Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Thursday, 21 June 2012


WHIFFING up the last evaporating vapours of my early-30s, the time has come to take the towel from the head and step away from the bowl. The clock is striking 35. Which is alarming. I suspect every birthday from here on in will be.

I am now old enough to be elected president in Chile, Cyprus, Indonesia or Mexico. I am now the highest number you can count to on your fingers using base 6. I am two years older than Jesus ever was.

Yeah, ok, it’s not old. “What I wouldn’t give to be 35 again!” a 40-something colleague said in response to my evident chagrin. But, in my defence, I’ve never been 35 before – it’s the first time for me, so it seems like some kind of big deal or summat.

My Sunny Outlook

So, what’s new since the last batch of age-related neuroses I posted here? Well, while I still have trouble believing I am actually this f***ing old, in some ways I do feel it. I think I’m grumpier, blunter, and less generally caring and tolerant, which is nice. I have hardened, just slightly, like an out-of-date cake (though, importantly, not like an out-of-date biscuit – they soften readers, and that’s the difference between a cake and a biscuit, and that’s #knowledge.)

By my late twenties I was aware that pop culture had moved on and I could no longer identify with these new youth trends. I could handle that, 'cos I was young enough to just feel hipper than those naive kids. But now the youth trends I was out of touch with have come and gone – a couple of times over – and there’s yet another whole new set I have even less familiarity or sympathy with out there, lapping at the shores of time like a wave in a relentless tide... and when you think about that, that’s when you start to feel the chilly finger of the aging process tap-tapping on your shoulder with a doomy rapport. I still think ‘tech pants’ are pretty cool.

I keep double-taking when I find out people ten years younger than myself do not think in the jaded way I do and talk about life in a way I stopped talking about it... well, about ten years ago. My chuckling, knowing jabs at the gap between the shabby, dysfunctional, hum-drum realities of life and the over-reaching pretentious bluster that’s bandied about by everyone, all the time, fall on uncomprehending ears.

Then I remember they haven’t had the extra ten years that I’ve had of disappointments, mixed successes, compromise and over-familiarity with the infuriating, grinding cogs of human society - and I realise there is something to this age difference lark after all. Fancy that.

You know something’s changed when young people’s ‘fun’ just looks moronic, tedious and passé. Been there, done that. Yawn. Change the frickin’ channel. Bloody young people and their ‘fun’.

My Beautiful Body

What’s for certain is there are perturbing physical developments. Only two or three years ago I remember laughing when a (slightly older) colleague told me about a routine visit to the doctor. Asked if he went to the gym, he said “No”. The doctor said: “You’re a man in your thirties now, you’ve got to start looking after yourself.”

No, not the best ‘Doctor, Doctor...’ joke I’ve told but still: “A man in your thirties” indeed! Sounded a bit much to me, we’re a way off middle age yet, I thought. Oh how we guffawed.

But slap my cheeks if he wasn’t right. You really cannot keep habitually abusing your body in the way your youthful self may have become accustomed to (stop sniggering at the back, you know I’m not talking about that). My ability to drive myself into the wee small hours (I said stop sniggering) used to be as legendary as my amazing ability to stay in bed at the weekends. Now only the latter is still the stuff of legend. I used to always be the last to bed, the last to leave at the end of the night, and proud of it. I laughed a care-free laugh at those early-to-bed squares.

It was when I was 31, on my third year of teaching at a private summer school (where I was THE early-hours staffroom stalwart), that I realised to my horror that younger types were over-taking me. I somehow just could not keep up with them and still function the next day anymore. I was mortified.

But it’s really only the last two years that it’s become obvious - I used to be able to survive for long stretches on six hours sleep a night, five was the critical cut off under which it would really impair me. Now anything less than seven and I feel like shit. Skip a meal (another favourite practice) and I feel like shit. Hell, eat the wrong thing, and I feel like shit. Drink, and I feel like sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit. Hangovers now wipe out entire days, and have started happening on less and less alcohol. That’s only really developed in the last year.

