When I turned 50

June 16, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography

I’ve never had a hard time being playful, exactly.  I’m not exactly sure.  I don’t create much time for the opportunity to play.  I work a lot.  And, I guess, I take myself too seriously.

For example, there are things I’m ashamed to admit to myself about myself.  That it mattered that I turned 50 six years ago was such a thing.  The last week before the event–the event was a party my wife convinced me to accept–was filled with a succession of occasions for anxiety.

Like the line of mourners that file by the bereaved family, an orchestral spectrum of neurotic, middle-aged, Jewish male symptoms gathered and nurtured over a 30-year adult life–one by one–paid respects as the days counted down to the zero hour.  Three hours before midnight, a anxiety attack cheerfully assailed me.  I was convinced I was having appendicitis while simultaneously aware of the high predictability of my having this anxiety attack–the finale to a Mahler symphony of a week’s worth of abdominal percussion and a host of other somatic idiosyncratic experiences.  To list the instrumentation of this work would sound to my ears like dinner with grandma when I was a boy.  I’ll spare you the score.

Several years before this, early in my second (present) marriage, my wife was going to visit her sister, the first time we were apart for any length of time.  A slowly cascading series of symptoms accumulated through the preceding week.  Then, the night before her departure, there was a panic attack (my life’s fourth and the first in many years), and upon its retreat there was a realization.  I was having separation anxiety.

“I must really love her!” I thought.

“I love her but I’m incredibly neurotic,” I thought next.

On the day of my 50th birthday, I concluded that I was experiencing separation anxiety from my life.  I’ve been obsessed with death since before I was 10.  I felt 65 at 16 while fascinated by Freud and the French existentialists.  But what was bothering me at 50 was not exactly death, but my associations with ambition and defeat.  It was feeling like I hadn’t been able to leverage my allotted time on earth to succeed in the heroic undertakings fueled by my vivid imagination.

I made a resolution.  This is another thing that I’m ashamed to admit to myself about myself–that I occasionally feel forced to set a personal goal that could be characterized by such a conventional term.  This time the resolution created a paradox or double bind.  I made a resolution to give up ambition and defeat:  a goal to stop making goals.

Just as a dancer learns to dance by having faked the real thing, I hoped I could achieve contentment by making believe.  I felt that it would not be through my efforts that I’d succeed.  I figured that maybe I could succeed by playing.

My wife, at the time, owned a toy store.  (Some people marry for money.  I married for play money.)

So, the week of my 50th birthday, I stopped by and filled up my overcoat pockets with, perhaps, a dozen small toys; play dough, Silly Putty, teeny-tiny clothes pins, itty-bitty animals, a miniature crystal ball, Hindu god finger puppets, little monster women, pick up sticks, cap balls, etc.

I was 50.  I figured it was time to play.  Or, at least, play at playing.  By faking it, I figured I could end up having fun.

Six years later, I find it’s working.  Pockets still filled with toys, I find that life is lighter.  I often feel loved.  I feel lucky.  Growing younger as I grow older is not so bad.


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