Saturday, October 01, 2011

Enjoying your mid-life crisis

Trying to get the hang of it

One of my colleagues, now retired, told me about his mid-life crisis. He dyed his gray hair back to dark brown, bought himself a motorcycle, and got a new wife (one of his former students). By the time he recounted this tale to me, the gray hair was back, the motorcycle had been replaced with a sedan, and he had settled down into a relatively sedate middle-class existence with wife No. 2. He wasn't sure, but he suspected things had worked out better than he had had any reason to expect.

I'm not sure I understand these crises. Perhaps I favor routine too much. Perhaps I decline to embrace the evanescent enthusiasms of the day—including society's tiresome expectation that middle-aged men are supposed to get fidgety. Perhaps I have successfully punctuated my life with screams of “Serenity now!”

In looking back, I've tried to consider whether my existence has been marked by any decadal milestones. My conclusion is a firm maybe. Decide for yourself:

When I turned 20, I went off to school, leaving home for the first time. It wasn't any kind of mad impulse, though. It was simply the logical next step. I had to pursue my education at least to the point where I could escape from my bucolic environment. Certainly I was beginning to suspect that education would be a primary theme in my future. So off I went, nervous but determined.

When I turned 30, I was out of school and starting a stint in California's civil service, having been transformed into a minor bureaucrat in Sacramento. The job was something of a detour, but I had done a modicum of teaching, experienced a stint in journalism, and tried my hand at magazine writing. I wasn't exactly at loose ends (civil service is seldom a “loose ends” kind of place), but my goals had become diffuse. In theory, I could earn job security, get vested in the retirement system, and ride out the decades till retirement. But that somehow seemed unlikely. For the time being, though, it was okay.

The classic crisis year in which I turned 40 was unremarkable in most respect, though I did get fitted for braces. Orthodontia seemed a better choice than a motorcycle. I had bravely run away from civil service for a tenuous temporary appointment to a faculty position, leaving the state capital behind. Fortunately, I had successfully navigated the transition into a tenure-track position, was under contract to produce a math textbook, and was now accumulating seniority in my college. The mouthful of metal seemed a mere detail.

When I turned 50, I was back in grad school. My transcript had long boasted a mess of units beyond the master's degree, and I had finally ginned up the courage to go back to school to try to complete a doctorate. It was a thoroughly weird experience to be a student after years of being a teacher. More than one of my professors looked askance at me with eyebrows raised as if to remind me which side of the room I was on. Oops. But I survived the experience—and so did they.

When I turned 60, I became a novelist. Or I will, when the book hits print next summer. I've served my department as chair a couple of times and only a handful of my colleagues have seniority over me. My teaching job is still the best job I've ever had and I seem to have little cause to suffer from emotional crises. My serenity endures and bids fair to last forever!

Either that, or 70 is going to be a doozy.


The Ridger, FCD said...

My grandmother used to say "A pair of red shoes is better than an affair for lifting your spirits - and easier to get over, too."

Zeno said...

I have a pair of red shoes! (Does it matter that they're canvas?)

Karen said...

Zeno, you are a bastion of serenity, an example to your fellows. I, on the other hand, tossed away a two-decade career because I had grown to hate it, threw sensibility to the winds, and am now pondering how to get back in the workforce and make some money.

Karen said...

I think that midlife crises happen to people who fall into ruts. They find whatever they're trained to do gets too constraining as they practice it year after year. They no longer love it, if indeed they ever did. Life becomes like the movie Groundhog Day, repeating itself over and over again. The habits of living go from being convenient ways of organizing one's time to being painful repetition.

You get to skip the midlife crisis if you're creative enough, innovative enough, curious enough, or just plain smart enough not to fall into the rut. I suspect, Zeno, that you meet one or more of the requirements.