What It Feels Like To Be 40

Or, at least, what it's like for me

An image of an older man in a dating site profile.
So... apparently this is me

I was watching the show Pretty Little Liars, which I watch for all the wrong reasons, and a scene came up where a teenage girl is looking around on a dating site, trying to find a match for her mother. Another girl comes up, looks over the shoulder of the first, and asks, "why are you looking at a bunch of old fat losers?" The camera cuts to screens showing examples of said old losers, and I notice that "old" is 41. My age.

It's not that I'm surprised or bothered that these characters, who are supposed to be somewhere in their late teens would think of 41 as old. When I was a teenager I thought 25 was "old." It's that the guys in the pictures look to me to be about 65. Is it just that the show is pushing the imagery to make a point, or am I delusional in thinking that I don't look as old as that.

Forget looks, am I just old?

I know this is an entirely self serving perspective, but partly I wonder if societal expectations of age, the effects of age, and stages we place our self at for our age, are all out of sync with each other and different from before. In only four generations, human lifespans have increased dramatically, from half again to nearly twice as long, depending on where and how you measure, and the arc of health over that time has improved as well. Maybe being 40 isn't as old as it used to be. Maybe it's even different than from when I was a kid. It's arguable that our lifespans and health are even better than we know, since the existing statistics that tell us how long people live are based on the people who have already died, and those of us still kicking might yet do even better.

I have a distinct memory from when I was elementary school, hanging out near a fence that divided the sports field from the parking lot. Although some details are vague, like who exactly I was with or what age I was, I vividly remember pondering the question that someone had posed. How old will we be in the year 2000? I was young enough that the math required a fair amount of thinking. Eventually, together we concluded that we'd be 27 or 28. In any case, at the time, 28 years old was so distant I just couldn't get any feel at all for how time could pass between now and then.

There is a snapshot burned into my brain of an absolutely mundane scene, looking up toward the sky, a corner of the fence in my field of view, and a cloudless blue sky, unusual for Vancouver. The scenery is completely incidental, because I just happened to be looking up while I pondered the thought that became a part of me, "what will I be like at 28?" That question, and the complete bewilderment that arose from knowing I would be totally different and yet have absolutely no idea how, is lodged in my brain forever as a landmark of aging, both from when I anticipated it, to after when I would mark how far I've come since.

Time for me then was timeless. It wasn't that time seemed slower than it does now, it's that I had no sense at all of time. When I was in grade two, as far as I perceived it, I had always been in grade two and would always be in grade two. When I clued in that there would be a summer holiday, an endless expanse of freedom, the concept was too vast for me. "I won't have to go to school again until next September? That's awesome, because September is never going to happen!"

In retrospect, time went by so fast I couldn't keep up. My grandmother once said that she was convinced the planet was spinning faster and faster, and I not only now understand, but viscerally feel, what she meant.

In my 30s, at a night club. I'm standing next to a woman who a little earlier in the night had been on stage doing an amateur dance performance. I didn't know her, but she was standing there looking bored, and I was standing there being bored, so I leaned over just to have a little polite conversation.

"I thought your dance number was pretty good," I say, raising my voice above the music.

"Thanks, sir."

Thanks... sir.

I'm devastated by the absolute lack irony in her words. She's being sincerely respectful.

Holy fuck, am I that old? Is she that much younger than me? Did I become the old sketchy guy at the club? When did that happen?

It's desperately insecure and I hate the part of me that cares, but I get emotional fuel from the times when people mistake me for being younger. Though maybe I've channeled that insecurity into positive outcomes. I'm arguably healthier than I've ever been before, keeping my body fat low by eating right and exercising, motivated by a desire that even if aging is a non-negotiable deal, at least how you wear that age can be.

Although I've always been health conscious, there was a specific random incident a few years ago that really kick started me into my current exceptional efforts to be healthy. I had been playing street hockey on a Sunday afternoon, and afterwards, me and some of the guys were heading to the train station. Somehow along the way, I have no idea how it started, but we fell into a conversation with some random people I had never met before or since, two guys and a girl. The girl asked me how old I was. I told her to guess, because I'm that guy who fishes for low ball guesses. She looked me over and said, "You're 27!" But before I could feel any smug satisfaction, she says, "wait..." and then proceeds to reach out and poke my stomach, assessing the depth of excess padding. "No... you're 37," she concludes. Her post stomach-examination was dead on, and I was deflated.

After that, I was determined that should anyone ever be too uncomfortably accurate about my age again, it wouldn't be on account of anything extra carried on my waistline. A strict diet, high intensity training, barefoot running... A couple of years later I was hanging out with some people I was doing improv comedy with, and a woman asked me how long I had been doing improv. I said 27 years. She asked, "are you even 27 years old?" I'm not that delusional, to the point where I would take her words at face value, but she was at least granting me that I was youthful, and that's all I really need.

Why the fuck do I need that, though?

