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Learning to love middle old age.


All portraits in this article are of New Yorkers born in 1948. From left, Mark Jacobson, writer; Abelardo Morell, photographer; and Steve Desanto, retired.   

Throughout my life, there has always been a number that sounded old. When I was 16, it was 27; at 29, it was 42; at 38, it was 52. At 65, however, it was 65.

After all, 65 is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional backroom dealing and insurance-­company probability charts. Sixty-five is when you’re supposed to retire, put your feet up, smell the roses, to bask in the glow of a well-spent life in the land of the fee. This lovely neo-­utopian vision has largely been replaced by the ethic of work-work-work until you drop, but 65 still remains the top of the stretch, where, like a creaky claiming horse in the sixth race at Aqueduct, you’re supposed to be turning for home.

For me, 65 was an onset of pure panic, an ingress of cold claustrophobia. My father died when he was 75, but he was sick. Years of kidney dialysis and he keels over from a heart attack. My mother made it to 84, full speed ahead to the last breath. If the DNA holds up, that gives me another 19 years, but what’s 19 years? Only yesterday I was 26, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity. Or was that last week?

Time! Marches On!

You know where it’s going. Shortly following my 65th birthday, I decided to tidy up my “home office.” A little fall cleaning, so to speak. Under a pile of carefully curated possessions (you couldn’t quite throw out a collection of vomit bags snatched from the seat pockets of such regional carriers as Cebu Pacific, Biman Bangladesh, and Air Namibia, could you?), I found a forgotten piece of correspondence from Beth David Cemetery, which is where several dozen of my relatives, the ones who managed to escape the Nazis, lie in eternal rest just over the city line in Elmont, Long Island. Dated December 27, 1999, and signed by “Warren Rosen, Vice President,” the letter advised me of the “following burial reservations: Mark Jacobson … Plot 101, Grave #8.”

It was Mom’s work, no doubt. Child of the Depression, she was always such a planner.

Old. I was having a problem accommodating myself within the format. Until quite recently, the main boon of growing old appeared to be not dying young, not perishing when I got this scar across the right side of my face, not being blown up in Vietnam, not going through the windshield after hitting that black-ice spot on Highway 117 in New Mexico. When I was growing up, it was always easy to recognize the old. They were the dry and brittle-boned, the silver-eyed and liver-spotted, sitting on woven-plastic beach chairs beneath buzzing fluorescent lights on the porches of decaying hotels before coke money, haute Deco, and LeBron James’s talents came to South Beach. If these predeceased had anything more on their minds than lining up for tomorrow’s early-bird special, who cared? Old people were all basically the same, weren’t they? Like, you know, old. On the verge of joining the shadowy ranks of these tattered sticks, I was seized by a hitherto unfelt fear. Back in the day of Youth, us hippies would sit around reading the Walter Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (none of that rationalist Robert Thurman stuff for us), digging on the Roger Corman spook-house descriptions of the blood-drinking “Wrathful Deities” encountered by all nobly born so-and-so’s on their trip through Bardo to the next womb door. How fun it was to learn that these beasts were nothing but “projections” of the harrowed human mind, no more genuine than the “Atomic Man” we used to mock at Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street.

Now, however, standing at the mouth not of a passage between lives but rather to the end of this one was to feel the hot, seething, very real breath of the health-care monster upon your face. If the Greeks had Charon, boatman across the River Styx, we have a recorded message saying, “Death will not end your financial obligation.” There are a lot of levels to beat in life’s endgame. Dodge cancer and here comes Alzheimer’s, nature’s payback for living too long. If Alien was once a scary movie, now it was Amour.

“Beats the alternative”; that’s what you’re supposed to say about getting old. Yet a strange thing was happening. As I trod ever deeper into the outer ring of oldness, my fears, nightmares I’ve nurtured the bulk of my life, began to lighten. I began to look upon my venerability not as a state preferable only to death but rather as an opportunity of a lifetime.


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