A few words about sixty. But first, a story.
During internship, if I was fortunate enough to have slept during a Friday or Saturday night on call, I'd bike across the park the next day, to 65th and Broadway. There was a theater on the east side of the street that ran Eric Rohmer and Stephen Frears films. Shakespeare and Company was a few blocks north and Lincoln Center was a few blocks south, and right across the street was an enormous Tower Records where you could lose yourself for hours, in rock or Broadway, pop or jazz or classical, each type of music in a separate area, arranged with glass walls and sliding doors and on different floors, so that one type of music never drowned out another. Bernstein's quartet from West Side Story here and Talking Heads there. Classical downstairs, the cello solo from Brahm's third piano quartet, the CD box on the counter underneath a cardboard sign with "now playing" written in black magic marker. On a Saturday afternoon I could discover REM or hear Chopin for the first time, or rediscover Billy Cobham or Larry Coryell until fatigue sent me to the cashier and back out onto Broadway where I unlocked my bike, reattached the front wheel, and pedaled back back to York Avenue, where I carried the bike on my right shoulder into the elevator, a bright yellow plastic Tower Records bag swinging from my left hand.
There was one problem. 1980's compact discs sounded terrible, their highs clipped indiscriminantly, the sizzle of the cymbals traded away in exchange for the disappearnce of a little background hiss that we had already trained ourselves not to hear. They were also too small and too shiny, so we hid them on little mechanical drawers that disappeared into the front of the CD players. And they only had one side, with no break in the middle.
We made a bad trade when we switched away from record albums, which we rightly encased in artwork, handled with an almost religious gentleness, touched only on the edges and not on the grooves, cleaned with velvet Dustbusters and D3 fluid. Watching the record spin was as much a part of the experience as hearing the music, the tone arm balanced, barely touching the vinyl, the signal whispered from needle tip to cartridge to preamp to amp to speakers, every tone, music or pop or scratch, reproduced without judgement, somehow landing in the room as if the musicians themselves had knocked on the door and politely asked if they could come in, set up and use your apartment to practice.
And all the albums had a beginning (side one), a middle (turn the album over) and an end (side two), and the middle, the moments when you lifted the tone arm, flipped the record, dusted it off and lowered the needle to play side two were the filled with the best, purest, most sublime sense of anticipation. The best of those feelings came the first time you played a new album, something you only got to experience once per record, once in your life. You heard Baba O'Riley for the very first time. You turned over the record not knowing that Won't Get Fooled Again is on the other side. You listened in wonder as you first hear Kitty's Back-- having no idea that Incident On 57th Street and Rosalita were just a few minutes in the future. You flip over Sergeant Pepper. Could you possibly have imagined A Day In The Life?
All you had to do was turn over the record.
You can get to sixty from anywhere. It's divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30. Multiply just about any two or three small numbers and eventually you'll land on sixty. But like forty and fifty before it, sixty is not a destination. While you're there, its just the middle, coming after what came before and coming before what will come after, which may still be new and different and great. There are even more directions away from sixty as there were paths to it.
Time to turn over the record and hear what's on side two.
The arbitrary grouping of tens places our number system at odds with what’s real and true in the world. Suppose evolution had left us with four fingers instead of five, would we have adopted an octimal instead of decimal system? Would we count “one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” while writing “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-10?” And would that convention be better, worse, or just different?
A couple of years ago I overheard a friend toss off the phrase “the difference between a first and second derivative” with a familiarity that made me jealous. I started reading books with titles like “Infinite Ascent” and “A Tour of the Calculus,” books about numbers. Not numbers of things, but numbers themselves: squares and square roots, series and patterns, the philosophy of zero and the inevitability of pi.
There are many truths buried in numbers, but the way we write them down obscures them. Prime numbers are real; counting on our fingers is not. Square roots are true in and of themselves, counting down from ten to liftoff is pure artifact.
I turned 49 yesterday. 49 shouldn’t matter. 49 is the last exhibition game before the start of the season, the dark theater before the movie, the vice-presidency of ages. Fifty – now there’s a momentous year. Fifty, as in half a century or a diamond anniversary or “sorry – I can’t break a bill that large.”
But the brave 50 is a fraud: five groups of ten, two groups of twenty-five, like one of those toys that changes from a truck or a plane into a robot. 49, on the other hand, is number royalty: a square of a prime number, part of the noble series 1-4-9-25-49.
The squared prime number series makes a lot of sense. Years go by too quickly now. The narrative breaks down: each year things are different but they’re not different enough. Are you better off now then you were a year ago? How can you tell what’s background noise and what will ultimately pass the “So what” test? Decades are pretty speedy too, and worse, they are inconsistent. Decade identity fizzles out over time: Teens and twenties are periods of tumult and revolution, of emerging identity, of atmospheric highs and fall and cut your forehead on broken glass in the parking lot lows. But the thirties don’t roar and the forties just…. happen.
Take the prime squared intervals, however, and it all makes sense. Sure 9 to 25 is huge but 25 to 49 is epic: we create families, make and lose fortunes, we matter. We fall, redeem, shine, disappoint, lose ourselves for months at a time in minutiae and emerge with perspective and the vaguest sense that wisdom and peace may ultimately be attainable.
Way too much for ten years to handle.
1-4-9-25-49. 49 is the last of the line, but that’s not a bad thing. None of us will make it to 121. 49 is the black belt of years: everything really starts from here.
(from March 2008)
David Sable MD
writer, teacher, fund manager and retired reproductive endocrinologist