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Life softens (a little) with middle age

September 22, 2000

Life softens (a little) with middle age



For the past couple of weeks, The Herald-Mail news department has been focusing on middle age, and so, having reached that point in my life recently, I'm weighing in with my take on it.

A middle-aged me is not something I could imagine when I was younger. My grandfather was middle-aged when I was a child, but he was not who I expected to be when I turned 50. He was certain of everything, from his political views to his belief that smoking cigars, a pipe and cigarettes in an FDR-style holder would not kill him. Every Sunday we ate dinner with him and my grandmother and he was the only one who talked, as if he was the godfather instead of a grandfather.

My father was closer to what I thought I would be as an adult. He laughed easily and loved small children. The old snapshots show him chuckling as he hugged us or tossed us in the air. It was when we became teen-agers that he wasn't quite sure what to do with us. He was mostly puzzled by us in those years, asking me questions that told me he had no idea what I was thinking, although, like Mark Twain's father, he became smarter as I aged.

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Middle age snuck up on me when I wasn't watching, during those long Little League games when we would agonize over dropped balls and our one son's unrealistic plan to become a star player by wishing it would happen, as opposed to hard work and practice.

He did better in karate, where it's expected that the instructor will berate you if you don't work hard. It made me realize that self-esteem, the buzz word of the '90s, isn't worth much if it's not based on something real, like trying your best.

Middle age snuck up on me at work, while I was attending too many meetings where a lot of the elected officials seemed to believe the voters had conferred some divine intelligence upon them, and that their gut feelings were more important than expert opinion and research.

Middle age snuck up on me in my private life, when I mistook working hard for working smart, and spent time I should have spent with friends and family on things that really didn't matter, like saving a few bucks heating our home with wood. If I'd spent just half the time I wasted carrying logs and stoking the stove working part-time, I could have bought enough oil to open my own Jiffy Lube.

Not that it's all regret. At 50 I'm more physically fit and (I think) happier than my father, who passed away about 10 years ago. My boys are 20 and 17 and my wife and I can honestly look back and say that, absent the Kennedy fortune, we couldn't have tried any harder to do a good job.

I think we gave them values, a sense of humor and if they wanted to try a hobby, a sport or Scouting, we were there, selling booster-club candy bars or serving as volunteers. I do not, however, yearn to do it again, so if anybody's thinking about having me raise a grandchild, remember that I'm the Dan Marino of daddies, by which I mean that my best years in that area are behind me.

In middle age, I am more at peace than I was when I was younger. If things at work don't go the way I think they should, well, it's not really my job to do everything, is it? If my children don't always do what I think they should, well, unless I'm prepared to slap them around, Don Corleone-style - and I'm not - I've realized that I have to let them learn by experience, as I did. And if it rains today, well, there's always tomorrow.

Well, no, that last one isn't really true. Based on the life insurance charts, I'm probably more than halfway home now. There is some value in wasting a day to chill out, when your brain gets so full of work stuff that all you can think about, even at home, is what you have to do tomorrow on the job. But now that's something I do when I need to, not because I have so much free time that I'm not sure what to do with all of it.

So what's left? More learning, for certain. After beginning my career on a typewriter, I'm on my third computer system, finding out about candidates for office on an electronic billboard called the Internet. Some people, in fact, can now be journalists without ever speaking to another human being.

That's something I'll never want. I like talking to people and finding out what's important to them. In doing so I have discovered that sometimes people talk to me not because they've got a story to tell or a gripe with the newspaper but because they just need someone to talk to. More often than not, in the middle of those conversations, they remember something newsworthy or wonderful that makes me glad I listened.

Rereading the previous paragraphs makes me sound wiser than I am. I regularly do stupid things, however, like walking the dog before changing out of my work clothes and ripping my pants on a thorn bush. Or going to the store for milk and coming back with everything but that. Or believing that after 25 years of not playing basketball, I could do anything but embarrass myself in a game held as part of Neighborhoods First's Festival 2000 at the Hagerstown Fairgrounds. If age has taught me anything, however, it's that it makes less sense to get angry about such things than to laugh about them, and hopefully learn enough to get me from here to old age.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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