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I Could Be Dead by Then

11:10AM Aug 27, 2008
I read somewhere that age 50 is the new 40. OK, although I'm not exactly clear why the "old” 40 needed updating, let's assume this is a good thing. Using this line of thought, I now have decided that 60 is the new 59.
Unlike early age benchmarks, turning 60 seems a little more impervious to frivolous reinvention. You can tart it up all you want, but it's still somewhere around 22,000 days, as the Moody Blues so clearly pointed out. And yes, I know the Moody Blues crew is on the far side of that number. (Actually that seems to be a plus for rock musicians lately.)
For nearly a year, I have been married to a woman of a certain age, and that age is certainly 60. Unless a sudden outbreak of "just deserts” occurs, I will join her in that category shortly. Jan ages gracefully and has embraced every time of her life with joy and long lists of things to be done (for both of us).
But 60 was different. She did not fret or pout. She did not spend more time looking in mirrors and sighing. Well, maybe she did and I didn't notice, but that's a whole 'nother essay. But even as we attended the obligatory surprise party she made me promise I would not arrange, I was slightly unnerved by a subtle new shift in attitude. After all, we decided long ago she would be the grown-up in our relationship.
I think I'm beginning to understand. During the past year, as the politics and economics of 2008 have swirled relentlessly around us, there is one thought that has popped into my underused cerebral cortex when I hear a future date like 2050 (when Miami will be flooded and Social Security will take every dollar in the universe): I could be dead by then.
Believe me, it's hard to stay engaged in the conversation then.
As an immortal teenager, I remember thinking in awe about The Year 2000—and the new century! While math told me I would be an unimaginable 52 years old in that portentous moment, I never for a second doubted I would be out there doing the fabulous things you do when centuries change. (Oddly enough, it turned out to be watching the fireworks in London on TV so we could go to bed at our usual time.)
New outlook. But suddenly 20-year mortgages, corn yields doubling by 2030 and lifetime muffler guarantees seemed to be uninteresting—even pointless. When I realized this, the kinds of attitudes prevalent in the back pews of the church made a little more sense.
Perhaps this is why God invented grandchildren—to keep the death calculators like me pointing forward and staying in the game. You only need to phrase events in terms of when "your grandson will be graduating” to rekindle emotional investment in the future.
But mostly, this raw, unromantic acknowledgment of a finite future is an overall relief. To be sure, for too many people it is just a gold-plated get-out-of-jail-free card that is played repeatedly to escape the responsibility or involvement in long-term projects and obligations. But for most of us, narrowing our scope of worry is a mildly enjoyable development.
It would appear that a corollary of this mind-set afflicts many in government, as well. A pattern is emerging where political decisions are made with consequences accruing slightly after decision makers are politically "dead.” Our near future is littered with these legislative unexploded bombs, such as expiring tax cuts and ballooning entitlements. When you're in Congress, apparently, "I could be dead by then” isn't just a curiosity of age but a powerful way of ordering a round of drinks and then slipping off to the restroom before the tab arrives. Not that they would do that either.
Most puzzling to me is how this sense of impending irrelevance flips on almost digitally. One minute you're working on investment portfolios for your old age, and then pow!—you're harrumphing how global warming isn't getting here fast enough to improve Midwestern winters. It almost makes you think it's genetic and triggered by how high you're wearing your belt now.
Stage two. Still, in my research conversations for this scientific article (which weren't half as much fun as you might think), I discovered yet another gradation of this attitude change, which is even more troubling. Sometime after you discover the Great Mortality Acknowledgment, a deeper insight seems to arise in our ponderings of the future.
This stage is characterized by the slightly unnerving motto: "Boy, I'd better be dead by then!”

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or