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July 7, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 16

Perspective

No turning back

Among the milestones of midlife, one stands out

By Joel Achenbach ’82
Published in the July 7, 2010, issue




Joel Achenbach ’82 is a writer at The Washington Post and a former chairman of PAW’s advisory board.

Suddenly, life is a blizzard of milestones, each more portentous than the next, more loaded with existential meaning, dread, volcanic extrusions of nostalgia, and resignation to the tyranny of time. You just want to come home from work and relax and have a glass of decent wine and watch a ball game, but no, there’s always some annoying milestone-related social obligation you can’t get out of, like your 25th wedding anniversary.  

The big milestone for my crowd is the 50th birthday. The number 50 is so rotund it must be celebrated as if it were a bar mitzvah. The toasts invariably will say that, by luck or fate or good living, this person entering his or her sixth decade has maintained anomalous good looks to match the many personal and professional accomplishments, and now heads toward many more years of zesty, finger-snapping fun. Lobsters will be served, and crème brûlée, and in the midst of the revelry we’ll start thinking about that last cholesterol test, and this will incite a comprehensive audit of one’s aches and pains and future unpleasant invasive medical procedures, and then at 9:45 p.m. we’ll all begin peeking at our watches and thinking that surely it’s nearly bedtime.

Not long ago I heard myself saying that I couldn’t go to an event because “I’m planning on taking a nap then,” and as soon as the words came out of my mouth I wanted to snatch them out of the air. It’s a milestone when “nap” makes your daily To Do list.  

There’s the milestone known as Reconciling With The Belly. A guy spends years keeping the gut in check. You can always make it go away with a little more gym work and some dieting. And then it doesn’t go away. It moves into your life like a stray uncle. There is shame and regret and, eventually, acceptance, and finally something that almost passes for pride, as if it is some kind of validation, a sign that you’re not so poor that you must live hand to mouth — or maybe a sign that living hand to mouth is exactly what you’ve been doing. All those dang chips. Ultimately the belly is a friend, as loyal as a dog.

There are other cosmetic milestones. The first gray hair is a huge, squealing deal for a young person, someone who is, perhaps, 24 years old and freaks at the discovery of a single, rogue, mutant gray hair embedded in 90 pounds of glossy locks. But that is nothing, I am here to tell you, compared to the discovery of the first gray hair in your nose.

There are intellectual milestones. I’ve now reached the Proust Line, the point in life when you know you’ll never read Proust. I mean, reading Proust could happen in theory, just as, in theory, I could become president, or a cowboy, or someone who drives a huge pickup truck with a hardware store’s worth of tools behind the seat and a gun rack in back. I could become a Tea Party activist. I could grow a second head. Life is full of possibilities, but mostly it is full of probabilities. The person you are going to be is very likely the person you already are, for better or worse.  

Weirdly, though, I still assume that someday I’ll be an astronaut. With a ray gun.  

I’ve become more democratic in the sense of being able to tolerate and appreciate people of all stripes and cultures and inclinations and to sense our common­ality. At the same time, I can’t fly coach anymore. It is not commensurate with a man of my stature. Of course I can’t afford anything else, but still, it grates on me, and I find myself pressing the flight-attendant button to get attention.

“Excuse me, miss,” I’ll say. “Is there a part of this plane that has less of the rabble?”

You remember, surely, the day you realized you no longer were going to sleep on a friend’s couch when you visited a certain city. Incredible invention: Hotel room!  

A huge milestone for me came on Jan. 20, 2009, when for the first time I was older than the president of the United States. I hoofed it all over the Mall, and it was insanely cold, and getting anywhere was complicated by the throng of 1.8 million people and the police barriers. By the time I had hiked back to the office, a pain had developed and effloresced in my right knee. There is another milestone in a person’s life: your first conversation about arthritis or plantar fasciitis or knee replacement. Just watch, it’ll happen to Obama, too. That jump shot of his from the 3-point line — I’m just not seeing much elevation in the legs anymore.

