Times Arts Editor

Birthdays divisible by 10 strike fear and gloom into the hearts of even the bravest men and most courageous women. The sound effects at these birthday parties are not noisemakers and the popping of corks, but the slow roll of muffled drums and "The Saints Go Marching In" played as a dirge.

Until now, I have laughed off these mournful personal mathematics. I have faced the milestones of decades and decay with many a merry and indifferent laugh.

I seized the age of 30 with gratitude, even. It seemed likely, and proved to be, that I would no longer be asked for my ID. (I was living in the East and always looked pale and underaged.) It also seemed possible that I could start eating chocolates like normal people, without damage to my complexion, and that worked out, too.

At 40 I was only recently launched as an editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times and was having such a fine and busy time that I hardly glanced at the calendar. Life begins at 40, someone had announced a few years earlier (when it was a revolutionary thought), and I, turning 40, could only agree.

Fifty was going to be the hard one, everybody said, and more than once I was told Dean Martin's classic remark on his 50th that he wouldn't mind being called middle-aged if only he knew a few more 100-year-old people.

But, deep into film reviewing and, in my spare time, wandering about Los Angeles for KCET with my old friend and fellow Citywatcher Art Seidenbaum, I embraced 50 without a tremor. I accepted with pleasure and no particular alarm such signs of my own times as that I was now twice a grandfather and that I was called "sir" more often than "hey, kid."

All that blissful freedom from the matter of time, all that confidence, complacency, elan and joie de vivre was, however, 10 years ago almost to the day. Now, once again, I contemplate a birthday divisible by 10 and, even worse, by 6 and 5 and 12 (and, as a matter of fact, also by 30 and 2 and 4 and 15; it is a very busy number).

In a real sense, nothing has changed. My hair, it is true, has gone the color of used quarters, but there is quite a lot of it left. I feel terrific. There aren't enough hours in the day for everything I'm committed to do, let alone all the things I'd like to do.

The books I keep setting aside to read when I have time are spilling off the shelves and into untidy piles on the floor and other flat surfaces. There are comparable piles of videotapes and audiocassettes, and LPs with their cellophane wrappers still virgo intacta.

There are yet other stacks of magazines--provocative, rewarding, graphically exciting and varied, but alike in their haunting and accusing unreadness.

I have all the excuses a man could want for not doing the things he doesn't want to do.

But the birthday--this birthday--changes everything, like a stage set that is suddenly bathed in a rather eerie blue-green light. Nothing looks the same; nothing feels the same.

Gone is the hearty indifference, gone the blase wink at the calendar. To quote one of Robert Morley's imperishable lines from "Beat the Devil," "Time, gentlemen, has entered the picture in a new way."

It is not really the chill hand of incipient mortality that clutches at my innards. It is the slower awareness (which no sensible person is ever totally without, but that often sits far back in the mind) that if all time is infinite, yours isn't.

Amid the chidings and the jokes--they have already begun-- there is that solitary confrontation with the mirror, which puts on the best face it can and asks, "What's happening?"

It's a little late to stage a mid-life crisis, but I suppose the root question from the mirror is the same: Are you doing what you ought to be doing with your time? Given another decade, will you look back and lament what you didn't accomplish in the years that start tomorrow?

Maybe the priorities are in order; perhaps, like a television set that tends toward orange and a certain jumpiness, only minor adjustments are required.

I'm afraid it's too late for me to take up the cello, although I intend to press on with the clarinet. (I can hear progress, although I would never make the high school band.) But that is a hedonist sideline, even if it brings pleasure only to me.

Despite all the alarms that cling to the number 60 like lint, or thorns, I take comfort from the knowledge that putting one word after another still pleases me beyond all other endeavors, and there seems no reason not to keep doing that, even as the dreaded birthday slips into history.

What you can do, I think, is count the blessings, even as you count your days and consider your possibilities.

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