Saturday, November 15, 2008

Middle Age

For a while I was bothered by the invisibility of middle age. A large number of younger people stop seeing you: you're not a potential friend, rival or lover, in their minds, so you have no conceivable use. One glimpse of your white hair and you simply vanish from their field of vision. You're not there. For someone who liked flirting as much as I did, that was difficult, at first. But I don't mind it now. In fact it's useful: I can effortlessly avoid getting tangled up with narrow and selfish people. They don't even see me.

So far, at fifty, there are only three things that I really dislike about being middle-aged. One is the decline of my sight. I can't read fine print without reading glasses, any more. I can't read even normal print, for very long, without them. So I have to pack glasses around, lose them, buy them again. A bother.

Another is that I can't hear soft, deep voices very well any more. It's difficult also to follow conversations in noisy, crowded places. I particularly resent the cavern restaurants, so common now, that have deliberately ruined their acoustics so that there will be a cheerful roar of voices and a din of music. It is cheerful, but when it means you can't follow the conversation at your own table, you start to feel like a stranded dinosaur, with the cheery little mammals all chittering around you.

The thing I dislike most is that I can't think quite as well as I used to. It's subtle. But I used to be able to solve quadratic equations in my head, and I can't do that any more. I notice it playing Tetris: I'm not as quick at visualizing how shapes will rotate and fit together. It's not a huge change, but it's unmistakable. I don't (to drop into Computer jargon) have as many registers for storing temporary information. I can't hold two sums in memory while working out a third. I'm not as clever as I used to be. And I don't have the long-term memory capacity that I used to have, either. I don't think I'll ever again learn a language from a language family I don't already have a handle on. Not to read easily. I was defeated by Chinese and Tibetan, a while back. I'll never really learn Arabic, or Welsh, or Hausa, now. I don't think it's anything pathological: it's just ordinary wear and tear on the brain. It's the reason that mathematicians do their best work in their twenties. There aren't many mental activities that require that kind of memory capacity, or that much quickness and dexterity of mind, but I notice that I'm not quite as good at the ones that do.

But that's it. That's the whole, for me, of the discontents of middle age. I wouldn't be twenty again, for the world: I was so lonely and desperate, with no pharmacological weapons against depression and anxiety, no resources of meditation, and no idea of how to maintain my body's equanimity. I love knowing what to do when I get anxious. Knowing what to do when I have a sore shoulder or low back pain. Knowing what to do when cravings get out of hand. Knowing how to get company when I'm lonely. I am so much better now at the day to day business of being alive, of keeping my body and mind and spirit in running order. And I've learned enough hard lessons that I not only know what to do: I do it, mostly.

The nicest thing is that I'm not in the running for glory, any more. My name will never be known. As a child I acquired absurdly high expectations, no less burdensome for being vague. Someday I would have a name. I would be the acknowledged best at -- something. I lived under those baleful stars for years, panicking because my chances at greatness were slipping away. And if I was not great, then I was nothing. Worse than nothing, because I had squandered the gifts given to me, wasted my opportunities. My junior high school counselor used to ambush me in the halls (as I remember it: thinking back, I wonder if this can be true) and tell me, more in sorrow than in anger, that I was not living up to my potential. I was, apparently, a great disappointment to the world.

Actually, of course, the world had no particular interest in me, and friends and family would have been more pleased by emotional steadiness and generosity than by honors and distinction. But clear through my thirties I was haunted by glory, and horrified by my failure to live up to my supposed potential. It was not until I coasted into my forties that I realized I had been sold a bill of goods. I was not a genius. The legitimacy of the concept of potential was dubious, and the validity of techniques for measuring it were even more dubious. I was able to entertain a novel, exhilarating hypothesis: what if I was an ordinary person?

Well, then, my life didn't really look so bad. I had done some things wrong, and some right, like most people. I only had to figure out the ordinary things that ordinary people had to figure out. How to make a living, how to have a marriage and a family. How to accommodate my mild social and psychological disabilities. I did not have to figure out those things and figure out my path to glory.

The relief has been tremendous. I knew all along, I think, that I was no genius, and that I was not destined for greatness. There was a huge upheaval in my life. Things suddenly came into focus in a new way. What was wrong with working for IBM was not that I was betraying my genius: what was wrong was that I hated it. If I wanted to touch people it wasn't necessarily because I was a prophet of the age of Aquarius; it could simply be because I liked to touch people, and I could do work that let me do it. The love I felt welling up, all the time, didn't have to be yearning for revolution and universal brotherhood. It could be just love, loving this person, here, now.

The deficiencies that loomed so large, for a fledgling genius -- a certain wishy-washiness, a lack of confidence in my opinions, shyness with new people or in groups -- were actually quite minor for an ordinary human being, and possibly even endearing. I did indeed have to learn to make telephone calls, if I was to work as a massage therapist, but I didn't have to transform myself, by some übermenschlich triumph of will, into a forceful and confident person. I could be a shy person making phone calls. That was okay. Ordinary people are allowed to be shy and awkward sometimes.

So thank God for middle age. I'm glad to be here.

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