Articles

What it’s Like to be Forty

For one thing, Bob’s stopped worrying if he should lick his kids — now he’s worrying if he could lick them. And he’s decided that the smartest thing to do is to forget he was ever twenty

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN May 15 1952
Articles

What it’s Like to be Forty

For one thing, Bob’s stopped worrying if he should lick his kids — now he’s worrying if he could lick them. And he’s decided that the smartest thing to do is to forget he was ever twenty

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN May 15 1952

What it’s Like to be Forty

Articles

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

For one thing, Bob’s stopped worrying if he should lick his kids — now he’s worrying if he could lick them. And he’s decided that the smartest thing to do is to forget he was ever twenty

I HAVE become an expert, on what it’s like to be forty. It happened to me this year, although, psychologically, I became forty one morning when I was thirty-seven. I was sitting in Childs reading the want ads from old habit and suddenly realized that there was only one job I could have applied for. It read: “Wanted: Truss Salesman, 40 to 55, with bicycle.” The rest of the ads were for a bunch of other guys from 18 to 25. I became forty at that minute. The remaining three years were like those few minutes before the dentist opens his door and whispers: “Next.” I couldn’t really enjoy them.

Becoming forty was the dirtiest trick I’ve ever had played on me. It was something that happened to schoolteachers, aunts, elephants, character actors, fathers, streetcar motormen and people who dropped dead while shoveling snow. It had nothing to do with me. I was obviously twenty-seven and would stay that way. As a matter of fact, I did. What’s changed is the character that peers out of the bathroom mirror at me when I shave. I’ve begun to realize that he looks exactly like an uncle of mine in Sarnia who has been forty all his life.

Not that I need a mirror to convince me something queer has been going on. Every now and then some teen-age girl tells me that I’m really very young-looking for my age and that I don’t look anywhere near sixty. Another thing: I’ve begun to realize that all those middle-aged parties who pass me on the street are no longer the people my mother went to school with—they’re the people I went to school with.

I can think of only one thing worse than being forty: being fifty. Or maybe sixty. After all, Walter Pitkin made himself famous by proving that people of forty weren’t dead yet. As for that guff about life’s golden afternoon, give me a nice bright morning any day. It’s richer, fuller, more deeply satisfying. Life may begin at forty; the joker is you’re forty just when it’s beginning. It’s like discovering there’s a clunk in the rear end of a car you haven’t had a chance to drive yet.

At forty a man’s basal metabolism is slowing down and in about twenty years it will be sagging to about twenty-eight calories per hour per square metre of skin. His endocrine glands are stalling, his ears are thickening. His arteries are stiffening. His brain has started to lose weight and in another twenty-five years will have lost about one hundred grams. His life expectancy is only 29.3. He’ll have to save $1,108 a year and let it accumulate at compound interest until he’s sixty-five to give himself $79.91 a month income, which he’ll only collect for 4.3 years. That’s if he saves $1,108 a year, or about $1,128 a year more than I’ve ever saved.

His life is four sevenths over and he can’t do

anything about it because it’s fixed by the relationship of his body weight, less bones and tendons, to the weight of his brain, which is expressed in a quaint little bit of contemporary folklore: cephalization factor equals brain weight divided by body weight to a power of 0.666. The only consolation is that his index is 2.7 whereas a mouse is only .045. He has to pay thirty-three dollars a year for an insurance policy that would cost him nineteen dollars if he was twenty. In spite of all this he will have to wait another thirty years to get an old-age pension; twenty-five if he’s desperate.

Marriage clinics keep telling him to be careful; Kinsey didn’t even bother interviewing him. If he goes in for a suit, the tailor automatically turns to a chart labeled Young Man, followed by a trade term, in smaller print, Regular, which means, “Give this guy lots of cloth around the middle.” He reads about athletes younger than he is talking of retiring. Books on setting-up exercises have special sections for him so he won’t unravel or split something up the back, and a special branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs has been set up to try to talk companies into believing that he still has his wits about him.

The annoying part of all this, speaking for myself, is that the only changes that have taken place in me since I was twenty are in my skin, which I rarely think of anyway. I have all the standard equipment of emotions, feelings, likes and dislikes that I started with. I have exactly the same feeling when a cop parks his motorcycle and walks across the street toward me as I used to have when the teacher gave a short ring on his bell, pointed the handle at me and said: “You, there— that boy—you with the spitball.” There’s no difference in the feeling I have after the cop has walked away, either. I still spend the rest of the day imagining myself cleaning my nails and humming while he boils in oil. When I have a bath I still pretend the soap is a boat; I still like looking at porcupines and still think that building with all the animals in it is the best one at the Canadian National Exhibition. I often chuckle over the time I was twelve and I stood third in my class when everybody, including the teacher, had said I was a moron. In fact I’ve been the same guy for forty years, and suddenly finding that I’m getting older is like coming out of a movie about a South Seas island and finding that it has been raining outside and turning to sleet.

I’m still waiting for the time when I’ll begin to feel as if I’m forty. I haven’t noticed it yet. I’m beginning to think that people of forty who like to sit around the fire squeezing a dog’s ears, reading the paper and smoking a pipe are the people who wanted to do that sort of thing when they were eighteen, but didn’t have a pipe, a fire,

a dog or a house. I have just as many ideas as when I was twenty. Men of forty give me dirty looks because I won’t sit still, and guys of twenty wonder what can make an old man so fidgety.

