionally used it myself, almost certainly in error. It’s a confusing concept, solipsism.

The other word was “penultimate.” That one I grasped. It refers to the next-to-last thing in a list of things, an easy idea if not a handy word in casual conversation. People look at you in a funny way.

But “penultimate” is the ideal word at the moment, and has been for eight months. It was the first word that popped up last July, when the calendar clicked over and somebody brought me a cake. It was my 59th birthday, a totally unremarkable one. Except for the cake.

It became my penultimate year, though. As aware as I am about the flimsy nature of big birthdays, the magical thinking that imagines adding a final zero to the current score and changing the game completely, I can’t help dwelling a little bit. It’s nice to have a word for it, then.

When my grandparents reached 60, in the 1970s, it was a big deal. We honored lifetimes, knowing they were almost over. They were old, some a little feeble but mostly just gray, a bit bent, a little hesitant. Feeling the physical consequences of many decades, they seemed exactly what they should be at that point, at least from my perspective.

They weren't jumping out of planes, in other words, which would not surprise me in the least today. Skydiving, marathon running, country running. Marrying and having new babies. People have aged differently over millennia, but I see a pattern here. Sixty is nothing, my friends, and unless you're 30 and so far away you can't really see it, you know it.

But we can't escape the connotations, and that's what I'm interested in. I can't say, probably indignantly, “I'm 59 years old!” with nearly the same amount of passion as I can when I bump that up one digit. Which, really, I've been doing since last summer, when I hit my penultimate year. Thinking I'm already 60 makes July 26 not loom so much as feel like closure, a "t" crossed. Not the river Styx.

So, 60. It's almost here. I need to come to terms with it. My terms currently are mostly various forms of yawning.

Still, I feel an obligation here. I represent a statistical spike, and it’s an important one. The term “baby boomers” didn’t show up until 1970, when the first wave of postwar babies were in their mid-20s (and I was 12 years old), but it quickly became definitional of a changing culture.

And it means whatever you think it means. Generational theory looks for shared experiences, which is all well and good, but it tends to get fuzzy around the edges. You can find dates for this particular cohort ranging from a beginning in 1946 to an end around 1964, so you see the problem.

The only thing I can think of that two people on either end of this range have in common is an AARP membership, possibly.

In any case, I’m a late boomer, bringing up the rear. There was even a slight uptick in births in 1957 and 1958, before we quickly dwindled to Depression-era levels, not to really take off again until the 1980s. I have boomer bona fides, then, if my resume is a bit thin.

I had no jungle war looming as I approached adulthood. I had no draft card (or bra, I guess) to burn in public demonstrations of new rules. When I became eligible to vote, my presidential choices were Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, hardly easy targets for youthful outrage.

No wonder I’m yawning.

So it’s possible that some of us forgot to grow up, or at least act our age. It’s an easy dismissal to look at millennials, for example, and see a generation lingering in childhood, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum. I’ll be glad to place the blame on millennials for the man bun, but I know which age group started Comic-Con. The de-aging of America has a broad base of contributors.

Friends of mine have already turned 60 this year, apparently quietly and without much fuss, so I expect to do the same. I can’t help wondering, though. Is there something I’ve forgotten to do? Is there a government form to fill out, a lab test to schedule? Should I start saving money? Do I get a man-bun?

Does this parachute make me look fat?

These are all serious questions, people. Also a tad solipsistic, but you probably figured that out.


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