(Reflections on a Numerical Milestone)
by Paul Schatzkin
November 15, 2020
For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday.
These are “the Schatzkin men.” In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly. The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background). I was 3. Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37.
Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday. Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain. “Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.”
So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.”
How is this even possible?
Before I try to answer that question, let’s talk about Mickey Mantle. (What’s that you say, you don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Then a) you’re an idiot, and b) Google it.)
Mickey Mantle’s father died at age 40 – as did several other men in the Mantle family. Hell, they all worked in the lead and zinc mines in Oklahoma, so their early demise is not altogether surprising.
But Mickey, even though he was a strapping athlete who worked in the verdant, sunlit expanses of major league baseball, lived his life like a man who expected to experience a similar fate. He told anybody who would listen that he had no expectation of living past 40.
“I’m not gonna be cheated,” Mickey said during the best years of his career, and he conducted himself like a man bound and determined to pack a lifetime of living into half a lifetime.
When those decades of hard living and hard drinking finally caught up with him – well after his 40th birthday – Mickey would often say, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”
Like Mickey Mantle, I grew up expecting I was gonna be dead by 40, too.
But in my case, the lament is more along the lines of “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I might have planned my life a little better.”
By which I mean, “I might have planned it at all.”
The really odd, perplexing thing is: even though I averted that Gateway of Doom for more than 30 years ago, I still live in its shadow.
That’s despite a lifetime of therapy that started in the third grade – the year after Harvey disappeared from the set. Despite spending countless hours in the presence of a highly regarded (i.e. Freudian) child psychiatrist, nobody managed to figure out that I’d been traumatized by Harvey’s sudden departure.
Let’s do the math:
Harvey Schatzkin: dead at 37.
Arthur Schatzkin: dead at 62.
Mickey Mantle: dead at 63.
Paul Schatzkin: hearty and hale and now 70 years old!
How is this even possible?
Well, for starters, it’s possible because I’m ridiculously healthy.
Nobody is going to confuse me with Adonis or Apollo, but I get out of bed every morning, put on my sneakers and walk for two miles. I close the fitness rings on my Apple Watch and by the time I put it back on the charger each night I’ve walked the requisite 10,000 steps every day.
And, knock wood, in those seven decades the most serious illness I have ever had is the measles when I was a kid and a skin cancer on my leg that was thoroughly excised about 4 years ago. That’s it. Knock wood again.
When I had my annual physical last spring, the doc said my blood-work numbers were nearing the threshold where I might want to start thinking about possibly doing something to bring them down. That was about two months into Covid 2020: My weight was in the high 170s, but on the rise amid a pandemic spent sitting at home eating fistfuls of Wheat Thins in the afternoons and a hefty bowl of Cookies and Cream with Colbert just before going to bed every night.
At the end of July I started counting calories and commenced a practice of (daily) intermittent fasting; My weight has gone from a peak in the mid-180s to the mid-160s today. I’m gonna go see the doc tomorrow and run the numbers again to see if they aren’t below the aforementioned Threshold of Concern. In the meantime my jeans fit a lot better.
Others in my age bracket are settling into their retirement now: moving to Florida, setting up rocking chairs, counting their grandkids. I’m still working at a part-time job and skipped the part about having kids altogether, grand or otherwise.
Which brings me back to Mickey Mantle: Mickey said he should have taken better care of himself, and I’m saying I should have planned my life better.
If I hadn’t expected to be dead, maybe I would have paid more attention in school, gotten a better education and availed myself to one of those “profession” things that I keep hearing about.
Instead, my academic career was most notable for bearing the label of “underachiever.” In the years when my classmates were earning their fortunes – in some cases raking in more money than a croupier at a Vegas craps table – I might have done something more lucrative than smoking vast quantities of dope and taking tourists sailing and snorkeling in Hawaii (it was a tough life, but, dammit, somebody had to do it…).
Despite my academic sloth, I did have one substantial material success in my life.
