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It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

Many years ago, when I was still a student at Guilford College in North Carolina, my Classics professor was one of those friendly, inviting pedagogues who invited students to their homes for dinner or conversation. And one of the things she said at the time that has stuck with me is the idea that we all have some “ideal” age we always remain.

It might be an age we have not yet attained, or one we left behind long ago. She said that although she was then in her late 30s, that she had always felt 25. It was her internal age, the age at which she thought of herself. She said back then that even when she was in high school, she thought of herself as 25.

She is now 88. I met her again recently, but I forgot to ask if she still feels the same. From other things she mentioned, I take it she does.

My wife always said she thought of herself as her nine-year-old self. She always maintained that openness to the world that she had at nine.

I have had a different experience. I cannot find an “ideal” age. That is because I can’t think of my mind as having any age at all. I am not philosophically a dualist. I don’t believe my brain is separate from my body; I believe my body generates my mind. But while my body bumps through time, my mind sails on frictionless.

I recently wrote about this concept of “self” for my other gig, a monthly essay I write for The Spirit of the Senses, in Phoenix, Ariz. (link here).

Last month, I turned 70, but my brain doesn’t feel any older. It isn’t that my brain feels young, but rather that mind exists in a consciousness that takes no note of age: It simply exists. My mind feels no different now from when I was young, except perhaps a bit more full (sometimes I feel like I need a metaphysical Bromo), but it is aware that it occupies a body that is losing its vitality, whose knees hurt, whose eyes are rheumy and whose hams are weak.

Several people have asked if 70 feels any different than other bookending birthdays.

Oddly, yes, 70 does feel different from 69. I don’t know why. The only two odometer clicks that have had any meaning are first, when I turned 21 and believed against all evidence that I was genuinely a “grown-up” — I could drink, vote, sign contracts, and brag — and second, a month ago, when I turned 70.

When a car’s odometer flips from 69,999 to 70,000, it can happen on a trip to the grocery store. It is that meaningless. The car knows no difference. On Jan. 11, I was a mere 69; a day later, I was Methuselah. The flow of time is steady, but our clocking of it comes in ticks. That most recent tick was loud.

The fraction through which I see my lifespan has flipped upside down: The numerator is now the denominator. In other words when I was 20, I was one-fourth of my allotted life expectancy — a 1 to 3 ratio — and now seven-eighths of that time — a ratio flipped to 7 to 1. The numbers are hard against me.

I can count a number of people my age who aren’t my age anymore because they stopped aging. Others are in the process of winding down to the final broken watchspring. It’s one of the universal experiences of getting old: reading the obituaries of those you have known, those you have cared about. I keep losing context.

All this is psycho-mological,  because, except for the weakness of hams, I’m in relatively good health, and I was handed decently good genes. But 7 to 1. The math is solid.

So, pace Professor Deagon, pace dear Carole, I do not feel mentally 25 or mentally 9. I feel physically 70: the same a-chronological mind in an unquestioningly aging heap of meat.

carole-at-okiedokies

Next week, my wife reaches a milestone; not one with a round number, but perhaps more significant: She fills 75 percent of the century-long container she was born into. She has passed her “three score years and ten” by five.

While she is hampered by a dozen ailments requiring enough medicine to count each morning as a full breakfast, none is immediately life threatening.

But it started me thinking about those traditional milestones we set for ourselves. There are annual birthdays that we count off, but really, is there that much difference between being 32 and being 33? So, there are longer stretches that actually count out time that feels significant. For many, watching the odometer turn over from 29 to 30, or from 39 to 40 is accompanied by an unwelcome breakfast of existential angst.

“Am I really getting old?”passages-cover

Gail Sheehy wrote a famous book about the changes we go through as we grow. But Passages is more about the psychology of such changes. What I’m talking about are the arbitrary milestones. In Sheehy’s book, the lifestages are sequent, but not hardwired to a specific age, but a likely decade — your 20s or your 30s. What I am looking at here are not the stages themselves, but the signposts that we recognize as they pass.

For me, this starts with age five, when we first leave home daily to attend kindergarten. It is a great wrench in our lives, and we are no longer always safe in our nests, cared and fed by an attentive mom.

bar-mitzvahThe next big one is when we turn thirteen. Eleven and twelve are technically “teens,” but only when we hit thirteen does it seem to count, perhaps because the syllable “teen” is explicit. On your thirteenth birthday, you proudly consider yourself no longer a child, but an adult, or at least and adult manqué. “Today, I am a man,” goes the rite of the bar mitzvah, along with the gift of a fountain pen.

Houston quinceaneras photography. Photography for quinceaneras. Fotos y videos para quinceaneras.Next up is a bifurcation of genders. Girls have their “sweet sixteen” party, or, if Latina, their quinceañera, marking their fifteenth or sixteenth birthday. In the past, this advertised their marketability as brides, although nowadays, when people marry later, it is a vestigial celebration of “coming out” as a wearer of party dresses.

For boys, sixteen goes by unannounced. When I was growing up, boys had their counterpart at 18, when they signed up for their Selective Service card, marking their eligibility for the military draft. Then, it was accompanied by a deep hard swallow and a nervous smile waiting for a letter from the draft board. Nowadays, without an actual draft, registration is largely a formality.

For boys and girls, there is the age of the learner’s permit for driving, but this varies widely from state to state, beginning usually at fifteen, but for some not till eighteen. Northern states tend to a later age, Southern states tend to let their bairn get behind the wheel much younger.

Eighteen also marks the official “age of consent,” demarking the legality of sex. This is currently an age more honored in the breech than in the observance. It is also voting age, also honored more in the breech.

For most states, eighteen is also the age of legal majority, save Mississippi, where you still must reach twenty-one.

free-white-and-21-2Twenty-one used to be the standard bar for majority, when you become legally responsible. In less enlightened ages it was accompanied by the boast of being “free, white and twenty-one.” Now it is primarily the age at which it becomes legal to get drunk. It is the signal irony that just at the moment the person in question finally declares him- or herself a grownup, he (or she) is most likely to do the most immature thing imaginable.

Most of these age signposts seem front-loaded into growing up. After that, they become more spaced out over time. For some, turning thirty is a hazard, for others, it hits turning forty; it is the moment you realize you will never be young again, that the responsibility of adulthood, family, career and citizenship have replaced dating, playing and experimental sex. Sobriety hits, and it isn’t always fun.

Fifty is a quiet marker; most people find they are relatively happy at that age. There is, perhaps, more satisfaction at having reached the half-century mark than unease at getting on in years. Most of us, at fifty, are still vital and energetic, and we have the added benefit of all that accrued experience.

(When I was young, I calculated how old I would be at the turn of the millennium and realized I would be fifty-two, and I was daunted because I really didn’t believe it likely I would live that long. When it actually happened, it almost snuck up on me. I was hardly aware I was over fifty.)

social-security-cardSixty is stealthy, because it comes and goes hardly noticed because one’s eyes are firmly on the big sign ahead: sixty-five and the finality of retirement. They keep moving the finish line on us, upping the age for Social Security, but sixty-five is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyches, that the subsequent years just seem like a tiny hesitation. george-burns

The round numbers seem less meaningful than the fivers. Seventy-five is three quarters of a century and an accomplishment more than merely a signpost. Beyond that, the years seem less important than the life put into them. Currently the average life expectancy for American men is seventy-seven and for women, just under eighty-two. Past that, the only one that really counts is the even hundred. The George Burns point. Beyond that, you begin to count every years once again, just as you did as an infant.