In February of each year I have my birthday. This year I turned 55. Yes, 55, a number which does have its own song:
So let me take a step back from the blog’s usual topics, withdraw from the world situation for a moment, and answer the question: what’s it like?
This is awkward for me. I’m not comfortable writing about myself. I run into all the usual autobiographical obstacles: it feels arrogant, I don’t think the stuff will be interesting, there’s a big dollop of vulnerability, etc. Yet I’ve done this before (2021, 2019, 2018, 2018, 2017), so I have some momentum, at least, and some interest from readers, so I’ll flail on.
At first turning 55 wasn’t a big deal. I worked hard the whole day. My wife and I enjoyed a nice, if pandemic-constrained, dinner. I checked into Facebook and found hundreds of kind comments, which made me tear up. Nothing much else happened.
Then, a day later, after one huge work project finished and a few open minutes let my mind roam, I found myself sideswiped by reflections. Mentally I turned inward, away from the world. 55 seemed a lot closer to 60 than I’d expected. I recoiled from that thought (someone helpfully told me a restaurant chain gives senior discounts to people 55 and up) and rummaged through memories instead.
I didn’t have far to go in the memory files – just in this month – before recent deaths struck me. My friend Dick Thodal died in Vermont. He created and managed of Middlebury’s public access tv station, MCTV. We first bonded over a shared favorite movie, and I worked with him on the station’s board for several years. I loved learning from him about video production, local history, the lore of community tv, and his own military experience with cryptography and the Vietnam war.
Around the same week Dick Collitt, who, with his wife, Sue, ran Ripton’s general store for decades, died. I saw Dick many times a week for years, as the store was the center of town. It was our post office, snacks source, and gossip central. Dick was always ready with a wry grin, happy to tell jokes, talk about the town, or to compare notes on weather and how best to survive it. Several times we cut wood together, building up stocks for needy people in town. He saw our children grow up.
Just weeks before those two gentlemen died, Willem Jewett died. He was a major figure in Vermont as a legislator and, for a time, his party’s whip. For years he made a great presentation to our annual town meeting (remember that Vermont town meetings are actual governance), updating us on statehouse considerations, seeking our feedback. He was an avid outdoors person, skiing especially. I loved picking his brains about politics. We argued a lot, too. He was our family lawyer and helped us out. Later in life he struggled with a vicious cancer. When it became too much he took his own life – and used that last act to call on the state to better support assisted suicide.
Reacting to someone else’s death usually elicits thoughts on one’s own mortality. Obituaries bring the reaper up close and sharp. Willem was 58, just three years ahead of me. Again I think of what I’m doing now, and if it’s the best use of whatever time I have left. That thought is the opposite of wanting to relax or retire. It’s an adrenaline shot to the mind.
Death also makes me care less about stuff – physical stuff, I mean. Looking at my tools, clothes, games, dishes, books, electronics is different now. I think less of them as things to enjoy and more about how my family would have to deal with them when I fall over. Yes, it’s that Swedish idea of döstädning or, literally, death cleaning and it’s quite clarifying. I buy fewer objects and have been thinking more about which items should be around me when I die. I suspect that nimbus of belongings will contract over the next few years.
Yet I worry about that contraction psychologically. I’ve seen too many instances of people aging away from the world, gradually shrinking their horizon until it holds just a tiny space for one’s body and memories. My father’s been doing this, dismissing world issues he used to care about, blithely ignoring what’s happening in his state and county, focused entirely on his health, his rooms, and his entertainment. This appalls me. I dread experiencing such a dwindling of concern, a concession of progress and development.
Professionally, I fight back. As a futurist I keep looking ahead and scanning the world. For the past couple of years climate change has anchored my research and it will keep doing so for reasons which seem utterly obvious to me. That’s a problem which exceeds any possible lifespan I may enjoy, and keeps me pointed ahead and into the totality of human civilization. The new book is about that. More videos are on the topic, as well as the podcast series in production now. Articles are appearing. Hopefully the conversation within higher ed can improve, and the sector take more, better steps.
And there I am, shifting away from the self and towards a big, juicy, external problem. That really is my tendency in life. But to the topic, the specter of death naturally brings up my own body. So far, so good. The vegan diet cut my weight down without any return to its previous height. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine as I’ve done for years is apparently a healthy thing. I’m still lifting weights and walking. A return to yoga and/or tai chi is under way. I want to keep this fleshy carcass functioning to its maximum ability as long as possible.
I don’t know how long that will be. Statistically someone born when and where I was has a median death in their 70s, so 20 years is one measure. Yet my parents have lived into their 80s and 90s, and with more punishing lifestyles, so perhaps I can expect another 40 years. But I fear physical and mental decline very much. I also fear American health care and the possibility of not being able to access it. Again, that staring death’s head drives me to work more, harder, and right now.
And yet. Readers know I’ve expressed fears of a punishing work schedule (up to 60, 70 hours/week) killing me, and for the first time in a long, long time I might be in a position to do something about it. BAC has been successful enough that I can start hiring people to do some things. I can say no to more gigs, choosing more carefully the ones I’ll address. This is a gamble, assuming certain things about the economy and my marketplace, and it could easily go wrong through disability, recession, or professional reversal. Yet perversely I may have to work less in order to get more done.
I wonder which signs of aging I’m showing and which I avoid. I try hard to avoid the stereotype of the crusty old man who mocks everything new and from younger people, although the catalog of “recent music” on TikTok does depress me. In so much of my work ego is something I try to shove aside, making room for other people (students, clients, audience members, interlocutors) to share their thoughts and to grow. As a futurist I’m always looking for signs of what’s next. I push myself to look to domains where I’m not comfortable. Hopefully this works.
