Book extract: What it feels like to be 50-years-old

As we reach — and pass— the age of 50, it is a time to reflect. David Slack says it should not be a time to regret.
Journalist David Slack ruminates on ageing. Photo / Greg Bowker
Journalist David Slack ruminates on ageing. Photo / Greg Bowker

I was 15 years old when my dad turned 50. Ordinary day, ordinary dinner. Afterwards, he washed, I dried.

"So how does it feel to be 50, Dad?" I asked.

Out in the country, far away from any street lights, the evening can be very dark. Our kitchen window looked out across all the paddocks and dams and trees and sheds, but at night you couldn't see any of that, nothing past the reach of the outside light.

Dad looked out the window into the blackness and I looked out as well, slowly drying the plate, waiting to hear what it felt like to be 50 years old. I kept waiting. He just kept looking into the night.

What do you do with your regrets?

A friend of mine has lived all over Southeast Asia, all over South America, every remote corner of New Zealand. Let's call him David, and let's be clear, that's not actually his name, and he is not me.

He's a practical man, he can build anything, a quiet artist fascinated by the world. He has lived; really lived, has tried every drug on the face of the Earth, has never come unstuck. You're safe just so long as your temperament is the right sort, he says. I believe him, and I would be in trouble at my first speedball.

In South America he made friends with a guy who was making big money running coke. Once a month he'd take a flight to Washington DC. Once a month he'd come back with a small fortune. Once a month he'd say to David, "You should get in on this," and once a month David would say, "Thanks, but no." He had hauled weed from Gisborne to Wellington for a while; this was a different scene. Still, the friend kept asking, and one day David said, "What the hell. You go this time, I'll go next." The friend's flight left on time for Washington DC, uneventful from beginning to end, and it was business as usual until he carried the briefcase through US Customs and into the arms of the DEA, who put him away for 30 years.

The day he started work, 17 years old, other-David's father had given him some life advice: "Don't bust your ass for any bastard." When I first heard that, I thought it sounded too cynical. That was then, now is harsh. For most of my working life, I have been my own boss but in recent times I've had a zero-hours contracting relationship with a large organisation. The relationship has little warmth, little joy. I feel its pinch most sharply in the emails: grammatically crippled messages from highly paid executives who randomly capitalise words like Customer and talk about measurable goals, Flagship Brands and offerings. I think to myself, "I can't believe I'm busting my ass for you."

A plane taunts me: Flight CZ306, China Southern Airlines, Auckland to Guangzhou. I know its name because I have a plane-spotter app on my iPad that tracks it each night at half-past 10 as it rolls down the runway and turns north. I can hear it as it banks towards the city, then roars over our roof as it climbs. In a few more moments it's above Glenfield, then Kumeu, then out over the water and carrying more than 200 people on their way to ... what? It's exciting to contemplate the possibilities: a student making her way home to her parents, a high-roller taking home some SkyCity loot, a technologist visiting a factory, a gas station proprietor fleeing the country with the money his bank inadvertently deposited in his account. I watch that plane go and I want to be in China, or Southeast Asia, where so much is happening, where so much is new.

I turned 50 six years ago. I spent most of that year telling my story about Dad, and me, and the dishes. What was he thinking as he looked out into nothing? That he had more in the rear-view mirror than he did ahead? That this wasn't what he'd imagined? He wouldn't have been thinking about a plane to China. He doesn't like to travel. He prefers the familiar bed, the familiar routine. His escape is in his detective novels. He last left the country in 1946, a soldier in the force that occupied Japan. We try to get him to talk about it. He did tell us once about rolling into Hiroshima, that it was eerie, unsettling. But it's hard to get more; he looks out the kitchen window.

People will say about their stroppy teenager, "He gives us all kinds of grief but deep down we know he cares." I worry that I wasn't like that, that I didn't really care very much. I wanted to be out of the cage, out into the world. Today's teen has social media and can unload his withering comments on total strangers. I had only my family to dump on. The first time Dad truly spoke to me as an adult was to say "you need to stop doing this stuff or you'll destroy my marriage".

He encouraged me to go to university, he could see no future in farming; or, at least, none for me. I moved to Wellington in February. The first phone call I got from him was in November. He said: "I was just wondering who you're going to vote for." Muldoon was campaigning for his second term. My mind was well made-up. He said "Les Gandar is a good man. We need a good man in there." In 1978, for the only time in my life, I voted National. Dad had rung me up. Gandar was a good man. How could I not?

A friend, who travels a lot, has a beautiful new daughter. She has astonishing eyes and the loveliest smile. He will think of her when he's on the road and it will bring a glow, and he'll find himself crying tears of joy. I ask myself if I was that father. I have boundless love for our girl, a teenager now, but I don't recall that sense of being swept away by the thought of her when I wasn't there. Was I a distracted parent? "But how was it when you were with her?" my friend asks. "How engaged were you when you were together?" And then I remember the books and the toy animals and the word games and the laughter and I feel reassured. It would dismay me to think I'd let her down; that I'd let the trivia of daily life get in the way of tears of joy.

