I awoke today to Jenny's sweet voice wishing me a happy birthday. Except that I didn't really wake up that way. Actually I had been up since four, contemplating the day. I have no idea why. For the past few years, when people have noted, "Oh, you're heading for forty," I laughed it off. "It'll be great, my best decade yet," I replied. And I meant it too. But this morning I found myself thinking, "Man, I'm forty. That kind of sucks." Intellectually, I don't mind the number. In fact, I'm expecting great things from the next ten years: Advancement to full professor, a chance to begin a new post-omnitopia writing project, opportunities to travel, and the development of big plans that Jenny and I have begun to set in motion. As long as my health holds out, this should be an exciting time.
Yet a small voice reminds me of what I'm leaving behind. My teens were filled with typical angst, the transition from youth to young adulthood. My twenties were filled with hard work, helping to grow my family and educate myself. My thirties were marked with professional advancement, along with the joys and frustrations of helping to raise a teenager (who has now become a young woman in her own right). Now begins the next phase.
In some ways I reached middle age years ago. It's been a long time since I felt "cool" in the pop culture sense. Less and less of Entertainment Weekly appeals to me, which is not a good sign. Indeed, I joke with my students that I stopped being cool on June 10, 1986, the day I began Navy boot camp. I remember standing in line at the exchange to buy shaving cream, listening to Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years," feeling a chill from just getting a buzz cut, and thinking to myself, "Dude, what have you gotten yourself into?" Right then I might have held back a few tears of my own. I tell that story now and my students laugh, not cruelly but with a nascent recognition. But it's true. I stopped being cool a long time ago. That's OK. Cool is overrated.
So now I'm forty. I feel occasional aches from lower back pain, my previously perfect eyesight sometimes fails to render the scribbles of a distant blackboard, and I have to work harder and harder to burn off calories that once melted by youthful exuberance alone. Even so, I'm still energetic for the future, imagining better days ahead than those that I've already lived. And most of all, I recognize my fortune, the best birthday gift I could receive: having a wonderful family to help me celebrate this holiday. Tonight we'll see Cloverfield and tomorrow I'll play with my new Xbox 360 that magically appeared next to the TV this morning. Later, we'll celebrate more formally at Morton's Steakhouse, commemorating the moment with a martini or two. And then I'll begin the next ten years.
Forty. I'll get used to it.