Prior to my “transformation,” I wore a suit and tie to work Monday through Thursday, and Dockers and a plain blue button-down shirt on “Casual Fridays.” On weekends, I relaxed in straight-leg jeans, Nike tennis shoes, and a plaid or striped button-down shirt from Eddie Bauer. I wore a standard pair of round, wire-frame glasses and parted my short brown hair to the left. I was an adult version of Michael J. Fox’s character, Alex P. Keaton, on Family Ties (without the briefcase, I’m happy to report). One wintry afternoon, this hit me like a sucker punch to the paunchy area above my bland brown belt from the Gap.
The vision reappears to me now as if out of a sad dream. I had temporarily lost my senses and agreed to take my two daughters to that adult migraine in a box known as Chuck E. Cheese’s. As dozens of hyperactive kids darted around me, ricocheting from Skee-Ball to Whac-a-Mole, I gazed around the large room. What I noticed first was the look of pain and exhaustion on nearly all of the parents’ faces. Next, I noticed that virtually every dad was dressed exactly like me. In that moment, I realized I was wearing the uniform of a team that I didn’t want to be on. In fact, I didn’t want to be on any team.
Herein lies an important aspect of the midlife crisis: its core can be a genuine attempt to find and be one’s self, to step away from the herd—to, in essence, refuse to drive a Ford Taurus. How easy it is for everyone, hour by hour, day by day, to follow the lines and directions laid out in some invisible script. In ways small and large, we migrate to the center where a large homogenous crowd awaits, ready to compliment us on our new loafers and our portable lawn chairs with well-engineered footrests and cup holders.
These days I shop at stores like Fossil, Buckle, and purchase premium denim at Dr. Mojoe, right alongside college students, twentysomethings, and not a few high school kids. Is it possible that, in such duds, I come off looking like one of those pathetic, clueless middle-aged men who appear to be wearing their children’s clothes? Yes, I suppose that’s possible. But here’s the point: I don’t care. I’d rather be labeled eccentric than vanilla. Besides, it takes some measure of courage for a 44-year-old to embrace the wardrobe of the Radiohead-listening crowd.
PART OF THE reason I can get away with wearing clothes intended primarily for whippersnappers is that I stand 5-foot-11 and weigh in at roughly 170 pounds. I’m lucky in other ways, too. I’m blessed with a full head of hair that has yet to turn gray. And I’ve exchanged my short, corporate haircut of my pre-crisis years for a studiously unkempt mid-length ’do, which my father-in-law has dubbed my “come hither look.” I have, on occasion, been known to apply “product” to my hair, meaning those little bottles and tubes of paste that the high-end salons sell for prices that damn near compete with gold’s cost-per-ounce ratio. Oddly enough, it seems worth it. It’s hard to put a price on beauty.
It won’t surprise the midlife crisis traditionalists when I tell you that, for the first time in my life, I have started going to the gym. I’m not gunning for a home run king’s forearms or thirsting for six-pack abs. I’m not taking any GNC supplements. Or steroids. My primary and overriding aim is to avoid growing a tire around my mid-section. Does working out make me look better? Maybe. That said, I often find myself thinking of the death of jogging guru Dr. James Fixx. He looked amazingly fit but dropped dead at age 52 on a tree-lined street in Vermont—while jogging.
One picks up the faint but undeniable scent of one’s own death after crossing the 40-year Rubicon, sad to say. But I’m working to eliminate that odor and freshen the air. Exercise is my bottle of Febreze. Putting off death as long as possible is what keeps me running on the treadmill when my legs feel like they belong to an elephant. It’s what keeps me doing crunches when my gut feels like it’s going to rip open, hot sauce pouring out of my veins. It’s what keeps me looking the other way whenever I drive past a funeral home or stumble upon images of the living dead, such as Joan Rivers.
Listen, I understand that I may sound like the cliched middle-aged man who just can’t (or won’t) admit that he wishes he were back in high school. But in my case that is simply not true. I have no interest in returning to my youth, as enjoyable as it was. I don’t romanticize that era. I am pleased to be well beyond acne, awkward sex, and desperately searching under couch cushions for beer money. I don’t play video games like Guitar Hero, I don’t watch South Park, and I don’t listen to Weezer. I don’t IM my pals or scour the Web looking for great spring break packages. You won’t find me with the stereotypical, iconic trappings of the TV-sitcom midlife crisis: I don’t drive a red ragtop sports car, wear gold chains, and haven’t had my teeth professionally whitened or my nose chiseled by a plastic surgeon. I don’t go to dance clubs, or for that matter the Hyde Park Kroger, looking to pick up a nice young lady who was born around, say, 1982. I graduated from high school in 1982, for God’s sake!
AS I NOTED, I’m a married man, and happily so. I met Angie in the middle of my divorce. A mutual friend set us up on a blind date, a first for each of us. As it turns out, Angie is a good five years younger than I am, plus she looks younger than her age, so if you compare her apparent age with my true age, you would get an even larger gap. I’ve been told I look younger than I am, so I console myself with the idea that the gap may not seem as great.
Guys in midlife crisis are supposed to marry younger. Allegedly that’s the whole point. I get that that’s the perception and perhaps the reality for many men, but I didn’t set out to find someone younger to marry. When my friend set me up with Angie, I didn’t ask about her age or appearance. I assumed he wouldn’t set me up with a 65-year-old or, despite my fantasies to the contrary, a 25-year-old. I was more interested in her personality, profession, and politics, as opposed to her age or bra size. The fact of the matter is that midlife crises happen because people change. It’s that simple. And the unfortunate but unavoidable result is the dissolution of marriages. We go to the altar proclaiming “’til death do us part”; it’s a beautiful and poetic promise, but it’s also a promise that can’t account for all that may happen.
A while after my divorce, a friend who was genuinely disappointed in my decision wrote me a letter to tell me so. In it, he said that the notion that people change is “horseshit.” I think that point of view is, well, bullshit. Of course people change! Hasn’t he? Haven’t you? And is it any wonder, really, that about mid-way through life, whether that’s at 35 or 55, some people change, evolve, grow—label it as you will—in effect, becoming a different person than the one who uttered, however confidently and genuinely, “I do” many, many moons before?
Do such changes always present themselves in the high-drama (and potentially low-fashion) of the off-the-shelf midlife crisis? I don’t think so. What may seem like a midlife crisis to some can actually be something of a “rebirth.” That’s how I see my metamorphosis. Before my crisis I was leading a very good life, but ultimately I shed one skin for another. Not because I was bored. Not because I felt like being mean or petty or vindictive. Not because I could. I did it because I had to. Though painful and depressing, on the whole the process continues to feel most natural and in certain ways inevitable.
REBIRTH IS DEFINITELY an apt word for my situation. That’s true in part because Angie is pregnant—with twins. She’s due in July. My two offspring will soon number four. Even for a guy for whom math is hard, I know that’s a 100 percent increase. Many probably assume that the news of a baby, let alone twins, would be troubling for a guy reveling in a midlife crisis. Aren’t I supposed to be focused on myself? Aren’t I supposed to cling desperately to my wife’s lack of stretch marks? Aren’t I supposed to be footloose and fancy-free?
No, I am supposed to be me. And I couldn’t be happier. Call it a midlife crisis if you want. I’ll be sitting over here, in my hip clothes and shaggy hair, listening to music on my iPhone, thinking about my wife, my kids, life as a whole, and wishing everyone could have it so good.
Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki / Redux
Originally published in the March 2008 issue.