Jack Benny at 39
Fifty? I thought this only happened to other
people. In fact, I may have denied being middle-aged so long that it has become nearly too late to call it middle age at all.
So now, having landed finally somewhere between New Age and old age, I must face three essential facts:
- I am not part of the younger generation any more.
- I don't have half my life ahead of me.
- A body is a body.
As to this last, I have, of course, known about my body for a long time - say, 20 years at least. Even at 30, one begins to recognize one's physicality in new ways. At 20 and 25, with good health, one still feels invincible, capable of moving faster than a speeding bullet and staying up whole nights at a single bound. But at 30, one already begins to feel the twinges. At 40, one's joints develop mouths and sometimes get quite chatty. At 50, they have started to bite.
I'm being light-hearted here, but I'm not unaware that soon the real illnesses may come. Fears of cancer and heart disease lurk in resident memory (my father had his first heart attack in his 50s). I find myself noting now, with a combination of victory and dread, the ages of those whose deaths make the papers - and of course, with an indignation that amounts to a reverse form of dread, the ages of those much younger than myself whom the world has given over to excesses of fame and fortune.
I also notice with some consternation that women in their 20s and 30s now treat me as if I am either mostly invisible or, worse, a nice guy. What is this? I am not somebody's kindly uncle and I'm not a nice guy. ("Writers are not nice people," Kafka told his journals. Neither are men of 50 looking at women of 25, Franz. )
When I was 20, people in their 50's didn't have much reality to me - they were grownups. They had uses, like paying for stuff, but weren't very interesting in themselves. They were in their 50s - that said it all.
Now that I am here among them, further indignities loom. In five years, like someone approaching the national speed limit, I will become eligible for senior citizen discounts at movies. Must I again, after so long, submit to being carded?
Oh, all right, then - 50. What now?
When one is young, all activity is self-justifying. One experiences for the sake of experience, engaged in a kind of pure research. One gathers information for a larger project, knowing it will be useful, even if one doesn't yet know how - or even exactly what the project is.
Later one begins to hoard time; one realizes that with time, as with cereal mail-in offers, supplies are limited. One learns to value focus. Chastened by past years, I feel annoyed at myself for what I expected to have gotten done by now but didn't. Mere experience isn't everything; you still have to live with yourself.
But as I do the spread sheet of my successes and failures, I see that many of both are half hidden, not only from others but even from myself. Passing 50, I see how little I've learned, but also that I have
learned a thing or two, after all, or maybe just relearned what I knew all along. ("We're right when we're 17, we just don't know it yet," Ezra Pound says somewhere.)
Wasn't I right, for example, when I railed at 17 and 27 against the dead phoniness of so much public discourse? Now I know my enemies more intimately. I can tell the difference between real talent and the mealy self-promotion that apes it; I recognize the lying and opportunism that wear the mask of accomplishment. Being a journalist in particular has brought me face to face, no longer as a youth capable of being impressed or bullied, with the cold-eyed, self-serving or visionless leaders of so many institutions - but also with the true and often unrewarded goodness of many individuals and organizations.
I was right, too, when I told myself a quarter century ago that it is the genius of private life that really matters. And thank God, I found a few geniuses to keep me company there.
A Hasidic story relates that a young rabbi once boasted to his teacher that in the evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness and in the mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. "Yes," his teacher nodded, "in my youth I saw that, too. Later on you don't see those things so much any more."
Yes, some things you lose; a wildness slips away. Everything becomes more simply human, exalted, perhaps, and yet a bit fleshily ridiculous at the same time. That must be why talking about turning 50 takes on the tone of both the silly and the deadly serious.
Which is the very combination that I have always loved, in people as in literature and art. And so, as I continue my accounting, identifying the fears and itches that seem unavoidable companions to this "milestone" birthday, I want to mark what seems to me a small but permanent personal achievement: Having cultivated for so long the company of ambiguity, I can resist the too-simple truth.
Seeing things two ways at once is a burden sometimes, but it is also, like any freedom of the mind, a protection. Even if it doesn't keep me from sometimes being completely ridiculous, it generally preserves me from being totally sober.
Isn't that just about the right combination for celebrating the big Five-Oh?