The problem with being middle aged is that no one ever, not even once, takes five minutes out of their life and pictures themselves being middle aged beforehand. Youth is wasted on the young, the famous saying goes, and during my youth, I was too self-absorbed to picture myself as being anything more than young, senile or dead. I could conceive of death (I’m from inner-city Toledo, death surrounded me) and I knew I would grow old someday (I was a church kid, old people surrounded me), but for some reason, becoming 30 or 40 or 50 never crossed my mind.
With experience came a change in perspective. I no longer hold myself to the vision of life I clung to at 17. Mostly because 17-year-old me didn’t know what he was talking about. Witness this recent conversation:
17-year-old me: So…. how many feature films have you made?
34-year-old me: None, so far. Trying to get my first off the ground right now.
17-year-old me: (looks crestfallen) What have you been doing all this time?
34-year-old me: Stop looking at me like that. This is hard.
17-year-old me: Was there a tragedy? Were you drafted into World War III? Did you have to learn how to walk and talk again at some point?
34-year-old me: No, it’s just not as easy as you think. And my life is actually pretty great. I’m happily married, with a beautiful daughter, own a house in Los Angeles. Day job’s okay. And I’ve made some films, just nothing that blew up on the internet.
17-year-old me: … Dog, what is the internet?
34-year-old me: Too much to explain. But I still got to travel and do everything I wanted to do by now, except make a feature film -- and that’s right around the corner.
17-year-old me: Did you say you have a day job? I’m gonna be sick.
34-year-old me: It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
17-year-old me: (still looks crestfallen) That sounds dumb as hell. (blasts Illmatic on his walkman and storms out)
34-year-old me: Hey! Take whatever money you can find and buy stock in Apple!!!
Being 34 is weird. It's weird being old to young people and young to old people. I remember being a kid and wishing that I could get mail everyday like my parents. Now I get mail everyday and usually refuse to open it. I remember being a teenager and playing basketball from sunrise to sunset in sweltering Ohio humidity. I recently played a half court game of four-on-four with kids from my church and felt like my heart exploded about halfway in.
But it’s not just about things that we used to do and now don’t or can’t. It’s also about how much wiser we are now and how disproportionate our knowledge is to our demographic. In other words, I feel like my generation is prematurely aged. I know many people my age who didn’t make it this far, and I’m not talking about the ones who died because of their reckless youth. I went to school with people who’ve died of cancer, who’ve gone bankrupt, who’ve worked for multi-million dollar companies that capsized due to corporate greed. I grew up with people who have (multiple) college degrees and work in jobs that have nothing to do with any of them. By choice. None of these were things I thought being 13 years out of college would have brought already.
Already, in our mid 30s, we sound like our parents did, when they were at least a decade older, whining about how corrupt the politicians are and how crappy the music is and how lazy/stupid/ignorant these kids are and how we’re already looking forward to retirement. We bemoan the absence of things we once wanted so badly to reject, like neighborhoods where everybody knew everybody and having so much free time at our disposal that we could actually find time to be bored.
I spoke recently with a former college classmate about reconnecting with people from our past on Facebook. And how unusual it was to see people I’d known as children, aged, with their own children, living in distant, random places like London and San Francisco and East Toledo. People I never would’ve considered to be prime parental material were raising their cute kids in affable suburbs. And people I’d always had high hopes for were catching hell. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to it. But our generation is unique: we were close enough to the “old school” that we caught its essence, yet we’re enough apart of this technological age that we’re too busy to share what we learned.
Middle age is, or should be, a time of great promise, even if the powers that be aren’t really marketing much specifically in our direction. My twenties (and dare I say, most people’s twenties) were full of silly mistakes and hard lessons and ugly defeats. And although they are promoted as the golden age of our lives, I remain doubtful. Even now, as I stand near a point in my filmmaking career that I’ve wanted to be at for a very long time, my feelings about where it may take me are more complicated, and my motivations for hanging in this long have greater depth.
The key, as one advances, is to preserve the best of what has been, while being open to what will be. To quote Dr. Ken Wilson, we are not our past, but, instead, our interpretation of our past, and if that is true, then that past, with the character and knowledge I have today, is a springboard to a greater future and not a liability.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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6.16.11 @ 3:20p
I'm 36. I like to think that I'm only in the 2nd third of my life. I'm probably wrong, but it was more pleasant at 35 to think of my life as two-thirds left, rather than the more likely one-half.
That's right. I'm living to 105.
6.16.11 @ 10:17p
Heh heh. Were you around when I wrote this: "Is This When My Corks Dry Up and Fall Off?"
"Now I get mail everyday and usually refuse to open it."
Oh, I do this all the time. It's a pile I go through once a week. Maybe. Unless it contains something fun, like a card, which I open right away.
Adam, I like the 2nd third bit. I'm on the high end of that, but I still like it.