Welcome to the New Middle Age

Okay so I am 49 and I will turn 50 next February. It will not be long before I get that first AARP solicitation. I do not know how, but I am sure I am in their database somehow. AARP used to be an acronym, “American Association of Retired Persons”. Now it is just AARP. Nevertheless, we all know what it is, since you must be age 50 or over to join. However, you do not have to be retired.

I have no idea if I will join AARP. I do know one thing. 50 is way too young to retire. Few of us can afford to retire at 50 anyhow, although increasing numbers of 50 something Americans may have no choice. At 49 though, I feel I am in my prime. I know middle age is supposed to start in your 30s. Yet for those of us living in first world countries, and who are fortunate to have a certain income level, our 30s and even our 40s are not so much middle age, as a kind of extended period somewhere between adolescence and the onset of middle age. With so many of us living into our eighties and nineties these days, maybe 50 is where middle age begins.

Many of us have gotten the message. While you cannot stop aging, you can prolong optimal health. If you work at it, you can also prolong the illusion of youth. I do not think of myself as middle aged. When I look in the mirror, I do not see a middle-aged face. Perhaps it is vanity, perhaps it is delusion, or perhaps it is a combination of good genetics and prevention. I got the message in my early twenties that if I wanted a good quality of life, it would not come free. Therefore, I started running at 24, and have been running or engaging in some form of regular aerobic exercise ever since. In addition to popping the vitamins, I have been regularly applying the sunscreen. I have not always eaten right, but I have never had a bad diet. Throughout my adult years, vegetables, fruits and fiber have been a regular part of my diet.

Unlike my turbulent twenties and challenging thirties, life in my forties is pretty darn good. I am finally where I always wanted to be in my career. It just took twenty-five years of working hard and a bit of the luck of the Irish to get here, but here I am. My only child is nearing adulthood and hopefully will be soon on her way toward a successful young adulthood of her own. Retirement is on my distant horizon now. If my stars align correctly, it will begin in my late 50s. That certainly does not mean I will be ready for the old folk’s home, or even really retire. Instead, it is more likely I will begin a second career.

I do not remember it being this way. When I was a mere teen, 49 was old. I suspect I am as perceived to be just as ancient to today’s teens. Yet I simply do not feel like I look my age. I am by no means alone. I work in a building populated by forty and fifty somethings. We look good. Our skin may not be quite as tight as it was in our twenties, but for the most part, we are free of all but minor wrinkles on our faces. These midlife ladies breasts may sag a bit, but just a bit. In any event, there is always the wonder of the Wonderbra.

To some extent, we baby boomers succeed in masking many aspects of aging. Many women in my age group dye their hair or, just as importantly, pay top dollar for a top hair stylist. Others are liberal in their use of makeup; it hides their more prominent age spots. We dress (when we can) as we did in our early twenties. When I was a child, older men wore felt hats, pleated pants, shoes and suits around town, even when they were at leisure. Lounge around the house in blue jeans and sneakers? They would have none of it. Well, we will have none of their kind of middle age. Perhaps the time will come when we wear knee-high white socks, baggy shorts and garish tropical shirts, but not yet. Maybe at age 50 we will start playing out the idea in our minds. Not yet though.

Admittedly, there are signs that we are not immortal. Perhaps the most depressing of them is that our eyes do not have the flexibility and acuity of our youths. I have worn bifocals for most of my forties. I also have a set of reading glasses. Nevertheless, even there we have new options. Many of us choose progressive lenses. Others of us choose laser vision correction, which allow us to see even better than when they were youths. We live in something of a magic age where science and technology provides the illusion we need that, if we are not immortal, we have dramatically slowed down our entropic nature.

Though I would like to think of myself as in my prime, I am not. I hit the Gold’s Gym several times a week too. While there, I use a number of weight machines. I feel good about the weight lifting, even though it is hard work and often leaves my joints tender for a day or two. Then I have incidents that make me realize that although I am in good shape, I am cannot begin to compete with a teenager. For example, about a year ago, we brought home a used office-sized desk. It felt like it weighed a ton. Between my wife and me, we could barely get in into our house. Its destination was our loft. Try as we might between the two of us we could not move it more than a couple of stairs.