And, of course, it takes its toll. I can no longer describe myself as “lean”. I can no longer eat crap without it having an effect. Voicing my concerns about the growing ‘belly situation’ and suggesting I should perhaps take up regular exercise to a friend, he gave me these kind words of support: "Well, it's too late, it's all catching up with you now and it won't stop until you're just a belly on legs." I thanked him for his encouragement.

And, yes, the hair. Sure, it’s been very gradual – I have not been able to affect a luxuriant fringe since 2007 – and I’ve had a very respectable innings compared to many. But now I can clearly see scalp behind the front tuft at 20 paces. F***ing hair, you fickle fiend, you.

My Outstanding Success

What does The News have to say? According to a study by Professor Dominic Abrams of the University of Kent, “the average Briton believes that youth ends at 35 and old age begins at 58,” said Richard Alleyne in the Telegraph. Another study by Aviva insurance said the average adult believed 35 was the “best age to be”, said The Guardian's Hilary Osborne. Although this seems to be based on the fact that “they expected people to have reached milestones like buying a house, finding a partner and having a first child, but have several years to go before reaching the peak of their career at age 39.” Haha. Ahaha. Ha.

Completely at odds with this, research by marriage counselling service Relate suggests mid-life crises are now hitting men as early as 35. “According to Relate, the toxic combination of job insecurity, emotional uncertainty and a grim assumption that things aren’t going to get any better in life, is plunging the mid-thirtysomething into the kind of what’s-the-point self-absorption that used to be the privilege of later middle age,” said Jim White, again in the Telegraph. The happiest age to be is 74 when ambition no longer matters, but: “Still youthful enough to be enslaved by its demands, in our thirties we tell ourselves we should be getting on, we should be accumulating, advancing, achieving. Making our mark. And as we fall behind, others’ success burns acid-like into our soul.” Sounds worryingly familiar to me.

Since the last age-related post everything has changed, but in some ways nothing has changed. My success on those most salient of societal barometers – professional/financial and romantic/familial – is frankly a bit rubbish in comparison to my peer-group; or – saints preserve us – expectations.

It’s all been interesting, like, and I have a respectable raft of skills, knowledge and experience to float about with, but ultimately what I’ve got to show for my efforts registers pretty low, and I know it. If that’s really all there is to life, I may as well shrug the shoulders and politely shuffle out of the building now, with a quiet “sorry about that”. I’m 35 for chrissakes, certain ships have sailed – or at least will require an unlikely feat of raft-paddling to catch.

But I had a very interesting response to comparing life-notes with old uni friends at a recent wedding (uni-reunion + wedding = pretty damn unavoidable life-assessment moment) – I discovered, to my infinite surprise, that I wasn’t unhappy with my current position and what I’d attained (or not attained). Nigh on everyone is pairing up, sprogging up and knuckling down to domesticity; and firmly embedded in – and a bit bored with – long-established work roles. But we all agreed none of us were ecstatic with our current lot, and I didn’t feel changing places with anyone would make me any happier or less anguished. It’s just swings and roundabouts. In fact I was flattered to realise my life could look envy-inducingly un-tethered and interesting from the other side of the fence, and that I actually should be grateful for that.

There is – or was – a massive contradiction at the heart of my ambitions. I have this yearning envy towards those who are settled and secure, and yet I seem to have, deliberately or otherwise, avoided pursuing any avenue that is likely to lead to settled security, financially, professionally or even emotionally/romantically.

I have certainly waved a few ambitions on their way, and downgraded others, it’s got to be said; but I don’t think that’s necessarily negative – I have cut loose some that would only be distracting and destructive to hold on to, and resolved to leave alone others that I now know are clearly mirages. The Epicurus thing looms ever larger, and that – a contented life with friends, free to pursue one’s diverse interests, as free as possible from human power politics – has firmly become the hallowed ultimate ambition; but as I’ve said elsewhere, every bit as difficult to attain and hold on to as any would-be entrepreneur’s nasty visions.

