Twenty-four people packed into the dining room for my 64th birthday dinner and made a steady dull roar from the salad course right on through the cake and coffee, and I hardly got a word in edgewise. People kept inquiring if I was having fun, which is irritating. The answer is no. I don't want to be 64. I want to be 43. But that's life. Life is one disappointment after another. Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth, but so far all we've gotten is Minnesota and North Dakota.
The crucial questions when you turn 64 are: Will I be needed and will I be fed? Feed should be tied to usefulness, I suppose. A man should earn his daily bran flakes. And what you need a 64-year-old for is ornamentation. We are here to show that power is an illusion. You don't know that at 43, and at 64 you do. Man is a passenger on the bus and has little influence on the outcome. A newspaper columnist has no more clout than a horsefly. We inveigh, we fulminate, we sing our little aria, and something else happens.
As Solomon said, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor success to a guy with connections in Washington. The poor Coushatta Indians of Louisiana got suckered into funneling money to various congressmen to make friends and protect their casinos. They came out looking like dopes. Kenneth Lay raised buckets of money for the Current Occupant and what did it avail him in the end? Not much. Anybody who tries to buy political influence is kidding himself. You could just as well throw the money from a moving vehicle. The bums who pick it up out of the gutter will do about as much for you as the bums in Washington.
It dawns on me that my Minnesota Twins do better if I'm not there cheering for them. I leave town and they have a big winning streak. I go to a game, and our pitcher gets in trouble right away, our clutch hitters hit into double plays with the bases loaded. The team rallies when I go out for a bratwurst, but once I'm back in my seat, our relief ace gives up a cheap home run. This is humbling.
But any parent knows about humbling. Children grow up, and your influence over them declines precipitously. You begat them because you pictured yourself as a wise and beloved patriarch, but instead you become the warden of San Question. Your offspring yell at you and bang their tin cups as you walk through the cellblock. You try to enforce a few rules, and they ignore you. They become painted women in tiny shorts and tank tops and lascivious boys dancing in dim basements to bands with names like Stark Raving Idiots and Degenerate Thrombosis.
Either they will slide into a life of crime and addiction, or awaken in time to get into medical school and become pediatricians. One or the other. Either they'll wind up in the Big House, sullen, chain-smoking, heavily tattooed, or they'll be making the rounds in a starched white smock, placing a stethoscope against the chests of tiny infants. And you, Mom and Pop, will have had mighty little influence on the outcome.
What a 64-year-old guy believes in, finally, is preservation. If you have no new ideas, maintain the old ones, such as kindness, generosity, humor. I live in a graceful neighborhood of old homes, a comfort to pedestrians, the work of hundreds of dedicated restorers and renovators. There are classic texts to be read again, Horace and Marcus Aurelius and A.J. Liebling. Old guys sit and sing old songs and lend some breadth and majesty to the world.
Last month I wrote a sonnet. It wasn't bad. My cousin Susan has, in the midst of encroaching tract houses and mini-malls, kept a magnificent country yard and garden that carries on the elegant spirit of Aunt Josephine. In a low dishonest age, to raise tomatoes and marigolds is to testify to the loveliness of the world. Some people dare to dream big dreams and others find the world almost unbearable.
At 64, a man is too old to dream or to despair, but he can recite a sonnet, sing "Frankie and Johnny" or "Old Paint" or "The Frozen Logger," reminisce about a trip to New York City in 1953, and be a staunch liberal. One could do worse.