40 Isn’t “Over the Hill,” But Death Does Move in Next Door

And occasionally knocks on your door late at night.

Photo by Renato Danyi from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grey-skulls-piled-on-ground-1096925/

It’s strange how when you’re really young — early to late teens, even 20s — the idea of being a middle-aged adult seems ridiculously remote and impossible.

Getting older is for other people. Your parents, for example, who were born ancient. Or your aunts and uncles. Or that one teacher who’s been teaching algebra since the Apollo moon missions. People to whom the rules of life apply. Not you, of course.

And then it happens. Slowly, steadily, with the inevitability of Michael Myers stalking you across the neighborhood.

For sure, some people age better than others. I remember always being told that when I turned 30, that’d be “it.” Meaning I’d suddenly develop a massive beer belly, joint and back problems, lose my hair, incur all sorts of health problems, you name it. Thirty was the “turning midnight” in the Cinderella story of aging, apparently.

As it turned out, I actually lost weight and kept it off during my 30s. I still have all my hair, with some noble grays. And with the exception of a nasty flu back in 2019, I’ve hardly had any health issues. I never even caught Covid.

Actually, I ended my 30s in better shape than when I started them.

I’ve worked hard and tried my best to live a healthy life. Mostly, that just comes down to eating a proper diet and getting regular exercise. And maybe some genetics. I maintain that the rate at which you age is partially due to choices you make about whether to live a healthy life or not.

Six months ago I turned 40. A supposedly major milestone of a year. True middle-age. “Over the hill,” etc.

Though if we’re being technical, you won’t know when you’re truly middle-age until you’re dead, after which it won’t really matter. If you were to die at 40, then 20 was actually your true “middle-age.” Whereas if you die at 100, then 50 is your middle-aged point.

Statistically, men tend to die around 80 years old. So, it’s fair to say 40 is half-way to the grave.

And honestly, that’s exactly how it feels.

For me, forty is less a physical feeling than a mental one. For sure my body’s not as limber and springy as it was even five years ago. I am stronger. I still lift weights, and fit into jeans with a 32″ waist. I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been.

A co-worker recently expressed shock when I revealed I was forty, telling me I look 30. I don’t actually believe him. Maybe I could pass for 35. But 30? I don’t think so.

He credited “clean living” for my youthful appearance. And he’s not wrong. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. I’m all about boring sobriety. But also — and perhaps most importantly — I don’t have kids, and I’ve never been married. I’ve avoided a lot of major pitfalls many sadly fall into by middle-age. A crushing mortgage. A nasty divorce and alimony. Debt and work pressures. I’m debt-free, and live a quiet, modest life.

Physically, I may be aging slower. But mentally, that’s another matter. And I’m not talking about the capacity to learn or the brain’s elasticity. I read and write a lot. I’m curious about the world. My neurons are still growing and forming attachments.

The problem is that as you age you start to give less of a shit about anything, because little excites you. Life starts to lose its flavor, so to speak, until it feels like bland day-long chewed bubblegum. Increasingly less surprises you. The patterns of life start to become repetitive. It’s like sitting down to watch a bad movie and by the halfway point you’ve already figured out all the twists and turns.

I don’t mean you know everything. Not at all. Quite the opposite. It’s just that more and more matters less and less to you overall. It’s a kind of weird Nihilism Fog. It’s not that nothing matters. It’s that you see the long-term futility in a lot of human behavior, especially your own actions. Man’s miniscule place against monolithic, eternal Nature. It’s why I don’t get excited or care much about politics. Everything’s cyclical. One political party will dominate this year, and next year it will be the next one. Rinse, wash, repeat. Big deal.

This can make it hard to stay motivated. You feel like you’re going through the motions. You’re like a robot sometimes. With rare exceptions, very little excites you. If your mood was a echocardiogram, it would mainly be a flat line with ocassional bounces and spikes. Outwardly, you keep on a smiling, social-friendly mask, of course. Inside, you look like the faces on those Easter Island heads.

Example: I was at a job fair a while back, and the recruiter — this late 20s, maybe early 30s looking guy — was excitedly telling me about all the great company benefits. Like 401(k), life insurance, annual pay raises, and three-tier health options. You know, benefits that virtually EVERY company under the fu*king sun offers these days. I smiled and nodded, amused that he could maintain such fervor for corporate minutiae, or at least pretend to.

Another example: Very few movies look worth watching. If you are over 35 and are still a big fan of Marvel/Star Wars and Disney stuff, I don’t understand you. There’s been one new movie this year I’ve really liked: Top Gun: Maverick. Because it actually made me feel something. I suspect Avatar 2 will have been worth the wait, too.

The older you get, the harder it is to be impressed. On the flip side, you really value those rare moments when things are done right.

I suppose the doldrums of middle-age are what drive so many people to make sudden life changes. Career pivots. Divorces or marriages. Having children. Moving to another place. Going back to school. Picking up a new hobby. Cutting off old friendships. Building new ones. Changing appearances. Losing weight. Exercising. Or other, more extreme things, like joining a cult or religion. Anything to stimulate, and simulate the effervesence of youth.

A mid-life crisis is like racing around trying to put out a fire that doesn’t exist, except in your head.

But it’s not without reason. The aging process is simply Death moving closer. When you’re an adolescent or teen, the Grim Reaper isn’t even in the neighborhood, usually. He’s in the next town over. By your 20s, Death’s living in the upscale part of town, where all the “real adults” and old people live. By your 30s, he may have moved to your block. But by your 40s, he’s next door. You see him barbecuing on the weekends. He waves to you as you leave your driveway to go to work. Sometimes, he even plays pranks on you. Late at night you might hear a banging on your door. When you go to answer, there’s no one there. You know it’s Death, of course. But it’s not like you’re going over to his house to confront him. He’s a big guy. Bald. Drives a Harley. Always wears black. He’s just not the kind of guy you mess with.

When you’re 50, Death moves into your house. And no, he ain’t paying rent. By 60, he’s sleeping in the top bunk above you. By 70+, you’re bedmates. After that, well, you become a little more than just friends.

These days, everyone is so focused on stopping the physical effects of aging. Everyone wants to look young. And with exercise, a good diet, sunscreen, lots of hydration, avoiding vices, and maybe a touch of plastic surgery, you can Dorian Gray yourself a good long while. Look at Tom Cruise. That guy has looked 35 since 1997.

But stopping the mental effects of aging is much tricker. And while I suspect it involves a bit of self-deception or purposeful distraction, I applaud those who are able to pull it off.

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