FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Turning Forty

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Turning Forty

Sam Smith, 1977 - Here I sit on the front stoop of forty, waiting to go in and wondering what I should do when I get there a few weeks hence. Whatever it is that is happening to me lacks the proper aura of the ominous. I detect restive interests and subtle changes but I've swallowed in doubt and change most of my life and the fourth decade brand seems no more remarkable than the rest. I have intimations of mortality but that is nothing new either. In fact, if helpful people hadn't put up the milestone, I might have missed it all together.

Actually, the worst traumas of my life occurred not last week but in the distant past, when I suffered what might be known today as a pre-life crisis. So difficult did I find the vagaries of growing up that everything which has intruded since as a would-be spectre has seemed a pale imitation of disaster. So dismal was my early perspective that I declared to myself I would consider my life a success if it lasted twenty-one years, a goal later amended to twenty-five and thereafter handled by continuing resolution.

Where I obtained this glum view of life expectancy I don't know, but I suppose I yearned so much for the presumed freedom and fun of adulthood that I figured some quirk of puritanical fate would surely deny merit. I surmised the end would come not through some lingering illness, but with an oncoming car swerving across the center line, a fire or other catastrophe in which I would be blameless but dead nonetheless. A nice 1950s conception of life in which the individual could do nothing more than play out a romantic yet futile role in the face of eventual defeat at the hand of mindless forces far too strong to invite attempts at manipulation- or control.

Blame it on the then-capitalized Bomb, Eisenhower, my upbringing or going to too many Humphrey Bogart movies. The fact is that I started my adult life with a grandiose vision of looming personal demise. My friends, I suspect , never guessed it. Once you become a willing partner in a magnificent tragedy, one loses much of the apprehension of the still-to-come that more normal souls possess because of their uncertainty.  I knew it was going to end badly and too soon and thus could enjoy ironies of the present better than they and was regarded as a fairly cheerful and carefree fellow. I kept my foreboding to myself and, except for an occasional sleepless night, did not suffer unduly from my grim speculation. But if I was grandly fatalistic about my ultimate end, I was also intensely uncertain and afraid of the more probable futures — like tomorrow or the next day. Every examination, every event, and every new adventure I stood before as though it were an approaching tornado. My stomach would turn itself inside out at the slightest provocation, I would become faint in the face of the  mildest adversity and I dreaded the unfamiliar. To make matters worse, I also concealed my deep timidity from my contemporizes with a bravado that only made the truth more uncomfortable to me.

As it turned out, I quickly outlived my expectations and my youthful plagues slowly left me. Mindless forces only got their tentacles on me occasionally, as when the United States Coast Guard declared me a potential security risk at age 23, and forced me through McCarthyesque procedures to determine whether I was loyal despite my parents' erstwhile membership in several organizations that were retroactively considered suspect by paranoid protectors of the flag.

I was no rebel in those days and I pursued my ultimately successful self-justification with vigor and misery. As life crises go, being labelled an embryonic Benedict Arnold at 23 surely qualifies. At least it did in 1960. Perhaps my subsequent life has teen exceedingly dull, but I've never been quite able to match it. Along with my peculiar youthful view of the world, it contributed to a curriculum vitae that makes it  difficult for me to look upon the turning of the decades with appropriate apprehension and despair.

Once you survive something, your perspective changes.  I have found that the succeeding crises of my life have arranged themselves in a carelessly random fashion.  There have been good years and bad years, pain caused by my own foolishness and pain caused by others or by accident. While among the pain has been confirmation of my early belief that life tends to end badly and too soon, there has also been the delight of the company of those who challenged that belief by living long and well, and who tended to regard the much vaunted crises of the middle years as part of the luxury of youth.

I have also become a statistic collector. Did you know that the life expectancy of a male in Massachusetts in 1855 was only 38.7 years? I've already beaten the odds in Massachusetts of just 122 years ago. Furthermore, I don't feel like having a crisis. Not a big one, I mean. Because I don't know the answer now any better than I ever have and if I'm living in a fool's paradise and don't  understand the decrepitude that is to be-fall a few weeks from now, I at least hope for some placidity to make up for the energy, virility and creativity about to depart .

I am just not ready to become a loyal American forty-year-old writhing on the fulcrum of my life. Nor do I think I am alone. A recently reported study of Harvard graduates from the 1940s found that among the most successful, life got better after forty; the earlier years having been too filled with conforming, proving, achieving. The researchers found no mid-life crisis.

And what of the forty-year olds who take their retirement from the military to "begin" their lives? Or people who live chronologically indifferent lives in which success and happiness represent accumulations rather than defined points? Or the woman I know who is going to medical school and when told, "But you'll be fifty by the time you're a doctor," replied, "I'll be fifty whether I'm a doctor or not?" I suspect it is the sprinters who have the worst of it. Having fixed their goal far short of the end, they arrive there winded and unclear where to go next. It's not really their fault that they assumed that if you didn't do it by forty you wouldn't. It was, after all, what they were taught — by an economic system increasingly squeezing out the young and the old and by a social system increasingly tilted towards those who perform best the most noble task of the American: consumption.

