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Added: 21 March 2000
[Commentary] [Fiction]

A Man of Forty


I'm forty now, and forty years is a whole life -- forty is deep old age. It's indecent, vulgar, and immoral to live beyond forty! Who lives beyond forty? Answer me honestly. Or let me tell you then: fools and good-for-nothings. I'll repeat that to the face of any of those venerable patriarchs, those respected grayheads, for the whole world to hear. And I have a right to say it, for I'll live to be sixty. I'll live to be seventy! I'll live to be eighty! Wait, give me a chance to catch my breath...

Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground

Famous karate master Tsutomu Ohshima told me when I was twenty-one that it would be like this: "You'll look at yourself at forty and think 'Not bad -- almost as good as new!'" Well, I stand before you today a man of forty. Let us now examine the current state of affairs, and the process that has led to it. First, the physical facts: complete hair and teeth; a trifling amount of lower back pain (but exceptional overall fitness); and fully functional personal apparatus thank you very much. In short, almost as good as new. Moreover, I remind you it is generally understood outside of Russian literature that life begins at forty. A man feels special at forty, like he can do anything. He is both plenty old and plenty young. He has the face he deserves and there is nothing beyond his reach.

My fortieth birthday came in the year 2000 -- the trendiest and most shiny number we have ever had for a year, and a compelling symbol of modern vigor for today's forty-year-old man. Since I was born in 1960, my personal decades correspond exactly to the 1960s, 1970s, et cetera. In this context my private tale becomes nothing short of a grand allegorical account of the past four decades of human history. Or something.

  1. Decade One: The 1960s: Age 0-9
  2. A decade of remarkable change in my life, as I progressed suddenly from nothingness to existence and thenceforth steadily to the fourth grade. The milieu: Long Island, New York. Highlights from this period include Richard Culoso and his astonishing "naked lady pen," an ongoing rivalry with Diana Hoeger for the title of spelling bee champion, and the landing of men on the moon, after which all things were declared officially possible. On the downside, I was forced to wet my pants rather publicly once in third grade, since going to the bathroom had been forbidden me due to excessive pretending about having to go when I didn't really have to. A classic "boy who cried wolf" tale, and still a bitter pill.

    Major cultural influences: Bugs Bunny, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie.

    Stuff that was going on that I didn't really care about at the time: The Beatles; war; acid; social unrest.

  3. Decade Two: The 1970s: Age 10-19
  4. This period started in fifth grade, ended in college, and included everything in between. Kim and Theresa arrived in sixth grade sporting breasts, startling everyone and issuing us suddenly into a radically different world. We reacted more or less like monkeys at a monolith -- cautious wonder at first, followed by lots of howling and jumping. Of course, puberty struck us all eventually and forced us to hide our Johnny Astro helmets and assume more sexually viable identities. Other highlights of this period include silky polyester "ooh" shirts and rolling a car at high speed without being injured even though nobody was wearing seatbelts. On the downside: One night in 1976 we ended up hanging out with an older guy in his mid-twenties, requiring us all to be at our coolest; I puked my beer-and-spaghetti-filled guts out all over his stoop.

    Major cultural influences: Black Sabbath; Blue Oyster Cult; Alice Cooper; Monty Python's Flying Circus.

    Stuff that was going on that I didn't really care about at the time: Disco; Watergate; the "oil shocks."

  5. Decade Three: The 1980s: Age 20-29
  6. Going to college, dropping out of college, working in Taco Bell, finishing college, playing in a band, working in restaurants, rooting for the Lakers: It wasn't until 1987 that I first got the "hey wait a minute" feeling and started thinking about making a plan of some kind. Employing a strategy of blind, random leaping, I ended up by 1989 in graduate school in Washington DC and employed as an intern by a large nonprofit organization, where I still work today, but not in Washington, and not as an intern. Highlights of this period include a sense of reckless abandon; a new appreciation of everything that was going on in the 1960s that I didn't care about at the time; and five Los Angeles Lakers championships. On the downside: The Celtics won three.

    Major cultural influences: Magic Johnson; post-rock minimalist funk; Pee Wee Herman.

    Stuff that was going on that I didn't really care about at the time: Junk bonds; Ronald Reagan; the "brat pack."

  7. Decade Four: The 1990s: Age 30-39
  8. Through no fault of my own, there were alarming periodic improvements in my job through a series of timely retirements and so forth; evil forces were clearly conspiring to keep me in Washington DC permanently. Therefore at the end of the decade I fled back to goodly New England to hide in a condominium with my newly acquired wife until it was safe to come out. Other highlights of this period include pool lessons from an old-time pool guy named Gus and the emergence of knit boxers as a viable form of underpant. The downside: Crushing victory of global monopoly capitalism dashes hopes of emergent love-based system of equitable resource sharing.

    Major cultural influences: Hong Kong cinema; fin-de-siècle what-have-you; Ozzy Osbourne.

    Stuff that was going on that I didn't really care about at the time: The Gulf War; handheld wireless communications; the US economy.

There it is, forty years -- a whole life. Regrets? Sure; let me tell you a little story. When I was in second grade, the "pretty ugly" joke was enjoying currency among my peers. It worked like this: You'd go up to a girl and say "Gee, you're pretty...[pause for effect]...pretty ugly!" Well I pulled that joke on a girl called Maryann. In fact, she was a very pretty girl, and a very nice girl. And the three seconds it took me to deploy the joke went in horrible and inevitable slow motion and have stuck with me all this time. After "you're pretty" but before "pretty ugly" I had time to see her nice face begin to assume friendly proportions, a pleasing mix of blushing and happiness and humility, and I had time to feel that sensation that I could stop right there, that I should stop right there. It could have just been a nice thing to say to a nice person. A simple, nice, friendly moment between innocent seven-year-olds. But I had the momentum of the joke and I couldn't stop it. So the terrible feeling actually started before the terrible words that I could not stop. "Pretty ugly" came out, and it was, well, pretty ugly. In my mind it came out in extra slow motion, in deep bass molasses tones. Her face fell. All the good feeling was gone. I had hurt her feelings. I had damaged myself too. Then I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything. Well I'm saying it now: Maryann -- I'm sorry; I didn't mean it; I was being stupid. May the universe forgive me for being so small and pitiful! You're forty now, of course, and you'll be doing fine, and I feel a little better now, and you'll be fine at fifty, and at sixty, and seventy, and eighty, wait, let me catch my breath!