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.)
Spheres of Influence
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.
David Murray’s thoughts can be found regularly on his blog Writing Boots.