Usually at this time of year, I start driving everybody I know crazy with my annual countdown: "Only four months, seven days, 16 hours, and 49 seconds to go until my birthday. Only four months, seven days, 16 hours, and 48 seconds to go until my birthday. Only four months, seven days, 16 hours, and ..." And so on, ad irkium. Some people pooh-pooh birthday celebrations, greeting the day with a dismissive wave of the hand. Not me. I embrace birthdays. I kiss them. Theyíre like Christmas without the shopping. Whatís not to love?
But this year feels different. This year, for the first time ever, I find myself approaching my birthday with the kind of existential jitters that caused Eugène Ionesco to permanently fuse his butt cheeks together. This year, as a friend of mine so eloquently put it, I am about to become "an old fucker."
Strictly speaking, 40 isnít old. It is, though, undeniably and inescapably, middle-aged. Middle-aged. I can honestly say that Iíve never, ever, not for a single moment, thought of myself as that before. Even now, approaching 40, I cannot get my head around the concept. I am a six-foot-six point guard with the Memphis Grizzlies. I am a portly washerwoman from Nizhny Novgorod. I am Ethel Merman. The Dalai Lama. Yogi Bear. I am a middle-aged man. What the hell does this mean?
Well, if the woe-filled tales of other fledgling fortysomethings are anything to go by, it means that itís time for me to pack my bags and begin the long march to extinction. No more tripping through the poppy fields for me. No more carefree hours spent skipping stones and climbing trees and jumping up and down in nightclubs. Indeed, from what I can gather from other people my age, the old saying "Life begins at 40" contains a major omission; what it should say is "Life begins getting really shitty at 40."
"Since age 40 my heart now beats irradically," writes a woman named Jeannie on Medhelp.org. "Itís very distrubing." And Jeannie isnít the only one who feels this way. A Google search for the phrase "turning 40" produces no fewer than 2,450,000 results ó 2,449,999 of them whiny. Some of the newly 40 use the occasion to take stock of their paltry accomplishments ("NO young chicks, NO money, NO success"), while others lament the loss of physical appeal ("Gravity gets us all in the end.... Sag, like feces, occurs").
God help me. Am I going to start using phrases like "feces occurs"? I certainly have the sag thing going on ó not to mention the bulge, the bloat, the pucker, the stoop, the droop, the lope. I have nose hairs now. Ear hairs. You could take an eye out with these things. The other day, I discovered a gray crinkly on my unmentionables. All the same, it seems that I have it relatively easy. "I am now getting conjunktivitis," Jeannie writes. "My body is twitching like crazy when I sleep." Poor woman, no wonder sheís "distrubed." "I also appear to be losing memory," the ailing woman continues. "It seems I need to think A LOT before I remember something that is so easy."
As for me, reaching 40 hasnít left me feeling like Strom Thurmond on a bad day. Sure, I wonít run for a bus anymore without immediate access to a respirator, and I do sometimes find myself groping about for words ("Whatís that thing, you know, that isnít a dog and meows?"). Otherwise, I still feel pretty much the same as I did when I turned 20. Arguably, this fact may have less to do with my physical and mental condition than with my financial state. As I said to a woman at a party recently, "I may be 39, but I have the bank account of a 21-year-old." The woman didnít even smile. "Thatís too bad," she said and walked away.
The woman was right. It is too bad. And this may be exactly whatís bothering me. Itís not so much that Iím about to become middle-aged, itís that Iím about to do so without having the trappings of middle age: the house, the wife, the kids, the dog, the car, the stocks and bonds. I sit here now sporting a trendy Adidas shirt, an earring in each ear, and one of those little soul-patch things under my lower lip. I go home at night and eat potato chips for dinner. I own every CD that Eminem ever made. Iím like a grizzled 14-year-old. Whatís wrong with me?
Lying in bed the other night worrying about all this, I thought back to the last time I had an age-related crisis. It was 1992. I was walking down Newbury Street, a couple of weeks shy of my 30th birthday. Iíd only recently been dumped by my 21-year-old girlfriend. She left me for a drummer with permanent stubble and a tattoo on his ass. As I walked past Newbury Comics, I aimed my most beguiling smile at a couple of punk-rock girls, who in turn looked straight through me. It was then that I had a terrible, life-altering epiphany: "I will never have sex with another 21-year-old."
I told a friend of mine this story recently, adding, "And I never did." My friend grinned and said, "Yet." It was then that the real source of my recent worries hit me. The thing is, I donít want to have sex with a 21-year-old. I donít even want to be 21 any more. Iím a middle-aged man, and thatís okay. I realize now that I need to spend less time fretting about my age and more time acting it. I should stop smoking, put a little money aside for my retirement, go grocery shopping every now and then. I should probably rethink my wardrobe, too. Maybe someone will get me a nice chunky-knit cardigan and a pair of penny loafers for my birthday this year. Which, by the way, is a mere four months, seven days, 14 hours, and 22 seconds away.
Send birthday greetings to Chris Wright at cwright[a]phx.com