The combination of looking ahead and opening myself to others may have gone too far, in a way. I find myself too often obsessed with criticism of me. Negative comments too easily find a way to recirculate in my head. My wife refers to this as giving hostile people rent-free space in my brain, which is a good line, yet apparently I am a welcoming and easy landlord. Sometimes it feels like I have a mental glass jaw, where any critique stops me in my tracks. I have no idea how visible this is to other people, but I want to stop doing it. Any suggestions?
On a different level, being in the mid-50s is certainly the highest level of my own professional success. Our business is more successful than ever, with an impressive clients list. I’m interviewed by high profile sources. My next book being published means I have written a small stack of books, which fulfills both professional and childhood desiderata. Digital work keeps growing, from this blog to the Forum and more. And I want to do still more!
One sign of aging is one I firmly embrace: the rising importance of friends and family. These relationships are supposed to be key to happiness later in life, so… good! Every day I’m staggered by how kindly and with what love my children view me. Without going into detail, this has been the opposite of my own experience as a son. In contrast, my son and daughter actually choose to talk with me of their own volition, sharing their thoughts, concerns, and lives. It overwhelms me at times, a tidal force of paternal love. That my wife still loves me is a mystery at times, and I feel both astonished and adoring each day with Ceredwyn. I feel closer to my brother than at any time in our shared lives.
I feel more deeply connected to friends than ever. Some I “speak” with every day via email, chat, text, Telegram, Facebook, etc. Their messages are of the highest priority. Perhaps the pandemic warps this view, but seeing friends in person is awfully sweet. I care about each friend’s health more than I used to.
I’ve written before about the allure of nostalgia, and must admit the bugger likes to pop up without much warning, and with a great deal of seductive power. I see a random person and their stance, hair, nose reminds me of a friend from the 1980s and I can see them right now, all the years dissolved away, and the context swimming into view. Answering questions often drives me to cite sources, which can bring to mind where I first found them, and then I’m in the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library and Reagan is president. Nostalgia is an ambush. Memories are, of course, a precise form of haunting.
How to handle this without being devoured by ghosts? Why, by looking to the future, of course. I shove those memories around until they help me anticipate what comes next. That’s what I do with most things in the present, poking around until I find potential signals of potential futures.
So that’s 55, chased by ghosts and death, looking ahead, making stuff, and wanting to get better at it all.
(photo credits: 55 in the middle, by Michael Coghlan; 55 and child by 55 photo by Quinn Dombrowski)
Happy birthday, Bryan! We met, and I even first became aware of you, at an EDUCAUSE pre-conference workshop a year or two before the pandemic. I’ve followed your blog and Future Trends Forum since and have really enjoyed what you have taught me in both about higher education and how futuring is done. I hope to continue along with you for many years to come.
Now you’ve got me trying to figure my life pivot number.
Let me know when you find it?
I was talking to a friend who dealt with cleaning out three households in her 20s because the people died. When speaking about things, she said, she doesn’t care to have all these things because she’s seen so many prized possessions become stuff that sells for $20-$50 at a yard sale because it has no meaning, no importance to anyone alive.
On a different note, happy birthday, Bryan! I’m glad I’ve gotten to know you over the years.
That’s a powerful reason to get rid of stuff indeed.
And thank you! The same to you.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading your post… From learning about you and how you think to capturing exactly how I feel as I turned 55 a few months ago, I loved it. My reaction to the staring into deaths head is wanting to slow down and take in the small things in life. Yet the thought of potentially discovering that I would be too bored scares the c—- out of me. Lol 😂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for being so eloquent.
And about those living rent free in your head, I must say you are not alone. And I feel that my biggest growth now is to have the mental discipline to shift my thoughts when I experience that cycle. It is work. You just have to catch yourself in the thought and consciously make a decision to shift to another more positive thought.
Best wishes on keeping the body healthy as you drive into the future 😍
I’m having my own enforced encounter with döstädning because my fiancée and I are buying a house together and I’m trying to shed as many unused items as possible before that happens. But I’m being especially critical about what I keep, because when her youngest graduates high school, we plan to relocate permanently to British Columbia, and having moved internationally before, I’ve learned the hard way that the less one brings, the better.
Oh, that’s very wise. Plenty to shed.
It’s like becoming nomadic, almost.
Happy b-day Alex! Bring another 55!
Best wishes from Cuernavaca, México.
Thank you, Czesko!
Do you have a time-of-birth? 🙂
I’d have to look it up again. Late at night, I think.
Bryan, 55? Wait until you turn 75+! It’s totally bizarre! (I like the flashback! I too am sometimes in one of the University of Michigan libraries but John F. Kennedy is president (freshman year)).
I appreciate your comments. I was given a life sentence two years ago (Stage 4 cancer) and only by the grace of God am I replying to your blog post. All your thoughts at 55 apply, stuff matters less and less, home address, the vehicle you drive, same, who cares. But family, friends, acquaintances, each interaction is precious.
My dear David, I am so glad you’re here.
And thank you for your hard-won wisdom.
Congratulations on double nickel. And keep up the great work. Hope you get a genius grant–you deserve it. There are many older academics you can emulate. Several respected people in my field, sociology, are in their 80s and still producing!
Thank you, Dahn, for the good wishes and inspiration.