Coming to Terms With Middle Age

From a Washington Post column by Theodore R. Johnson headlined “I went to a day spa—and came to terms with middle age”:

A recent birthday brought a realization long apparent but actively ignored: I am middle-aged. The younger element of Gen X, in which I claim proud membership, still believes the 1980s — when we were in grade school — were just 20 years ago. Somehow, we can think this while also laughing with friends that there’s no way our 30th high school reunion is this year. If it’s true that you are as young as you feel, Gen X will always feel like we just turned 28.

By feel, I do not mean physically. Our bodies are quick to remind us which part of life we’re in. My first indication was “the thinning,” a receding hairline beginning to blossom into a baldness that’s reached my ears. Gone are the days of fast-growing hair that I tamed with pomade and Luster’s Pink. Next came the puffs of skin around my eyes and the discoloration of my jawline from shaving my kind of hair on my kind of skin every day for decades.

To address these concerns, I did something the 28-year-old me would’ve found hilarious: On my birthday, I went to a day spa and got a facial. That’s hard even to type. But it was a great experience. My aesthetician was gentle, until she targeted the pores on my nose. That was painful — Jesus took the wheel at least twice. On the way out, I shared my concerns about the eye puffs and skin with her. I left with eye cream and something called toner. This is 48.

Trying to age gracefully now means the exact opposite of what it means in youth. To age gracefully as a teen and young adult often means managing and styling the body’s abundance — hair, metabolism, intellect. In middle age, it’s about managing emerging scarcities — whether hair or short-term memory or the body’s ability to burn a calorie. Everyone warned of the need to wear sunscreen, but my head is not only bald, it is hard. I didn’t listen, and soon earned the sunburned bald guy badge. To be middle-aged is to have two weeks of exercise and healthy diet undone simply by thinking about beer and wings, or, God forbid, a slice of red velvet.

Before middle age, I could take health and recovery for granted. About a decade ago, at an annual physical, the doctor told me that prostate exams begin at 50, but Black men are at higher risk and should start a decade sooner. He said the exam was digital. Naturally, as a Gen X man, I thought of a digital alarm clock (as in, no hands) from the 1980s — just 20 years ago. I prepared to brave the cold gel of the ultrasound machine for the sake of my health. My resolve was immediately tested. The doctor meant digital as in the digits — fingers — on a hand. Which, to me, is manual. But — tomato, tomahto — no matter; I deferred my eligibility.

Then, cancer grabbed my mom. One mark of being middle-aged that a day spa can do nothing about is the terrible scar from losing a parent. I wear that badge, too. Health suddenly feels precious. At middle age, the scale tips out of your favor: Aches linger longer, often arriving for no reason and satisfied by no treatments.

When one pain in particular hung around a bit too long and brought some buddies with it, the mantra of younger Gen X me — “tough it out, grin and bear it” — was left behind in an AOL instant message somewhere. Off to the doctor I went, and she sent me away with referrals and follow-on appointments to make. I found my grandmother’s words in my mouth once the all-clear was given: “I thank God for my health and my strength.” I suddenly understood the sigh that often preceded her words, a sigh that holds something only age confers. This time, mine did, too.

That is another telltale sign of middle age: You begin to look and sound like your people from previous generations. And the way we looked at them in our youth is the way young people look at us today. I wanted to think otherwise. People who call the rap songs I blasted in college “old school” — and do so with a touch of reverence — certainly must view Gen X as the cool uncles and aunties. After all, the original old school rap belonged to the 1980s of my childhood, which, again, was just 20 years ago. I tested the proposition, only to learn that a lot of millennials and Gen Z have major problems with my generation.

Am I now the middle-aged dude rankled about kids on his lawn? Yes. Yes, I am.

This is the rhythm. We make room for the future by moving up and, inevitably, out. We become different, hopefully better, versions of those who came before us. Perhaps this is the proper meaning of aging gracefully. We’ll keep the toner and sunscreen at hand, however, to help us look the part.

Theodore R. Johnson, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and retired naval officer, is a senior adviser for New America’s Us@250 initiative and author of “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America.

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