One day you wake up and realize you’re raggedy, and smell faintly like sour cheese. That you have about as much sex appeal left as the dried-up rubbery sludge stuck to the bottom of a dusty 13-year-old can of paint you kept tucked away in the garage in case the living room walls needed a touch-up.
It’s an extremely discouraging turn of events.
But in a twist of fate so cruel it’s almost kind, you barely notice your existential plight because your corporeal self hurts so much. Your arthritic neck, for example. Or your shoulders, hips, neck, knees, fingers and everything else in your body that remains connected to anything else by sinew and gristle. Getting out of bed in the morning is such a challenge, you can barely think, let alone take time to grieve your lost youth.
It’s as if life is your mean-spirited brother and he’s hit you in the arm. It hurts like hell and you’re about to yell for help. Then life punches you in the stomach and you instantly forget all about how much your arm hurts because you can’t breathe and you’re about to throw up on your shoes.
Your orthopedic shoes.
Young people—those shits—don’t fully appreciate your suffering.
That’s because for the first couple of decades of life, you’re either oblivious to the future or you happily ignore it. Adulthood is a shadowy, negative place populated by the dead and near-dead—zombie-like ghouls who are mystified by their cell phones and mistakenly believe the gift of a crisp $5 bill will buy you dinner when it barely covers a gallon of gas. In a way, adulthood reminds you of grandma’s root cellar. You know it exists because she makes you go there from time-to-time to fetch a jar of canned peaches, but you never stay long because it’s dreary, and thick with spiders and mold.
The next 10 years of life aren’t too bad, either.
This is the decade of adventure, the years you tour Europe for a summer with nothing but a change of underwear in your backpack and a box of Tic-Tacs in your pocket. The years you prove it’s possible to survive on ice cream, French fries and beer and still go to work and put twice as many caps on bottles at the bottle-capping factory as the wrinkled sacks of blood and bones standing next you. The years you’ll spend any amount of money on Axe deodorant because it’s said to make you irresistible to supermodels. The years you still earnestly believe you’re going to get rich and famous by winning America’s Got Talent with your bunny-juggling magic act.
But things start changing when you hit the big 3-0.
You start realizing you can drink one or two glasses of wine at night and still wake up the next day, groggy yet functional. But that one or two bottles of wine will now require a laboratory, an assistant named Igor and a lightning storm to get your heart jump-started. That you may sing like Beyonce, but you’re never going to be rich and famous. Why? Because you look like your Aunt Edna, who gave birth to 14 children—two of them in the barn with the cows—and dance like your Uncle Earl, who lost his right leg in a tragic sheep-shearing accident at the Iowa State Fair, that’s why.
So you start changing your priorities, which is an indirect way of acknowledging that you saw the Grim Reaper out of the corner of your eye and were scared shitless by his razor-sharp scythe. You stop dating, and find somebody similarly exhausted and fearful to settle down with. You stop taking carefree vacations, and concentrate instead on building your career, even if climbing the corporate ladder only means you’ll get a 10-cent-an-hour pay raise and earn the right to stand near the window instead of the noisy labeling machine on the bottle-capping line. You dust off your Harry Houdini top hat and donate it to the wide-eyed kid down the street who dreams of winning America’s Got Talent.
In short, you accept that you’re not a child anymore and slow your life down, way down. You trade excitement for acceptable risk, passion for predictability. So much so that you don’t even get angry when you quietly slide into your forties and your close-up vision fails, forcing you to spend $175 on eight pairs of reading glasses—one for every room of the house because you can never remember where you leave them (probably next to your car keys, wherever they are). You just squint like Mr. Magoo and fumble through life with a befuddled chuckle, as if it’s funny rather than sad that you’re falling apart faster than a 20th-century Middle-Eastern dictatorship in a 21st-century world.
And before you can say “What the fuck just happened to me?”, you’re in your fifties.
This is the decade when you start betting which part of your body is going to rot and fall off first. Or grow something so new and hideous it’s going to require a team of expert surgeons to remove it. This is when you have to fight the urge to slap Dr. Oz, who’s less than a year younger than you but acts 10 to 15 years younger because he’s rich and eats nothing but raw almonds and chilled glacier water. This is when you start counting how many years you have left until retirement, and how long after that it will take you to slip from dementia into the blessed relief of death.
Not that you always feel negative about life.
Or even death.
It’s just that some days you find yourself wishing that you didn’t feel quite so raggedy. That you didn’t smell like sour cheese. Or that if smelling like sour cheese is inevitable, that it was the best-smelling essence in the world—on a par with fresh-baked bread, cold ocean air, or, apparently, Axe deodorant for men.