Sixty & Way Beyond

My father at boot camp.

I don’t remember many of my birthdays. There was a neighborhood party when I was five. When I was 21, my big brother and I hit a couple bars that were open on a dull Sunday evening in Akron, Ohio. When I turned the odometer over at 40, I had just arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, but there were few people I knew, and those I did, not very well, so I didn’t tell anyone.

On the eve of my 60th birthday recently, I ran a little over two miles at the local track—running one lap in all eight lanes continuously. I’m unsure if I ever ran farther in the span of my 59th year. If I did, it wasn’t often and it couldn’t have been much farther.

I thought about my father during that run. Could he have run two miles when he was at the same point in his life in 1985? Probably not, but unlike me, I never knew of him to do any kind of long distance running—even when he was much younger and I was only a child. Regardless, he would have destroyed me in the bench press.

Thinking back a year from this time as I was turning 59, I remember being concerned that my partner Marsha and other friends might throw a big party for this 60th milestone. As it turns out, that worry was all for nothing thanks to the new norm of social distancing compliments of COVID-19.

I have wondered if I’ll be one of those looking back on the pandemic and thinking about those who were lost to it, or will I be one of the casualties. It’s odd how clinical I can think about this even as it could be residing just outside my window.

Getting back to my father in 1985, I think about what he was doing as a 60-year old. He was still working at Goodyear as a pipe fitter. And, much like me, he was starting to see his retirement on the horizon. And when he was 60, I was going back to school for my graduate work at Northern Arizona University—I was 25 then.

Further down the family line, my paternal grandfather, Emory Hansford Tyree was 60 years old in 1960, the year I was born—also working for Goodyear as a tire-building supervisor.

Another grim thought came to me recently regarding this milestone. If I live to be 100, I’ve exhausted 60% of my life and the remaining 40% should be anything but a joy ride. I reckon if I’m lucky, I have another 20 years of decent quality living. Past 80, surely I’ll be on borrowed time. Should I check out tomorrow, I can’t complain as I look back on the big picture of my life, it feels pretty complete.

Sixty-years-old is one of life’s fencelines. I see it as the official threshold between the middle-age years and the senior years. Although a bit grim as I consider my status, there is a small amount of consolation in that I’m a young and spry old man rather than a washed-up, middle-aged man.

* * *

Along with the pandemic of COVID-19 that is currently upon us, another unexpected, but delightful event has emerged during this milestone in my life… only a few months ago (late March) a comet was discovered making its approach toward the Sun and here in July of 2020, it is close enough and bright enough to be seen with the naked eye as it makes its way around the sun and back out to the periphery of the solar system. The comet has been named NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) after the orbit-based telescope (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Space Explorer) that detected it.

As I understand, the comet’s last pass by Earth was about 4,500 years ago. That would have been about 2,480 B.C. Recorded history is scarce that far back and what is known has mostly to do with Egypt and its “Golden Age.” This would have been around the time when the famed “Seated Scribe” was created. The Temple of Khafra had just been completed too—along with the second largest pyramid at Giza. What a great time for something as mysterious as a comet to show up in the heavens above.

In North America, little history is known while exact dates are only imagined. But it’s worth noting that in NEOWISE’s previous appearance, the Independence I people from North America had just arrived in Greenland, while the Aleutian tradition was emerging in Alaska along with Arctic Small Tool tradition around Bristol Bay.

From here, I went down another historical rabbit hole. If the great dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period were roaming the Earth some 145 million years ago, NEOWISE has probably made some 20,000 round trips in the solar system since that time—assuming its existence back then.

As a result of the comet’s close approach to the sun in this latest visit, its orbital period has increased another 2,300 years meaning that the next time NEOWISE shows itself near Earth, it will be around the year 8820. As it approaches the Sun, NEOWISE rises above the orbit plane of the planets, but not long after as it makes its way back into the outer solar system, it dips below the orbit plane at an angle of about 30-degrees.

As NEOWISE makes its way back to the darkest reaches of our solar system and beyond, moving at a speed of 144K miles per hour (or 40 miles per second), it will have passed a distance that matches Jupiter’s orbit by this time next year, and about a year later it will have passed a distance that equals the orbit of Saturn. In June of 2025 NEOWISE will be as far away as Uranus, and in a few months before my 70th birthday, it will have reached a distance that equals Neptune’s orbit. By the time my 80th birthday has arrived, NEOWISE will be some 40.4 astronomical units* (au) from Earth—as far away as the Kuiper Belt where Pluto resides. And should I live to see a century, NEOWISE will still be traveling away from Earth at a distance of 63.998 au—toward its origins in the Oort Cloud before it starts making its way back for that 8820 rendezvous with Earth.

By 8820—who knows—maybe short trips to see the comet up close will be possible or our descendants will have bridled the celestial traveler and placed it in a permanent orbit around Earth to be viewed indefinitely like the moon.

* * *

Two days following my birthday, I planned a solo overnight trip to the light-depleted expanse of Polecat Bench—only eight miles from my home town. I arrived well before sunset waiting for the comet to appear. I laughed so loud when I finally saw it as if someone had let me in on their joke. I even danced a little as it was pure joy.

Turning 60, may have been my best birthday ever.

*One astronomical unit represents the distance from the center of Earth to the center of the Sun—approximately 93 million miles. NEOWISE’s location on any given day, HERE.

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