Turning 57 in the year 2024

Bryan Alexander 2024-02-19

Earlier this month I had a birthday, which I prefer to think of as “completing another solar orbit.” Today I’ll continue with this blog’s tradition of birthdayblogging: a bit of reflection, some memoir, and a touch of futuring. (previously: 2023, 202220212019201820182017)

This isn’t easy to write about.

Turning 57 is an odd milestone.  It feels like… nothing in many ways.  The number doesn’t trigger any events. There’s no symbolism around the non-event, nothing in the culture, nothing in policy nor law.  Instead, the non-milestone makes me look ahead to the major events, like 60 and 65.  Those dates loom large, but 57?  It’s a big shrug.

Maybe it’s better instead to consider the date as a time to look hard at myself.

Bryan at 57 in his office

At my office desk.

As a kid I didn’t imagine my 50s well.  Then, being 50 was just part of the general category of “old,” which meant “anyone over 30,” I think.  I supposed I would attain that age, among others. In my teen years I wasn’t sure I’d live that long, because I didn’t think most humans would, given the specter of thermonuclear annihilation.  Once I hit my 20s and nuclear war fell away with the USSR, I viewed being 50-odd as one more slot in a hopefully productive life to come.  Which it has turned out to be.

50s, 57: what did the last year mean, that foggy and numerically unremarkable solar tour?

It meant a lot of work, for starters.  My latest book, Universities on Fire, appeared in March 2023.  I’ve been doing in-person and virtual events in multiple nations to support it. I recently pitched another book proposal; with luck, you’ll hear about that soon. I taught four graduate classes, one in spring 2023, three in the fall.  I consulted, led workshops, gave talks, and facilitated meetings online and in person, again in several nations.  In fact, our consulting enterprise turned ten years old in 2023. Every week I led – well, produced, led, and did post-production for – the Future Trends Forum, which now has nearly 400 YouTube recordings and an audience just over 9,000 people.  Continuous research into higher education’s future appeared in the FTTE report, this blog, my presentations, consults, and across social media. I started up a Substack on AI and education’s future, and it’s going well, with 34 posts, 939 subscribers (some paying), and a decent amount of conversation attached.  Overall, I think I did some good work on higher education’s future.

Yet 2023 also meant death.  Too much death and near death.  My father died in June. My wife endured two heart attacks. (written about here and here) My friend John Lawler died. Another friend died after years of fighting cancer.

Every day it seems I think of a dead friend at different moments in the day. Tomak cheers me on when I lift weights, George (he sometimes preferred the spelling “geORge”) appears when I think about ebooks. Mike comes to mind when I’m teaching or designing games, Earle when I’m teaching or reading.  And my nearly-dead wife, well, I care for every day.  She’s doing much better, but the fundamental shock of two (2!) near-death experiences isn’t something you shed easily, and she’s doing a ton of work to keep herself away from another cardiac event.

There’s an online dimension to these deaths, too, which hits me harder every year.  I come across a blog post, YouTube video, podcast, article, etc. which I know would be perfect for a certain friend and prepare to share it via email, Gchat, Telegram… only to realize that they’ve died. This feels like networking mourning, in a way.

All of these mortalities make me think of my own death, obviously. Memento mori. I’ve spent some time rereading Heidegger on death, because apparently that’s how I roll (I read a lot of existentialism back in the day).  I’ve ramped up my death cleaning, in case I die suddenly: reducing some physical possessions, reorganizing my digital footprint to make it easier to manage.  In case I die suddenly: this thought occurs daily, as I bike, walk, write at a keyboard, ride a train, cram myself into an airplane seat.  What happens next, to my family, my friends, my professional network, my body?

I still feel no religious stirring on this score at all, although I appreciate some writers who were or are religious.  I wasn’t raised in a faith. Years of studying religion didn’t draw me into one.

I don’t talk to most people about this growing awareness of death.  I don’t feel I can – that I’m not sure if what I’ll say will be useful for anyone, or if my experience is worth anything.  And many Americans think death distasteful, morbid, too depressing. So I usually stay silent.

This specter of death drives me to care for my own body to a level I’ve never previously attained. My health is doing very well, overall, actually.  Looking at myself, I still have my head of hair and my beard is something of note, although the forehead is gradually expanding. I can’t shrink my belly any further, no matter what I do, but I’ve been working on making it more muscled.  I have worn reading glasses for several years and appreciate them.

