About six months before I turned forty, I began telling people I had already reached that milestone age. This wasn’t a conscious decision, at least not the first time. I’d been having a small problem at work, a petty argument with a co-worker, and when a third party spoke to me about it, I expressed disbelief that such a silly playground-level quarrel was occuring at all. “I’m forty years old!” I said, lying before I even knew what I’d said.
Except then I didn’t stop. It’s not like my age comes up often in everyday conversation, but when it did, I rounded up to forty every time. The age that sets off alarm bells in so many people is the age I, apparently, wanted to get a good jump on.
I imagined myself, therefore, immune to those alarm bells. Let everybody else panic about some silly, arbitrary moment in the timeline of their lives — just because it ends in zero! That wasn’t me. I would treat my birthday as I always had, with a coolness that bordered on derision of the whole cockamamie tradition. Parties! Bah! How silly! What am I, six? (I’m not sure if that attitude would hold up if my friends weren’t scattered all across America.)
Then a funny thing happened: I turned 41. And for the first few months after that, on those rare occasions when the matter came up at all, I continued to tell people I was 40.
Now 41 is over, and suddenly I am 42, and I am starting to feel rather like someone who has missed his subway stop. I did that a couple of times when I lived in New York — got distracted by something, and then looked up to see Times Square, or wherever, zipping past the windows. Wait! Come back! That’s where I am supposed to be!
40 is where I am supposed to be. It was the right age for me — it felt right from head to toe. Gone were my lazy and self-entitled twenties. Good riddance, as well, to my unfocused and scattershot thirties. (And let us not even discuss my teenage years.) Forty! By the time I arrived there, I had a great job, I had written and published a book, I had two great kids and a fine wife. What could I possibly not like about 40?
And what, at 42, has changed? Absolutely nothing. I have the same fine job, my book is out there and has been joined by another, my family is a joy, I’m in excellent health for someone who doesn’t exercise worth a damn. There’s only this: The feeling that time is whooshing by too fast. The feeling that I didn’t miss my subway stop, but that we never stopped there at all, because the conductor has gone crazy. He has locked the door to his little control booth and has tromped down on the acceleration.
I felt that a little bit at 40. And the sensation is by no means restricted to my birthday — I feel it practically every time I look at my son, who is up to my shoulders now and will surely be taller than me by next Tuesday. But, people, I am REALLY feeling it today.
This is what as known among us writer types as a “cliche.” Golly, a middle-aged person who doesn’t know where the time went. I have never heard such a fascinating story in my life. PLEASE TELL ME MORE.
So. I am, in the end, mature enough to understand I’m not experiencing anything unique here. (I am nonetheless immature enough to want to vent about it a little.) I didn’t have my Moment of Cold Clarity at the usual milestone age, but that’s about all. Having acknowledged that time is chugging along and the entire remainder of my life will pass by in, seemingly, a week and a half, the only thing to do is to double down. Hopefully I’ll finish a new book this year; I’d like to create a new crossword suite, too; and there are a couple of items hovering in the distance that, if they come to fruition, will make this a memorable year indeed, in a very good way.
I have the advantage of really liking my life. I don’t have a sudden need to join the Peace Corps, and I think I’ll pass as well on all manner of cartoon-style middle-age-crisis gimmickry. What I’ll do, in the end, is play out this cliche to its conclusion: I’ll have myself a nice little mope, I’ll shake my fist at the sky a little, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and get back to work.