“What is middle age?” I always wondered. Surveying this culture of young people playing at being wise, and old people playing at being sprightly, I could never quite locate the elusive midpoint. It had to be there, I reasoned, because the jargon would not lie. Somewhere beyond desperate adolescence, somewhere past collegiate excess, somewhere before creaky infirmity, somewhere in advance of toothless nostalgia, there must lie a perfect center, a serene, idyllic touchdown equidistant to nonage and dotage.
Plodding through the years, plying the various enterprises of adulthood, trying to get rites of passage passably right, I collected a host of souvenirs — marriage licenses, divorce decrees, birth certificates, report cards, caps and gowns — without arriving at the temporal median. Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, I am there, and it is here.
As you read this, the busboys are sweeping the detritus from my eldest son’s wedding party, with relatives and friends scurrying back into their hidey-holes. The band has played the last dance, the photographer has clicked his final shutter and the formerly statuesque cake is now a gooey stump amid the last smears on the dessert display. My boy has begun his own home, and with my 50th birthday looming on May 19th, the conclusion is undeniable, inescapable, ineluctable: I am in middle age.
There must be new protocols suited to this fresh terrain, and I will have to apprehend them quickly through intuition. I must master the art of addressing young people with an air of avuncular abstraction. No longer of their ranks, I must bring them wistful reports from their future. The ideal prospect is for me to provide a role model; the default setting is to provide a cautionary tale. “Kids, don’t make the mistakes I made.”
As for the aged, I must learn to relate to their condition with a species of empathy. The patronizing too-loud too-slow too-vapid tone formerly reserved for conversing with the elderly will be parked forever at the midlife curb. Henceforth I must nod knowingly at references to fraternity life in the 1950s, wince at tales of cold winters in Korea, and chuckle at ribald retellings of hijinks in the Catskills of yore. For the first time I notice that white hair is distinguished and wrinkles give a face character.
I am still addicted to the verve of my Mustang, its rocket-ship surge of acceleration, but I must now acknowledge that the price for this indulgence will be looking ridiculous. Everyone seeing me tooling around Miami in my favorite toy, my elders and my youngers, will shake their heads pityingly. There is no sorrier spectacle than a guy who just doesn’t get it, falling into a career of chronic anachronism. Don’t look down just now, big guy, or you will see that you are about to drive over the hill.
Actually, the wedding itself provided a window into this new realm. The youngsters were dancing their little hearts out, oblivious to the limits of straining muscles, and the old-timers were shuffling and limping and being pushed in wheelchairs. Just as life was speeding up for some, it was slowing down for others. The groom has three living biological grandparents and the bride has two, leaving me rightâ€¦ in the middle.
Well, life does go on and I do insist on enjoying the daylights out of it. I can still do whatever I could at 20, except that my knees commemorate my exertions for some days afterward. I have been lucky in life and in love, and exceeded most of my youthful ambitions. Most amazing of all, there is a worldwide community of bright and industrious people with whom I can share my thoughts. That audience writes back to me as well, sharing their own struggles and thereby giving mine a universal context. The classic Jewish phrase goes: “When many share the same problem, that is half a consolation.”
And so, after this brief pause in middle, I say onward ho! 2058, here we come.