The eye that blinks

A writer reflects on entering the last year of her 50s

dean of humanities and social science at Cosumnes River College

In September, I will enter the last year of my 50s. As cliché as it sounds, I still remember the feeling I had when I was a kid—that a person in her 60s was practically dead. It turns out I don’t feel anywhere near dead—and am even considering trying out the saying “60 is the new amazingly young and attractive”—though things definitely look and feel different.

Still, it’s not the moans and groans—or the wrinkles and sags and extra pounds—that are most prominent in my musings about this rapid road to 60. It’s really my hazy memory of the road itself.

Suddenly, when I can still feel the softness of my gray Members Only jacket, Chrissie Hynde’s “Brass in Pocket” running through my head, it’s as if I were picked up stealthily and set down in a world of sagging jeans and “Crank Dat Soulja Boy” blasting past me. It may be my now-poor memory, but I feel as if I missed lots of the scenery along the way. Not paying attention—to everything—is clearly my biggest regret.

Not only would that have left me with a more indelible picture of the day I got my first full-time job, or the smile on Isabelle’s face—my best friend’s daughter—when she aced her first spelling test, but I’m sure it would have slowed me down a little—if not to smell the roses, then at least to have noticed they were there.

Perhaps because we’re exhorted to “pay attention” so many times as children, the phrase is little more than annoying by the time we’re in our 20s and beyond. But suddenly, I’m as old as the parents of most of my co-workers, and I find that really attending to the details, and not just checking things off my list, is what makes my life work best. When my head is somewhere else, when I’m pretending to be able to do five things at once, each of my accomplishments is mediocre and my recollection of doing them is dim.

When I eat and drink as much as I want to, without thinking, I find myself feeling fat and unhappy. When I pretend to pay attention when my partner is talking about her day—but I’m really thinking about my own—we’re usually in very different places by the end of the week, and very disconnected. When I send silly e-mails and voicemails to my friends, but don’t ask them real questions about their lives—or stay tuned for the answers—it doesn’t take long to feel as if we’re little more than acquaintances. When I pet the dog mindlessly while I read the paper, he eventually pushes the paper away with his nose and looks at me long and hard.

So that’s my plan going into this last year of my 50s: Pay attention, for God’s sake. In a minute, I’ll be writing about turning 80 and wondering what on Earth happened in that very short blink of an eye.