A few weeks back, while reminding my children to listen to their father’s sage advice given my 35 years of life experience, my wife called from the other room: “You’re 34.”
“You’re 34 years old.”
And just like that, I sloughed off an entire year. No matter that I could no longer remember my age, the important thing was that someone was around to help me clarify the foggier points.
I chalked it up as a win, though it was a short-lived one.
Regardless of the precise number of candles on the cake, in recent months, the specter of middle-age has become a regular visitor. One day I shocked the world by taking a sudden interest in breadmaking. The next, I diagnosed a poorly constructed snowman with a “lower lumbar” condition. In the classroom, my college students now scratch their heads at my dated references. And on the home front, every delightful joke I share earns me little more than an eyeroll.
I am hardly alone in my indignities. Indignities, I’ll add, that are blessings, too, and proof of being alive.
To get a second opinion on the view from middle age, one afternoon I grab a drink at The Joynt in Eau Claire with my buddy Kyran Hamill, a lifelong Wisconsinite and active community member who’s just weeks away from turning 40. As a result of his milestone birthday, he’s begun to reflect on his life.
“I’ve refocused on the bigger picture,” Kyran tells me. Which for him means recommitting himself to travel and sharing as much of the world as he can with his children. Time, though it once seemed infinite, no longer does. As such, he needs to make choices. And he’s been making them.
Though Kyran has yet to take up breadmaking, he’s found another hobby: curating his past. As of late, he’s begun busily sorting through a lifetime’s worth of cards, notes, calendars, and VHS tapes with an eye toward digitizing the items worth saving and dispensing with the rest. “It’s therapeutic,” he says. But more importantly, it’s a record of his life for his children.
While Kyran concedes that middle age likely spurred his newfound interest in personal archival work, he’s glad for the opportunity to look back. Turning 40, he explains, has prompted him to reassesses the arc of his life. “It’s allowed me to ask, ‘What do I need to start doing now so that in the end I’m able to say that I didn’t just ride the wave, that I got out my oar and started paddling.’ ”
For a different perspective, I reach out to a second friend — this one with twice as much life experience.
“So what do you want to know about being an octogenarian?” Jim Alf asks one morning over tea in his dining room. Jim and I have been friends for years, having bonded over our shared love for writing and history.
“Well, what’s the best part?” I begin. “And the worst part too?”
“The good part is we’re relieved of a lot of stuff. I don’t have to go out and saw any logs today. Although,” he continues, “I wish I could. And that’s probably a drawback to being old. You can’t do what you want anymore.”
According to Jim, sawing logs was what he was put on this earth to do.
“I was good at it,” he says. “I was good at getting the most out of them.”
In order to do so, he had to study each log that crossed his blade.
“I read logs like other people read newspapers,” he says. By exploring each log’s contours, he was better prepared to make the cut. You can learn a lot about life by sawing a log, he explains. First and foremost, it teaches you to keep your eyes on the challenges ahead.
At 81, Jim’s acutely aware of his own challenges.
“My body’s quitting on me,” he says. “I have two health problems in a contest to shut me down. And I know that. But I’m still glad to have had these years to have done these things.” Which in addition to sawing, include being a husband, father, grandfather and friend.
“The most important thing I’ve done since I’ve grown old is write this,” he says, nodding to a self-published book on the table beside us. It’s his own way of curating the past — a journal documenting his 77th year, alongside memories that reach back much further.
He’s written it for his children, and their children, many of whose pictures grace its cover.
“I could buy them all kinds of trinkets and toys or whatever, but I think the history of who they are will probably be the most important thing to them in time.”
Jim takes a sip of tea, then asks, “What did your 40-year-old friend tell you about what he’s seeing from his perspective?”
I relay Kyran’s thoughts on the importance of travel, preserving memories, and making choices as he focuses on the arc ahead.
“That’s not a midlife crisis,” Jim smiles. “That’s just putting one’s feet on solid ground.”
I, too, aspire toward such ground. But perpetual motion machine that I am, my feet wouldn’t know solid ground even if I found it. Which is not a pat on the back as much as a reminder to reassess my own life’s arc. Aside from breadmaking, in recent years my favorite pastime has become telling everyone how busy I am. For some, it likely comes off as a humble brag of the worst kind (“He’s busy so he must be important!”), though my true motive in expressing my alleged busyness is to give voice to a concern that weighs heavily on me: how in my attempt to please everyone, I please everyone but the people I love.
No doubt Kyran and Jim’s shared sentiments on making and preserving family memories is the advice I most need to hear. After all, what good’s a fresh loaf of bread if there’s no one to eat it with? And what good’s a cleanly cut log without a roaring fire surrounded by family and friends?
It’s a lesson better learned late than never.
And now that I know it, I can work out my kinks. Hopefully without throwing out my back in the process.