I've been having adventures this summer. In July I cranked my new new car up to 110 mph and flew alone for two days in the desert, saw a dead polar bear in a coffee shop, marched in a parade, and scattered Dad's ashes in an open meadow. For the most part, though, my adventures have been internal. I am making a feeble attempt at a mid-life crisis, but so far it hasn't amounted to much - just a lot of pacing, brooding, and long, exhausting mental hikes down roads not taken. Betsy has been patient throughout.
One of my melancholy realizations is that my remarkable network of friends, once so closely-knit, are now scattered to the wind and so deeply entangled in their own lives that I have very few people left to talk to. At work I have a first-rate cadre of friends, and long lunches every day, but we keep each other, always, at a certain distance. Other old friends are reachable by phone, and I've reached, but there are always parties or crying babies or impatient spouses in the background. It takes great resourcefullness, and much juggling of schedules, to pry loose a few precious minutes on the phone, and in those minutes there are bridges to be built and private languages to be rediscovered before any real conversation can take place. And you, my dear friend, are off somewhere in the easternmost Alps, drinking Viennese coffee and nibbling on Viennese pastries, as far away as you could possibly be.
"Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
My own attempt at a mid-life crisis is not near so dark or fraught with peril as was Dante's. In fact it's all so by-the-book and so perfectly on schedule as to be dreary: I turn forty, my father dies, my marriage enters its itchy seventh year, and I'm on my way. With my father's death I now advance to the plate. I am up next. It is now officially my turn to face the reaper.
Being the morbid, romantic fellow I am, I actually faced (embraced!) all this mortality business decades ago. As a lad in college I used to write "Respice Finem" on snowbanks and dusty windowshields: "Consider Your End." Death itself hasn't bothered me for a long time, and I'm old enough now to understand what Mark Twain said about death, that it becomes our best friend. And from an essay of Montaigne I read that if the gods had not granted us the gift of death we would curse them forever.
But midway this way of life, I see that death is not an all-or-nothing sort of thing. Not even the best of us live life to the fullest right up to our last breath and then suddenly vanish. No. We give up life one piece at a time. Even those who cling blindly to every scrap have bits of life taken from them. Our bodies falter, we grow tired, accomplishments fade, disappointments mount, and ever so subtly, the possibilities of life drift just beyond our diminished reach.
I wish to live my life with my eyes open, so how do I best deal with this reality? Shall I deny death's every tug? Shall I take up bungee jumping or buy a sports car or have an affair? Or shall I grow old gracefully? Put away the things of my youth and savor only those pleasures that come with age? Many pleasures remain to be sure - I'm still a young man. But as I set out on the second half of my life, I want to strike the right balance.
There are perils on either side. To cling too ardently to life would be to close my eyes to the true nature of things, to become a clown, a letch, at first comic but ultimately tragic. I'm not a kid anymore and, more to the point, I don't want to be one again. Been there, done that. But to give up life prematurely - how sad! So many people make that mistake: crippling themselves before their time, becoming stale and sour when they could be dancing and teaching and loving. I want to accept the things I have truly lost, but I want to remain young at heart.
I find myself instinctively retreating from this challenge, retreating into my youth. In recent months I have revisited old haunts and old ways of thinking. That's why I went into the desert. The image I have of myself as young man, looking back on it now from marriage and mortgage, is of a rusty, precarious car driving alone through the icy passes of Montana or the vast desolation of Nevada. That was me in that car, driving too fast yet with all the time in the world, footloose and fancy free, with maybe a basket of unwashed laundry in the passenger seat and a cat or two dozing uneasily in the back seat. I was always driving through enormous spaces. And rather than making me feel small, those spaces made me feel vast, for there was nothing in all the world but me and the desert.
It was lonely in that car sometimes, and I don't want to be lonely again, or poor. I don't really want to unravel my marriage or upend my career. But I do want to do something foolish, rattle the bars of my cage a bit, reach into some forbidden cookie jar, or into the nearest flame for just a second. I want to test whether or not I'm still alive and how far I can push before life pushes back.