Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

The Editor is 40

By John Bedell

Today I turn 40, and by one reckoning my life is half over. In the calendar of American popular culture this is a day of great woe, and I have been warning my wife for years to expect a horrific mid-life crisis if I reached this day without having published a novel or otherwise distinguishing myself. Now that the day is here, and without notable accomplishments, I have to confess that I feel fine.

I am a brooder by nature, and last week I tried to brood on this dreaded birthday and the approach of old age and death. Instead I found myself greatly cheered by thinking of how much I have done in the past decade.  Since I turned thirty I have helped to deliver three babies and watched them grow into small but fascinating people. I have had a reasonably successful career as a consulting archaeologist, and I make as much money as I ever really expected to in my life. I bought a house and surrounded it with gardens. I married when I was 29, and over the past ten years my love affair with my wife has grown into the most profound relationship I have ever had.

Not only do I have much to be thankful for, but I don't feel very old. My hair is going rapidly gray and there are extra tufts of it sprouting from odd crannies of my body, but so far everything important is still working fine. (Especially those evolutionarily vital parts.) I feel healthy. I play basketball twice a week with a group of men who range in age from 30 to 54, and some of the guys over 45 are better than I've ever been in my life. Because of them I feel reassured that, barring injury, I can look forward at least ten more years of athletic competition. No doubt arthritis, heart disease, and general decay await me somewhere in the future, but that still feels a long way off.

My mind feels even better than my body. I'm sure I'm almost as smart as I ever was, and I since I know more I think my ideas are better and more interesting.  I feel that I understand the world and its inhabitants in ways I did not when I was younger. Even though I'm not exactly a scholar, my scholarship is thriving. In my job I investigate so many sites and communities that interesting discoveries are bound to turn up every once and a while. My articles are getting published in journals that people read, and I have more underway. One of my projects has generated so much material that I may end up with a book yet. I am fortunate to have chosen archaeology and history as my fields because in both there is no substitute for knowledge and experience.  Instead of the obsolescence that awaits aging mathematicians, I can look forward to twenty or thirty more productive years. I feel like I am at the peak of my intellectual powers, and I am enjoying it.

My experience in living is also starting to add up in interesting ways. My competence at all kinds of business and social situations has grown over the years, and I very rarely feel the kind of anxiety that used to haunt all my interactions with people who weren't close friends. Clerks, policemen, doctors, and the rest of minor officialdom no longer intimidate me the way they used to, and jerks don't bother me as much. I find it easier to be 40 than I did to be 30, which was easier than being 20, which was so much better in every way than being 15 that it hurts even to think about it.

Sure, adulthood has its down side. Sometimes getting up and going to work every day seems a crushing burden, especially when I spend my days on routine tasks I have done a hundred times before. The unrelenting burden of parenthood feels at times like a cage and I long for the days when I could just take off for a weekend by myself whenever I wanted to. (Not that I did very often, but I could have.)  On days when work is a prison and everything else a drain or an irritation I think I can sense a little of the frustrated rage that drives some people to call up Rush Limbaugh and rage about the government or even lash out with a gun. But the worst thing by far about adult life is the loneliness. I haven't made a new close friend since the last time I lived in a dorm, which was back in 1991, and since my old friends are spread around the world from London to Thailand I see them much less than I would like. I am not sure why it is so hard for me to make friends now. The obligations of work and parenthood mean that I have much less time for it, as does everyone else, and that must be a big part of it. I sense something else, though, a sort of social armor that adults wear to keep the world and its strange inhabitants from bothering them. I have the same hesitation about strangers, but I sure could use a new friend.

I'm looking forward to the next decade. I feel confident that my marriage will my thrive, and with Lisa's help I know I can deal with whatever life throws at me. I have projects underway that I think will turn out to be very interesting, and I am excited about finishing them and telling people about them. I expect to be moving soon to a new house where I can build a new garden. I just started teaching my youngest son to read, and I've been helping my eldest with multiplication tables and a report on Ben Franklin. Perhaps I ought to be worried about the prospect of having three teenagers in the house, but I'm not--I'm looking forward more to real intellectual exchanges and father-son basketball than I'm dreading delinquency or alienation.

Maybe I'll even finish one of those novels one day.

February 26, 2002


From the 
Commonplace Book

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

--Walt Whitman
Song of Myself


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us


Night Train to Lisbon
Science Enchants the World
Intelligent Design
Turning 40
Gulliver's Travels
Spiritual Testament
Gender and Children
For Common Things
Inside the Prophet's Hat
I am the Spirit of My Age
Knowing People
Having Children