Because I am too old to be young and too young to be old, I usually think of myself as middle aged. It has a respectable ring to it, an aura of dignity, seriousness and maturity. I think of middle age as that time in life when a person still has the ability to raise hell and sow wild oats; and the wisdom not to. With its melding of youthful strength and exuberance with prudence and judgment, middle age seemed to be a great age.
Then Anthony Trollope came along. The other morning I was being my self-satisfied, middle-aged self, sipping coffee and reading Trollope’s He Knew He was Right. The title appealed to me. I too know that I am right. But somewhere in the second chapter, I lost all interest in Louis Trevelyn, the protagonist, and whether or not he was right. It wasn’t Mr. Trevelyn’s fault; the problem was his father-in-law, whom Trollope describes thusly: “[Lord Marmaduke] had become at fifty what many people call quite a middle aged man. That is to say, he was one from whom the effervescence and elasticity and salt of youth had altogether passed away. He was fat and slow, thinking much of his wife and eight daughters, thinking much also of his dinner.”
Well, that’s a heck of a note. Here I am thinking that middle age is what I want to be, and Trollope tells me it’s just euphemism for fat and slow. I’m not as elastic as I used to be, but I am still as effervescent as Coca Cola. Shake a can of Coke, open it and it gushes all over the place. Shake me enough and I’ll gush too, and I’ll make a bigger mess. The salt of youth? I can be darn salty when the need arises. And the things I said about Mr. Trollope at that moment were salty enough to make a sailor blush.
After a few minutes, I was calmed by the thought that life expectancy in 19th Century England was considerably shorter than it is for the adequately insured in 21st Century America. Trollope was obviously vain about his age, and he expanded the bounds of what was then considered middle age in order to make himself feel less old. Fifty in Great Britain at the time was probably the equivalent to 117 today. No wonder Lord Marmaduke was short on elasticity, effervescence and salt; he wasn’t middle age, he was ancient.
Saturday morning, however, as I scanned the Earthweek feature in the Plain Dealer, I let loose a triumphant shout of, “I knew I was right.” The item that caught my eye was headlined, “Middle-aged humans are nature’s most evolved.” That message is delivered by Cambridge professor David Bainbridge, in his book Middle Age: A Natural History. A sentence in the second paragraph of the article read, “This means older men and women have become perfectly adapted to help their families and society without the burden of raising children.”
The second paragraph of a newspaper piece is usually a very good place to stop. By then you know the gist of the story, and all the details and qualifiers that complicate things are yet to come. But I soldiered on to the third paragraph, which read in part, “ important attributes such as brainpower are at least as keen in a person’s 40s and 50s as they were decades earlier.” Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of people no longer in their forties and fifties. Does that mean middle age ends as sixty? And where was Mr. Bainbridge a few years ago? It would have been nice if he had mentioned this when I was standing atop the evolutionary mountain. Now he comes along to what? To tell me I’m over the hill? To tell me I’m no longer elastic, effervescent or youthfully salty?
According to Wikipedia, however, Mr. Bainbridge will be forty-four in October. How convenient. He’s declared himself to be one of nature’s most perfect creations and that he will be one for the next sixteen years. Maybe not in those words exactly, but it’s there between the lines. I hope he comes across Trollope’s book; that will bring him down a peg or two.
I know I’m right about that.