William Safire, the columnist, suggested recently, for example, that "old people. . .ought to retire so that business can be better managed and society economically served." He was speaking of those in their sixties, but too often the shoving begins at forty. Once past forty, you become a problem to the marketplace: a problem because you wish to stay behind the counter and a problem because you don't spend enough time in front of it. But if we stretch our imaginations a bit it is possible to conceive of a value system not quite so closely tied to corporate personnel demands or media demographics, in which case reaching forty might mean different things.
I was reading the other night a book by a Chinese writer of the 1930s who noted that a person's 51st birthday was the beginning of a series of dicennial celebrations of increasing importance and honor. Why the extra year? Perhaps because to celebrate you should be safely past a danger point while to fear and doubt you need only be approaching it. But there was no mention of crisis or trauma.  In China of the 1930s it would be another eleven years before I stepped on the bottom rung of achievement's ladder; here in America of the 1970s I find insinuations that I better prepare myself to fall off.

Unfortunately, in this case, I am not Chinese. I live in a society that sees aging largely in terms of deterioration. Examining the psychological aspects of this is hardly fruitful because we are what we say we are. If it were the collective conclusion of the New York publishing industry that those over forty ought to be placed in age-restricted hospices, treated as invalids and provided special diets, it would be only a matter of time before some young (under-40) liberal senator would propose a National Forties Care Program, college students would riot to prove that they could relate to us, and most of us would truck away without complaint to our subsidized middle-aged wombs.

The physiological evidence is less malleable, but here we tend to pay too much attention to the facts and not enough to their effect. We happily ignore the fact that the number of our brain cells starts diminishing shortly after our teen-age years, but become concerned with the  slowing, weakening and stiffenings of later years. If we made it through the twenties and thirties with hundreds of thousands of AWOL brain cells, we can probably make it through the last portion of our life with a touch of arthritis. In fact, there is at least the possibility that the whirling dervish of youthful life may be less socially benign than we have been led to believe. If our bodies incline us to seek peace more and power less, is the rest of humanity really the worse for it?

Physiological aging actually can diverge surprisingly from chronological age. One can, with luck and effort, be as much as fifteen or twenty years out of kilter. And the different parts of the body can have different ages. You can have a sixty-year old heart and a forty-five year old elbow or, if you play enough tennis, the other way around. At best chronological age is only a rough guide. It is, though, a guide and to say that one should ignore its parody  does not mean on should ignore its message. For example, one .of the messages I have been receiving of late has concerned my common vices. It is not that I have suddenly become enamored of virtue but rather I find that many of the excesses that once brought me pleasure no longer titilate while their unpleasant consequences have magnified themselves. A hangover is no longer the Croix de Guerre of what James Thurber called the "long night's journey into day" but a brutal reminder of the pain that old habits masquerading as new pleasures can bring.

Another message is the realization that many of the things one did to reach a distant goal were not only tedious and immediately dissatisfying, but less ultimately fruitful than one imagined at the time. There are good reasons for hard work —to survive, to enjoy, to fulfill -- but the linear relationship between effort and achievement has been knocked askew by too many examples, especially in this capital city, of how indifferent the world is to it, despite what it says. This doesn't trouble me particularly. On the contrary, I feel rather freed. As a second career, existentialism may not be such a bad choice.

Then, of course, there is the unavoidable hint that one can not postpone indefinitely the end of it all. I fear the new fascination with thanatology. I don't plan to waste much of my remaining life preparing for its end.  And I shall avoid the seminars. Death, from an early age,s hould be faced when it occurs and not unduly before or after. Anyhow, I can't spend too much time on the subject because I want to live to be as old as Alice Roosevelt Longworth and still be invited to parties and say dirty words in the Style section of the Washington' Post. 

In truth, for a situation not of my own choosing, being forty could be a lot worse. It's hard to .explain without seeming naive, but it is like I was young again and starting out, only without the .terror. It might even be better. Because, when you're forty, society expects-less of you, making it easier to confound it. 

So here I am sitting on the front stoop waiting to go in. And what I think I shall do is this. I shall think of it as like a sailboat race. Most races star twith a windward leg; you tack back and forth and you hike out and wonder a lot whether you should come about now or later. The sheets cut the circulation in your fingers and your body is taut. Then you reach the windward mark and you slack the sheets for a broad reach to the next flag where you'll turn for the more state-ly downwind leg and home. I always liked sailing on a broad reach. You can relax a bit. It's fast, smooth and straight ahead. Maybe that's what I'm doing. Just rounding the windward mark