This morning, as my wife and I were relaxing after our Sunday morning breakfast and enjoying a last taste of coffee and orange juice before starting a busy day of not watching the Super Bowl, she decided to play one of the Twilight Zone episodes she recorded from the New Years SyFy Channel Twilight Zone Marathon (NYSFCTZM). It was the episode with Andy Devine as Frisby, the doyen of a group of old coots whose lives centered on telling tall tales around the stove at the local gas station. I won’t go into details about the episode other than to say that Frisby’s tall tales result in his being abducted by space aliens, and his atrocious harmonica playing leads to his release. The story ends with all the other old coots throwing Frisby a surprise party on his sixty third birthday, and refusing to accept his sworn account of the abduction as anything other than another tall tale.
Unfortunately, watching this episode, and its implication that men of my age can legitimately be relegated to old coothood made me wonder about the current stage of my life. I am a few years older than Frisby, but hardly consider myself to be an old coot. I asked my wife for some reassurance on this note, and received an affectionate, witty, but disturbingly ambiguous response. As a result, I began thinking about this stage of my life, and what it all means. This is something I do from time to time, probably because I am at this stage of my life.
Part of the problem is that I don’t know of a clear alternative to old coot that I can use to describe myself. I don’t really feel comfortable imagining myself in the demographic group assigned to me by popular television news and entertainment shows and their commercials, which characterize men of my age as reinventing themselves with great vigor and creativity, in spite of being obsessed with golf, unable to make love to their sexy but age-appropriate wives without pharmaceutical assistance, and possessing an overwhelming urge to vote Republican.
So, I have decided to spend this Super Bowl Sunday in a pursuit even less productive than watching football. I have decided to develop an improved model of the stages of a man’s life, in the hope that it will help other men my age escape the stigma of premature old-coot-hood. I will limit it to the lives of males – actually retired, white, American, former professional, middle class males – since that is the only sort of life I have experienced.
As near as I can assemble from the various messages I have been getting from the media, our political and thought leaders, and a general appreciation of the American zeitgeist, the commonly accepted life stages of the American male consist of:
Infancy, where we spend most of our time being pissed off because we haven’t been presented with a tit immediately upon demand, or had our shit or some other mess we created cleaned up for us promptly.
Childhood, which is probably our happiest time of life since we are just discovering the infinite opportunities for joy, creativity, love, and adventure our world offers. However, our capacity for being pissed off endures, as demonstrated by the frequent occurrence of temper tantrums in children, and their capacity for inexplicable cruelty to their schoolmates. This brief, joyful state persists until our fleeting awareness of the wonderful journey our life can become is obliterated by . . .
Adolescence, where we spend most of our time being pissed off because we haven’t been presented with a tit immediately upon demand, or had our shit or some other mess we created cleaned up for us promptly.
This gives way to adulthood, a rather lengthy and poorly defined stage of life dominated by feelings of being pissed off about our jobs, our finances, our children, our marriages, and the general anger that – for reasons surpassing understanding – currently seems to afflict people living in the world’s most prosperous, healthiest, safest nation, with the legacy of humanity’s greatest technical, social, and artistic achievements at their fingertips.
Old age ends it all, and is dominated by our being pissed off about declining health, impending death, and outrage at seeing younger people do all the stupid things we did when we were their age (and won’t get to do all over again).
This is, of course, the American version, and it does reflect the current state of our politics. I have been told by friends who have traveled abroad a lot, and observed in my own travels, that people in other countries tend to be less pissed off than we are, in spite of lacking our material wealth, security, or dominant position in the global economy. Indeed, wealth seems to have little effect on pissed-off-ness, since people like Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump, Foster Fries, and Tom Perkins have nearly immeasurable wealth, and seem to be more pissed off than any of us. However, since this is an essay on the stages of life, not on the mystery of why so many of my countrymen (especially wealthy white males) are so pissed off, I’ll save that for another entry I will probably not bother to write.
Also, I would like to affirm my belief that woman, the poor, recent immigrants, and people of color actually do have a lot to be pissed off about.
Anyway, I thought it might be a good time for me to revisit this whole idea of stages of life, if for no other reason than to offer an alternative to so many people being pissed off about what should be a wonderful adventure. Being an engineer who appreciates mathematical symmetry, I decided the stages of life should be more or less equal in length. Also, being in my sixties, I wanted to make sure I do not fall into the final stage. I will not use the term “middle age” since it doesn’t say much about what that life stage means, and really doesn’t fall in the middle anyway, a fact that has always annoyed me. These constraints, coupled with such biological realities as the length of time it takes to become an adult, and the typical human life span, lead me to propose five distinct stages of life. The exact lengths of these are, of course, extremely fuzzy, with many individuals acting much older than their years, and others clinging to the horrors of adolescence well into what I am not calling middle age.