Enter Stephen, the teenager from two doors down. He is 17 and he is on the wrestling team at school. Lifting a desk? No problemo. While I lifted the bottom of the desk using all of my force, he pulled the upper part of the desk up the stairs and into our loft. He did not even work up a sweat. I sat there panting from the exertion. I was also a bit staggered by how strong the human body can be in its prime. I am in good shape for a 49-year-old dude, but he has twice my strength and agility, at least.

Fortunately, on most days I can still pretend and actually believe I have the strength, agility and good looks of my youth. It may be a necessarily illusion for me to successfully navigate through my forties. However, it does not matter. All that matters is how I feel. And I feel great.

Like waiting for the other shoe to drop, I keep waiting for real middle age to show itself. Perhaps with sufficiently positive thinking and self-brainwashing it never arrives.

I hope this illusion continues.

Proud to be a Boomer

This Op Ed in the Washington Post has been percolating inside my brain for a couple weeks. Its author is Leonard Steinhorn. He is the author of a recent book titled, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. Steinhorn does not discount the value of my parent’s generation, which met the challenge of World War II. However, Steinhorn does try to cut the baby boomers a bit of slack by suggesting we have done much to change the world for the better.

Supposedly, we baby boomers are narcissistic and overindulgent. We cannot manage a checkbook, live on debt and obstinately expect that we can withdraw more from life than we put in. We are told by many even in our own generation that our values are shallow and wishy washy. We are so tolerant that we have no standards, and as a consequence our society has lost its moral footing. While there are elements of truth to these characterizations, those that make them paint with too broad a brush.

It is a stereotype to suggest that all, or even most of us baby boomers, fit into this model. For every peace loving, longhaired, bell-bottom wearing radical in the 1960s, there were at least twice as many of my generation more comfortable emulating Mom and Dad. These baby boomers did not make much press because, as always, news follows those who are change agents, not those who are content to live out modest lives in relative obscurity. There were plenty of these types where I lived in upstate New York. Arguably, I was one of them. I scorned the bell-bottoms, long hair and the love beads. I liked classical music and my taste in rock and roll music was eclectic. I had little respect for the many stoned hypocrites that populated the peace movement. Most were more interested in getting high and getting laid than truly changing the world. I gave the many vocal radicals and anarchists wide berth. Mostly I wanted nothing to do with them.

Arguably, many in my generation who did try to change the world were woefully misguided. Instead of being leaders, most followed the pack. “I am a non-conformanist, just like all my friends,” summarized many of my feelings at the time. How can you claim to be different when you look like all your counterculture friends? What really is the difference between a group of hippies and a bunch of Valley Girls? Like many teenagers, we followed dubious role models simply because they were not like Mom and Dad.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that the world we inherited left something to be desired. For someone like myself born at the peak of the baby boom (1957), I could not remember a time when our soldiers were not bogged down in the painful and seemingly endless war in Vietnam. It was the youngest members of my generation that paid the price for our mistake there. Unlike the World War II generation though, our conflict in Vietnam spoke to a larger truth: real life was morally ambiguous. Moreover, our parents were overall not terribly tolerant types. Most teenage girls growing up had the expectation that their career was to be a mother and a housewife. Our surreal world was stereotyped for us during prime time. TV shows were invariably inoffensive and saccharine. It attempted to mask an ugliness to our world that was blindingly obvious to us, but which our parents kept trying to sweep under the rug. These issues included rampant discrimination against women and minorities, unchecked pollution, injustice and needless war mongering. Our childhood also included heaping doses of rigid conformity with little in the way of accompanying explanations beyond, “Because I said so!” This could easily be followed by a belt on your backside if you pressed your case.