It can niggle at the pride and anxiety glands to think I am no nearer to, say, buying a house and starting a family than I was when I was, say, 23. But then I still feel no urgent drive to do these things, and pride and anxiety are not good reasons to do either. All the same, it is a bit galling to realise that society has a tendency to view you as a bit odd if you’re not at least on your way to these by your mid-thirties, a tendency to presume there is something wrong. Maybe there is, but that’s just the way it turned out. Am I getting weirder as I drift relentlessly towards the fabled waters of middle age? Has my vain pretence that I don't quite fit anywhere in the modern rat race gone from a cool youthful pose to a self-fulfilling enduring problem?

Because, with hindsight it’s obvious – I am me. I have always kind of done my own thing, in my own quiet way. I’ve always met received wisdom with a sceptical coolness, recoiled from what strikes me as tediously ‘normal’, and indulged my scattershot interests. Given this, I was never going to have a straight-forward time of it, and to whine about not having a more ‘normal’, less scattershot, life seems churlish. I have to admit responsibility.

That said, there is a lot of luck to it, for sure – plenty of ham-fisted folks fall into a comfortable, sustained, settled routine without really intending to, and if this had ‘just happened’ to me I would almost certainly have let it. I’m a comfort junkie, and I’m shocked and baffled at the extent to which I’ve continually pushed myself out of my comfort zone over the years. Yes, a sustainable comfortable situation didn’t ‘just happen’ to me – though neither have I gone out my way to make it.

The real reason I’ve held this vision of a settled, secure existence aloft is simply because you always want what you haven’t got and the grass is always greener. I’m not sure if I got it I’d actually still want it... or rather I would, but only if it was also slightly edgy, vaguely bohemian, interesting and unique – and, most importantly, if I could retain my pig-headed individualism and independence. I’m not sure that’s a coherent vision at all. I’m not sure that dream could actually exist as I imagine it. No – actually I am sure: it can’t.

Don’t get me wrong – things could be a hell of a lot better and I’m sure as hell going to strive to make them that way, but I don’t have a specific vision of what that might look like any more. I’m keeping an open mind.

Whatever, it’s clear I haven’t yet solved the problem of how I can happily exist. I’m open to suggestions. More cash would be nice.

Whither now?

I would say I look forward to indulging in the new birthday protocol: three screens of identical “Happy Birthday :) xx” messages on the facebook wall, followed by a single “Thankyou for all your lovely messages” one from me – but I took my date of birth off the thing over a year ago in huff about all the personal info Zuckerberg was trying to extract from me, so that won’t happen. Shrug.

So whither now? I’m half way towards 70. If I was being glass-half-full I’d say that’s plenty of time for anything to happen, but I’m not sure – 'cos time seems to speed up every year. It’s accelerating exponentially. Early childhood lasted forever; adolescence strode at a steady pace; young adulthood breezed by; and now... well the first half of 2012 seems to have gone in what seems more like a month. If it carries on like this, I’m way past half way through my life, time-perception-wise. Crikey. Be dead soon.

Whatever, crack on with it I suppose, play it by ear – it’s still all to play for.

The only thing left to do is round up a handful of who-was-doing-what’s:

My dad was raising my five year old self. David Bowie was about to record Let’s Dance. Tom Waits had just gone properly weird, having just released Swordfishtrombones. Nietzsche was in the midst of a crisis that led to him resigning his professorship and then writing the stuff he’s best known for.

Henry VIII was still on his first wife. Elvis had recently “come back”. He had seven years left. David Hasselhoff was in the wilderness between Knight Rider and Baywatch.

Geoffrey Hayes had been doing Rainbow for four years, the year I was born. Ricky Gervais was working on radio station XFM London, soon to be sacked and start bits of TV work. Prince changed his name to The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.

This is what the Führer looked like (proof that those still holding on to a luxuriant fringe by my age must be evil). He was writing Mein Kampf. Notice, though, that the picture is called YOUNG Adolf Hitler.

Hunter S Thompson was at the peak of his powers, having published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the previous year. He was now on the campaign trail. Raymond Chandler was (I think) working in the oil business after leaving the armed forces, but had yet to become vice-president of the Dabney Oil Syndicate, get fired from doing that, or start writing books.

Hmmm, yes. It’s about time I wrote a goddamn book.