When Should I Start My Midlife Crisis?

I'm not dead yet.

In fact, I'm half 90 this week -- better known as 45 years old.

I think I'm doing pretty good, all things considered.

I have a home, a wife, great kids, a job and motorcycle.

Yet, I'm starting to worry that I'm getting a late start on my mid-life crisis.

Not that I'm planning a whole lot. I already have a motorcycle. I don't drink, smoke or fool around. I got my big career change out of the way a decade ago and I am pretty happy with it.

Maybe I already had it, and just didn't notice.

This birthday has got me wondering what we should consider mid-life these days.

While overall US life expectancy is 78 in this country I am in a position to know that how we live is a major variable. Previous generations have embraced smoking, drugs and alcohol in such a way as to skew the curve such that I often see 90 year olds healthier and stronger than 65 year olds.

That said, according to this calculator from the University of Penn- I'm predicted to live 85 years -- 95 if I'm really, really good and 76 if I take up the habit of driving drunk while not wearing a condom.

However, there is more to life expectancy than risk factors. The Death Clock, which uses a lot fewer factors figures I'll live to 95, but Amy will live to 103! That's the gender penalty. On the other hand, the Social Security Administration is only planning on me living to 81. While another calculator says I'll live to 95.

Or we could all be hit by a bus tomorrow (not all of us by the same bus, of course), making these actuary tables moot - at least on an individual level.

Moreover, we are always underestimating human ingenuity. We are on the verge of some major medical breakthroughs in terms of life expectancy. As aging baby boomers and Google founders pour their riches into ways of living and functioning longer, my guess is that we are going to see a continued increase in the lives of people with few risk factors who take care to lead active, growing lives.

Which brings up the question of the crisis itself. What is a midlife crisis? More than anything it seems to me to be a crisis of expectations - where we come to terms with the fact that we are unlikely to become pro football players or rock stars now that we've reached our 40s.

It is similar to the bad birth experience some mothers find themselves facing after they create elaborate birth plans for the delivery of their baby -- only to discover that baby had different plans about where and how he or she was going to enter the world.

In mid-life, as in birth, it seems we are overwhelmed by what could have, or should have been rather than what we have.

Many of us create ambitious fantasies about our dream life or dream career tangentially tethered -- if at all -- to our real abilities. That "what do you want to be when you grow up" game sticks with us.

Sometimes it becomes the "what do you want to do when you retire" game after a while.

My guess is retirement is likely to be a thing of the past in another 20 years -- so I don't even play that game much anymore.

As Moltke the elder once almost said, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." If you want to make God laugh, make long range plans. Life intervenes.

Rarely does life go according to our childhood aspirations. Yet these aspirations get integrated into our identity, our dreams - however unrealized - are woven into the fabric of how we think of ourselves. It is that dissonance that causes the crisis in our identity.

I have, at various times had serious plans on being:
  • an astronaut
  • a music producer
  • an engineer/inventor
  • an airline pilot
  • a novelist 
  • a professional football player
  • an Olympic athlete 
Obviously, a couple of those dreams have fallen off the list.

On the other hand, I never had any aspiration to become a journalist - yet I did that for more than a dozen years with mild success. It is a career that I fell into, and it would not let me go.  Nursing was more of a calling than a career choice and the first 10 years dedicated to helping others heal has flown by.

Of course, looking at what we have accomplished and what we have seems to be the psychological salve to sooth this crisis of expectations. We are what we do. When bad things happen, looking at what we learned, or how we grew changes our perception of those events. 

The fact that we have reached the midway point of our existence -- without being hit by a bus -- should be an opportunity to take stock of what we have done, as well as what we have the gumption, ambition and means to still achieve with whatever time is left. 
Unlike our 12 year old selves, we understand now that hard work, dedication, money, talent and dumb luck are all ingredients to achieving anything we set our minds to.

Mostly, dumb luck.

That life hasn't turned out like we planned is often due to the absence of one or multiple ingredients -- or that you were planning on silly things in the first place.

Looking back at my list, I would have missed out on many of the most wonderful things of my life if I had pursued some other course. In his book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman talks about creating an attitude of gratitude for what we have -- but ignore -- in our everyday lives. (see the video above)

This exercise is a great for when you are mourning the death of your rock and roll dreams.

Or, whenever you have a birthday.

National Institute on Aging
Calico, Google's Anti-Aging Initiative
Wharton School at University of Penn
59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman

Mango in the Melba Toast

I just woke up from a weird dream.

I was working in my mom's old restaurant, The Pancake House. I'm not sure if I was just waiting tables or running the place, when Diedrich Bader came to me with a pained expression on his face. He was obviously some middle manager of some sort and he had a bottle in his hand.

DB: "Did you just talk to a customer about our Melba toast?"

ME "Yeah, somebody asked me about that earlier today."

DB: Did you tell him that we have mango in our melba toast?

ME: I certainly did not. We have mango in the melba toast?

DB:Well, it is mango flavoring and it is what makes our melba toast special and you failed to point this out when the customer asked about it.

