Warning: Stream of Consciousness typing ahead.
I turned 40 two weeks ago. My kids made a big deal of it, with black balloons, and funny signs around the house that said things like “Lordy, Lordy, Dad is 40.” It was cute. I spent about half of my Age 39 Season telling people that I was 40, anyway, so when the actual day came, it didn’t seem like a big deal. I’ve made a million jokes about being “halfway to the eternal dirt nap,” and although death doesn’t exactly excite me, I no longer fear it like I once did.
I think what messes with most people when they hit a milestone birthday is what I like to call the “Should Haves.” Everybody has a list of things that they think that they should have accomplished/attained/obtained by their 40th (or 30th or 50th, etc.) birthday. I’ve heard countless friends and family say things like “I should have a million dollars in my retirement account my the time I’m 40,” or “I should be the Vice President of Sales for my company,” or “I should have my house paid off.”
Frankly, I don’t worry about that sort of thing very much. I know it’s very much in vogue to set goals and achieve them, blah blah. Listen, I’ve been in ridiculously good shape (two years ago) and I’ve been twenty lbs overweight (um, probably now). I’ve had six figures in my checking account and I’ve had a red number in my checking account. I’ve managed a group of 80 people and I’ve been an individual contributor. I’ve had Hyundais and I’ve had Porsches. And what I’ve learned from all of my material and frankly solipsistic obsessions over the years is this:
None of it matters very much unless you are happy and healthy. But I’m starting to think about health and happiness in a different way now.
My father sent me a birthday card that had a short, personal note written at the bottom. It said, “Enjoy your 40s. It’s a great decade. Use it to set up the balance of your life.” I gotta admit, that phrase, “the balance of your life” punched me directly in the gut. I’ve never thought of my life of having a “balance,” per se. I’ve mostly lived in a way that would suggest that I have a very poor Future Time Orientation (a subject on which my brother has had much to say lately). I haven’t saved much money. I haven’t planned much further than a month at a time. This sort of thinking has led to a lot of instant satisfaction—lots of toys that were used once and never used again, etc. But I don’t regret it. In fact, for the last nearly ten years, I’ve focused on one thing—are my children happy in this moment, and am I setting them up to have a better, more fulfilling life than I have had?
I say that like I’ve had a bad life. I haven’t, not by a long shot. There was never a day where I was hungry. I never wanted for anything. Whether it was my mom maxing out a credit card, or my dad swooping in to buy me three new professional saxophones in four years in high school, I always had everything I needed to be successful.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have tragedy or pain in my past. Everybody views his life through the most tragic lens possible. I only say this because it’s true—in 2017, there’s some sort of societal shame associated with having privilege. I’ve sat in professional meetings where each person tries to “out-injure” each other.
“I was poor growing up.”
“My parents were divorced.”
“We were on food stamps.”
“We were the only minority family on the block.”
“I was the only woman in my engineering class.”
“My father forced me into his line of work.”
“Everybody hated me because I was the ‘rich kid.'”
Moral of the story is that everybody has some sort of hill to climb, even those who were born with supposed “privilege.” We can get into all sorts of debate as to whether or not there’s such a thing as “white privilege” (there probably is, but I don’t think it’s as prevalent as some do) but, in my experience, privilege is something to be envied and admired, not ridiculed, because it’s largely a function of somebody else in that person’s life doing a fair amount of sacrificing.
My best example of this occurred in my own life in 1983. After my parents’ divorced and sold our house, my mom needed to find somewhere for us to live. She found two identical townhouse complexes—one in Dublin City Schools, and one in Columbus City Schools. The Dublin City Schools townhouse was about $100 more a month, if I remember correctly. Columbus City Schools had about a 55% dropout rate at that time, and the high school I would have attended, Independence (it was built in 1976, along with another school called “Centennial”) was not known for academic excellence, to say the least. Dublin City Schools, on the other hand, had a college placement rate well of 90%, and was a booming, growing community.
$100 a month was no small amount in 1983—it’s equivalent to about $250 now. I wasn’t old enough to understand how this impacted her life at the time, but my mom made the decision to scrap and fight to get us into the Dublin district. I can think of no other singular decision that has affected my life so significantly. Because I went to Dublin, I was in a top-level music program, which helped me get a college scholarship for music performance. I got to play on a state-championship winning football team, which instilled a sense of discipline and honor in my core being. I was in Honors and AP classes in English and composition, which gave me an appreciation for beautiful writing and taught me how to construct prose in a decent way. That “privilege” that was gifted to me was based purely on my mother’s one decision—not color, creed, or birth.
So, upon reaching this milestone birthday, I decided that I wanted to do something to help my old school district, to provide some privilege to some kids who might need a little bit more. I went to speak to the Dublin Schools’ Young Professionals’ Academy, a group of 30 Juniors and Seniors who are selected for the program based on academic excellence and achievement. The students get to work with a mentor in their chosen field for two six-week periods, go through practice interviews, and they create a portfolio of their work to be presented to future potential employers. It’s a wonderful opportunity for them, something I wish I had been exposed to at that age.
When I started to speak, I said, “If I had been in your seat, twenty-two years ago, I probably would have said to myself, ‘Who’s the old, fat guy, and why should I pay attention?'” They laughed. “But hopefully you’re smarter than I was, and you’ll actually listen to some of the things I have to share with you today.” And, of course, they were and they did.
In fact, the kids were fantastic. They asked interesting questions, raised valid points and concerns, and were entirely engaged for the whole hour. I handed out a couple of R&T stickers to them, which the boys quickly put on their binders, and each one of them came over to say “Thanks” before leaving. It restored my faith in Generation Z.
This brings me back to this “balance of your life” thing. If I am, in fact, on the back nine of life, then I think that I have to redefine “health and happiness” to mean something a little bit different. I have to realize that I can’t just eat whatever I want, or ignore my exercise regime, because it’s only going to get harder to drop the weight as I get older. I have to get my children prepared to think differently than I do—to put off instant gratification and plan for their future, so that they don’t have their own “should haves” when they hit my age.
Most of all, I just want to be a good father. I think I’m doing okay, but I also realize that this is, in some ways, the easy part—I can fix nearly every problem they have with an ice cream and a hug. It won’t always be so easy. But in many ways, it’s the hard part, too. I think these are the years they build their character and their morality. I think this is when they learn what it means to be part of a team, to love and be loved in return, to be kind and giving in spirit. They may not remember the Disney trips or the soccer tournaments, but each interaction helps them become the man or woman they will ultimately be.
Because, God willing, someday I’ll be the one sending the 40th birthday card to my son and my daughter, telling him about the great decade he’s about to experience. I want them to approach the balance of their lives with excitement and confidence. And while that’s ultimately up to them, I want them to look back at this time of their lives as a time of gained privilege, not injury.
So, yeah, that’s it. I’m not sad about 40. I’m not faking a level of enthusiasm for it, either. I’m just continuing to live my life, trying to be the best man and father I can be. That’s enough for me.