Well, I just turned forty. More than a week ago in fact, which is probably just enough time for the new reality to sink in. It was easy to be honest, all I had to do was stay alive and sure enough the day came along as so many others have done: roughly 14, 610 to be precise. But seriously, despite some inevitable reflection and re-assessment of my circumstances, I didn’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it. Indeed, I surprised myself by being relatively philosophical about the whole thing.
They say that forty is the new thirty, which is nice considering the old thirty was the new twenty, which makes me feel almost half my age. These days, with the cost of living in Australia being what it is, they say the fifty is the new twenty, and I can only hope this also applies to age, when that more ominous fifth decade begins.
Turning forty is one of life’s many arbitrary milestones. As with so many “significant” numbers – like the millennium or our birth dates – it has no actual importance and is merely a human conceit for the sake of record keeping and measurement. The number itself is meaningless, yet this will not stop people from weighing it down with vast amounts of baggage as it does, inarguably, represent a sort of rough half-way mark. There is a certain weightiness to the idea that as much as half of one’s life might already be over.
A quick scan of the accumulated ‘wisdom’ on the internet offers many different perspectives on turning forty. Some say it is a time when people begin to enjoy the hard work of their twenties and thirties, which is all very well if you actually bothered to work hard in your twenties and thirties. Others say that it is a time when men go off the rails with a mid-life crisis in an attempt to recapture lost youth. Again, that’s all very well if you let your youth go earlier and lived a responsible hard-working life to this point. It’s also said that most people have already come to accept responsibilities by this age: family, children, mortgage – what Zorba the Greek called “The full catastrophe!” – and have thus achieved a certain emotional and psychological stability. Again, “the full catastrophe” is something which has eluded me, along with learning to drive, superannuation and most forms of appreciable work experience. Still, after years of constant philosophising and, more recently, head-shrinking, I do feel more in control of my emotions and psychology, particularly in how I relate to people.
I’ve approached forty with the outlook that most people sport around thirty – namely that it’s time to “get serious”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve put off “getting serious” as long as possible, partly because it seemed so utterly undesirable, but mostly because there were other more fun things to do first. I’ve never had much interest in being responsible for other people, and only marginally more interest in being responsible for myself. Indeed, life, until now, with the exception of various bursts of zeal for some sort of stability and career, has been about maximising pleasure and experience. Ironically, however, outside the bouts of travel, study, freedom and self-indulgence, the status quo has mostly been a lot of unpaid hard work and agonising.
Throughout my late thirties, I often wondered what it would be like to turn forty. Indeed, I wondered about it so much that it almost felt as though I were hanging around waiting for it to happen. I put life on hold, lost myself in computer games and travel, indulged in writing and photography as hobbies rather than commercial ventures, worked part time and lazed my way along. I needed a deadline of sorts, or rather, a starting line, beyond which point I must work hard to secure the future I wanted to have. But what was that?
Having dreaded the idea of turning forty for so long, when the approaching reality finally began to loom, I switched tack and started to see things more positively. Quite simply, it was a decision I made, having grown tired of carrying around a gloomy outlook. Where, I ask, does that get you? There’s nothing wrong with a little righteous indignation about the world, but who wants to go through life whining and complaining, especially about one’s personal state of affairs, when a little positive thinking can make life far more pleasurable? “You always take the weather with you,” and whilst I’ll always love the rain, of late I’ve been toting sunshine.
I’ve never really wanted to be rich, but then I’ve never really wanted to be poor. When I turned forty I knew I must begin to say yes to settling down, partly because the old paradigm of freedom wasn’t working so well any more. Despite my love of restless roaming through life, the lack of grounding has taken its toll in constant exposure to the anxiety of uncertainty. Whilst in many ways it is easier to remain aloof in life, it requires a singular energy and confidence to do so. Consequently, while many at this age are rebelling against their early establishment of security, I have gradually been developing a longing for its sense of permanence.