ME: I certainly did. I had no idea that there was mango in the melba toast. I've worked here 22 years and this is the first time anyone has even come close to ordering it. In fact, i wonder if that bottle of mango flavoring is 22 years old, I doubt we've ever needed it. Of course, no one put Mango in anything 22 years ago, so it can't possibly be that old.

DB:This is why we are not selling more melba toast.

ME: That and the fact that everything else on the menu tastes an order of magnitude better.

DB:You don't seem to be taking this seriously.

ME: No, I can't possibly take this seriously. But you are for some strange reason. That's kind of troubling to me. You've also taken up an large amount of my time on this discussion. Therefore, I shall have to tender my resignation. Let's consider this my two weeks.

DB:Your resignation?

ME: Yes, clearly I am failing in the melba toast department. By the way, when you call down to payroll for my check, be sure to tell them that I have 16 weeks of vacation piled up, and I'll need to cash that out too. By the end of the day should be fine.

This was a strange dream, but I woke up from it bemused at strangely satisfied. For the record, mom's restaurant never did serve Melba toast -- and we never had middle managers. Moreover, we got along just fine without mango melba toast or middle managers.

The Landing

For the past 22 years, there has always been a room in our house where junk goes to live.

This is an after photo, obviously
It started with our first apartment. The second bedroom holding wedding presents that were far more generous than our poverty-wage accommodations.

When we moved into Dun Elsie, the house was so big, it appeared empty. There were rooms we hardly ever used. But as our family grew and we grew together we expanded to fit the house. Our stuff accumulated and it needed a place to go when it was not being used.

Think of it as a purgatory for items that aren't quite ready for the garage sale, thrift store, basement or dump. 

Many of the rooms in the house have taken their turn - particularly in the early remodeling days when we would move everything out of one room to refinish it. After all that remodeling work, not all the clutter would return, some inevitably would get left behind in one of the out-of-sight rooms.

Over the years, we have come to live in the more of the house, so there are fewer out-of-sight rooms.

Lately, the room in question has been the landing - a square room between the three bedrooms upstairs. The heirloom settee got put up there at Christmas to make room for the Christmas tree and never came back down. We decided we liked having our chairs next to each other by the fire, Amy and I, so we can rock and read books on rainy days. 

Grace's old dresser got put out on the landing there when it was no longer needed. It had been filled with dress-up clothes and princess crowns. She has out-grown these things, it seems. 

Hidden in a corner was our old bed. Bought before the girls came along from guy in Oregon who used to run around England buying up antiques at estate sales, shipping family heirlooms to the states for young childless couples to furnish their homes with. We'd replaced it with a new bed long ago, but its carved legs and hand carved trim was too nice to put down in the basement. 

Yet it was the books that needed the most work. There were three bookshelves overflowing with books. Books sent to me by publishers for review when I was editing Tidepool.org. Books brought home from church. Handyman and how-to books that I culled from thrift stores. I used these old books to teach myself home repair and remodeling. These books marked both our ambitions and our achievements, our dreams and mythology. Gardening books, remodeling books; books purchased at the local library book sale and books lent and given by friends and family. So many books that still want for reading. 

Then there are the other books, well worn and piled in stacks on the corner shelves. These books, kids books, learn to read books. Books, alas, the girls have grown out of. 

Lindsay will be a teenager next week. How is that possible? Here is the Bernstein Bears "Spooky Old Tree" the book we had to read to keep her on the toilet long enough to toilet train her. Here is Danny the Dinosaur -- a book that I read so many times to Grace that I have it memorized. It was the childhood book of my friend Kevin, with his name still in the front. 

WE found my clip books with articles and columns from my years in the newspaper business, as well as a business card from when Amy worked writing for the Cascade Cattleman down in Klamath Falls. 

There were scrapbooks stowed away on a corner shelf. Most are only partly filled with pictures. 

We found old photos of the run-down house we encountered 22 years ago, cold rooms with apartment furniture and broken windows. There were pictures of where I lived and worked in Carlingford, Ireland, and a picture of Amy and I - still just college sweethearts the day before graduation. 

Lindsay has three baby books started, Grace had only a page or two filled out in hers -- not much time for scrapbooking when you have a three year old to chase. I was full time in nursing school when Grace came along, I was gone more often than home back then and Amy had to manage both girls on her own. 

We are sentimental about the books that will never again be read. We sort a pile of Christmas books and save them, for those we turn to year after year. We set aside the ancient books - the children's books passed down from Amy's dad and aunt. Children's books from the 1940s that our children now have grown to love. Tuffy the Tugboat, Uncle Wiggily and my favorite, the surreal masterpiece Mister Dog. There are the books from Amy's childhood - Amy's Long Night and the Little House on the Prairie books. She loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books so much that she read them aloud to me when we were first married. 

So too, do we set aside those special children's books of our generation that we can't bear to let go. In each of these, between the pages, lies a memory of a moment in Lindsay and Grace's life - a memory we hope they will pass along to their children.  

WE are making a pile for the library book sale, and I have a few nursing textbooks to give away. I've found a friend who wants the old bed that we just don't any place to put. 