If it were just about what it feels like internally, physically, to be 40, I could tell you easily. It feels like being in my late twenties, 27 or 28. If anything, I feel even more capable than then. It's not just that I take better care of my body than ever before, my emotional capabilities have expanded. I can finally talk to women without being a dick. I still have a need to be right about things and win arguments, but I'm way less confrontational and hostile than I used to be. I'm no longer constantly dissatisfied and can find enjoyment in simple things.

Which all sounds good, so where's the problem?

Sometimes it feels like it's all around me. When the woman at the club inadvertently highlighted my age, it didn't sting because it made me feel any more decrepit than before she spoke. It stung because it made me suddenly feel like I might not belong. My grandmother, in her seventies at the time, once told me that she'd like to go down and see modern night clubs, maybe even dance a little. I was in my early twenties at the time, and I was too casual about it, saying she could if she wanted, not really appreciating that even if every single person at the club was supportive of her being there, the fact that her presence would be a novelty for everyone would shape her experience into something other than just going out to a nightclub and seeing what they're like these days. Now I get it. For her, at that age, her presence in a nightclub would be so clearly outside the norm that no one would even feign that they weren't surprised, or amused, or whatever. When does that line get crossed, though? Isn't there a grey area before then when you're a little older than people expect for the environment, but they're not that sure themselves, so they don't say anything about it, but they think it?

Does it get revealed in moments when someone calls you "sir" at a night club?

The "sir" thing happened only once, and usually, I find that the range of ages of people out at the parties and places I go to encompass a wide enough swath that I don't stand out. It's entirely possible the only person who really gives a shit about any societal expectations is me, because I don't just feel the sands in the hourglass of my mortality slipping away, I feel like there's a separate but equally sombre countdown to when I'm not supposed to be like I the person I am now.

The societal pressure began from within myself when I was a kid looking at the sky wondering what I would be like at 28. I thought I'd be married, maybe have kids. Even though at the time I wasn't yet interested in girls, I had a television sitcom image of a nuclear family that I assumed was some kind of condition bestowed on you more or less automatically when you became an adult. "Adult" was something like twenty, and eight years was eight eternities, so despite all the mysteries of how it all works, surely with so much time and inevitability, I would be married at 28.

Reality turned out to be that 28 made a whooshing sound as it blew past me, with no prospect of, and no desire for, marriage. A couple years ago I was sitting with my girlfriend from when I turned 30, and she casually remarked, "If we had got married and had a kid, that kid would be, like 8 years old by now." Holy shit, I'm well within the age range that not only could I have had an eight year old child, some people are surprised to discover that at my age I don't have that child.

Holy shit, I'm old enough to have had a twenty year old child.

Holy shit, I'm just about old enough to have had a child about the same age as women I date.

The prudish say you're not supposed to go out with anyone who is younger than your age, divided by half, plus 7. So for me, that means the youngest woman I should date is 27, the age I am inside my head. It's a "rule" I blissfully ignore. It's not that I'm having a mid life crisis where I buy a red Corvette and date younger women as some kind of rebellion against age, it's that my life never really stopped being like what it was, including who I date.

Is that pitiable? Some people think so, another facet of that large and amorphous cloud of societal expectation that is and is not there. Of my friends that are married, I know some think I'm in kind of a sad place. They hope for me that I'll find what they've found, that I'll cross over into understanding why my life would have more meaning with a real relationship, one with children. When I'm alone at home at night, binge eating because of my crippling loneliness, I think they're right. Agape seems like so much a better idea than eros when I'm between trysts.

There are those other married friends, though, the ones tired of their kids, who maybe right from the start got caught in life choices that are good for the marriage but not for anyone in it. Those friends sometimes accidentally divulge a little envy. My present seems full of bold possibilities, where I have the freedom to commit all my time and resource to my creative ambitions, and even in desperate times between lovers there is still that enticing promise that around the next corner might be someone truly special. When I'm flirting with a woman I just met, or when I'm out laughing among friends, completely oblivious to the curfews that having kids would have imposed, I think they're right.

Everyone is everyone else's mirror, and that's the real societal expectation that gets imposed. Everyone is really thinking about themselves when they're talking about you, and so all the perceptions I get, that we all get, for when people reflect on our age, or anything else, says more about them than us. When somebody younger looks at me and thinks I'm a little old for what I'm doing, it's because they're expecting their life to turn out a particular way, and so I'm outside of expectations. When an older person looks at me and thinks I'm not acting my age, they're confirming to themselves that they made the right choices in life. Conversely, the people younger than me who don't find anything unusual about where I'm at aren't that worried about where they're going, and the ones older than me who envy my freedoms have some regrets.

So if I were totally secure, I wouldn't worry at all about my age and its implications. I could console myself with standard platitudes like, "age is just a number," or, "40 is the new 30." Part of me couldn't give a fuck what anyone thinks of my dating choices, or what I do with my time. I like my life in a lot of ways.

Except I'm not totally secure. There is a part of me that isn't at all happy with the way in which I reached 40.