There’s professional evidence of my health improvements. At the last checkup a clinician told me I was fine: lab results for blood pressure, cholesterols, etc. all checked well. He had nothing to recommend me to do. Actually, he wanted to know my secret to good health.  I told him the secret is, apparently, eating a vegan diet, biking every other day, and weightlifting every other day, not to mention walking a lot and continuing to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. I’m straight edge, dear reader.  Which leads to a musical interlude:

Death goads me not just mentally and bodily, but professionally.  I feel like I’m running out of time to get things done, and feel so every day.  I condemn myself for wasting dwindling hours for doing certain things, or doing other things less efficiently than I could have.  I damn people for wasting my time with bad writing, useless meetings, or inserting stupid delays into my day.  Bad writing, popcorn fiction, long tv series with slight payoff, comfort fiction I try to avoid.

That concern for time is fierce.  It leads me to downplay what I’ve accomplished so far.  Achieving a terminal degree from a leading university, teaching at three institutions, creating and leading a successful business, publishing four books in various editions, winning awards, interviewed in leading venues, building an international audience – it’s not enough.  I don’t bask in what I’ve done so far. I want more life, like Roy Baty says, and in it I want to get more done. So I readily work 60, 65, 70 hour weeks.

I hear from other folks in their 50s that they look forward to ending work. Some are retiring. In contrast, I don’t feel like my life is slowing down, gliding serenely towards retirement, but speeding up to more and more activity.  Am I seriously supposed to be thinking of slack and rest? No.  It’s not in me now.

I also want more for my personal life. The chance of death makes me think of supporting my family, so I work more to provision them, but I also want to spend all the time in the universe with my amazing wife and children.  The same goes for my friends. I read that the very aged and people at death’s door tend to say what they value and miss the most is the company of loved ones, and I feel that intensely.

And there’s so much more to experience, too – books, games, food, travel. Once more, I don’t feel like slowing down here, but want to accelerate.

the number 57

I worry about the past and its potential to grab into my attention. In previous posts I’ve muttered about the lure of nostalgia, and that does leap up to catch me more often than I expected. I return with love to many books and movies of my youth, and do find myself disdaining present day efforts.  My dreams keep returning to my college days, to my teens, and even to my childhood, despite my trying to get them to look into the future.

So I try to push ahead. I discipline myself to listen to current music, watch new movies, read new books. I revise my syllabi to make sure they aren’t historical relics, but contain older material that’s especially resonant. As always, I keep working on emerging technology – lots of AI now, plus something I’ll write about soon.

Some people my age celebrate freeing themselves from the opinions of others. I think they see themselves as done, finished, incapable of amendment. Or they see themselves secure enough to not mind being negatively viewed. Or they’ve just grown tired of monitoring how others view them. I’m not there yet. As someone who makes stuff for others to consume, I’m always conscious of how I present. And as someone without institutional or other backing to rely on, I can’t afford to irk people unless it’s utterly necessary.

And I use that social environment to improve myself.  I’m always trying to develop, from teaching myself new languages (Spanish and Chinese now) to weight lifting, teaching and new technologies.

the number 57 on a street corner

Maybe it’s all too much, and this post comes across as the ranting of a workaholic.  I confess to trying to spend more time watching movies in theaters and reading some fiction which isn’t directly about my work. Maybe I should do more of that.  And try that un-American “vacation” thing.

Last note: I’ve heard some folks my age and older talk about the wisdom they’ve accumulated and how they should share it.  I’m not feeling that, myself.  Sure, I’ve seen some stuff.  I’ve read a lot and made a bunch of stuff, but I’m not sure what that means.  I try to make my books, presentations, facilitations, etc. as excellent as they can be, but it doesn’t feel like wisdom.

So what next?

More work.  I have a bunch of projects in various stages of inception, and will share if they emerge.  I think I’m teaching four classes this calendar year.  There are virtual and in-person events scheduled through November.  The Forum plunges into another year.  Memento mori.

I care for my family. I hope my wife keeps mending. Meanwhile, our children are adults, so we enjoy their flourishing and assist as we can. Memento mori.

More connections with friends, hopefully in person. Memento mori.

Continued care for my health. Hopefully I can boost my biking radius to 10 or 20 miles by December and crack limits on the local gym’s weight lifting machines. Memento mori.

What else should I be doing, as I ride along another solar orbit?  Besides thanking you all, dear readers, for following and writing back to me?

(57 in tiles photo by duncan cumming; 57 on a street corner by Rob Brewer)