So, here they are. To my surprise and gratification, my rather arbitrary breakdown actually seems to make some sense in terms of the challenges and rewards I have experienced in a longer, happier life than I probably deserve. My revised stages of life are:
Childhood/youth. This lasts from birth until around twenty. Although this has the most diverse set of sub-stages (infancy, toddler, childhood, kidhood, tweenhood, adolescence, etc) of any life stage, they are so far in my past that they blur into one long confusion, and aren’t particularly relevant to my goal of not becoming an old coot. There is a unifying theme to this stage in that most of these twenty years are devoted to learning how to use our own minds and bodies, and acquiring basic social skills such as not picking our noses at the table. This stage is dominated by the demands of formal education which occupy nearly its entire duration, and efforts to master our bodies through play, sports, and futile attempts to learn to dance.
Young adulthood. As we enter this stage, hopefully with some basic understanding of human history, science, politics, and art, and unburdened by parental restrictions and the virginity they were designed to preserve, we begin our lives as productive members of society. This stage can start as early as eighteen, and as late as forty, with some males avoiding it altogether. Here, the dominant theme is one of learning how society actually works, and men typically spend much of this stage in lower levels of corporate employment, military rank, or Internet start ups, which helps us to learn the ropes while preventing our mistakes from doing too much damage. Exceptions to this are, of course, the military where such mistakes can get people killed, and Internet startups where they can undermine the global monetary system, obliterate established canons of good taste, and generally reduce the collective intelligence of the human race. It is also worth noting that this ability of corporations to insulate people from the consequences of their own stupidity persists throughout life, with corporate CEOs often becoming richer than Croesus in spite of making some spectacularly stupid decisions. For many people, it is also the age when they have their own children, a challenge for which they are wholly unprepared.
I am calling the third stage of life the Age of Productivity, and it roughly lasts from age forty until sometime in our sixties. By the time we reach this stage, we should know enough about our chosen profession and the realities of the the world’s social and economic mechanisms to assume positions of leadership in society (just kidding). Not coincidentally, entry to this stage tends to correspond with such social milestones as completing training in a medical specialty, becoming a partner in a law firm, receiving tenure as an academic, moving into middle management, or seeing the rock bands we loved in our youth start to appear at the local casino or Holiday Inn bar. In fairness to many of my friends who are still in this stage of life, it includes a number of wonderful men who work hard to nurture their families, build for the future, improve society, and who occasionally pick up the check at lunch. I am proud to call them friends.
The fourth stage is a new one I created to make myself feel better, and which I am calling the age of Reflective Maturity, because it combines a desire to try and make sense of the lives we have lived, with the knowledge, experience, money, and free time that endeavor requires. It roughly covers the years between our early sixties and a few years before the tables at the Social Security web site say we will probably die – usually around eighty. It coincides to what is generally called middle age, although as you can see, it is not really in the middle. I can also claim to be in the early part of this life stage, which I find reassuring. Generally, men in this stage of life have gone as far as they will go in their careers (so there isn’t much point in paying attention to them any more), have stable marriages (finally), and enough money to last for the duration (as long as people don’t suddenly realize that the global economic system is a giant illusion aimed at preserving power at the top by giving people in the middle just enough security to make them desperately want to stop the poor from causing the trouble they would be fully justified in causing). You can tell you are in this stage if, when you go to the casino to hear that rock band you loved in your youth, you have an overwhelming sense of discovering a deeper, more profound meaning in their lyrics. However, this is only a symptom of age-related changes in your neurophysiology, means nothing in itself, and happily will pass.
As we settle into this stage of life, men find themselves returning to the passions of their youth, such as music, poetry, woodworking, painting, tinkering with cars, or collecting the films of Scarlett Johansson. We accept the fact that our wives are probably smarter than we are, which makes for much marital contentment. Unfortunately, this realization causes us to look for younger people with whom we can share our wisdom, and, since this makes us rather boring, men in this stage of life often experience a decline in invitations to parties and other social events. Occasionally, we start blogs.
The last stage is old age. It has the disadvantage of ending with death, and is often much shorter than the rest. I cannot say much about this stage of life, since I have yet to experience it, but those who have assure me that the green bean casserole and Jello salad served in our finer retirement homes are actually quite tasty.
Well, there it is. I hope this model of the stages of a man’s life helps the reader in his own efforts to make sense of his life, and to face his remaining years with joy and optimism.
By the way, if you have ideas for changing or improving this model, please keep them to yourself.
I’d probably find them boring.