I don't know if this happens to anyone else, but it started happening to me as I approached 40, as if an age divisible by ten really was somehow significant to my unconscious psychological development. I would have, and I continue to have, momentary flashbacks to completely random and seemingly inconsequential moments of my life. Clear and vivid flashes of momentary scenes that, so far as I can tell, are not prompted by anything. What often catches me off guard about these random memories is how completely unconnected they are to anything else I might be thinking before or after.

The mysterious feature of these flashbacks is that they come in two varieties, distinguished by their emotional impact on me. Half of them would be completely innocuous, just a memory of a thing, a random photograph from the photo album in my mind. Seeing myself in the large mirror of the gym changing room at my high school. Sitting with my grandparents having tea. Biking down a particular road in Tokyo. But the other half of these memories would sting me with a literal pain, something like an adrenalin shot shooting up from my liver into my heart. Equally random and seemingly mundane content, and yet I would hate the thought of them. Buying a car magazine from a bookstore in downtown Vancouver. In my cubicle at the second animation company I worked at. Biking to a store near my first apartment in Tokyo.

What makes these random painful memories even weirder is that I have other memories that, comparing their content, should be painful, but aren't. Breakups with long term girlfriends, for example. I had one a few years ago where not only did the woman I was in love with break up with me in the most inhuman and pointlessly cruel way possible, I hate who I was at the time for all my contributions to what made the break up bad for me. My inability to leave it earlier because of my fear of loneliness, the weakness of my convictions, and the depths of my need to be validated through the continuation of the relationship. During that time was one of the worst nights of my life, but when I think back to it, I don't feel much of anything anymore. I'm not thrilled about it, but it's completely lacking the gut wrenching torment of these other random clips from my life. Why would the absolutely inconsequential act of buying a car magazine bug me more than discovering the woman I loved was callous in her treatment of my heart?

After a long time of not understanding, the reason finally became clear to me when I turned my focus away from what the memories were about and instead on what they felt like when they hurt. I've felt this before. I used to have night terrors, and these memories evoked a similar sense of existential dread that I would get when I had those terrors.

Night terrors would happen as I fell asleep, and the way it seemed to work was that as my rational mind would drift out of consciousness, my less rational mammalian brain sometimes would still be kicking. If I had any stresses or problems in my life, without my rational brain around to provide context, my more instinctual brain would reinterpret specific problems as just general bad feelings. Somewhere in my evolutionary make up there is a part of my brain that was built in an environment full of mortal dangers, and that part of my brain interpreted a general perception of bad things as an intuitive sense of impending threat. I would be falling asleep and out of nowhere jump out of bed as if I was about to die. About to be killed.

The memories that were painful were giving me a similar sense of mortal dread. But how could my past represent any kind of impending mortal threat? Dying is definitively in one's future, so the past should be safe from death, shouldn't it?

Two girls looking at their laptop.
"Says here he lives in constant mortal dread of failure... sounds like a catch..."

The fear these memories are provoking is not of dying, it's of having already been dead. Dead for chunks of wasted time in my life. I'm afraid that the time I threw away before is the reason I won't create all that I want to create in my lifetime, or be the person I want to be in the present.

The reason the car magazine bothers me is because there was a time in my life when I gave a shit about cars, something so foreign to me now that it's even weird to write the sentence. What does that even mean, to be "into" cars? Sitting around reading about cars I'll never drive, debating with friends about preferences between cars that none of us owned, seeing expensive cars drive by on the street and wonder which year's model that was. A car magazine is a small taste of a person I was who is completely irrelevant to who I am now. It's not that someone who has an interest in cars as hobby is a bad thing, I suppose, but for me, it's just one corner of a personality that was going in completely the wrong direction for me. Nothing I did while in that head space was a building block for who I aspire to be now. It's a dead zone in my life. The other images that hurt me are all from dead zones. It's not the content of the images that is painful, but the person I was when that image was created.

On the other hand, the brutal break up with that soulless whore is not something that bothers me when I think about it now because as agonizingly painful as it was at the time, it was definitely living. Even though I wasn't being the person I aspire to be during that experience, where a lot of my choices in getting into that relationship were based on some very deep flaws inside me, I can trace a line from how that beat down on my psyche has contributed to making me better off now. I'm still far from perfect, but I've been a much better boyfriend to the women I've been with since, and I've been a lot better to myself as well, as a direct consequence of that experience. Going through it sucked, but having been through it can be a good thing. As Henry Rollins once said, "life lessons are good if you actually learn from them."

I know a lot of my friends feel existential angst, which I know through hints, ironic allusions, and occasional confessions, but I don't exactly know how everyone experiences it. I know for me, it's not just that I fear running out of days ahead, but having wasted days behind. Which sounds dire, and when I'm feeling weak, it is. But when I'm feeling strong, which fortunately is more often now that I understand me better than before, the fear of death is motivating. I don't merely not want to die, I want to be not dead while I live.

And that's what it feels like for me to be 40. It feels like twenty eight, but with more mortality.