The only real change I’ve noticed is that I’ve changed my mind about a few things and rearranged my feelings accordingly. When I was twenty, if I started to work in a new office, I’d find that six guys gripped my hand, called me by my first name and invited me to join the bowling team; that the other six seemed to wish I’d drop dead. I’d worry about why I wasn’t popular with the whole twelve. The thirteenth one, a quiet guy with glasses, I wouldn’t even speak to until I’d tripped over his feet or something. Now today, if I found that six people didn’t like me, I’d note it about the same way as I’d note that I needed a new pair of socks, knowing that in six months they’d all have turned into fine guys, while the ones who had given me the personality treatment would be going around singing Bluebird of Happiness, saying that magazine covers by Norman Rockwell were true to life, that a dog was a man’s best friend, and trying to get me fired. And I’d make a point of getting to know the thirteenth guy, who would probably be the only one with anything on the ball.

I still have my pride, but it isn’t the same inconvenience it used to be. It’s reserved for more basic values. After being pushed around so long by cops, women with parcels and guys with deep voices and no problems, it has developed a selfprotective outer coating something like an old corn I’ve been trying to get rid of since I was sixteen. If I feel that someone is laughing at me, instead of worrying about it for a month and applying for a correspondence course in muscle building, I blink at them in mild interest and continue on my way, the wet night wind flapping my pant legs, as I make for the library or some other institution that has withstood a good deal of opinion itself.

But all this is just making new use of the old faculties. The currency is just the same, but the commodities have been repriced. I can still feel the way I did when I walked home with the bestlooking girl in the class, but now I would get something the same feeling from finding that I’d overpaid my income tax. When I was twelve I used to worry about what my father would say when I came home an hour late. Now I go around saying things like, “Uh, say, ever hear of a thing called cephalization factor?” I used to terrify myself by imagining somebody in a white sheet sneaking up the back stairs. Now I go to a football game, see some guy of twenty get tackled in front of me and imagine it being me. Anybody tackled me like that I’d have nurses tiptoeing around me

foi a month. My bones ache for half an hour just thinking of it.

This shifting sense of values has its dangers. I\e often found myself, from sheer habit, throwing baseballs at the same old wooden milk bottles when I’ve long since lost interest in the kewpie dolls. Not long ago when I was having a particulaily tough time with writing I suddenly realized that my original incentive for becoming a writer, foimed when I was seventeen, had disappeared— that writers rarely got rich, attracted beautiful women, owned yachts, scribbled off best sellers between doing things like climbing Mount Everest and shooting tigers. Not only that, I realized I no longer wanted to do any of those things, except, perhaps, attract beautiful women, a hope I’d abandoned about the time I’d discovered that travel, although fun, is not a basic experience, that I’m terrified of water and heights, and that if a cat happens to rub against my leg in the dark I scream like a girl on a roller-coaster. At that I was lucky. I found I still wanted to write, but for the different reason that I could sleep till noon if I didn’t mind working till three the next morning, that I could avoid being a salesman and having to listen to convention speeches on themes like: Plenty to do in ’52.

There are other things about being forty, little things of no particular significance. I’m more

inclined to forget about my appearance and to go around with just the minimum number of buttons done up required by law. My wife doesn’t show me off with pride now: she tucks my tie in and explains I’ve been working all day. Instead of trying to surprise people with things about myself I cling to the few friends who have known me so long that nothing surprises them any more. I sometimes have difficulty remembering the size of my shirts, my license number and the names of people who have just been introduced to me, and if I try to study something, like chemistry, I find myself sitting there leaning against the first paragraph and falling asleep.

More and more often I find myself frozen with a smile on my face halfway through a story that I just remembered I’ve been telling since I wore my first pair of long pants.

I’ve become much more conscious of time and realize that, at forty, a lot of men have done things like master higher mathematics or get knighted for their performance of Hamlet whereas all I’ve done is get a car that I have to make bigger payments on, and wear out a lot of pairs of shoes.

At twenty I felt that forty was as far ahead of me as the time I was born was behind me. But at forty I think of sixty as being only as far ahead of me as the time I decided to start learning French

and Latin is behind me—and I can still only say “I eat the window” and ‘T terrify.” At twenty I couldn’t, believe I’d ever lie forty, at forty I can’t believe I’m not still twenty.

At twenty I looked at people of sixty as if they had passed on. At forty I find myself wishing they’d get a little farther ahead so I won’t trip over them. I notice my kids are growing about two inches a day and I’ve stopped wondering whether I should lick them and have started to wonder whether I could lick them. When I try to terrify them into obedience I catch that look in their eye that I used to get in mine when an old character named Mr. Green used to catch me ringing his doorbell, start after me, trip on the bottom step and land with an earthy oath among his prize geraniums.

But, on the whole, being forty is about like being twenty with somebody else’s body. The only thing to be said for it is that you get used to it, and that it takes till you’re forty to learn that you didn’t know much when you were twenty but then you didn’t need to. The most important bit of wisdom you pick up by the time you’re forty is to forget you were once twenty.

On the other hand, you’ve learned to appreciate what you’ve got, which isn’t much. And maybe that.’s a lot lietter than being twenty and not appreciating anything, if