A couple of weeks before my John-Lennon-never-celebrated-this birthday, my baby sister and I were out walking our dogs on Dewey Beach in the early morning. We wore warm jackets over our pajamas; our frizzled gray heads were bare to the pale blue April sky, and her knitted slippers collected sand as we shuffled along. With us were three small dogs — as one passerby dubbed it, “Weiner Camp.” Her two, Tully and Jess, are eleven years old, and a bit too long in the leg to be purebred dachshunds; I suspect a beagle ancestor somewhere in their 23nMe.
Tully is starting to look a lot like my darling Beau did in his old age: white in the brow and snout, slightly cloudy of eye. Jess, though not actually named for her, has always uncannily resembled the writer Jessica Anya Blau, with her pretty black eyeliner and somewhat close-together brown eyes always studying you with curious concern. Like her namesake, Jess is aging very well. Trotting along beside them is my dear little Wally, an AKC dachshund sprung from the loins of Lake Erie and the bowels of the pandemic, one-point-five years ago.
Oh! said my sister, when he bounded out to greet them in the parking lot of the beach condo. He got bigger.
Yes, I say, the vet said he should lose two pounds. But I don’t think he really cares. (And if anyone had the discipline to bring about long-term weight loss in this family, I think we’d know by now.)
“What kind of dog is that?” is the perennial number-one question at Dewey Beach, and this spring the ubiquitous doodles have been joined by many smaller cousins, Schnoodles and Shorkies and Pomapoos and God knows what all. It was one such adorable puffball of a pooch that caught our eye as we returned from walking almost all the way to the Rehoboth boardwalk — at the eleventh hour, realizing that we were not actually dressed, I was barefoot, and we hadn’t brought the leashes, so should put aside thoughts of coffee in “town.”
On the way back, we approached a young baseball-hatted couple playing fetch with their three-pound fluffernutter. We tried to guess what combination it might be. Another Shorkie? A Cav-a-poo? Definitely one of those toy breeds, I said to my sister. Then I called, “What is that sweet thing?”
The woman looked us up and down for a long moment, apparently considering the question. “It’s a ball,” she said.
Wow. I guess she heard the word “toy,” and I guess I look worse than I thought.
Or maybe it’s not that far-fetched. How long between not being able to tell a Lhasa Apso from a Shih Tzu, to being unable to come up with the words “Lhasa Apso” or “Shih Tzu,” to … um … asking strangers what is that round yellow thing you’re tossing down the beach?
Exactly how far things have declined, I don’t really know, because I have reached the age of looking away. Whatever is happening under my chin, around my navel, or in the benighted, war-torn knee area — I just follow my instincts and look away. Scrutinizing will only make me sad. This is one big problem with all the Zooming of recent years — you can’t look away as much as you’d like. As bad as she already felt about her neck, Nora Ephron might be glad she missed this part.
However I adjusted the camera angle to try to avoid constantly noticing this one lower middle tooth that sort of hides behind the rest, collecting wine and coffee stains and making me look like an unusually chubby-cheeked meth dealer or a mussy, professorial jack-o-lantern, I did not succeed. I wound up dropping a couple hundred dollars at the dentist on professional-grade tooth-bleaching equipment. I followed the prescribed routine seven days in a row like they said, and it does look better but not as much better as I would have hoped. Yet Invisalign would be overkill, I think, despite its vigorous endorsement by my aging doppelganger David Sedaris in his new essay collection.
Speaking of infinitely more successful than I am, I may also be at the age of look-away as far as ambition goes. Sedaris’s Happy-Go-Lucky was just one of nearly 30 books I read in April. I have fallen into a black hole of reading and book reviewing, mostly anonymous. I see clever, insightful things I said all over the place, attributed to People magazine and Kirkus Reviews. What happened to my dreams of fame and fortune? Perhaps I have developed look-away there as well. Recently, a colleague engaged me in a discussion about the arc of his career, whether he should publish another small-press book or aim for the bleachers. He is young, gifted and black. I think he can still go far! Actually he will be 40 next fall, but that’s what passes for young around here.
In the aftermath of this discussion, i.e., in the late autumn of one’s medium-satisfying literary life, one’s mind turns to the possibilities of one’s death. Could I see myself as one of those writers who have amazing posthumous success, like the British essayist Jenny Diski who was still a finalist for big literary prizes two years after her premature demise? Or the Rent guy, or the Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy, or Sven Larsson, or Emily Dickinson, for God’s sake, though not exactly like any of those, nor Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at 34 — To Be Young, Gifted and Black began its life as an Off-Broadway play, a memoir, and a famous Nina Simone song when she was already five years in the ground.
I had help on the Hansberry, but the rest of that I whipped out without even googling. Posthumous success is clearly something I’ve been keeping tabs on. Though as a prize-committee judge, I’m always against giving prizes to the dead people, who don’t give a shit about their career arcs anymore. Support the living, I say.
By now the denizens of Weiner Camp have made it back to the condo. We say good morning to The Neighbor — this is how he is always referred to, despite the fact that we do know his name — a perennially tanned, lanky fellow from the DC suburbs. Jokingly viewed as a possible romantic interest for several years now, he has this time shown up with what can only be a ladyfriend, in Lululemon tights and long blonde hair. Oh well. His French bulldog, Dewey, is still eager to rush up and snort all over me.
Back inside, I pull out the fixings for the ritual potato-egg breakfast tacos (ain’t nobody losing two pounds ’round here) and ask Alexa to play “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Will you still need me, will you still feed me… Turns out Paul McCartney wrote this song two years before I was born, when he was fourteen years old. So funny that he was already setting charms against a lonely old age. He needn’t have worried.
I don’t know if anybody really needs me anymore (don’t worry, I see you, Wally) and I generally feed myself, but I do a nice job of it, and I’m happy to share. My ninety-year-old friend, who came over last night for vegetarian chopped liver on toasted baguette, followed by a quick home version of shrimp pad thai, thinks I am her “young friend.” I may have backed off from planting my flag on unreachable peaks of beauty and achievement, but I’m still curious about what’s in the distance that I can’t quite make out.
No, not the ball.