Perhaps this was the way that generations had always been raised in the past. Perhaps necessity had required it until my generation. While our methods often left something to be desired, we were largely successful in drawing society’s attention to its own gross hypocrisies. We asserted that America could be a much better society than it was, fully embracing both equal opportunity, equal justice and maximizing human potential. We also quickly realized it would not happen unless we pushed very hard. What was unique about my generation is that we rose to this challenge.

Now clearly we broke many eggs remaking America. Our goals were laudable but many of our tactics sucked. College campuses were occasionally taken over by radicals. Cities burned. Many of us ended up addicted to drugs and with morals resembling alley cats. Along the way though many good things also happened. We ended the war in Vietnam, empowered women and minorities, discovered we were capable of real brotherly love, embraced nonviolence, cherished diversity and worked hard to ensure that the least among us could rise out of poverty. While we currently obsess over global warming, at least our air and water are now relatively clean. Prior to the 1970s, industry was free to dump as much toxic pollutants into our air and streams as they wished. The earth was our garbage can, rather than our garden. We did much to change this.

In short, my generation was a necessary change agent that called out for America to fully live up to its ideals. Yet for this, we are frequently pilloried. Perhaps our children are not as morally grounded as our parents were, but at least they are not Stepford children. Our lives may feel much more complex than our parents’, but they have the potential to be much richer and more expansive lives too. I still embrace most of these values. Respect for my planet has become integrated into all my life’s actions, from recycling, to avoiding dangerous fertilizers, to driving a hybrid, to having only one child. Because of the positive values of my generation, I am not head of the house. My wife and I are equal partners. I was as likely to give our daughter a meal or change her poopy diapers as my wife. Unlike my parent’s generation, our friends include openly gay and lesbian people. I am grateful to have them in my life, and shudder to think about how less rich our lives would be without them.

For us, living the American dream is not about a owning a mini-Monticello in the suburbs with a couple SUVs in the driveway. It is about taking delight in the rich diversity of people and cultures around us while being open to new ideas and exploring new paths of thought and action. I understand and am grateful to my parent’s generation for ensuring that we did not grow up in a tyranny. However, in some ways their sacrifice would have been in vain if their children had not leveraged their hard work so that America could more closely model its stated values. My generation’s accomplishment, as Steinhorn alludes, was to make a giant step toward fully enabling this dream. It was not a perfect realization. I am hopeful though that Generations X and Y will note that while our work is not yet fully accomplished, they will exercise their energy to keep moving humanity forward.

A Rant: Our Supersized Nation

When did we decide to become a supersized nation? Whom do I blame? I could perhaps begin with Ronald Reagan. Reagan made us believe that being an American was all about thinking and living large. He told us that it was okay to get obscenely wealthy; indeed it was a virtue. He was our Gordon Gekko: greed is good. And he said as much in such a convincing aw shucks Boy Scout sort of way that it was impossible not to believe him. In the 80s we began to think big again. Enough was okay but suggested you weren’t really trying. More was better. A lot more was fabulous!

But I can also blame Bill Clinton. Bill never met a millionaire or billionaire he didn’t like. During his tenure Americans reaped the rewards of being the world’s only superpower. Our 401Ks bulged with inflated stock values. Our home values went through the roof too. We leveraged our housing prices to trade up to larger houses. We used those low interest rates to buy bigger and better cars. It was during the Clinton years that the sports utility vehicle craze took hold in this country. It was during the Clinton years that a single-family house with a one-car garage on a modest lot became simply insufficient. For those with the resources an opulent estate surrounded by acres of ranch or forest became our dream house. For the rest of us we settled for boxy McMansions on postage stamp lots. Three or four bedroom houses were out. Why not six, or eight even? Why not have a deck that wraps around the house? Two-car garage? Why stop at two? Why not demand a three or even four car garage? Hey, you only live once baby! You and your wife and your 2.2 kids may not need all that space, but buy it anyhow! This was the time to live the American dream!

