At a breakfast joint last week in Des Moines—I buy all my suits in Des Moines—an oldish fellow came up and made conversation with our table. He started talking about how great it is to be old, saying that as soon as you turn 50, most of your cares fall away and life becomes a series of easygoing outings with grandkids, peaceful naps and (apparently) pleasant breakfast-table raps.
A glue-sniffer perhaps, but I desperately wanted to believe.
Then my own inner coot got to wondering: What would I tell very young adults about what life will be like in their forties?
I realize there are severe limits to the capabilities of inter-generational communication, and it's probably easier to speak with the dead than to reach someone in his or her twenties. But what the hell; here goes.
Dear Twenty-Something Person:
When you are my age, your life—your hours, your days, your weeks—will be very different.
Here’s what it is to be in your 40s:
Whatever relationships you have been fortunate and dogged enough to maintain over the years have grown impossibly complicated, encrusted with contradictory memories of slights and hurts you’ve sent and received over the years, accidentally and on purpose. Right and wrong are now graded on a bell curve that no one among your friends or family any longer has any handle on. Consequently: In all your personal dealings and in many of your professional ones too, the person with the strongest opinion, however misguided, usually wins the argument. And what's more, you find this acceptable.
Lazy summers are gone. So are lazy weekends. And lazy afternoons and mornings. In fact, if you have lazy moment at all, you will have paid several thousand dollars on airfare and accommodations to achieve it, and you will spend it watching it slide through the hourglass.
When it comes to shit, you now know the difference between the edible and the inedible. You also know what you like to do and you let yourself feel grateful during the doing of it.
Every week, someone you know will: die, lose their job, lose their fortune, lose their mind, go to prison, be abandoned by their spouse, get caught cheating on their spouse, break a bone or, at the very least, get food poisoning. And if you go a week without any of that happening, you’ll know the next week is going to be a real doozy.
Most of the words you use are derided as being old school, and you have to include links to them.
What happens to you matters only to you. It doesn’t matter to the world, because you are not James Joyce. (You never were, of course, but now you know for sure.)
By now you have created many spheres of influence where you’re very comfortable. But whenever you’re outside those, you’re as insecure and panicky and awkward as an 11-year-old kid.
One of your greatest pleasures these days is to look back at your twenties and recall how old the 40-year-olds in your life seemed to you then.
Say you have made your fondest dreams come true and can say so with a straight face (not too often, I hope). Still, there were lots of other dreams—casual dreams, hedge dreams, complimentary dreams—that have gone by the boards. You wanted to be a pilot and a cowboy!
You have done some shabby things, and you have developed some crummy habits, and some of your battery power is drained by a continuous bilge pump of self-forgiveness.
You no longer believe that a cool pair of sunglasses or boots will transform you into a confident person, admired by all. You have purchased this wisdom, by spending a lot of money on sunglasses and boots. Your vanity is more substantive than it used to be, and harder to satisfy.
Your life story, once a tidy-enough tale of compliance, rebellion and coming of age, is now a drunkard’s babblings. Five years working at the bike shop, six doing whatever you’re doing now (it’s so socially useful that you can’t coherently describe it to other humans) with two overlapping years living with someone you now refer to, when you think of him or her, as “Crazy Terry.” You look back on many sections of your adult life and shake your head: “I can’t believe I put up with that,” “I don’t know how I ever got mixed up with that.” And you really, literally don’t know, because you don’t remember.
You are dizzy, sick to your stomach, winded, angry, still excitable and sane enough to know at least one thing for sure: You do not wish you were 20 again. You don’t have the energy to take this trip again.
Forty-ish Boots readers: What, in my advancing middle age, have I forgotten?
Um, is there anything about your forties that isn’t exhausting or hurtful or depressing? I still have a few months left of my twenties, and I like to think that at some point in the future I can look back on my life and think about the good things, the good times, the good people … the good in general. Your description of my future sounds like a reason to start lying about my age. I get that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but surely some parts of it don’t suck.
David Murray says
I have a kid, who gives me terrific amounts of pleasure.
I also still enjoy as much as I ever did (more maybe!): golf, riding a motorcycle, drinking with friends, riding a bicycle, taking massive adventurous trips, and writing.
I appreciate my family more than I used to–and my in-laws too!
As 40-somethings’ lives go, mine isn’t bad. It’s great.
Which is what’s really scary, Juliet.
I started reading your blog because of a particularly insightful post http://writingboots.typepad.com/writing_boots/communication-philosophy/
I hope that no one forwards this one to any twenty-somethings and if they do, I hope the twenty-something has the wisdom to question your picture of a standardized dark and hopeless future.
If you pay attention to what’s happening in your life and don’t try to drink it or spend it into a state of denial. If you can see what is right in front of you every day, (wasn’t that your advice?) you may have the courage to say what you need to say and do what you need to do each and every day, calmly, without blowing up yourself and everyone around you.
I’ve meditated on and off for years and recently committed to doing it every day and blogging about it. It’s not as flaky as you might think.
If you sleep through your twenties and thirties you will wake up in your forties and find out that nightmare you are having is your life. I don’t believe that it’s a foregone conclusion.
I remember being 5 and wanting to be 40. Now that I’m here, life is sweetness on a level I couldn’t have imagined back in the hell days of my teens and twenties. That’s part of my formula, get the misery and horror out of the way upfront. Now I get to enjoy the fruits of all the complexities my mind and my emotions have always thrown my way.
David Murray says
Yes, Bohdan, I feel that too; I feel much more AT HOME at 40 than I did at 25.