Our house was empty once, now it is filled and cozy. The settee, which has been handed down from Amy's grandma, is now cleaned and has a prime position on the landing next to a full -- but neatly organized -- bookshelf.

It is the perfect place to sit, and read a book. 

Best Christmas Movies in the Hunt House

This year, we are replenishing our Christmas movies supply. Not everything is on Netflix and most of our favorites were on VHS tapes and we haven't had a player in years. 

So Amy invested in buying DVDs of her favorites. Some are spendy, some are free for Netflix and for Amazon Prime users and some are just darn hard to find. Here's a list of our eclectic essentials for holiday viewing.

Every Year Mandatory Viewing in the Hunt House:
White Christmas
Christmas in Connecticut
Nightmare Before Christmas
Mickey's Christmas Carol

Christmas in Connecticut - Traditionally, Amy and I sit down to watch this every New Years Eve after the kids are in bed. Curled up on the couch with Amy looking at the tree and watching this black and white postwar classic. Barbara Stanwyck is perfect and the house in the country must have lived in the dreams of many couples creating a new life for each other after the war. The back and forth between Sydney Greenstreet and Cuddles Skall is as evocative of Christmas as gingerbread cookies to me. 

I love these postwar movies. There is a sense of hope for the future, while everyone is making do as best the can. White Christmas falls into this category of course. It is free on Netflix and one of the best Christmas movies of all time - if for no other reason than Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" twice. So does Miracle on 34th Street, which we don't watch every year. Here too, the theme is adjusting after the war - loss and hope. It goes without saying for this and other movies mentioned, that the remake is no where near as good as the original. 

Holiday Affair, staring Robert Mitchum  and Janet Leigh also deals with Americans coming to grips with loss after the war, while trying to have hope for the future. It's a neat little movie about a war widow and ex-GI with a toy train running through it. Robert Mitchum is one of my favorite actors. 
I'm not a huge It's a Wonderful Life fan, but I do like Jimmy Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner

As for the modern Christmas Movies, here's our list:

Nightmare Before Christmas - not sure if this is a Halloween movie or Christmas movie, but we watch it early and often. It's a movie that is culturally influential far beyond the holidays. We find ourselves singing Danny Elfman's wonderful songs all year 'round. That said, Halloween Town is an acquired taste and not for everybody. 
Love Actually - Some love it, some hate it. It's a grown up movie that doesn't sugar coat the jagged edges of loving relationships, yet is still funny and hopeful. You'll cry, which makes laughing so much better. Not for kids. 
Christmas Vacation - Brutal funny family Christmas classic that you can watch after all the family has gone home and the kids are in bed. 
Mickey's Christmas Carol - Amy's favorite. Expensive on DVD, but worth it. The kids were watching it this morning. 
The Muppet Christmas Carol - My favorite version of the Dickens classic, and one of the best in the Muppet movie cannon. 
Emmit Otter's Jug Band - Speaking of muppets. The girls claim they don't like this movie, but I love it and they watch it with me.
The Santa Clause - Tim Allen is great, which is good because he has to carry the whole movie. This scene in particular gets quoted around the Hunt house all the time.
Scrooged - Bill Murray, Carol Kane, Karen Allen Bobcat and Goldthwait doing a modern TV Executive version of Dickens. Awesome. Think Ghostbuster's Christmas and you get the idea. And Mary Lou Retton
The Polar Express - This movie kind of creeps me out - Uncanny Valley and all that. Let's face it, that's a lot of Tom Hanks. Still the songs and train ride are a blast. This one gets watched a lot on our house. 

Rare Exports - Finnish movie where "the real Santa" is dug up and children start disappearing. I don't think this one is for the kids just yet, but Amy and I loved it. Dark comedy and a lot of suspense. 
Arthur Christmas - originally I had no interest in this movie because I associated it with that weird TV cartoon with the rabbits living in the suburbs that the kids used to watch. It's not. It's English and from the creators of Wallace and Grommit  it's fun and Grand Santa is hilarious. Get and watch it. It's a blast. 
Rise of the Guardians - William Joyce has created THE coolest Santa ever. It's fun, brilliantly animated and designed and just fun to watch. 

TV
Charlie Brown Christmas - Nothing needs to be said here about this, other than I listen to Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack all the time - not just at Christmas. Yet driving over to midnight mass listening to "Christmastime is Here in the snow, with the lights of Astoria is one of my favorite moments on this planet. 
Anything by Rankin and Bass (Rudolf, Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without a Santa Clause and Santa Clause is Coming to Town are my favorites.)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (not the remake movie. Ick.) 
Santa vs the Snowmen - Weird, crudely animated, still like it. 
Prep and Landing - An Elf gets passed over for a promotion. Doesn't sound like a good plot for a Christmas special, does it? This is clearly one of the best of the recent Christmas TV specials all the same. 

Audio
A Christmas Carol performed by Patrick Stewart. - Dickens' original words are too good to allow the distraction of a movie. Listen instead. Stewart is brilliant. 

These aren't for everyone, and I'm open to suggestions of anything I may have missed. Merry Christmas!