Yesterday I turned 56 years old. Once more I rode the Earth for a single solar orbit, busily working on the planet’s surface while generating my share of electromagnetic emissions hurtling into space at the speed of light.
What does it mean to pass this milestone number 56?
In some ways the annual view gives me hope. Biologically, I’m still alive! And my ambulatory carcass let me do all kinds of professional work since last February. My latest book, Universities on Fire, went from giant Word file to galley proofs, indexing, a nice cover, and finally print/ebook. The Future Trends Forum continued and grew its audience. Over the past year I taught five seminars for Georgetown University and co-taught a sixth, which clearly shows I still love the teaching experience. I led or participated in a ton of videos and podcasts.
I traveled more for work, as various people decided that the pandemic was done, or at least bearable. That included visiting South America for the first time, which means now I’ve traveled to every Earthly continent save Antarctica.
Of all of those activities, two loom larger in my life than before. Writing: I’ve published four books now, one in two editions, enough to justify me quietly adding a books page to my blog. I write fewer articles, because books soak up the time and are more rewarding. This hasn’t slowed down my online writing (hello). I love writing and publishing so much and want to do more. Three (3) book projects are in various Google Doc forms now and I really hope to see each to completion. Video: we just passed 340 Future Trends Forum recordings posted to YouTube. That’s seven years of work which shows no sign of slowing down. And YouTube just decided to monetize my channel, so all of this video work might be paying off and becoming sustainable. I’ve been working on a podcast project; it might be better as a video series now, or perhaps both. Me, becoming more of a writer and digital-media-maker.
At the same time, as a futurist, I know well to look askance at optimistic pictures. To help me balance my view the Nightmare Network, a horror website focused on the work of Thomas Ligotti, sent me a cheerful email early yesterday morning:
Even after a person
is gone from this world,
people often tend
to remember birthdays.
They say: today is
the birthday of someone
who would have been
so many years old.
So just in case you’re
not around next year:
“Happy Birthday” by Thomas Ligotti
(From DEATH POEMS)
Thank you, you melancholy and nihilistic lot. Balance struck.
So yes, the past twelve months contained many not so brilliant moments. Biologically, I’m healthy, thanks in part to my vegan diet and regular exercise – I added bicycling to the last. Yet COVID-19 finally got me in October, and while I recovered without signs of Long COVID I dread vulnerabilities which might result in the future. I try to keep up with the research, which can be sobering or not terrifying.
I also lost too many friends. This is apparently part of getting older, a thought which offers no comfort whatsoever. Each was a terrible surprise:
Jenny Colvin was a librarian whom I know through her podcast series and our shared love of books, plus my work with Furman University over the years, where she worked, but never met her in person. She suddenly died this spring, far, far too young. I attended her blended funeral, Zooming in among the in-person guests.
Mike Sellers was a game designer and scientist. I first met him through Howard Rheingold’s virtual community, where we argued and connected over politics, games, and culture. He was generous, giving me copies of one game he helped develop so I could teach students with it, then sharing another game for me kids, who adored it and remember much of it to this day, twenty years later. He became a professor and died cruelly young.
Tomak Baksik was an artist and an extraordinary spirit. Fiercely creative, endlessly working at his art, he loved wild stories and the natural world. I knew him for most of my life and have so many tales of Tomak. Skeptical of the digital world, he filled a YouTube channel with evidence of his endless work. He visited my home for banter, ax-throwing, food, yoga, and left in fine fettle… then died two days later. Again, horribly young.
I miss each of these friends so damned much. Each appears to me regularly on my mind’s periphery, sneaking quietly in as I think and move about in the world. I want to tell Mike about a game I’m working on, then grimace with pain. Jenny would love this one novel and I should save it for the podcast which will never come. Tomak cheers me on when I lift weights and mutters at me when I see his sculptures and panels around the house. Each advises me at different times, unpredictably.
Last year I said I was haunted by friends; this year the ghosts’ gallery became even more crowded. How much more crowded can it get? When do the ghosts outnumber the living friends? When do the memories fade and their stories decay?
The deaths of others spur on fears of our own deaths, usually. They spook me into greater health: eating better, exercising more, being serious about medical matters. I think about the years I have left. My cohort statistically dies in our 70s, so perhaps I can plan on fifteen-twenty years to go. My parents live in their late 80s and early 90s, so maybe a longer span awaits. Or not. Jenny, Mike, Tomak stand before me as sentinel warnings. So again I throw myself into life. Memento mori is the ancient lesson of the dead.
Central to that life is my very vivid family. My wife continues to be my sun and moon. She worked heroically during the pandemic, fighting the public health fight. She does the books for our business, keeping it running. She writes, including a beautiful novel. And does a lot more. She and I have been married to each other longer than we’ve been alive.
Our children live with us for now, hunting jobs and working at projects. Each is amazing in their own way. Owain is outrageously tall and has a powerful historian’s mind, not to mention a writer’s gift. Gwynneth creates comic books and, professionally, manages emergencies; a government needs to hire her now! I love all three of them with a power I stutter to describe out loud, and can only write of conscious that my words fail.
Friends are dear to me. Mostly I experience them online, from afar. Some are frequently in touch via Gchat, Telegram, Facebook, email, Twitter. I don’t see enough of them in person. I’ve known some so long that nostalgia hits me at times when we talk, deep flashes of 20th-century memories and old longings. I know these relationships should be beneficial to us as we age, but I don’t need that argument to know how much I love and delight in friends. (As a man, this needs saying, and isn’t easy to say.)
Nostalgia isn’t claiming me yet, although I see the appeal. I barely know any new music, and mostly explore it by going through past work, often in my lifetime. Yet I listen to Bandcamp regularly, so I’ve got a glance at the coalface of the new. I try to keep up with new movies, but somehow struggle to actually see them. Instead, I mine Criterion for the classics and rarities I’ve missed or not appreciated enough. My reading is similar, running at the emergent titles while digging into the archives.
Ah, I want to live forever, or at least a long time, so I can revel in all of this art. Better yet, so I can be with friends and family. Yet I also, still have a deep, overwhelming desire to get things done. My future of education work keeps getting better and more widely known: excellent. I’m focusing now on the climate change aspect; this might be something more appreciated down the road than at present, but I’m going to bet a lot on that eventuality. This year I’ll do a bunch of interviews, articles, book talks, virtual presentation for Universities on Fire to stir the academic pot. Hopefully I can help get the millions of humans in the higher education enterprise to see further and do more about it. (It’s an imperative.)
I’ve been working on myself, as the therapists and kids say. Started seeing a therapist. I’m trying to fix the attitudinal problem of hyperfocusing on every potential criticism and downplaying positive input. Old folks are supposed to have thick skins; I need to grow mine out. I have to figure out how to stop doing the classical American male thing of not expressing my emotions. And how not to overwork myself to an early grave.
That all sounds too relaxing, though. I want to work, to love my family, to be with friends, to devour art.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.