I was born 54 years ago today.
I’ve blogged about birthdays here a few times (2019, 2018, 2018, 2017). There are other personal posts here, including one last month looking back at 2020. This is awkward for me. Maybe it’s being generation X, or maybe spending too many years being self-effacing, or my suspicions of people who misuse autobiography to manipulate people, but it’s hard for me to write about myself.
So I can step back and get analytical with my humanist’s training. 54 is a pretty dull and inconsequential number. It lacks the decade marker of 50 or 60. There’s no nifty echo as with 55. There aren’t any legal, policy, or cultural markers attached to it that I can find. Not even Mike Tyson had much to add to the year’s particularity.
It’s not a number… or an age… that meant anything to me earlier in life. I’ve said before that as a child of the Cold War’s darkest years I never really imagined myself living past 30. I certainly didn’t have a picture of myself heading towards age 60. So it’s iffy, blank, open territory. Which isn’t a bad thing.
As a futurist I look ahead. That’s the job. So this points me into the middle of the 21st century and again I can leave autobiography behind. The years ahead are fascinating, dangerous, and exciting. I think of (among other things) social progress, climate change and its mitigation, progress in knowledge and technology, the demographic transformation of the species, and the wild array of political possibilities. (I’ve thought of writing a book about this, looking ahead to 2100.)
All right, back to personal me in that impersonal setting. I still can’t see retirement as a possibility, save by medical necessity. On the one hand I love what I do and don’t want to stop. On the other, I’m suspicious that the financial basis will be there for me to throttle back a full-time professional into a part-time “keeping my hand in.”
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!
My great fears are, actually, medical. That looms very large looking past 54. I fear losing my sight. A few years ago I got a slight taste of that with having to wear reading glasses. I dread losing my hearing, which I’m already witnessing with my father. Losing mobility (also my father, who only gets around with a rollator). Losing fine motor control. It’s a staggered degradation I glimpse ahead, a personal demolition, a ruthless and painfully graduated reduction of powers, of access, of delight.
At the same time I rejoice in medical advances. Some of you know I always celebrate health advances when I describe demographic changes. Even in the teeth of 2020’s shambles we’ve seen incredible progress, most notably with the amazing COVID vaccines, still largely celebrated only by die-hard conservatives (and, once again, putting the notion of a “Republican war on science” in question). I mentioned my father’s woes above, but that he’s alive at all, pushing 90, is largely due to a string of medical triumphs. I am not sure if I’ll have access to these life-extending and -improving services, given the woeful mess that is the American distribution of health care.
It might not matter, of course. I can easily be felled by any number of speedy demises: a heart attack (one grandfather had a truly disturbing number), an accident (I’ve lost several friends this way), a stroke (other friends), or aneurysm. January’s Capitol riots reminded me also of the possibility of death by violence. At any moment I can just – stop.
That gives me the classic memento mori. This classically inspires people and certainly works for me. There’s a beneficial flip side, though, the now-famous Swedish death cleaning. I look at my physical and digital stuff and wonder if each item is worth preserving after I die. That breeds a certain tidiness. It makes it easier to get rid of stuff, to quickly delete emails. I dread my family having to waste their time going through useless things after I (say) am found dead at my desk, brain activity suddenly nullifed.
…and is this the trope that I’ll be living out, the cliche of an older person obsessing over death, declining health, and escalating medical woes? Since I’m in good shape now, am I getting ahead of things, or falling towards hypochondria? Instinctively I resist all of that, and change the subject.
What am I doing with my time? How am I using my capacities? Am I wringing the most out of every breathing second?
There’s a lot for me to be proud of for this past year and the year to come. My family is safe and sound during a horrible pandemic. Personally, the vegan experiment dropped me around 40 pounds and possibly added years to my lifespan. I’m planning on keeping up with it (down to 200 lbs is the goal). Our home is splendid. We are resilient by any definition, and that feels damn good.
Professionally, I kept my business alive through a terrible economy. Heck, BAC is healthier than ever! Two awards came my way over the past year, each a delight. People read Academia Next and an audio version is in the works. Universities on Fire grows every day. I can turn back to my younger self and say: yes, I am now a writer, a published author. That’s a lifetime goal realized, and realized from now on.
How is my time spent? It’s dedicated to the future of education, and that keeps going. I do the research and share my thoughts through teaching, interviews, this blog, writing books, giving talks, making other media, and that looks… pretty good so far. People are interested and some find it useful. Some of my work is durable. I am at least doing what I set out to do. It feels like I’m doing it well.
The flipside is I still work too much. I need to cut that back. 65-70 hour weeks are not sustainable. Other parts of life require more time. Maybe, maybe this is the year I can make this happen.
One sign of advancing age has failed to appear: thick skin, or not caring about others’ opinions. I am still too sensitive to slights real or imagined. I take other people’s thoughts very seriously for my work, yes, and that’s both rewarding and the right thing to do. But I keep opening up for others and finding myself hit, then obsessing over each blow. If getting old means running out of fucks to give, I still have a plentiful supply of fucks in store, it seems. I don’t know what makes that stock run down.
Another sign is somewhat apparent. Nostalgia does hit me at times. I show older movies to my family and other folks and when they don’t immediately relish them I find myself defensive. Some music played during the 1970s and 1980s sometimes hits me hard, while most popular music made afterwards is an alien blur. Looking through my bookshelves (at long, long last set up!) is a surefire way to dive into memories. Ah, reading that novel in junior high, and where I walked, thinking about it. Teaching that collection at Centenary College in the late 1980s. The friend who gave me this book. Talking with thus-and-so about that book. The prof who interested me in this subject. My library is a faithful time machine.
At the same time I fight the past’s pull. I’m a futurist, after all, and eagerly seek out the new, or at least the new to me. I keep exploring YouTube and Bandcamp for more sounds. Video services provide more to watch.
A third sign is simple quiet – quiet from me. I don’t mean as a professional speaker, where people invite and even pay me to opine. I mean in conversations professional or otherwise. I listen carefully, more than I used to, I think. People’s words are important and I try to encourage them. Environmental sounds are also rich. I hear my children (in their early 20s) arguing, celebrating, and talking up a storm and feel so much more silent than they are, and wonder a) was I really that loud then? probably and b) how much quieter I am now. After a point, though, we can’t assess ourselves well. Am I now this different?
Do people play more games as they age? My intuition is divided on this. On the one hand, I turn to the images of retirees working on puzzles, playing Bingo, etc. On the other I recall my teen obsessions with tabletop, role playing, and computer games. I don’t know how age marks play, actually. But the past year has seen me fall in love with games again. I taught gaming more than ever before, and that was delightful – er, for some students, too. I found myself turning to play games beyond my job, and that was heady.
So, looking ahead to the rest of 2021 and this ragged 21st century?
More work. Maybe not at the nearly two full time jobs level, but keeping on with BAC and the future of education. Hopefully this is the year the podcast(s) happen(s).
The memento mori’s skull still grins at me. It keeps me going across all registers.
Hopefully my family stays safe from the pandemic and other threats.
And hopefully you all remain safe as well, dear readers.