This longing for permanence has finally begun to take shape. I knew something was changing in me when I began to answer the question of children with “well, I don’t want not to have them,” instead of the requisite “screw that.” This change has occurred in the last eighteen months – indeed, as recently as February 2011 I reaffirmed my desire not to have children in the only piece I’ve ever pulled from this blog. It was written in response to the news that the partners of two of my oldest friends were newly pregnant, which caused me to take a good long look at where I stood in the world. I had meant the article to be light-hearted and entertaining, but when I re-read it some months later, it came across as awfully mean-spirited and so I pulled it.
My principal concern then was the loss of freedom:
Would I ever see a film at the cinema again? Could I ever just clear off to India for two months as I did last year? Would I ever sleep again? I plan to cling to my bachelor existence as long as humanly possible. If that means for the rest of my life, then so be it and here’s to me. Let’s face it, someone’s got to do it.
It’s a very reasonable concern given the way in which the lives of my friends with children have been transformed. Yet of course, on another level, it also reflects a rather trivial shallowness. Selfishness I can accept as a motivation, but the conclusion that life is only meaningful or satisfying when free of responsibility is not self-evident.
So, turning forty was, in the end, absolutely necessary and couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Indeed, it was a relief. I have had difficulty throughout life in understanding what age I actually was at the time and knowing what was expected of me at that age. This is largely because I long remained infuriatingly childish and didn’t give a rat’s arse about what was expected of me, and indeed, resented anyone who had the audacity to expect anything from me, but also because I spent fifteen years at university. The world of work and careers and suits and responsibility may have its merits, but it seemed far more interesting to stay in school indefinitely having wonderful romances, challenging conversations and intellectually decadent junkets. For my twenties and thirties, the motto was always “when in doubt, do a degree.” And I can say this much – I fucking loved it.
Spending so much time at university left me at odds with the professional world. My peers were always students – aspiring writers, academics, scientists and historians – and so I was largely insulated from the working world and found it all rather distastefully vulgar. The apparent drudgery of a stressful Monday to Friday job compared to sitting on the banks of the Cam drinking Pimms and talking about the fall of the Roman Empire, was so gut-wrenchingly unappealing that I vowed to do everything I could to avoid it for as long as possible.
Yet of course, this was a vow made with a different energy and a different psychology. Things changed, in part, when my age caught up with me at last. When I was thirty-five, everyone looked at me and thought I was thirty. When I turned thirty-seven, everyone thought I was… thirty-seven. I took a look at myself in the mirror and saw that despite running regularly, doing weights and paying at least some attention to my diet, sufficient to keep my body in shape and my face lean, the wrinkles of worry and anxiety had gradually accumulated around my eyes. My hair was peppered with grey at the temples and my eyebrows had a certain mature bushiness. I took this template of selfhood with me and held it up against the men on the street. My gods, I thought, when I realised who my peers were. They look like the dads in mortgage commercials, and so the fuck do I.
At least I still have my hair, and a wonderfully thick and full-bodied covering to boot. And while I am slowly but surely revealing my deep and abiding vanity here, I might as well go on to say that I have always equated hair with youth. If I ever lose it, I will go straight to Advanced Hair and pay whatever it takes to get it back. Baldness is not an option and I dearly hope to be sporting a Bob Hawke silver bodgie when I reach the dear old age of one hundred and twenty. So, from a purely physical point of view, having reached forty, I look just how I always wanted to look at forty. That’s quite a relief.
Having said all this, I still feel largely out of place in the world. It never ceases to amaze me that people I went to school with have serious jobs, own houses and cars, and heaven forbid, have children as old as ten. How on earth did they manage it all, and why did they want to do so?
A week before my birthday, whilst walking to a restaurant with my father, he displayed his special brand of tiresomely contrived surprise when, in response to his question, I told him I was turning forty.
“Forty! Forty! Mate, you can’t be turning forty.”
“Do the maths.”
“Forty! Jesus, mate, when I was forty I’d already had three sons and two marriages. I was a top journo at the Australian.”
“Well, I’ve got three degrees including a PhD from Cambridge.”
“Stuff that mate, they’re just pieces of paper.”
“Mate, I was just joking.”
But of course he wasn’t, and of course, I didn’t give a rat’s arse either. I’m pleased to have found my own way to forty, and whilst the next decade might prove to be ostensibly more conventional, I can assure you I shall be doing it in my own idiom.