Mum told me some time ago they were sitting, she and Dad, quiet with one another. He might have been looking out the window, they might have been having a cup of tea. He said to her - of life, not the teapot - "Is that all there is?" It hurts to hear it. Can you ask "is that all there is" without feeling that life has disappointed you? What can we expect of life? What should we?

Other-David, who didn't get arrested in Washington DC, who didn't get locked up for 30 years, says he loves to work with Russians: "They know how to live with disappointment."

Dad can be stoic. When a politician turns out to be a less-good man than Les Gandar, this does not surprise him. When fear and greed turn an ordinary Auckland house into a million-dollar mortgage millstone, this does not surprise him. He smiles, he looks content. Perhaps he is. Everything he has done in his life, he's done well. A fine horseman, a fine stockman, a fine livestock breeder. He has worked in some way every day of his life. He liked his golf. He has possibly seen more horses race than anyone alive today. He watches for the love of them.

What am I looking for, here on the far side of 50? What is it that gnaws at me? Regret? The emptying hourglass? The lost chances? The squandered possibilities?

I host talk radio sometimes, and I share my melancholy about this. Melancholy? Or self-pity? The callers are very kind. Mostly their advice is to relish the time remaining, forget what's gone. They say "every day above ground is a good one" and "seize the day" and other cliches - but they also talk about the reward of doing things for others, for the sports group, for the school, for refugees new to the country; taking yourself out of the frame, replacing it with something more important.

There is plenty to be doing. We have contaminated rivers, we have children living in poverty, we have families who are victims of economic "rationalism". This is a time of abundance and yet we could scarcely be worse at sharing it about. We have people living in damp, mouldy flats. Their pay is too little, their rent is far too much. Fear, greed, and blind disregard for the consequences of borrowing billions, and pretending our houses were worth two and three times as much as they really are have landed us in a hopeless mess.

Regrets? We should have a few. We would have a superannuation fund as mighty as Singapore's if Prime Minister Muldoon hadn't killed it dead. Billions of investment dollars that never were. We're hardly smarter today. We have a super fund, 10 years old this year, grown to $29 billion from a standing start, but not enough to impress the Minister of Finance. But for the $12 billion in contributions he has withheld, it could have been worth $48 billion today. Lucky, farsighted, capable Singapore. Housing costs there are within everyone's reach. There, the State owns land. There, the State builds accommodation on a grand scale. Staggering to think we once did the same then lost the plot.

The property market runs on fear and greed, and quite often makes no sense at all. Why would we not use the power of the State to shield ordinary people from that? So much to regret, so many chances forgone. This present Government will surely be remembered, in the end, not for what it has done but for what it has failed to do.

Its greatest innovation may turn out to be its contribution to recreational cycling. Bizarre, ironic.

Plenty to be doing ... Barb Cuthbert, great-great-niece of that bloody woman, Kate Sheppard, can make a convert of anyone to the cycling cause. "You like bikes," she said to me, "let's get more people on to them."

In 2009 we organised a birthday party for the Auckland harbour bridge. It was turning 50 years old. There's that number again. About 5000 cyclists came and we sang Happy Birthday and people made speeches about how good it would be to be able to cycle over it. There was going to be no civil disobedience, but then somebody slipped through the fence and on to the bridge, and then a dozen more, and next thing you know there were 5000 of us being civilly disobedient.

Not every driver was friendly to us, and this is the truth about change - it can be slow, it can be difficult. But Barb presses on and makes friends, finds common cause. When the idea of a national cycleway emerged from an economic summit, she got very, very excited. She worked the ministers, she lobbied. As the rest of the world began to embrace cycling in cities that had only known and loved cars - none more so than New York - she made sure Auckland city and the relevant Cabinet Ministers knew all about it. The cycle paths keep coming; all around Auckland and over the bridge.

What do you do with your regrets? You stop thinking about yourself. You make yourself part of something larger. I had become so busy I believed I had no time for bike campaigning. I realise now I'll be a happier man if I get back on the bike.

You pitch in. You join the working bee. You sign up for the cause. You look around at what's wrong, and ask how can I help? You think less about your own fate. You turn your mind to the world around you. What do you do with your regrets? You start something new today.

Mum was on television this year because she's 82 and learned to swim only 10 years ago. Now she swims 40 lengths a time and she's going to the Masters' Games. Everyone who hears her story enthuses about it. They love it; the proof that you can still do exciting things, new things, as you grow old.

I'm looking out to China and feeling wistful, my parents are showing me what to do. A few years ago they were working in our garden, doing some work for us. They didn't know I could see them from my desk. Dad had his earmuffs on because he belongs to the generation that loves a chainsaw. He was pissed off about something, because that's what chainsaws will do to you. Mum walked over to him, cupped his head, lifted up the earmuffs, said something and kissed him on the forehead. They stood there, together, still, calm, warm. This is what brings me joy, looking out the window.

Extracted from The Journal of Urgent Writing 2016, edited by Nicola Legat (Massey University Press, $40), out on November 11.

- Canvas

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