A mid-life checkup

January 12, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- We have been in California little more than a week and already I have a new identity. Or at least a new identity card and enough new passwords, codes, phone numbers, e-mail and other addresses to feed a multiple-personality disorder.

Landing on the Stanford campus as a visiting professor, I have begun to feel like one of those birds that gets tagged so it can be tracked as it migrates from one habitat to another.

We have migrated here out of the snow for what is amusingly called the winter term. We have flown as far as you can without leaving the continent. Suddenly the ocean is on the wrong side, people call it cold when the temperature dips to 40, and the drivers actually stop their cars when you step off the sidewalk.

For three months, I will be writing one column a week, teaching two classes and waking up in the morning in a different time zone, a different ZIP code, a different house. I'll be looking at the country from the west side, trading an office where the average age is about 40 for a campus where the average age is about 20.

This is more than a change of scene. Though I have been an itinerant journalist who can tell you which airport has decent cappuccino or an acceptable frozen yogurt, I have actually lived in one city for most of my life. I have written about social change without moving from my hometown. I value roots and have never shared the wanderlust that drives Americans from one home to another.

But when the offer came last summer, I realized with a capital-letter clong that There Was Nothing Stopping Us. It was one of those shocks that come at mid-life when you are least expecting it.

Adults spend the first part of their grown-up lives becoming indispensable and responsible. Sometime between our first job and our first child, stop signs get internalized in some uncharted region of the adult consciousness. Deadlines are immutable; obligations inflexible; kids, parents, bosses -- all the ''first things'' -- come first. Eighty percent of life, as Woody Allen says, is showing up. So we show up.

Too much comfort

Then all of a sudden, but not really suddenly, life changes around us. The kids grow up, we have more empty beds and more choices. At the same moment the comfortable patterns of mid-life can seem too comfortable. Even our New Year's resolutions can start to seem familiar. And the most rooted of us can wonder if we're not just a bit potbound.

This is the time for a mid-life checkup, rather than a crisis. Time to make sure that the track we're on doesn't become a rut. Time to learn something new whether it's carpentry, computers or a point of view. Time to entertain the unknown, the open-ended, to ask ourselves questions for which our only immediate answer is ''we'll see.''

Am I ahead of the demographic curve in this psychic migration? I was born just before the boom and turned 50 before it became this year's fashion. I arrived at this point in the life cycle with a crowd gathering behind me.

But today most of us at middle age feel more vulnerable than experimental. At this point in downsizing and aging, we are more likely to worry about security and hanging on to what we have built -- and I am by no means immune to that sensibility. But what an irony it would be if a generation that has seen so much social change, been a part of so much personal change, now became jTC risk-aversive, stuck in the mud of our own making.

As for me, I have no urge to go to medical school, move to a mountaintop, curry favor with Newt Gingrich, or -- gawd help us -- have a post-menopausal pregnancy. So I have come back (or forward) to school -- on whatever the opposite of a sabbatical is.

I've come to shake a few months out of my routine, to learn again and teach for the first time. To flex the muscle of flexibility and see if it still works. To open a window or two.

With my new identity card in hand, I'll be the teacher who knows the ropes and a freshman who cannot yet find the bathroom. As for the rest, ''We'll see.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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