I had a mid-life crisis around forty. It was conventional and by that I mean head-implodingly fierce, deep, miserable--a seemingly interminable plummeting. It was prompted by the usual questions: Is that all I am? Is this all there is? Am I already at this late a stage of the game? You mean it's not going to just get better and better? Is she really leaving me for him?
The plummeting was not interminable. The free fall ended and landed me on what felt like more solid ground than ever before. To paraphrase the cereal box, content may have settled during shifting into midlife. But the decade that followed it was the good kind of settled, a groove, dense with intense experience. It turned out my mid-life crisis self-reports of my death had been greatly exaggerated. There was a dance in the old boy yet
I'm 53 now and I seem to be going through another one. I'll call it a late-mid-life crisis, or if I'm due for another at 63 then just a mid-mid-life crisis: The end of looks. My other faculties continue to be fine but my physical content is settling as ours do sometime within this decade.
It feels narcissistic to even talk about it. Some of us never chose to play or could play the looks game whereby you groom yourself to be attractive to other attractive people. Those of us who have spent (wasted?) our youth being relatively attractive have to change the game sooner or later. A prescient young woman once said to me "You know the problem is when a man grows old he looks like Sean Connery, but when a woman grows old she looks like Sean Connery." Ouch, but just one of the many unfair, illogical and cruel things about lookism especially for women. Women get a rawer deal than even the deal they get in theater intermission bathroom lines. Young women are pushed to emphasize looks even though it's overwhelming power is short lived. We say "You are attractive," but it would be more accurate to say "attractiveness is visiting you." Of course, all of life's gifts have an expiration date. Intelligence and wit can last pretty long. Earning power a little less usually. Looks shorter still, for everyone but Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep and Sean Connery.
A life cycle has its transitions and plateaus. On a plateau it's pretty easy to gage your altitude. Mid-transition though we're very likely to over- or underestimate altitude. For example when you entered puberty's growth spurt, it was easy for you or your parents to over- and under-estimate your maturity at any point in the transition. You knew sometime between 13 and 40 you were going to turn into a grownup, but exactly when and what were the signs--that was hard to tell when the target was moving. Mid-life, is puberty in reverse. By mid- or late-midlife (see I can't even tell what to call it) you know that sometime between now and 95 your get up and go will have got up and went. It's easy to under- and over-estimate the rate of change.
For some of us the news of aging comes gradually. Our situation stays the same more or less. Still married, still at the same job. For some of us something big happens that precipitates a flood of awareness we previously kept at bay. A new chronic health problem, a divorce, even the death of one's parents leaving you next in line. Sudden news in your 50s makes you think, "Oh wait. It applies to me too? This is serious. I thought I sacrificed already back in my forties when I surrendered my youthful invincibility? You mean there's another boot to drop? I'm still not humble enough for what's going to befall me over the next few decades?"
That's sort of where I am.
You may think that my latest stark discoveries are just so yesterday. If so, hats off to you for your prescience. Either that or sorry you had to scale back to reality earlier. I've been fortunate. I've gotten to sustain delusion this long. And maybe longer. Like I say, I can't be sure how soon I'll have to cut back. But at least my mind is on it now. And though some readers might find these musings irrelevant, I know I'm not alone. A bunch of us Boomers are going through it. Looks are just the most obvious sign. I like this line from Bonnie Raitt's Grammy winning song "Nick of Time."
I see my folks, they're getting old, I watch their bodies change...
I know they see the same in me, and it makes us both feel strange...
No matter how you tell yourself, its what we all go through...
Those eyes are pretty hard to take when they're staring back at you.
Scared you'll run out of time.
The song goes on to talk about how she finds new fresh love in the nick of time—a dance in the old gal yet. Whew, another case of over-estimated rate of aging. But one way or another there will be downward adjustments on looks and indeed on all fronts where youthfulness confers special highs. How we make these adjustments involves three basic options from what I can tell:
Subdue: Face reality. Get over the urge to feel young. Adjust. Be thankful for what you've had and what you still have until you lose it.
Substitute: Shift focus to what you still can have. Get deeper into your career, your grandchildren, your hobbies.
Simulate: Sustain the old appetites and their gratification by simulation, things that give the sensation as if you're still young. The fancy car, Botox, hair color, romantic or erotic movies. The list of available substitutes is long because demand drives it. A lot of human ingenuity goes into finding ways of giving a thrilling simulated sensation at lower cost and consequence. Call it the aspartame aspiration, finding ways to make fake sweetness convincing.
For those of you who have gone through all of this earlier, feel free to gloat. You've earned it. And for all of us in our fifties, here's a great poem that suggests there may still be a dance, if shortlived nonetheless.:
To My Fifties
I should say something to you
Now that you have departed over the mountains
Leaving me to my sixties and seventies, not hopeful of your return,
you, who seemed to mark the end of life, who ever would have
thought that you would burn
With such sexual fires as you did? I wound up in you
Some work I had started long before. You were
A time for completion and for destruction. My
Marriage had ended. In you I sensed trying to find
A way out of you actually that wasn’t toward non-existence.
I thought, “All over.” You cried, “I’m here!” You were like traveling
With no tour guide or even the train schedule.
As a “Prime of Life” I missed you. You seemed an incompletion made up of completions
Unacquainted with each other. How could this be happening? I thought.
Or What should it mean, exactly, that I am fifty-seven? I wanted to be always feeling desire.
Now you’re a young age to me. And in you, as at every other time
I thought that one year would last forever.
“I did the best possible. I lasted my full ten years. Now I’m responsible
For someone else’s decade and haven’t time to talk to you, which is a shame.
Since I can never come back.” My Fifities! Answer me one question!
Were you the culmination or a phase? “Neither and both.” Explain!
“No time. Farewell!”