It’s three o’clock in the morning and I begin tossing and turning, struggling with the knowledge that I have to pee, knowing that once I get up my night’s sleep will end. I try to squeeze a little more out of my night’s rest, but the pressure building up in my bladder acts as a snooze alarm periodically jolting me to the inevitable trip to the bathroom. I finally get up and shuffle through the dark, groping like a blind man for familiar furniture, lamps and wall-hangings to guide my way to a room that has become increasingly important as the years pass. Once there, I sit on the toilet, too lazy to lift the seat and too fearful of my wife’s eruption the next morning if she steps in my dribble. There, I sit patiently thinking about all the health magazines advocating that we drink two liters of water a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle and wondering whether this can possibly apply to fifty-year-old men. I have learned never to pass a men’s room without a visit.
After completing my nightly ritual, I stand at the sink looking in the mirror at the unwanted facial hair growing in all the wrong places. When my daughter gave me nose-hair clippers for Fathers’ Day, I became obsessed with the migration of hair from the top of my head to the inside of my nose and ears. I began shaving my head to avoid witnessing the daily erosion of my hairline. I stand there now clipping, pruning and plucking my face like a greens keeper preparing for the U.S. Open. As I squint at myself, I am distracted by the crow’s feet fanning out from the edges of my eyes, each furrow leading my thoughts down a path untaken. I wonder whether by the light of morning my face will so obviously reveal the passage of time as it does to me now.
I shuffle quietly down to the study looking to pass the time until I can fall back asleep. There stands a pile of half-read books staring up and challenging me to reengage. I pick up the 1000 page “History of the American People” and open to my bookmark at page 155. As I try reading about the galvanizing effect of Tom Paine, I begin thinking that I could probably read five or six mysteries by Elmore Leonard or Robert Parker in the time it will take me to finish this book. I increasingly find it stressful to choose what to read, constantly switching books to see if something else is more entertaining or insightful or enriching. I worry that, with only about 30 years of reading left, at a pace of 15 books a year, I may have only 450 books left to read. Significantly more than 450 are already piled up on the floor of my bedroom closet or stacked on my nightstand or stored on my Amazon wish list, not to mention the books yet to be written. I am disquieted by the thought that I may have already purchased more books than I will ever read.
As I sit there trying to read, I pass some gas. There is nothing quite like the freedom I feel passing wind in the middle of a long sleepless night with no one there to announce it and deride my decaying body. As the years pass, my family holds me increasingly responsible for every foul smell in a public place: standing in an elevator; sitting on a plane; driving past a pasture full of cows in the countryside. If I could produce that much flatulence, I could solve the energy crisis. The daylight begins to break. I confront the morning of my fiftieth birthday seeking to put it in context. My fortieth was marked by parties: food, wine, cigars, dancing. It was, in retrospect, the end of my youth. My sixtieth will inevitably presage the twilight of my years. Where does that leave the fiftieth? As I ponder this great question, my daughter comes in and gives me a hug: “Happy Birthday…what’s that smell?”
November 2. 2005