October 3, 2020 — Joining the Half-Century Club

“Here I am in the 21st century. I have to say it ain’t as cool as I hoped it would be.” — Steve Earle, “21st Century Blues”

In two days, I’ll turn 50. The first card has already arrived — Jessie spotted it on the mantle and waved it around, greatly amused by the big shiny FIVE ZERO on the front.

I don’t know exactly what stage of life I assumed I’d be embarking on at this age, but there were certainly no speculations that involved starting afresh as a single parent by slowly negotiating the untangling of two decades of emotional and familial and financial togetherness — while simultaneously navigating through a pandemic. All this to say that — though my sweet son is baking me a cake — no party invitations have been sent.

Of course, as I like to quip, I’m immature for my age, but somehow that doesn’t seem like it will be quite as funny a one-liner once over the crest of the half-century hill — on the downslope and gathering speed. It seems like time really started doing that two decades ago, when I arrived in Ottawa, and has only picked up steam as year after year has zipped by in a blur — Jessie the three-year-old who walked up the street with me to announce, to the neighbours, the arrival of baby Henry has somehow become a teenager, with a brother who is about to turn eleven.

I also like to present myself, tongue firmly in cheek, as a well-preserved specimen, but luckily there is some truth to that: despite the notable aches that persist in making themselves evident each day when I awake, for the most part I’ve been blessed with good health and have probably never been as active as over the past year, which has provided ample opportunities for biking and running — albeit in a very small geographic area.

Just after I originally finished this piece — in fact, the day after my actual 50th birthday — I was startled by a very unexpected headline: “Eddie Van Halen dead of cancer at 65.” There are pop cultural celebrities, politicians, and sports stars who have remained in the public eye, or at least in my individual consciousness, for decades, and as a result they have aged gradually, like most of us do. Neil Young. Bob Rae. Wayne Gretzky. But there are also many public figures who slot into that other category, the one which is filled with those who blazed brightly for a short period and then faded away, or at least out of our own and mainstream awareness, and into “whatever happened to…” territory.

For me, Van Halen personified that group to a T, as I just can’t picture him any way other than he was in 1984 (both the year and the album); almost three decades later, he remains frozen in amber with that long flowing hair, seemingly limitless energy and ability, and ever-present boyish grin. Yet, the grainy MTV video image is only a time-travelling mirage — somehow, impossibly, the much-idolized and imitated guitarist whose band’s debut album was released in 1978, before he had even turned 23, became an official senior citizen, and now he is gone. “You never forget your first love,” wrote Brad Wheeler in a tribute published in The Globe and Mail following Van Halen’s death, “and you never forget the music that entranced you at 16.” Or 14, might as well jump-ing at a grade 9 Chesley District High School dance. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” indeed. (With apologies to Ray Davies and The Kinks — but it was the glammed-up David Lee Roth version, backed by Eddie’s heavy buzzsaw guitar riffs, that I knew first, the volume cranked up on my Radio Shack ghetto blaster to ensure peak cassette performance.)

As a teenager, I also loved Tom Cochrane’s 1986 song Boy Inside the Man, which chronicles the changing thoughts and concerns associated with aging. I used to imagine what it might be like to reach the period of life described at the end of the song — the ripe old age of 31! — a stage by which the singer professes to having lost and having won. The lyrics turned out to be prophetic, as far as my own experiences were concerned, but after a tumultuous few years in my late 20s everything came together; by age 33 I was married with a secure job and a house in Ottawa. In that first house, my ex-partner used to jokingly threaten me with all manner of misfortune should I ever even consider leaving her. “Don’t worry,” I would respond, “I’m too old to convince someone new to like me” — a line which, if memory serves, I lifted from Paul Reiser’s character on the 1990s sitcom Mad About You.

Looks like it’s time to polish off the charm. It’s a little rusty.

I gave that a first tentative try today, when, for the first time, I headed out to meet in person a woman whom I had been chatting with on an online dating site. Just a mid-afternoon walk along the river, but still… perhaps a first, very tentative step toward something new. Though I had hoped that the outdoor encounter would leave me feeling a bit less drained and a bit more…I don’t know… exhilarated. But when it comes to rating initial impressions, I am admittedly dealing with a pitifully small sample size — so perhaps better to file this in the “jury’s still out” column.

After all, even Steve Earle, grizzled curmudgeon that he is (and a man who has known far more than his share of real tragedy, including the recent death of his son, Justin Townes Earle), couldn’t resist ending “21st Century Blues” on a hopeful note:

Where there’s a will, there’s a way;

When there’s a fire, there’s a spark;

Out in the streets, downtown in the park —

Baby, the future’s just waitin’ on you and me,

In the 21st century.

Steve Earle, The Low Highway
Van Halen, 1984
Tom Cochrane and Red Rider

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Jason Thomson

Jason Thomson

Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.