Pittsburgh Author Explores Aging in 'My Last Eight Thousand Days'

Oct 6, 2020

Lee Gutkind admits it, with a kind of relish: He used to lie about his age.

At some point in his late middle years, the author and creative-nonfiction guru started telling people who asked that he was “47.” He knew he looked, and was, rather older; he lied largely to confuse his questioners. Nonetheless, he was also truly self-conscious about his age.

Coming to grips with aging is the main theme of “My Last Eight Thousand Days” (University of Georgia Press), the new memoir Gutkind has published at 77. It’s an unstinting look at the challenges of growing older, but also the story of his journey to acceptance of and even pride in his accomplishments, along with the mere fact of his survival.

The book’s title, said Gutkind, is a tongue-in-cheek nod to research suggesting that the average man’s life plays out in “quarters” of 8,000 days each (about 22 years), which places the author halfway through his fourth quarter.

Gutkind, who grew up in Greenfield, has written nonfiction books about everything from Major League umpires (“The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand”) to the world of organ transplantation (“Many Sleepless Nights”). But he’s also well known for championing the genre he calls “creative nonfiction” – the telling of true stories with literary style. Gutkind pioneered teaching the genre in an academic setting – initially at the University of Pittsburgh – and in 1994 founded the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, which publishes books, a quarterly magazine and more.

Gutkind now teaches at Arizona State University and, when a pandemic isn’t raging, splits his time between Pittsburgh and Arizona. “My Last Eight Thousand Days” features jacket blurbs from the likes of New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese and novelist Rick Moody. Gutkind said the memoir is grounded in his standard journalistic practice: immersion in his subject, whether it’s long-haul motorcyclists or artificial intelligence. Only this time, the mystery was himself.

“When one writes a memoir … is when we talk deep-dive, which is a real severe and serious searching into what has happened to you in the past, the things that you have done that have been significant. The things you wish you would have not done,” he said in an interview at Creative Nonfiction’s headquarters, near his home, in Shadyside. His goal was “to take my experience, my 70 years and what I have learned, and share it with others so that others in my position can perhaps learn, or learn what not to do.”

"I find it so much easier to accept being old if I don't think about or talk about being old"

The picture is not always a happy one. Gutkind is frank about his relationship with his abusive father, his struggles with anger management, and his two marriages that ended in divorce. “My Last Eight Thousand Days” opens with Gutkind facing his 70th birthday. The event fell in the same year as several personal calamities – the deaths of his two best friends; the dissolution of his 10-year romantic partnership; and the evaporation of a big book project – and just five days after the death of his beloved mother.

“I felt pretty much alone,” he said. “Can one, at 70 or 75, find a new support system? Or does everybody just kind of retire and fade away?”

On the matter of aging gracefully – or not – Gutkind recounts how on his 40th birthday he stormed out of a Downtown restaurant his wife took him to because the other, white-haired patrons reminded him too much of his advancing years. And he writes frankly about his fears of physical decline, loss of short-term memory, and ceasing to matter professionally.

But a good deal of the book is also a story of growth, from this former fat kid’s triumphal acing of the Coast Guard’s rope-climbing test to his self-discovery as a writer and beyond. That growth applies even to his attitudes toward aging.

Gutkind said he’s happy to see ageism become a topic of discussion, but he thinks we still have a long way to go. He dislikes the term “senior citizen” (“I wouldn’t call you a ‘junior citizen’”), and hates it when store clerks (or anybody else) jocularly call him “young man.” He bristles at the thought of retiring: “What would be the point of that?”

As he writes in “Eight Thousand Days,” “I find it so much easier to accept being old if I don’t think about or talk about being old.”

And Gutkind did finally stop lying about his age. He recalls the very day it happened, several years back. He had taken up a strenuous form of yoga, and ensconced himself as by far the oldest yogi at one Shadyside studio. “It made me feel really terrific that I could keep up with all of those young people,” he said.

One day, Gutkind was talking with the instructor and one of the other yogis, who were complimenting him on his performance. Then the instructor asked how old he was.

Gutkind could have told his standard lie of “47.” Instead, he said recently, “At that moment I started thinking about how incredibly lucky I was to be in that class and to participate with 50-year-olds and 22-year-olds.”

“And I thought, ‘OK, Lee, enough of this nonsense,’” he said. “So when she asked me, ‘How old are you?’ For the first time — I'm not kidding, for the first time in maybe forever — I told the truth. And I said, ‘71.’ And it helped change me.

“I thought, ‘OK, Lee, you're going to be somebody else. You're going to be yourself -- but you're going to be your real self,’ from that point onward.”

[Editor's note: This story has been amended to state the correct university where Gutkind teaches.]