Friday, March 5, 2010

40, Part 1

As I close in on the last two months of 40, it's high time I finally wrote about this disturbing age, which has been somewhat of an obsession for me. May writing about it exorcise its many demons.

For as long as I can remember--or at least as long as I've been watching too much TV--I've feared mid-life crisis almost more than death itself. Why? Because it's always seemed clear to me that the 40s are the decade when men lose their minds. Why else would so many fictional men with wonderful fictional wives suddenly trash it all for the sports car and the aerobics instructor? (I'm talking to you, "Fatal Attraction" Michael Douglas and "American Beauty" Kevin Spacey.)

For most of the women I know, 40 is a liberating age. There's an easing of pressure accompanied by a comfortable acceptance of self. The weight of self-consciousness lessens. Old insecurities lose their punch. Hair shortens.

For men ... well, I won't speak for men ... I'll speak for me and see if other men agree: 40 has the opposite effect. The pressure is threefold. The acceptance of self: eh. Self-consciousness? Probably greater. Insecurities, still nagging, still pestering.

The dawn of subtle physical and mental changes starts the ball rolling. Why do I suddenly misjudge distances, banging my hand on the cupboard when returning a dish? Why do I bend differently to pick a toy up off the floor, knees akimbo like an old man, rather than easily and effortlessly from the waist? Why can I suddenly not remember the names of movie stars? Why do I seem to always feel my eyes, and why am I constantly clearing my throat when I speak?

Then it hits you: 40 isn't just mid-life. It's not like you had 40 years of health and growth, and now you get 40 more. Your healthy years are over, dude ... and that's if you're lucky to be alive and haven't had any major health issues to this point. You suddenly wonder what cumulative effects your past habits have exerted on your physical state. All those gallons of pop I ingested in my teenage years, all the Frito-Lay chemicals I shoved down the gullet, the acid from 20 years of coffee drinking, the second-hand smoke from years of playing gigs, the nearly first-hand smoke from working that summer in the cramped underground Dublin nightclub. Yikes. And I've lived pretty clean ...

Then there's that whole mortality thing. If you're the over-sensitive type like me, you already make a habit of noticing the elephant in every room. By 40, you realize that the elephant in every room is death. It's the backdrop to and context of every human action and expression: football, art, procreation, blogging, hedge funds ... it matters not, mere mortal. When you see everything through the death lens, you realize that every human endeavor is in some way an attempt to achieve immortality. It's so painfully, painfully obvious.

At the same time, you reach a point in your intellectual development where you either cling even more tightly to your prior beliefs, shut the lid on exploration and become more fundamentalist ... about your religion, your politics, your vegetarianism, your musical taste ... or you blow it wide open, question everything all over again and begin a new blank slate. I highly recommend the latter.

And, perhaps most interesting of all, you try to find a way to live with this: When you're in your 20s, you think you know everything and the rest of the world is stupid. In your 30s, you get enough of a taste of how things work to realize that you don't know anything and there's actually a reason why things are the way the are. Then you hit 40 and realize that the screenwriter William Goldman was correct in a much broader sense than even he intended: Nobody knows anything.

This is at once terrifying and liberating. On one hand, there's very little actually holding society together. At all. On the other hand, you look at the things that used to intimidate you, all the things you never thought you could do, the places you never thought you would go, and you shrug your shoulders and say, "Why not?"

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great commentary Mark. I agree about the elephant in the room. Everpresent.
Speaking for one woman, I have to say the 40s have not so far been liberating. Just hard. Perhaps I'm still in the adjustment phase...
Happy Birthday to you...you must be a Pisces, like me.

Pat Str.

Anonymous said...

Cheer up! The elephant in every room was fired, we have a new football coach.

Michael said...

Bam! Nailed it...

Chris said...

Great post. Yeah this 40 thing kinda snuck up on me. Now I know why so many guys go out and buy a corvette or something....i look around and i think "Man, I'm older than everyone on this train!"

Cheers, great blog.

-C