Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How “Terribly Strange” To Be 70

The always erudite investment manager, Bill Gross, has turned the Big Seven Zero.  As he now observes in his recent missive, A Sense of an Ending, “a 70-year-old reads the obituaries with a self-awareness as opposed to an item of interest.”  He conflates his own end of life angst with the end of a market propped up by unsustainable central bank machinations.  He also cites Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending, which similarly caught my attention, perhaps because Bill and I are about the same age, although I reached the magic 70 mark a couple of years ago, sharing the occasion with my family on a cruise.

Barnes should be the spokesperson for our generation with his non-fiction work Nothing to be Frightened Of required reading.  I’ve already quoted one of the brilliant passages from that book in a previous entry, but it bears repeating: “It is not just pit-gazing that is hard work, but life-grazing.  It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us.  This is what growing up means.  And it is a frightening prospect for a race which has for so long relied upon its own invented gods for explanation and consolation.”

I’ve now had a couple of years to “look back” at the consequences of turning 70.  While philosophically I agree with Barnes, it is the avoidance of despair during the remaining years which is the challenge.  It’s probably why us herd of the retired “keep busy.”  But as much as we try not to think about it, for many of us turning 70 is like throwing on a light switch (or maybe, more aptly, turning it off).  Suddenly, the body rebels at being kept going beyond its normal shelf expiration date.  More parts wear out and medical technology is more than happy to figure out a way to keep us going.  As a friend of ours puts it, “I have body parts on order.”

Unquestionably the worst part of the whole process is watching friends battle unspeakable illnesses or going through invasive surgery to keep the body going, with the attendant weeks or even months of rehabilitation.  As we all joke, it’s better than the alternative. Hey, we're on the right side of the grass!  But with increasing frequency we hear about another friend, a relative, or a high school / college alumnus who has succumbed to the inevitable.

As readers of this blog know, one of the activities I’ve steeped myself in since retiring (and therefore, “keeping busy”) is playing the piano, mostly The Great American Songbook pieces.  I recently came across -- buried in my sheet music – some of the music of Paul Simon written in the 1960s.  During those days, that was the type of music I played, but have long abandoned.  So I found myself playing some again, particularly Old Friends which opens with two beautiful Major 7th chords, A-major-7 (“Old”) and then E-Major-7 (“friends”).

I’m a "serial piano player" and once I attach myself to a song, I play it over and over again, trying different adaptations.  My mind wanders sometimes and, in the case of this song, remembering my thoughts of the lyrics when I used to play it nearly 50 years ago. Today they have a significance quite different than when I was younger, particularly the phrase from the B section of the song, “Can you imagine us/Years from today/Sharing a park bench quietly?/How terribly strange/To be seventy/Old Friends “

The true meaning of lyrics when I played the song back in the 1960s seemed foreign, unthinkable.  My being 70 at the time seemed to be in a one-to-one relationship with eternity.  Eternity has arrived.

So, Bill, welcome to the club!
Fifty Years in a Flash