It took me two weeks to get around to this post, but I guess I’ve done enough wallowing.
Mozart crafted possibly the most beautiful musical works the world has ever known. Marilyn Monroe became a cultural icon whose popularity has hardly waned. Joan of Arc rallied the apathetic French against the professional, disciplined English military and changed the course of history. Alexander the Great? He just conquered the world, is all. Slacker. Despite their historical, artistic, and cultural superiority, I’ve managed to do something none of them ever could.
Put forty candles into my birthday cake.
Yes, two weeks ago Sunday I hit the Big Four-Oh, or rather, it hit me. And to be honest, I’ve been in kind of a funk about it that I’m just now pulling myself out of.
Yes, it’s only a number, significant only in base ten, an arbitrary number system based on the number of fingers we happen to have. But of course, we all know that’s not true, and there’s more to the number than that. Why else would there be “best writers under forty” lists, or “hottest actresses over forty” for that matter? A number is just a number, true, but it’s also a symbol.
In our society, symbols have power. Whether it’s forty, thirty, twenty-one or sixty-five, the number means something more than just rings to a tree. They define, to some degree, our experience and our potential. Look at a twenty-three year old football player, and you see someone who can contribute to your team for years to come. Look at a thirty-five year old footballer, and you ask, “How many good years does he have left?” Look at a sixty year old presidential candidate, and you see an elder statesman. Look at a thirty-five year old presidential candidate, and you wonder how someone so young could think he could lead a nation.
We are all defined in small part by factors we can’t control: gender, ethnicity, orientation. And age. The problem with age is that unlike the rest, it’s not static. Up until last month, I was in my thirties. Now I’m forty. I’m only a couple of weeks older, but culturally, the two are worlds apart. Forty’s not a deal breaker, but I’m not naïve enough to think that an agent or a publisher will look at me the same way as they might a twenty-one year old at the same stage in his career. Or a seventy year old, for that matter.
Anyone who says age doesn’t matter is simplifying the problem. Age does matter. It’s too important to pretend you’re not a certain age, or not yet a certain age. What we can do, however, is to defy the number and the symbolism behind it. I’m forty. I’m middle-aged. There’s no denying that. To the teenager and early twenty-somethings I see as the biggest audience for my books, I might as well be the Cryptkeeper. But I don’t have to give up. I see medical students in their fifties. I see seventy year olds skydiving. I’m not thirty-something anymore, and my twenties are ancient history. But I’m still here. I’m still fundamentally the same person I was two weeks ago. I’m just older, but then so is everyone.
It’s not about how old you are; it never is. It’s about what you’ve done. More importantly, it’s about what you’re going to do.
I’ll likely be posting a sequel to this post in about ten years.