Today I turned 40. No longer will I be eligible to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. For any broader meaning, I’m stumped.
The bromide “40 is the New 30” — which would have started looking mighty wise about now no matter what — may reflect a scientific reality. People are living longer, so middle age starts later. Warren Sanderson and Sergei Schcherbov of the Austrian Institute of Demography found that, in 2000, the average American was 35.5, and could plan to live for another 43.5 years. By 2050, they estimate, those figures will inflate to 41.7 and 45.8 years, respectively. If you want to measure age by the length of the reaper’s shadow, everyone’s getting younger all the time.
The truth is, I don’t feel 40. In many ways, I feel closer to 20. I’m not talking about the quantity of time I have left but the quality. Three years ago, after nearly two decades of dismissing writing as a frivolity (and the writer’s imagination as an impediment to achieving solid citizenship), I began expanding combox squibs into full-length essays and sending them out. Now, with this blog, I’ve begun to gain traction. In effect, I’ve begun a new career. Any progress I make will count toward the realization of a dream.
I’ve got failures in my wake, but nothing too scarring — no Chapter 7s or Chapter 13s, no foreclosures, no outstanding soft notes from short sales. (If anyone asks, “Why rent when you can buy?”, there’s your answer.) To that list of very positive negatives I could add: no failed marriages, no estranged kids, no strangling, embittering (or incriminating) child-support payments. If I do end up becoming that despised thing, the geezer-breeder, I’ll enter the state with a novice’s dizzy optimism.
If I sound like I’m protesting too much, trying desperately to jolly myself up…well, maybe I am, a little. But more than that, I’m trying to overcome a kind of survivor’s guilt. Or maybe a non-player’s shame. I lost small because I risked small. If my dad were alive, and had a tongue-lashing left in hm, he could scream with perfect accuracy: “By the time I was your age, I had three divorces under my belt!” I’d have no choice but to bend an admiring ear. My father’s elasticity has always astonished me: every time life blew down his house of cards, he built it up again, with a better house, a better car and a better career. (I’m too heavily biased in favor of Wife #3 to rate the others — there were five all told — reliably.)
As examples go, I found his as daunting as some Baby Boomers now claim to have found the so-called Greatest Generation’s. At some point, after seeing other, lesser people broken by that same cycle, I decided I wouldn’t try anything big until I could be reasonably certain of getting it right. Now, as I look forward and backward, I wonder whether anyone really deserves that much leeway. Should society not have some kind of rule forcing people — somehow, at a certain point — to go big or go home?
I suppose I’m picturing a kind of Yellow Passport stamped: Bearer has waited too long to act decisively; is now ineligible for professional advancement or personal fulfilment. Must lead life of quiet desperation on margins. You’ll catch this drift from certain conservative social critics. R.J. Rushdoony, the most conservative social critic of them all, once wrote: “It is true that the fear of defeat can be traumatic for a coward, but why encourage the coward in us all by eliminating risks? The risk-free life is a victory-free life. It means a life-long surrender to defeat, and nothing can be more deadly for man and society.” If people were nations, Rushdoony would exclude the cautious ones from the UN Security Council forever.
I admit, that kind of hairy-chested stuff has always stirred me. But that’s not to say it’s ever convinced me. When I was closing mortgages, I delivered a carnyish spiel of my own: Refinance, take cash out, build on. Just when the pre-payment penalty expires, flip it. Or else you’re a chump. Granted, I exaggerated the likelihood of success, which Rushdoony doesn’t, but we both appealed to our marks’ pride in a way calculated to short-circuit their other faculties. I’m not sure whether Rushdoony ever had the chance to foreclose on a former manager’s house, but I have. It’s an experience that will remind anyone why Prudence is a cardinal virtue.
No, my better judgment orders me to feel grateful that ours is a forgiving society, one that allows people to defer the choice of playing or not playing for as long as they like. If accepting undeserved extensions on life’s deadlines also means accepting a kind of humility into the bargain — okay, then, I’ll take the humility. Somehow, that humility does nothing to dilute my relief I feel when I think of the defeats I never suffered. If any victories I gain turn out to be small in comparison to the ones I might have enjoyed had I bet bigger — well, that same humility will enable me to enjoy them.
I just re-read that sentence and thought, “By golly, Max, you sound just like a 40-year-old.” Is it possible that, even without starting a family or acquiring immovable property — or losing either — I’ve managed to grow up?