The drugs and alcohol wore off in the late 80s. I came to Nashville in the mid 90s and, combining a little bit of knowledge of music with 15 years of experience with personal computers, I started an Internet music business – before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web. With that enterprise I found a purpose, built a business and became part of a community. Despite the lack of any formal training, I was doing good work, making friends and earning the respect of colleagues.
But I swear to God, the whole time I thought, “I guess this means I’ll be dead soon…”
That was 20 years ago. The business has come and gone. I was fortunate that its demise included a “liquidity event” that paid off my mortgage and has kept me afloat for all of those 20 years.
Like a scene in a Monty Python movie, “I’m not dead yet…” – but I have struggled mightily to find a similar measure of purpose and commitment in the years since.
It’s not like I didn’t do things: I wrote a biography of “The Boy Who Invented Television” – a story that his transfixed me since my years on the periphery of the TeeVee business in Hollywood in the 70s. As that volume went into the world in the fall of 2002, I imagined that I’d embarked on a career as a “biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.” Unfortunately the fabled ‘sophomore effort‘ went off the rails and took that career idea with it.
There have been several other fuses lit – that burned off into duds.
But… wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be finding a second or third career. I’m supposed to be dead – like my father, like my brother, like Mickey-fucking-Mantle.
And yet…. here I am.
How is this even possible?
I know that part of the answer to that question is a tale of sobriety.
With the help of a friend who 12th stepped me into ‘the program’ in 1987, I stopped smoking, drinking, and snorting just in time to avoid imposing my father’s fate upon myself. I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff since shortly after I turned… wait for it… 37. I did a lifetime’s worth of drinking, I just stuffed it all into half a lifetime. Me and Mickey – except, in my case, without the incurable liver disease.
Now I reach the biblically prescribed three-score-years-and-ten wondering “why me?” and “what for?”
The decades-long inability to find answers to such questions – and make further contributions to the household treasury beyond paying off the mortgage and spending stupid money renovating the place – might be one reason I find myself living alone at age 70.
When my cozy domestic reality started unraveling, I discovered that I needed to supplement my income with, well…. actual income. That’s when I discovered that the only thing I was still qualified to do was peddle gizmos at the Trillion Dollar Digital Fruit Stand.
Like everything else, that situation changed dramatically this year. Where I once got to spend several days each week having occasionally meaningful encounters with actual other humans, for the past several months I’ve just been sitting at a computer terminal staring at a screen and listening to people mumble inaudibly about stuff they need. A couple of times a day I get to conjure up some useful knowledge and make a modest difference in people’s lives, but mostly it’s been telling cardholders from the International Bank of Entitlement that they cannot have the thing they want in the minute that they want it.
That’s when the part about ‘not having a plan’ starts to gnaw at me. I start to think “this is not what I had in mind…” for this stage of my life. Then I remember, “Oh yeah, I never really had anything in mind for this stage. I didn’t expect there would even be a ‘this stage’.”
Which is when I stop thinking about the male side of the family and wonder if maybe I got a longevity gene from my mother’s side of the family. She lived until she was 81. In fact, she got married for the third time when she was 73.
Maybe that’s why, along with all the other thoughts percolating above, I keep circling back to this vague idea that I will (or should?) do something remarkable with my 70s.
Given my continued good health (did I mention knocking on wood?) it’s not unreasonable to surmise that – like my mother – I’ve got a good ten more years before faculties fade and organs start breaking down and I have to face the decision that Ruth Gordon made in “Harold and Maude” (you can Google that, too).
Then I catch myself, and begin to question this whole fixation, this lingering self-and-social pressure that I am supposed to “do” and “strive” and “accomplish.”
I recall something Kurt Vonnegut (admittedly, no slouch in the “doing” and “accomplishing” departments) said: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”
And then it dawns on me: Maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can stop obsessing on the “doing” part of life and just make the best of the “being” part.
Maybe, in the eighth decade of my life, that’s enough.
It’s certainly more than Harvey and Arthur – and Mickey – were doing at this point in their lives.
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