Think pulling an all-nighter would damn near kill you? Welcome to Middle Age
From TORO, March 2004
There was a moment a year or two ago when the world suddenly belonged to forty-year-olds. Forty-year-old actors—Hanks, Cruise, Cage—commanded the Hollywood A-List. Forty-year-old writers—Michael Chabon, Yann Martel—were bagging the big book prizes; Billy Collins wrote his first real poems at 40, en route to becoming U.S. Poet Laureate (succeeded this year by the 40-year-old Louise Gluck). George W. Bush had skived off until he was forty before jogging right into the White House, And you could make a legitimate case that a guy pushing forty was the best player in each of the four major professional sports (Barry Bonds, Mario Lemieux, Rich Gannon, Michael Jordan). It looked as if Gen-X bellwether Doug Coupland had nailed the zeitgeist again when he said, a few months before turning forty himself, “Forty is the new thirty. The remark seemed less epigrammatic than somehow affirming. Buck up, my thinning-haired brethren: you are just now reaching cruising altitude.
Was this just some kind of weird historical hiccup? The only ones who didn’t believe so were forty-year-olds. And sure enough, the cultural ecosystem soon returned to its natural state. Forty-year-old athletes such as Gannon, Randy Johnson, who looked dominant about a year ago, came apart like clocks. In the movies, Nic and Hugh and The Toms were punk’d by a platoon of younger leading men. The world went back to reading twentysomething authors (Nell Freudenberger) for their buzz, or sixtysomething authors (J.M. Coetzee) for their gravitas. And as the last forty-year-old entrepreneurs, refusing to succumb to the tech bust, finally went under, old guys reassumed their rightful control of global finance. (A year ago, a 40-year-old Russian oligarch Mikael Khordorkovsky was one of the world’s most powerful businessmen; but he was recently brought to heel by President Putin, an old KGB guy.)
The Illusion that forty-year-olds matter seems transparent once again. For every forty-year-old who is really cooking, there are two who are resigned to the leftovers from someone else’s plate—or licking yesterday’s gravy from their own.
At forty, there is the unmistakable stench of denoument. If we’re writers, we have hit the Graham Greene Barrier. You are a young writer until you hit forty, Greene said, and thereafter you are a writer who failed to fulfill your early promise. At the press conference following his last great game as a pro ballplayer last year, the just-turned-forty Michael Jordan wanted to make one thing perfectly clear: “I don’t feel forty,” he said. “I feel good.”
That’s the thing. For most of us, most of the time, forty does not feel good. Forty isn’t the new Thirty. Forty is the new Sixty. At forty, life consists of the continuous and never-ending arrival of crews of guys in reflective jackets, shutting down roads. There’s more you can’t do now than you can do, and anyone not preparing for a new later-life role is in denial. You are not who you once were. Consumer culture no longer cares what you drink, watch or do. You will never have “buzz”; the best you can hope for is a sort of low tinnitus.
These people are forty: Emilio Estevez, M.C. Hammer, Leif Garrett.
Conan O’Brien is forty. Writer Frank DiGiacomo recently described his face as “half adolescent, half middle-aged,” as though frozen in the turn. O’Brien was once an angry young satirist, a Harvard Lampoon grad bound for The Simpsons. The rebel’s anger peaks in one’s twenties, and may carry into the thirties. But if you’re still angry at forty,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said recently, “you need to see a shrink.”
The fire diminishes, the dishes pile up.
The midlife crisis of the forty-year-old ought not to be confused with what used to strike guys around fifty, a time when they had legitimate reasons to feel old because actual body parts were quite obviously breaking down. At forty the decline is more acutely psychological, a sort of desperate reckoning. The deadline that loomed when you were twenty and still fishing for a career (“I don’t want to be doing this when I’m forty,” you said, whatever lucrative-enough but untaxing job you happened to be doing) has arrived. So the goal is to reinvent yourself, to get out of the arena that would showcase your decline and switch to another area in which, starting aging, you will be judged on a beginner’s terms. (Forty is when actors, losing their looks, decide to direct.)
If you are a forty-year-old man, these are the sorts of things that start happening to you:
You openly speculate about what the neighbours are up to.
You sleep in flannel.
You occasionally eat in restaurants on the top floor of department stores.
You are sexually playful with your wife in a way you imagine your grandparents might have been, passing each other in the hall, grabbing an erogenous zone with a Harpo Marx toot.
You start to prefer baked potatoes to fries.
You have your eye on James Taylor’s October Road.
You stop totally discounting the idea of taking a cruise.
You think a little dog wouldn’t be too bad.
You think it might profit you to play Scrabble in the evenings, to “stay sharp.”
You worry that someone is going to smash your glasses.
People ask to borrow your pen, and then you see them absentmindedly cleaning their ear with the cap—and you do not get angry at this. You think: I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that.”
You think: ‘It would damn near kill me to pull an all-nighter.’
You consider subscribing to a couple of magazines for the sun hat or the clock radio.
You find wide-wale cords sufficiently dressy for most occasions.
If figure skating is on TV when you surf the channels, you sometimes stop there.
You sometimes catch yourself saying, “Here’s an interesting anecdote…”
Kids tire of you.
You keep hearing a joke about two senior citizens. They meet weekly on a bench in the park. They are fast (if situational) friends, and one day, mortally embarrassed, one says to the other, “Please don’t be angry with me, dear, but after all these years, what is your name? I’m trying to remember but I can’t.” And the other looks a little horrified, and stares deeply into the first one’s eyes, and lets about two minutes of increasingly uncomfortable silence pass. And then says: “How soon do you have to know?”
You don’t find this joke funny—because it reaches down your throat and gives your heart a squeeze.