The 40s may be the most difficult decade. Most of us deal with teenagers, ailing parents, the shock of dreams not being realized and companies eager to downsize you to avoid those pensions and medical costs. The 50s are better. You’ve come to terms with a lot of things, and you can be blessed with grandchildren. I like my 50s much better than I liked my 40s.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
Several others have articulated my initial thoughts after reading this. Boy, if that’s your 40s, I don’t want any part of it!
I’m 47, have been through a divorce, have been raising two sons throughout my 40s, one of whom I’m sending off to college in a couple of weeks, lost my mother to cancer, been fired from one job and created a new career from the ashes, and now am in the happiest relationship of my life. But you know what? That’s life. It happens to all of us.
Let the 20-somethings experience the unique ups and downs of their lives without the added worry about what may or may not happen 20 years in the future.
You wrote: “You no longer believe that a cool pair of sunglasses or boots will transform you into a confident person, admired by all.”
I’m 43, and…well…I have some sunglasses that need returning today. Sigh.
David Murray says
“I’m 47, have been through a divorce, have been raising two sons throughout my 40s, one of whom I’m sending off to college in a couple of weeks, lost my mother to cancer, been fired from one job and created a new career from the ashes, and now am in the happiest relationship of my life.”
Robert, you might have written this piece yourself!
(Of course, it’s really intended more for 40 somethings than 20-somethings, who won’t believe it anyway.)
Yes, the 40s are terrible. Avoid them at all costs.
Yes, the 40s are terrible as evidenced by your horrific list of quintessential 40ish activities.
E.L. You really think any 20-something reader is going to believe any of this in the first place? They’re impervious to this nonsense. That’s what it means to be 20.
I was responding to these comments as I was reading them. Got to yours at the end just a moment ago and saw that you beat me to just about all of my points.
Great failing minds think alike.
Now that I’m done responding to comments, I would like to say that yes, Virginia, the 40s blow.
The good news is that it’s possible to make them your bitch.
It’s part of growing up, I suppose. Learning how to tend a garden–grow flowers even–in soil that’s filled with bones.
James Green says
Thanks for calling us 50-somethings “Old coots.” I needed one more reminder that my life is filled with nothing but grandchildren and naps.
That being said let this old coot offer my own suggestion to the twenty-something crowd. Never ever listen to anybody in their forties. They start getting self-reflective around that age and naturally have this strong desire to pass on their wisdom to the younger generation. It’s all nonsense of course.
Life will be over soon enough for each of us in our own time. Don’t think about it. Just do it without fear.
David Murray says
Suzanne, thanks for your hard-earned wisdom.
@Jim G. Your advice to the twenty-somethings is sound.
Have you noticed, however, from the comments section? They’re ALREADY ignoring me.
Anne Lang Bundy says
The best part of 40’s (I turn 48 this year) is finally figuring out from regrets how to best live the second half of life, without taking oneself too seriously. I’m just hitting my stride and looking forward to the best years ahead. I praise the Lord for getting me here.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
To clarify, I don’t believe the 40s suck. My litany was not intended as a complaint, but rather as an acknowledgment that these kinds of things happen to all of us.
Actually, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, in spite of the things that have happened. In fact, probably because of them. There’s a quote making the rounds that is a bit of a cliche but also appropriate here: Life is not about avoiding the storms, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.
That’s why I recommend that 20-somethings should not heed all the advice we’re dispensing, but instead find their own way so they can experience their own growth.
Tom Keefe says
“Don’t think about it. Just do it without fear.”
Just ask Steve-O. http://ow.ly/2kxVu
“Life is not about avoiding the storms, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
Until you get fried by a bolt of lightning, 20-somethings! http://ow.ly/2kxZo
A lack of fear and lust for adventure may be nature’s way of culling the herd.
I’m leaving now; time for my nap.
David Murray says
Ed note: This blog entry was reprinted at The Week Behind …. And it drew this fine letter from a twenty-something who definitely caught my drift.
An Open Letter From People in Their Twenties
By Lexi Langill
I am twenty-two years old, and I like your kind. Your couples dinner parties, your pleated pants, your cell phone holsters, your haircuts, your Tivo-ed sitcoms, your credenzas, your organized weekends, your Pearl Jam CD collections, your baby showers, your divorce rates––and most of all, your confidence.
While you watch me from behind stainless steel bars blithely splashing in the twenty-something pool, in reality I’m mourning the loss of something myself: my teen years.
Remember them? When the desperate desire to drink led to handing a 20 to a homeless guy for a 6-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Begging your older sibling to buy a handle in front of their hot friends. Stealing Cointreau from your parents’ liquor cabinet for you and 7 friends, then wondering what the hell Cointreau actually is.
Now, of course, we sip it casually at Citizen for $13 a pop and still don’t know what it is. The legality of it all makes “don’t threaten me with a good time” a serious statement. And you know what 40-something? It makes me sad.
But from what you’ve told me, life isn’t all about partying, and I guess I’ll take your word for it.
Life’s also about responsibility and commitment; to a home, to a pet, to a spouse whose family makes you quiver in your boots, and eventually to our own children –– who will scream, laugh, and seethe while you talk excitedly to the grocery clerk about the new suede couch in the den.
I can take the heat of your criticism, politely veiled as it is. And there is one absolute have you have on us: experience. Sure, we 20-somethings are hot to trot and loving every minute of it, but there are many signposts on the highway of life we have yet to see.
Mistakes need to be made and lessons need to be learned. And once that’s done, we’ll step out of the pool, dry off the arrogance, and join you behind the bars…only to find you already lounging in the 60-something jacuzzi next door having the time of your life.
Save us a mai-tai.