40 (or XL in Roman numerals)

Today is my birthday, I have attained 40 years of life in this world. If I survive long enough to be an octogenarian, this year is effectively the mid-point. While I have tip-toed near this precipice for the last few years now (38, 37, 3635… etc.) now I look long into the abyss and it peers intently into me.

Matthew and CandaceOh, but I am writing this in haste… having only just returned from an evening’s outing with my bride, she is in the kitchen pouring the wine as I hurriedly type this. We ate Chicken Tikka Masala, Shish Kebab, Samosas and Gulab Jamun, then went to an out-of-the-way coffee shop. Now we’re home. My sisters are keeping our wee ones for the night, so it’s just she and me.

But I do want to reflect on this age…

“I grow old, I grow old…”

Today has been such a curious day. I have felt in a fog of remembrance, and dizzy from the kind words and loving sentiments expressed by so many. So many people who I have felt likely did not care for me, if they thought of me at all. I’ve been inundated with hundreds of cordial messages, some cursory and others more elaborate. I appreciate them all. I know that I am a difficult person to know and to love. It is humbling to think so many people I have met along the way of my life’s journey still hold their relationship with me as something worth keeping.

Looking back, memories are more elusive than they used to be, but still woven with strong affection.

I wish I could leave my loved ones certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. But then, this life has its own mortal loveliness and memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing.

A moment is such a slight thing, its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.

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I have a very clear recollection of turning ten years old. I was floating in the ocean at Miami Beach. It was morning. I had just eaten a breakfast of bagels and orange juice with a sizable contingent of my extended family. The tide pushed me back to the beach, and I sat in the sand watching the sun rise higher in the sky. I saw the water ebb and flow.

Turning twenty was far less epic a picture, though not without romance. I worked a full day of construction in the unforgiving summer heat. Then went out on the town with my then girlfriend (now wife). Dinner at our favorite Chinese food place, then puttering around the (now defunct) record store, before a nightcap at Brother’s Coffee. I do recall just how strange and unsure my future seemed at the time. There were vague and nebulous plans… talk of moving to Austin or the Pacific Northwest. So much unknown.

My thirtieth year found me with increasing clarity about the path that lay before me, though I confess it seems so shortsighted now. I wrote that “the fuzzy-headed and laissez-faire meanderings of my novitiate adulthood have faded under the precision of maturing conviction and resolute determination.” But I had no idea where such determination would bring me.

In the last ten years I feel I have lived a century. While in retrospect the time has seemed to pass in a quick spectral parade, the burden of years weighs more heavily. I feel my age now more than I ever have. The weary face I find in the mirror is well-deserved.

The curse of mortality. You spend the first portion of your life learning, growing stronger, more capable. And then, through no fault of your own, your body begins to fail. You regress. Strong limbs become feeble, keen senses grow dull, hardy constitutions deteriorate. Beauty withers. You remember yourself in your prime, and wonder where that person went. As your wisdom and experience are peaking, your traitorous body becomes a prison.

Earlier today I was filing out some paperwork and, when including in my age, started to write “39” when I caught myself. “Nope, you’re 40 now, no sense in holding on to your thirties anymore than you ought.” I chuckled to myself. I have no great dread considering myself “40,” though there is something to be said for perception. I’ve found others often remark about my age with surprise. Do I look so young?

Yesterday a colleague (seeing an announcement on social media) caught me in the hallway, expressing alarm that I had attained four decades. “I figured you for early thirties, at the most!” she said.

Thanking her for the kind words, I revealed my anti-aging secret, “Patience.”

However, (in reaching this age) I do find that I have become increasingly testy in some ways and feistier in others. I have less tolerance for people who waste my time. For bad service. For things that break or don’t perform as they’re supposed to. I’m much less willing to put up with things, out of politeness or anything else. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for good service—because I know from experience what it takes to achieve it. I have tremendous respect for someone who’s skilled at their job. And I appreciate things that are well made and well designed.

Though still possessing a general intellectual broadmindedness, I have grown downright intolerant with some of my liberality. I no longer have the fortitude to waste even a second of my time on those who prefer willful ignorance as opposed to ideological curiosity. My own convictions are not damaged by soaking them in an acid bath of skepticism, rather they have grown stronger, and I have found that the complexities of the world prevent narrow categorization.

In reaching this age, one begins to realize (if they haven’t already) that people drift in and out of their life.

It’s strange to think of the world going on without me. I remember all those people I went to school with. People I grew up with. We shared our childhood and our formative years. We came from the same small place and shared the same past. And because those childhood and teenage years seemed so long, so thick with experience, it felt like I would always know them. At 40 you realize life doesn’t work that way. People drift. And the thought that I might go through the rest of my life never knowing what happened to those people, how their lives played out, is difficult to accept. There are too many loose ends. Stories don’t wrap up like that.

By 40 you also realize that your goals can no longer be open-ended.

“Someday” doesn’t apply anymore, because you face the cold realization that you only have so many days left. It’s a time to abandon some goals and focus with renewed energy on the rest. If you’re going to get clear about your life, better do it now. I know I have.

The world grows more bizarre with each passing year, bizarre and cruel. I find so little in common with the majority of its inhabitants. My ambition has also become wound tighter and tighter. I no longer hope for a broad reach, instead I wish to be understood and appreciated by a precious few. In short, I feel like I have no patience for anyone who does not deserve my patience.

“I grow old, I grow old…”

From here, I look out across a sea of possibilities at my fifth decade. I have no idea what the future holds.

I know the end of this next stanza will find me grayer, more dim in the senses, but still (I hope) keening ever onward and upward.

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