I was born July 12, 1976. Saturday marks my 38th birthday. Turning 38 is one of those deceptively innocuous birthdays. Because there’s not social standing or stigma associated with it, one tends to overlook its significance.
Milestone ages like 16 or 18, 21 and the dreaded “40” get more attention in our society. “Sweet 16” often represents the transition from childhood to full-blown adolescence, while 18 is legal adulthood. Turning 21 brings with it certain legal ramifications, and 40 is the point one is described as being “over the hill.” But turning 38 is just… blah. There’s nothing special about it, just another number.
I’m fascinated by numbers, symbols and patterns. For example: I moved out of my parent’s house at age 19, which was 19 years ago. So I’ve now lived as long “on my own” as I have under my parents’ care. This means, among other things, that any boneheaded decisions I make cannot be laid at their feet. My license to blame my upbringing has long since expired.
Another landmark of 38 is that, while not culturally ascribed to being “middle aged,” for an American male it’s the mathematical halfway point. In the U.S. the average male life expectancy is 76 (age 81 for American women). So if I live to the ripe old age of 76, this year is the halfway point.
But I’m not one of those guys who looks wistfully back on his younger years. My childhood veered from one frenetic jumble of chaos to the next, my adolescence was a hormone-charged bundle of awkwardness, and much of my early adulthood was spent taking one step forward and two steps back. It was only in my late 20s when things started to come together, allowing me to build considerable momentum and make significant progress in my 30s.
So I’m one of those weird guys who actually looks forward to getting older. To badly paraphrase Woody Allen, I think I’m gonna get better as I get older. I think I’m gonna be the stoic, graying virile type — as opposed to one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth, screaming about socialism.
I think I’m off to a pretty good start. The worst of my vices have pretty much fallen by the wayside — though whether it’s due to wisdom, maturity, or outright boredom, I cannot say. At this point it just takes too danged much energy to be much of a sinner — energy which grows more precious with each passing season. I’d rather use mine hanging out with my wife or playing with my kids than getting in trouble.
My days of sowing wild oats are long gone, I am much happier cultivating a garden. Call it getting soft or slowing down in middle-age if you wish, I consider it a hard-won and well-earned contentment. The universe is indifferent to us and our aspirations, we must take heart in the small things that we can control. Changing the world comes not through revolutions, but in everyday, practical efforts to make it a better place in which to live. The 19-year-old hipster me would likely scoff at the “sellout” I’ve become, but I’d just tell him to get a haircut and get a real job.
The dreams of my youth, I’m glad to say, are all but dead — and good riddance to them. My childhood fancies were neither practical nor suited to my talents. Time is a great leveler, and my path forward reveals itself to be greater than anything I could’ve conjured from my juvenile imaginings. When you’re young, you always feel life hasn’t yet begun — that “life” is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays, or whenever. Suddenly you’re “old” and the scheduled life didn’t arrive. You find yourself asking exactly what happened — failing to see that the hurly-burly madness was your life happening before your very eyes.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot in 38 years, the most important thing being that I don’t know everything — not even close — and I need to constantly be learning more. I’ve learned to swallow my pride and own my errors. I’ve learned to make my mistakes boldly — to apologize with equal fervor — but not to repeat them. I’ve learned not to write anything in a text or email that I wouldn’t want splashed on the front page of my newspaper. I’ve learned, if I catch myself following the tide of public opinion, to check my facts and possibly reconsider my perspective.
There are few joys that equal a good book, a good walk, a good hug, or a good friend. All are free. I have learned to slow down. Unless you’re a first-responder or a professional athlete, haste is rarely worth it — life is better enjoyed at a leisurely pace. I have learned to adapt what is useful and to reject what is useless. To color within the lines in hues of my own choosing.
Most importantly, I have learned to love everyone, even my critics — especially my critics — as nothing will bewilder or annoy them more.