My Weekend, with Thoughts on Aging.
This weekend I went to Providence for a friend’s 40th birthday party, and brought my new girlfriend. He and his wife just had a baby – their first – and the four-week-old girl is an amazingly cute little thing. I’m not especially drawn to the idea of being a parent myself, but I like babies and children. I held her some, and fed her. I have young nieces and a nephew that I’ve spent some time with as very young children, and I have half-brothers much younger than me that I sort of think of as nephews. So I’ve been around little kids a decent amount in my life for someone without children.
I have fairly well-developed memories of my childhood. I’ve always had a good memory, and I stopped drinking prior to doing too much damage to it. I’ve never been good with names, but I have a good aural memory, and I can recall events in my life going back to a very, very early age. Sometimes that’s nice. Sometimes it’s unpleasant. Early childhood can be full of fear and disorientation, and pains are new and all the more shocking for it. I recall vividly the sense-memory of agonizing new experiences that would become commonplace and therefore unremarkable.
I’m fortunate to be, right now, in the big middle of my life. Perhaps my middle should have been longer. Perhaps it should’ve started when I was 22 instead of 33. But I drank those years. But I should not dismiss them either. They were not entirely lost or wasted. I remember them. I made many bad decisions, but I also had many wonderful experiences. I traveled the world, and studied a lot of mathematics. I laid a cracked and shoddy foundation for the rest of my life during those years. But after I sobered up, I filled in a lot of the crevices. It’s still never going to support a great edifice. But I think I can build a home on it.
I am nearly 39 years old. And I feel very confident saying that I am, today, much younger than I was five-and-a-half years ago. Thinner, fitter, stronger, freer. Doing work that matters, I hope. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I take regular care of my mental health. I associate with people in meaningful ways. I am social. I remember it occurring to me, a few years ago, just what a dreadful and damning verdict “anti-social” is. As a teenager, we took it as a badge of honor, being anti-social. That it meant we weren’t blindly following the rules, stupidly conforming.
But of course, I wasn’t actually anti-social as a teenager in any meaningful way. I just wasn’t popular. My friends and I were compensating for our inability to fit in with the popular crowd by latching on to a buzzword that we thought made us special. We were, essentially, posers. We were just posing at a different standard, and one we didn’t understand. And in fact, I wasn’t even meaningfully faux-anti-social. I was a good kid, with pretty good grades, who had a bunch of misfit friends who were good kids with pretty good grades. I wanted desperately to be popular and couldn’t make it work. I still can’t.
I have communities that I participate in. I enjoy it, for the most part. I make social mistakes and have to walk things back. I feel uncomfortable and say the wrong things. Sometimes, I say the wrong thing on purpose. At the party there was a wine distributor. He was talking about his product, and I was listening politely. He was a bit bombastic, but I am decidedly guilty of that myself. He offered me some wine and I said, “No, thanks.” Then he pestered me about drinking, asking me, “What’s your poison? Liquor? Beer?”
I’ve never been in that situation. In more than five years, whenever I said, “No, thanks,” that was the end of it. This guy hounded me. He was really interested in what I drank. So I looked him straight in the eye and said: “I’m an alcoholic.” That stopped him dead. But he didn’t take it badly. And I didn’t say it angrily, or anything. Just a simple, straightforward statement that very clearly communicated that I didn’t have anything to contribute here.
Now that I’m in the middle of my life, I feel useful and fulfilled in ways that I wasn’t aware were possible. Making a contribution is incredibly meaningful. I’m unsure, precisely, how to perform in my new job in exactly the right way to be considered valuable. But I believe that if I develop my simulations, and publish a few papers, and maybe win a few small grants, I’ll be in pretty good shape. I’ve done well in my professional career managing people’s expectations of me and my work, and delivering what I say I will. Not perfectly, but reasonably.
Sometimes, looking at my career and my planning for the future, I almost feel like I’m in a race to be done. How do I get from here to retirement to death with everything handled? I need to take more time to stop and enjoy myself as I am now. And I’m trying. A new relationship always helps with that. Moments spent in repose with a companion are always slow and redolent with presence. Existing in the present tense is all too brief for me. I tend to process toward the future. But it is wonderful in the brief moments I can attain it.
AA’s program is about being centered in the moment. Existing. Experiencing. Living for today. Today I don’t drink. And that’s a wonderful way to manage my sobriety. It works for me. But one can’t live one’s whole life precisely in the moment. We have to plan, to prepare. To do today what I can to build towards tomorrow. Or we would never accomplish anything, and that’s not being of value to others, not making use of one’s gifts.
Aging is inevitable. But I don’t need to meekly surrender to decrepitude the way my father did. As I said above, I am younger than I was five years ago. I am younger than I was ten years ago. And if I keep on how I am going now, and I have just a bit of luck, I believe I can be youthful for a long time. Grateful in my body for the life I’ve been allowed to return to, from a wretched prison of addiction and morbidity. The world opens its doors, I have found, when I have the courage to knock at them.