Facing 40: Time Flies, And Other Truths

September 01, 1991|By GEORGE FELTON

I just turned 40. Well, OK, over a year ago. I'd have written about it sooner, but one thing about turning 40 is that by the time you digest it, you're 41. Thus the first principle of aging: Time flies. A year has shrunk to about six months, and I'm told this trend continues, so that a year to a 60-year-old zips by in a month, and on beyond that it gets shorter than a flea's daydream. I'll need my Zen for the later years, because my task will be to turn what seem like synaptic nanoseconds into something a little roomier.

But at 40, why panic? Four decades on the planet have their advantages: Namely, I'm wiser now, better able to handle whatever truncations in time God's got planned. Thus the second principle of aging: You get a little smarter. It's a good feeling. I have finally acquired enough past to look back upon, whole decades whose blind spots I can now see. The view is, if not breathtaking, at least encouraging.

I am no longer crushed by the demands of the herd, for example, which made joining a college fraternity so reasonable at 18, so inexplicable now, as I stare at the Sigma Nu quarterly that finds my mailbox no matter where I move. I've also said goodbye to habits once de rigueur: Pall Mall straights, Budweiser longnecks, too much sex with too many women I didn't know well. I spent my 20s assiduously acquiring these habits and my 30s trying to shake them off. Now I realize that not only can I quit them, I am relieved to do so.

Surveying the present, I find that it is good. I've made peace with the material world and am no longer ravenously acquisitive. I look at such things as fax machines, lap-top PCs, cellular car phones, and the Saabs into which they fit with a certain immunity. I know their limitations.

My career trajectory, how high and how far, is also more clearly delineated. My more serious career plans didn't materialize: I didn't become the chair of the psych department at Johns Hopkins, never got in line to succeed Buck Rogers at IBM, don't summer along the Maine coast.

My actual career, college teaching, while over by no means, is discernible in its outlines ahead; and this, too, is good, another illusion shed. The burden of my "potential" has been replaced by the simpler, stronger kinetic of real life working itself out in real time: I know what to do with a classroom of students. I can hit a topspin backhand, tell a purple finch from a house finch, maintain friendships over the decades, smile at my hairline.

But at 40 I encounter the third principle of aging: Like an antacid I was built to fall apart, and the cracks are beginning to show. My body wants to spread out and down into meatloaf, my knees demand surgical replacement, my mind begins to stray on its own, to confuse decades, people, ideas I thought I had straight. I'm not senile, of course, but I begin to understand senility for the first time. Remember waking up sometimes and not knowing immediately where you are? Now I can have this feeling on my feet. Someone asks me what I did on Saturday, if it snowed at Christmas, who I voted for in last election; I reach in my mind and grab only blackness where those bright answers used to be. It's a novel feeling, and not a pleasant one.

I pick up a not-so-old book and puzzle over the cramped handwriting in the margins until I realize it's mine. I watch 20 minutes of "Steelyard Blues" before I realize I've seen it before. A friend my age sets his popcorn down in a movie theater and forgets all about it. I forget appointments, the names of colleagues' children, where I parked the car, my own college education. This last can be the unkindest cut of all. I liked to think that the four years of study and the $40,000 were for more than a rental, that I was depositing ideas in the deep core of my being, rewiring my upstairs in some permanent, life-enhancing way. It appears now that I was mostly learning how to be away from home overnight and make new friends.

In brief, wisdom and senility have set upon a collision course. Like two lines on a graph, like two cars playing chicken in the Nevada salt flats, wisdom and senility are racing to meet each other, and they're going to meet in my brain. At the exact moment I "get" it, I could be too loopy to know what it is I get.

Thus the crux of turning 40: You realize that you're coming and going at the same time. But there's this recompense and it's a big one: If you're riding gravity's rainbow, there's no better vantage point than its apex.

For the first time, I find myself on top of things, looking down. I can generalize with more authority, summarize more easily. Watching the panoply of people at the state fair, revisiting the beach each summer, celebrating weddings and births, even going through my mother's funeral -- so much of life, in its repetition, opens to me now as ritual, and I see the value implicit in repeated human activity.

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