Personal

53

As I turn 53 today I’ve been thinking about the life lessons I still haven’t learned.

Row of Herbies

Chief among them is that I will always have shortcomings. During my 40s I put a lot of effort and energy into working through shortcomings. I believed, deep down, that I was unacceptable because of the ways in which I failed or fell short. I felt real shame over a few of those shortcomings. I wanted to identify and eliminate them all.

I’d like to get over that in my 54th year. That’s not to say I won’t keep working to be a better man. I just want to to accept that I’ll always be a work in progress, and that I may never be able to change certain things about me that I wish were different or better.

I want to be a better man because I want to have a better life, one less characterized by stress, disappointment, and sadness; one more characterized by peace and joy. I want to not be a jerk or an ass in the world, even unintentionally, even when I feel justified. I want to be more effective in the things I do and in my interactions with others. I want to build people and institutions up, not damage them.

It might surprise you to learn that I’m largely driven by anger. I see things that are wrong and it pisses me off. I want to correct or control them. I want to fix what’s broken and shape what’s wrong for right. I want justice. It’s my basic nature.

My photography and my writing counterbalance the anger. Photography is a wonderful distraction where I can lose myself in pleasure. Writing helps me discover what I think so I can make peace.

I still haven’t learned what to do when I feel angry. I’ve spent my life trying to not yell and punish in anger like Dad often did. He always played it down by saying he only raised his voice, but his raised voice always frightened me so. I don’t want to pollute my world like that.

That’s led me to internalize angry feelings. Sometimes I can process them and let them go. Once in a while they leak out in passive-aggressive ways. Mostly I get stuck in them. They keep me awake at night. They lead to pervasive feelings of disappointment. Unchecked, that disappointment leads to depression.

This year I’d like to work on dealing with anger more in the moment. First, I’d like to analyze quickly whether I can act on the thing that has activated my anger. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

For the things I can’t do anything about, I want to work on acceptance — radical acceptance, if need be — and set boundaries that let me protect and care for myself.

For the things I can do something about, I’m still afraid of losing my cool like my dad used to. That will remain unacceptable to me. But if I can just stay steady in that moment, and speak swiftly, I think I can speak my mind and discharge the anger without leaving others feeling burned. Take a quick breath, find as even a tone of voice as I can, and say what’s bothering me. Stay steady, speak swiftly. Maybe that will sometimes change things. But if it doesn’t, at least the anger should reduce and be less likely to linger.

I think this starts with me accepting my basic angry nature. After 53 years it’s still here, which is strong evidence that it’s not likely to go away. This is who I am. I don’t have to like it, but the path to peace and sanity is to accept it.

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Essay

You always have to figure out your life

My father- and mother-in-law had stayed in their home too long. Not only could they not maintain it anymore, but they struggled with daily tasks in it.

They asked my wife to find them an assisted-living home. It turned out to be a giant project with lots of decisions to make. Even with my wife doing most of the work, my in-laws found the process to be overwhelming. My then-86-year-old father-in-law said, “I never thought that at my age there would be so many hard choices to make!”

I had been feeling exactly the same way about my own life at that time. I was not thrilled to learn that it never ends.

When I was a young adult, people in middle age seemed so together, so settled. They had their lives figured out! Now that I’m middle aged I know that middle-aged people have only been through enough to have figured out things about life that baffle young adults. We only seem together and settled to them. There’s so much more we haven’t figured out yet.

Down the path

Where I work, everyone who reports to me is younger than me. Most of them are in their 20s, like my children. Sometimes they’ll tell me how much they appreciate my coaching because it clearly comes from a lot of experience. It feels great to hear them say it. One of my engineers actually said to me recently, “You seem to have it all figured out.” I chuckled for a second and said, “I’ve figured out a lot of things that you haven’t yet simply because I have a 30-year head start on you. But I’m still figuring things out. Chief among them: how do I stay relevant and employable in this young-man’s industry when I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room?”

That’s not the only thing I’m trying to figure out. I’m also figuring out how to stay physically healthy as my body ages and begins its natural decline. I’m also figuring out how to love and help aging parents and parents-in-law while simultaneously loving and helping our grown children step successfully into their adult lives. I’m figuring out how to love my new wife well through all of this, a woman I’m still getting to know. I’m also figuring out how to save enough for retirement after my expensive divorce and putting my kids through college have dramatically hindered my ability to do that during the prime saving years.

I’m also still figuring out how to manage my emotions after all these years. I’ve always had remarkably intense feelings. My wife and I went to see the film Little Women the day after Christmas. This was my first contact with this story, as I’d neither read the book nor seen any of the other film adaptations. In one scene, Jo fretted to her mother how much she struggled with her anger and said how much she admired her mom’s composure. Jo was shocked when her mother replied that she was angry nearly every day of her life, but after working at it for 40 years she had learned to manage it and present a placid face to the world.

I don’t believe she means that she denies her anger, only that in the face of it she chooses to behave in ways that don’t tear people down.

I identify with that middle-aged woman. I want to be able to feel what I feel but make effective choices anyway. Even after 52 years I haven’t entirely figured that out. My feelings can still overwhelm me and render me inert — or, worse, incredibly unkind — until they pass.

