I’m a mid-forties old male. The Leaver stayed home for years, so that, nominally I could concentrate on my career. I say nominally because for many years the Leaver’s life took up a lot of attention and energy but that was kept out of sight to the outside world for the most part.
That’s probably the case for a lot of families. Perhaps not the extent of Theroux’s “quiet desperation,” but we all have our struggles and I don’t think I’m alone in that I tend to under report those struggles to friends and family.
Well now my life is laid bare for all to see.
Really it’s a bit of a relief. Perhaps too comforting of a relief. You see, I’m out of the game. I’ve been taken out of the front lines with a reasonably heroic wound. I’m the single dad. Every accomplishment no matter how piddly from here on in has the asterisk — “while raising two children.”
The Dog dances.
The Dog is missing a leg and still dances.
The Dog is missing a leg is a bit deaf and still he dances.
Oh Bravo! Well Done! Amazing Effort!
However you define middle age — 28 or 55 (I’ve heard 60 is the new middle age? Does that mean we all expect to live to 120? Der is a river in Egypt called de..)– there comes a point where you feel like your apprenticeship phase is done. I’m not just talking about the formal education. But you’ve finished however much on-the-job experience is necessary, for whatever you have deemed important in your life, so that much of it is habitual.
Habit doesn’t mean easy. Habit gives you certainty, confidence, yes. A seasoned firefighter sees a burning building and decides immediately what to do, where to go, what he needs, who to take with him — that doesn’t make going in any easier than it was when he first joined up twenty years ago.
I think anyone doing anything reaches that level of habit, ease, confidence, whatever you want to call it that we associate with middle age and its corollary, the mid-life crisis. World famous artist, in-theatre CIA operative, proverbial brain surgeon, VP of GE, or hermit monk in the mountains — it doesn’t matter. Human beings strive for that moment of comfort and sense of routine and position of leadership, even if it’s just leadership over a kingdom that is merely our kitchen or a cave.
Then inevitably as human, we are disturbed by the comfort and the crisis follows. Corollaries of doubt must appear for everyone at one point. And we look at ourselves and remember how we looked at those of middle age when we were young:
comfort = complacency
established practice = decadence.
Throw into this heady brew a bit of middle-aged angst (perhaps stirred by a glance into old diaries and passing mirrors for catalysis ) and sudden transformation is the result:
safety=fear of mortality
Christ, if it can happen to Christ (Garden of Gethsemane, agonized cries on the cross) and pretty much any hero of culture worth remembering, from history or from literature (I really wonder if there’s much of a difference or if there is, who cares. History is history, after all, when someone writes it down and in so doing, creates literature. Up to that point its archeology… but that’s a whole other argument) at one point or another wonders…. was this really such a good idea?
You can just imagine an omniscient parental God contemplating all the internal crisis and destructive doubt that seems inherently linked to success, power, comfort, safety, that take hold of all of us whether in the Oval office, on a stage in Wembly stadium or settling in front of a warm fire in a front room embraced tight to the bosom of familial contentment and screaming — “what the hell do you bloody well want?!! You unappreciative, ingrates… a Nobel Prize for living?!”
Well, as a single dad, I’ve been sort of taken out of the race. I’ve been exempt from competition. It’s almost like winning without trying.
It all feels a bit too easy in some ways. My mother says to me, “how do you manage.”
And I think, well that’s a bit much… My kids are healthy, I have a job, there are no bombs dropping (unlike during my parents’ childhood, an experience just one generation removed), nor do I have to spend an hour each day procuring water from the village well… so of course I “manage.”
And just for managing I get a prize.
No more, he could have been a VP of GE or he should be starting a not for profit or published that novel or how he gave up on the dinosaurologist dream or that rock band in ’89 that would have changed everything. No, he’s a single dad. The fact that the kids get to school on time without a single outbreak of cholera from unwashed toilets is amazing enough.
I think I’m getting complacent.
About a year ago my neighbour left his secure job in a bank to join a small company involved in condo development. His wife works at the same bank. You could see the fuel of middle age restlessness powering that seismic shift in their lives.
Back in the summer time he was talking about the big party he’d throw for the street when the condo deal he was working on at his new job closed in the fall. The fall came and went his replies to “how are you doing?” when he’s on the front porch smoking more curt and glib.
He’s falling after that admirable leap. He hasn’t caught an updraft yet, and he’s probably wondering if it’s all worth it. I don’t know exactly because as is often the case for all of us, my neighbour was open and effusive when he took the leap but since then has hunkered down more and more: quickly disappearing from the porch after the quick “hi.”
The great middle age leap is either admired or dismissed as fool hardy only in hindsight. I blame it on the rock songs learned in youth taunting us in the middle age that we haven’t lived. You know the ones. The Jam’s Smithers Jones, The Clash, Lost in the Supermarket, Pink Floyd’s Time
(And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun….)
Lord forbid we end up in the rock hell of Lennon and McCartney‘s Father McKenzie, “writing sermons that no one will hear.”
Go on McKenzie. Damn the consequences, and leap into the unknown, change your life!
The Leaver took that leap before me and without me. That’s one way to look at it. But perhaps time turns us all into a lyric if we just wait long enough? Perhaps Elenor Rigby was once married and decided to chuck it all away?
Now it is very difficult for me, to do the same sort of leap. Being a single parent means time constraints, of course, and the lack of a financial partner means taking a temporary cut in income for the big payoff down the road is out of the question. I work with educational institutions so a change of job typically means travel and/or relocation since my potential customers are scattered across the continent.
As the kids get older, more travel is possible, however, relocating is fraught with huge complexities. As custodial parent, I can’t just up-and-move without the other parent’s agreement. She might try to come along and start a new life wherever we went, but I know she would not be able to handle it. I could actually move to the US as I have dual citizenship and in my space there are plenty of interesting jobs worth applying for down south. But this is not just emotionally complicated for the Leaver, as it happens, it is legally impossible — she is banned from travelling to the US due to a minor immigration indiscretion in her student days.
So I’m honourably disqualified out of that race.
My parent’s early life, and therefore that of my siblings, was that of an academic nomad. In ten years they lived in London, San Francisco area, Munich and then Canada. Later, we enjoyed the benefit of sabbaticals. When I was a kid, I was fraught by insecurity over the thought of changing schools, losing my friends for a year (including one of those girlfriends writing those spectacular letters with the sketches in the margins) affronted that my parents thought they knew better. Well, they did know better — the experience of changing countries for a year when the sabbatical rolled around, was life changing and life affirming.
Long ago, the Leaver and I talked about doing the same with our children, when they were in their teens. Rent out the house, go teach English somewhere, give them a chance to live in another part of the world, push the reset button on all of our lives, that sort of thing. We didn’t quite get there. Now it seems inconceivable.
So instead, I’ll write.
Instead of making the big job change; starting a new business; going back to school to up my skills — simply can’t afford either time or money wise — I’ll just keep turning out pages. This blog, short stories, novel — this is all an attempts to live up to the legacy of checking out and starting again that my parents modelled for me. I tried to calculate, and I think I’ve got somewhere like the equivalent of 500 odd pages since the Leaver did her thing.
Is that enough to impress the judges? Whoever they are.
That dog sure is awful cute.