Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Unceremonial Passage Into Middle Age

A reader writes to give me comments on the dedicated purpose of the website, and its connection to my midlife crisis. Being of similar age, said reader took umbrage at the notion that the middle age tag applies to our age cohort. It got me thinking back to the print version of Ideas Hatched, when I recounted when I first realized I slipped the bonds of youth. Here it is, from the archives, specifically August 1999 ...

Just yesterday, it was easier for me to count working days than vacation days, I could pass entire summers wearing short pants, I spent at least 200 hours per year arguing that the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers were greatest team ever, and I was well informed of most drink specials for bars within a reasonable radius of my digs.
Today, almost inexplicably, I awoke in the top floor of a townhome that has a thirty year mortgage attached to it, next to a wife who is two months from delivering twins. She rushed me out the door to board a train that carries thousands of faceless commuters into a major city where I sit at a desk all day long, five days a week, 48 weeks a year. I wear ties more often than shorts, and I couldn't point out the nearest bar.
Until now, I could handle all of these lifestyle changes and new- found responsibilities, and still cling to the delusion that I am in the prime of my youth. But there is one piece of evidence that serves as a mild slap in the face: the brand new Ford Windstar minivan that sits in my garage.
It is the first brand new car I have ever purchased, and its not exactly the one anyone dreams of having in high school. The minivan is the modern day equivalent to your dad’s old station-wagon, which was fine for a dad, but isn’t exactly a boon to the social life of someone in his youth. I am left with either the vain hope that the minivan will become fashionable among young jet-setters, or the harsh realization that I am now middle-aged.
It is an irreversible course, I am afraid, and can lead to only one thing – old age, marked by the purchase of a Lincoln (which I am actually looking forward to owning). Of course, the reality of one’s situation is always independent from one’s perception of the same. I was in fact middle aged the day before I bought the minivan, but it never quite hit me. I could perhaps have delayed the realization as so many others try to – by purchasing a sport utility vehicle instead. But the minivan is far more practical, and practicality is the hallmark of being middle aged.
I negotiated the price of the car in what I believe was an effective manner. The salesman and I went back and forth for a few days before we settled on a price. I could tell you I got a great deal on the car, but who have you ever met that has confessed: “I got taken to the cleaners on this one – the salesman must have seen me coming from a mile away.”
Only the salesman himself will ever know if I did well in comparison to other negotiators, but whether I got the best of him or not, he at least had the masochistic consolation of witnessing me forever giving up my youth. Or maybe he let me off easy with the knowledge that by the time I come back for a new car, the fight will be so beaten out of me that I will readily pay the sticker price.
I think back to all other major life events – baptism, first communion, confirmation, various graduations, and marriage. All of them mark the passage from an old life to a new one, and all do so through two central mechanisms: ceremony and celebration. But in each of those occasions, though we generally leave the old life behind with some sadness, there is much to look forward to in the new one. And we usually have alcohol and the presence of family and friends to smooth over the transition.
But passage into middle age is conspicuously lacking in both ceremony and celebration. We are simply left to slide into it, perhaps under the hope that we simply won’t recognize the incremental difference. Just as in any other passage that proceeds it, there is a lot to look forward to, but middle agedness alone requires the purchase of life insurance, forcing some of us to confront our mortality for the first time.
Now maybe this is nothing to celebrate, but a few friends and a few beers would make it a lot easier to ignore the whole aging process. And who knows, maybe a month could be set aside for men and women passing into middle age to live as they did in their early twenties. We are made immune to diseases like polio with a small dose of the disease itself – why not cure the midlife crisis in the same way?
It is high time for some sort of ceremony and celebration for middle aged people. It is too late for me. It was too late for most of my friends years ago. But it’s not too late for the children! Lets do it for the children!


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