Maybe what I’m figuring out in middle age is that you always have to figure out your life. I’m glad I’ve figured this out now, so that if I’m fortunate to live as long as my father-in-law I won’t be surprised by what I have to figure out then.

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Personal

52

Jct 52

Every year on my birthday I write about growing older. But 52 isn’t that old.

It’s twice as old as 26, which is about the median age of the software engineers who work for me. I feel twice their age as I notice their youthful good looks and see them struggle through things I mastered long ago. I miss my youthful good looks but would not unlearn these valuable life skills to get them back.

As the rest of my 50s unfold I look forward foremost to our children all building independent lives. I’m eager to see what they choose and whether it brings them joy and satisfaction. I am eager for Margaret and I to turn our attention toward the life we want to build for ourselves, and to enjoy our children and grandchildren.

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Personal

51

I turned 51 yesterday.

51a

I liked being 50. I liked saying that I was 50. I told everybody who’d listen, as a Kindergartner happily tells everyone he’s 5.

I’ve always enjoyed the ages that end in zero. I feel like I’ve crossed some threshold, and I dream about the next phase of my life. What new adventures will come?

My 50s truly are turning out to be a new phase, with adventures unlike anything that came before. I never dreamed of some of the adventures we’re on, most of which I never would have chosen. Frankly, some intensely hard stuff has come my family’s way. We’re pushing through it okay.

But that’s what I wrote about last year when I turned 50. This year I want to write about vanity, specifically mine, and how looking in the mirror bruises it. I’m looking noticeably older.

I remember in my 20s noticing middle-aged men who tried in humorously ineffective ways to look younger and hide what time had stolen from them.

I swore then I’d let aging just happen to me. If my hair were to fall out, there would be no Propecia or Rogaine or Hair Club for Men for me — if the hair loss became serious enough I’d just shave my head. When I went gray, I vowed not to reach for hair dye or even Grecian Formula. If my face turned into used-up shoe leather, fine. Well, not fine, but I was going to just let it be. Aging, do your worst — I would not let your signs rule me. I would find peace and happiness regardless of how I looked.

And then I was blessed not only to keep all of my hair, but also to never have more than a few random wisps of gray. And I just kept looking young, even through my late 40s. When I’d get carded buying beer cashiers would do a double take. Some of them even said, “You can’t possibly be this old.” Man, that felt good.

Those days are over. Cashiers never say anything when they hand me my driver’s license anymore — if they bother to ask for it at all. The lines on my face tell no lies. And after a haircut now I can see right through to my scalp on top. It was a genuine shock the first time I saw that. At the rate I’m going I’ll have a pretty healthy bald spot up there by the time I’m 53.

I expect no pity parties. I’ve had a great run and I know it. It just hurts to see my youthful looks go. It is a daily surprise to see my morning face in the mirror.

But I’m determined to stay true to my youthful vows: I will age boldly and proudly. It looks like my 50s is where physical aging will accelerate, so I’ll have plenty of practice.

I’m going to miss saying “I’m 50!” though. 51 just isn’t as exciting of a number to say.

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Personal

49

My hair is thinning on top. I wondered if this would ever happen. It started happening to my dad when he was in his late 30s, and he tells me his dad went bald in his 20s. Now it’s my turn. I’m glad I’m tall, or everybody’d be able to see through to my scalp. My eyebrows are thinning, too; my height doesn’t mask that. At least you have to look really hard to notice my gray hairs. They don’t show up at all in this photograph!

49

I can no longer deny that I need reading glasses, but I forget to carry them most of the time and so look at my phone at arm’s length.

My new normal weight, the one my body defaults to when I don’t overeat, is 10 pounds more than it was 10 years ago.

And I tire more easily now. My athletic friends have complained about loss of ability and stamina since their early 30s. An advantage of being mostly sedentary is that there’s a lot less to lose, and you lose it a lot later.

I’m lucky: I’ve aged physically a lot more slowly than most of my age peers. Yet each of these changes in my body has come with some feelings of resistance and loss, and has taken effort to accept.

I decided a long time ago not to fight physical aging. I’m not going to resort to Rogaine or hair dye, and certainly not cosmetic surgery (tempting as it may be as I really hate how my right eyelid has gone droopy). A little more exercise would do me good, though.

But no regrets, because I’m happy and content now. That wasn’t always true when I was twentysomething and thirtysomething. I say it every year at this time: you couldn’t pay me enough to go back.

Happy 49th birthday to me!

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Personal

48

IMG_3835 proc sm

I turn 48 today.

I’ve known many people who wring their hands over the birthdays that end in zero. They’re milestones of getting old, after all. But none of them have bothered me so far — certainly not 20, but also not 30, not 40.

Some odd birthdays have troubled me unexpectedly. 33 was tough. I felt I couldn’t avoid anymore that I was firmly in my adult years. I wasn’t sure I always liked it.

Last year’s birthday, 47, hit me hard too. To my surprise, because my middle years have been the best of my life. But where 46 was “middle aged,” 47 felt like “pushing 50,” and something about 50 feels more old than middle aged. I’m sure that if you’re significantly older than 50, you’re chuckling over that statement. But it got me down for a bit.

I’m good with it now. And if 47 is “pushing 50,” 48 is on the downhill slide, hurtling headlong, picking up speed. Look out, I’m throwing in the clutch.

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