As for food: to heck with normal portions. Normal portions were for wusses. It’s not enough to buy a hamburger anymore. Go for the double cheeseburger instead, or the triple burger with the sesame seed bun. Forget the regular fries. For forty cents more you can supersize them! Let’s make the new fast food standard to get as many calories in one sitting as we used to consume in a whole day — all for five bucks or less. And let’s add a whole lot more salt, fat and cholesterol to the meal too! Supersize that Coke while you’re at it! Have two hot apples pies, not one.

Not surprisingly our waistlines expanded. Because all the lots were taken in town, our McMansions naturally were built out in the exurbia. So walking to work or even to the grocery store was out of the question. We’d better hop into our SUV and drag the 12-mpg behemoth a dozen miles to our local Costco. There we supersized our pantries with mega-sized cases of detergent and frozen hamburger patties by the gross.

Whatever happened to David Thoreau’s simple life? Are you a little bit mad to want the simple life in modern America?

I must be a little bit mad. But first I will confess that as a former townhouse brat I was glad to go single family when I finally had the option. I was tired of the teen next door sitting on my car hood to smoke his cigarettes. I did not enjoy his loud bass-centric music, particularly when I was trying to sleep. My mental health improved markedly when we moved into our house.

Our house, as houses go, is fairly modest. The garage fits only one car. It has three bedrooms, but only two of any consequence since the third is small enough that it was turned into a TV room. We have a guest bedroom in the basement that doesn’t really count since it is mostly below ground. There are only three of us though and it is big enough. Our lot is a third of an acre and way more than I really want to manage. We’ve been in the house ten years. Only now have we completed giving everything a first coat of paint. In short it’s too much already and I want to downsize my life.

I wonder about people who own McMansions. I wonder primarily why they do it. Maybe they are masochists. Or maybe they like spending every free moment keeping the house up. Maybe they don’t mind taking out a second mortgage to put furniture in all those empty rooms. I can spend a day just picking up and vacuuming in my modest house. I would think you would either need to be a full time housekeeper or hire a couple cleaning ladies to come by once a week to keep these houses presentable. When do they find the time to relax on that screen in deck with a mint julep?

And why is at least one SUV a compulsory item in the driveway? It’s not like there are any mountains with gravel roads that must be traversed on a daily basis around here. As best I can tell the primary purpose for an SUV in my neighborhood is to take the kid to Taekwando or to get through the drive-thru pharmacy lane. Most of these families are not large extended Mormon families. They are a mother, father and two kids. A Camry sedan would have been a much more sensible choice. Why did they supersize their car?

Are they mindful of the effects of their lifestyle choices on the rest of the world? Or do they simply not care if they drive something that spews twice the toxins into the environment as my modest sedan? I guess to them it’s not that big a deal. When the summer ozone levels become unhealthy they aren’t affected. They live their lives indoors anyhow. They can drive right into their three-car garage. No need to exercise outdoors either — get on the treadmill in the basement instead.

No point in thinking about the costs of our lifestyle choices on others or even on ourselves. Live for the moment baby! Those who die with the most toys win! Hey, if we tear down another forest to put up more McMansions and shopping centers, well, that’s just the price of progress! And we’re doing God’s will. Because the preacher tells us it’s right there in Genesis: God gave us the Earth to shape as we see fit. God is saying: it’s all right to supersize your life! Go for it!

Still, how quaint: those seven deadly sins proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the Sixth Century: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. These are all American virtues now baby! Let’s put the Bible back on the shelf. We paid lip service to it anyhow. We don’t need it anymore. We have a new American religion. It’s called Capitalism. Adam Smith is our new God and Ronald Reagan was his only begotten son.

We will live well and die well. We will fill up our lives with possessions. Our credit cards may be maxed out but our net worth will continue to soar. Let us stay focused on our lifestyle. If we get a twinge of remorse from time to time let us pay some therapists and pop antidepressants instead. Let us never, ever dwell on just how meaningless it all is.