All the major milestones involve celebration and joy, even as they clearly are designed to remind you how old you are. I try to be a grown-up about this, but when people say with a laugh that “getting old isn’t for wimps,” I instantly think: “Uh-oh.” To paraphrase the old joke about flying: It’s not mortality that worries me; it’s the dying I don’t like.

Last year one milestone got to me more than any other I can remember. Like so many of my friends, I had a kid go off to college. My eldest. My wife and I and one of her younger sisters drove her to Ohio and oohed and aahed at her wonderful new (dismal, depressing) dorm room, and had a last meal together, and then when it came time to say goodbye, my normal verbosity fled me. Couldn’t say a word. Croaked something unintelligible.  

What did I miss, all those times I was too busy to pay attention? Why did I complain about all the soccer games? You’d have any of those moments back, would roll it over in your hands, study it, document it.  

It was 400 miles back home and the rain fell torrentially for about 300 of them, though the sun was out and the skies were clear.  

Why was this milestone so much harder than the rest? Child-rearing is nothing but milestones, so you should get pretty used to it over time. There’s the biological extravaganza of the birth itself, the physical pain of which for some reason I can barely remember. (But I was strong and brave, that much is certain.) There are all the incredible firsts of that first year as the helpless blob-creature transmogrifies into a miniature, urgeful, entirely solipsistic human being.  

A child’s milestones are the parents’ milestones, like that first day of preschool, with its excruciating goodbye as the child is abandoned to what, from the child’s perspective, is surely a devil-worshipping cult. There’s the first lost tooth, first soccer goal, first-time rolling of the eyes and dramatic sigh at exasperating parental behavior. The first slammed door. The first time Dad accidentally embarrasses her in front of her friends; the first time Dad intentionally embarrasses her in front of her friends.  

After all these milestones, why does dropping the kid at college turn into such a weep-fest?

My theory is that it’s because you sense, even if you can’t think it through logically, that you now have finished the task of raising a person to adulthood, and, with the exception of raising your other children, there is nothing else you will ever do that’s as important. This is the largest achievement of your life. Everything else is secondary, tertiary, quaternary. Basically the main job of your life is pretty much over.

The very term “milestone” is deceptive, for on a road you can always turn around and retrace your steps. Life’s milestones are actually one-way portals. They’re gateways to whatever is next, and they close behind with a resounding clang.  

What you want is to be able to say: We had us a good trip, didn’t we?
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Comments
3 Responses to Perspective

Stephanie Anderson '74 Says:

2010-07-08 11:51:29

Joel, at least you have a full head of hair, so you can count your blessings! Seriously, I loved your story and certainly identified with with the part about being older that POTUS ... My ah-ha moment came when I was about 35 and had to meet my new internist. As I sat in his office, I spied his diplomas on the wall, and saw that he graduated from Duke in 1977. When he walked in, all tall and gangly, I said "You know, Dr. Sullivan, this is the first time I've ever had a doctor younger than myself!" He laughed and said "Well, get used to it!"

Daniel Goodman '82 Says:

2010-07-12 10:52:02

Hi Joel - Couldn't agree more with your column, and I suspect the rest of our class does too. In May I had my 50th birthday. I couldn't stand the thought of this milestone. But I decided to celebrate regardless, so bought expensive concert tickets and was planning a night out. The sitter arrived and my wife and I were on the way out the door when my son complained of an itchy head. It turned out that all three kids and my wife had contracted hair lice. So much for the concert. I'm almost bald, so hair lice are not a problem for me. See - there are advantages to being 50 after all!

Brian Zack '72 p'04 Says:

2011-08-22 09:21:46

Our third is off to college this week, 2,773 miles away, per Google maps. And I have been reading many similar (though less eloquent) reflections, most emphasizing the tears and nostalgic longing, the doors that "close behind with a resounding clang." Yet my wife and I, each time, have felt primarily joy. No, not because the kid is out of the house. Rather, because we are sharing a beginning, as well as an appreciation of what has passed, and look forward with hope and anticipation to what life will bring next, both for our progeny and for ourselves. "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."
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CURRENT ISSUE: July 7, 2010